It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”
This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?
Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.
Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.
For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.
A group of passionate environmentalists, citizen activists and some thin walls of bureaucracy stand between the bulldozers and the remaining Aravalli forests suurounding the city of Gurgaon, where I live. Successive governments have permitted the not-so gradual destruction of the Aravallis at the behest of powerful real estate developers (this latest piece in The Wire finds evidence of the alliance between Hooda-led Congress govt and DLF, for instance).
Today, the Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana has the ability to withdraw that nail in the coffin that the Congress drove in, shortly before it lost power in the State. By adding the clause ‘except in urbanisable areas’ to the inclusion of the Aravalli hills in the Natural Conservation Zone on Page 294 of the Sub-Regional Plan 2021 for the Harya part of the NCR, it sought to not just favor a single project or developer but in fact pave the way for a large-scale development of the Aravalli hills.
In their online petition, citizen activists have made a strong case for saving the Aravallis. In no simple words, they demand that Khattar remove the above-mentioned clause in the interests of the ecological survival of Gurgaon and Faridabad, whose rapidly dwindling water supplies depend on these forests. In my piece in The Alternative, I highlight the need for an alternate imagination that re-imagines urbanisation (and indeed tourism, industry, economic development) to include nature.
However, I’m the first to acknowledge that citizen pressure is inadequate. How do we impress upon CM Khattar that saving the city is imperative to, in the long-term, profiting from it? How do we convince politicians, who think in five-year caches, that survival is at stake here?
Going beyond that, how does a landlocked small State like Haryana re-envision its fortunes even as it milks the promise of high-profit real estate development in the shadow of the capital, Delhi? Let’s not be naive, the milking is bound to happen. But certain ‘hard limits’ must be recognized in the interests of human survival and quality of life. And the Aravalli forests are certainly one of them!
Bunches of unwanted Indians are being sent off to Pakistan pretty often nowadays. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has conveniently asked all Indians who want to eat beef in the face of a beef ban in Maharashtra to go to Pakistan (“or Arab countries or any other part of world where it is available”). In April this year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad requested (for the umpteenth time) all such Indians to go to Pakistan who do not agree with their policy of Hindus reproducing vehemently so that they can outnumber Muslims and correct the demographic balance. Whatever the reason for the banishment, I am baffled by this business of sending the unwanted to Pakistan!
When we were little children and the two Indo Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 were still relatively fresh in people’s memory, Pakistan was a regular butt of children’s (everyone’s actually) jokes in India. The toilet was, in a twisted form of jest, commonly referred to as Pakistan. Every time someone suffered flatulence, they were asked to go to Pakistan!
I must have sniggered at this as a kid, but I’m no longer amused. Is Pakistan some sort of dustbin that is willing to take in unwanted and ostracized Indians, whether beef lovers or Muslims, ‘seculars’ or liberals? Or is Pakistan the name of something quite different in the heads of the extreme right? A place where the unwanted can simply disappear into? An equivalent of the Nazi gas chamber?
This rhetoric about Pakistan has to be explained. If any Indian who questions the Hindu right wing has to be banished, then they must spell out what they mean by such a banishment? Is the threat of Pakistan simply intended to silence dissent, a sort of replay of the Partition that will strike horror in the hearts of Indians and make us question where our loyalties lie and in the process make the naysayers appreciate India more? Or is it a more sinister threat than that?
Typical of my generation, I live a dangerous paradox everyday. I’m wary of idealism and yet, I’m deeply idealistic. I refused to wear the famed ‘Anna topi’ and participate in what I considered empty gestures. I was faintly disgusted by the candle light marches in my housing complex held in the name of the fight against corruption with young children shouting stuff they didn’t understand. I did not make fun of them, though. I wondered about my position and my reluctance to embrace what seemed like a wave of idealism and change at the time. That was my wariness of idealism asserting itself.
More recently, even though I do not vote in Delhi, I was delighted to see the AAP come to power in such a conclusive manner. That was my idealism kicking in. I wish the government success in meeting the impossible (and in most part laudable) objectives they have set themselves. I hope to to play my own very little role in it too, to whatever extent possible.
However, the charges of “high command culture” leveled against CM Arvind Kejriwal disturb me immensely. Prashant Bhushan’s advice to the CM to read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ indicates in no mean terms the extreme dangers of a lack of consultation. Neither can I reconcile myself to the idea of condoning a little bit of evil for the greater common good, which is also what the CM is accused of resorting to in order to push through what he wants.
What is true and what is not, I cannot say. But the events as they are playing out strike deep and sharp nails into the coffin that idealism has climbed into and is lying, preparing to die a painful death. We may end up with a better Delhi but not, it seems, with better politicians.
Last Saturday, I watched middle school students at Pathways World School, Aravalli put together excerpts from three Shakespearean plays. They explored the idea of unbridled ambition with Macbeth and the idea of friendship with Merchant of Venice; and both of these apply to the AAP drama unfolding before us. But their perception of Julius Caesar is really applicable to the situation. Are the detractors (Cassius=Prashant Bhushan, etc) merely jealous of Caesar’s (Kejriwal’s) success? Or are they truly concerned with the values of democracy and equality? Does Rome (Delhi, India) really need a leader of Caesar’s (Kejriwal’s) appeal to stitch it together even if it means absolute power, the crowning of a King, the breaking of a tradition of democracy and replacing it with an authoritarian system? How justified are friends and supporters like Brutus (Yogendra Yadav?) in taking a stand against Caesar despite their deep sense of loyalty and friendship?
There are no clear answers, but we must think about what sort of future we envision. What have been the expectations of those who idealised/admired/supported the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement and later its conversion into AAP? Did they buy into it because they wanted better governance or because they wanted clean politics? I’d put my money on the latter, but unfortunately that doesn’t look like it is going to happen.
I’m left with many disturbing questions. I cannot answer them for you, but I must try to do so for myself. Politics is a game of compromises, but which of these is acceptable and where does it cross the line? Is one kind of dirtiness is politics better than another kind? Is the end more important than the means? How does my idealist self work with and contribute to systems that are dubious and dishonest? How does my non-idealist self stay motivated to contribute if the hope of better politics lies abandoned?
Even as I mull such questions, life goes on. I eat, sleep, play, laugh. Or crib, bitch, slander and cry. And every now and then, I wonder at my place in the scheme of things.
A week of exciting talks at CPR!
By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR
With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.
Inclusion in public sector housing
On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…
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I haven’t opined on Indian politics for a while. To tell you the truth, I’ve been ruminating, taking it all in. And here are some randomly picked thoughts from the thousands that buzz around my head.
#1 Let’s stop comparing AAP’s Delhi election win with the 2014 general elections!
I’m really tired of the over-analysis, the conspiracy theories and the general building up of expectations. The truth is that any new government will take time to settle and move forward. And really, can we compare Delhi’s politics with India’s? My quick thoughts: The AAP win is a good jolt for the BJP and hopefully has sent them scrambling to their desks to actually bring out the many policies that are “being worked on” at this time. For AAP, my big question is: Is there a method to Kejriwal’s politics or is it a case of learning to swim so you don’t drown! I’m hopeful, but given his huge mandate, I’m afraid citizens will have to play the triple role of whistleblower, class monitor and audience-giving-polite-applause! Not something we’re used to doing really!
#2 Young people’s politics is confusing and their apathy disappointing
I’m constantly apalled at the strong streak of conservatism among the young today. On Valentine’s Day, I met a young neighbour and asked after her V-Day plans. She didn’t have any. And what’s more, she told me her parents were devastated and upset about her being single and not so ready to mingle! Survey after survey of youth in India have pointed towards a tendency to support the status quo. The Yuva Nagarik Meter survey brought out in Jan 2015 showed these disturbing trends among Indian youth, trends that are consistent with other surveys in recent years:
- Youth are ignorant about basic civic issues like democracy, rule of law and human rights
- They are dimly aware of citizenship: “Only 35 percent of high school students consider themselves citizens of India. Nearly three fourth do not know that the legislature is responsible for enacting laws,” as per a Huffington post report
- They have internalised stereotypes on gender and social justice- 50% are intolerant of migrant workers from other states, many believe that “household help do not have the right to demand minimum wages”
#3 Youth apathy combined with high expectations impacts poll results
I’m not surprised therefore, that we are seeing more absolute mandates than before when elections happen. I think young people are impatient for change but might not really want a radical rethink of positions. Also, they (and it’s not just the young) are given to pass quick judgements and move on if their expectations are not met.
#4 How much does your politics alter your perceptions?
I’m not a BJP supporter and certainly not overawed by the PM’s rangeela personality and flavourful brand of politics. I have a number of friends who are in the opposite camp as well. Many of these left-leaning friends of mine have been upset about something. They claim that previously ‘moderate’ friends who voted for Modi on the plank of development must speak out against the BJP’s divisive politics. There’s a fair amount of hurt going around and the PM’s very recent press statements on religious freedom will, I suspect, add flame to the fire rather than settle things down.
I’ve been arguing with the moderates and leftists among my friends, who tend to shout down anything Modi says or does, on the need to give a fair hearing to the positions brought forth by the current government. Critique them by all means (if possible, constructively), but being obstinately obstructive might not really help! And I’ve been trying hard to follow my own instincts, that tell me that an unconsidered extremist position is a bad one, whether your politics is conservative or liberal is besides the point.
I watch Kejriwal’s antics and I laugh, along with many who make fun of him. I doubt his capabilities, I wonder about his future. But I also admire his courage. Not just him, but all those who has taken the ultimate step towards making change possible. All those who have joined the AAP, given up being ordinary citizens to become people with a cause. I am excited to live these moments of history, experience these cataclysmic changes.
I, like many of you, am afraid to commit. I am shy, scared, ambivalent. I do not understand politics as deeply as I think I should. But I do care, about myself, my family, my nation. And I firmly believe that the way ahead can only be with the participation of all of us in the democratic process, in ways deeper than just pressing the button on the EVM every now and then!
I, like many of you, am loath to take either side on the Cong vs BJP, RaGa vs NaMo debate. I see them both as part of the same problem. Even though I abhor right wight politics, I do not see the Congress being able to, at this time, provide any stability or direction. AAP’s short stint in Delhi confused me. Like many of you, I wondered if this was the end before the beginning. I also went over the various choices again and again in my head.
This morning, though, something clicked. I was tired of hearing people make wild calculations about who would win and then try to take sides as per these estimates. It seemed to be a lot like betting on the horses. This is not a horse race, I thought. I’m not gambling, I’m trying to take a rational decision about who to vote for! I decided to vote by gut feel, for the sort of politics that I am willing to live with.
I read the AAP manifesto and it echoed a lot of things I have felt and said about how I want my nation to be. It, most of all, was rooted in the idea of giving power back to the people, the idea of deepening democracy. A few analysts feel it toes the Congress line and in a sense, there is a common left of political intent. (Aside-All manifestos must talk about the same stuff; modus operandi, collect a list of current hot topics and put in a point about each!) But therein ends the similarity. In tone, the AAP document empowers citizens. The Congress manifesto reads in a top-down fashion. It sort of lords it over us, the masses. It is a critical difference, I think. The AAP’s document is also a lot more succinct and well-organised. The BJP is still silent, as of this moment (I just checked their website).
The idea of devolution of power is problematic, especially for us Indians who have been used to someone or the other being our mai-baap for centuries. But it’s time gave a chance to party that says of itself: “It is not a party that will solve your problems. It is a party that wants Swaraj; that wants power to return to your hands, so that you can solve your own problems.”
This is just my own personal point of view. Each of you reading this is entitled to their own perspective. I am not trying to convert you. But please, those of you who follow the strange logic that they should vote for XX because they will win anyway, please rethink. Either you should just admit that you agree with XX’s political agenda, or you should follow your heart and vote for the right candidate in your constituency. Please remember, citizenship starts with making your own community better!
After the divine Parsi breakfast, so unexpected in the Maharashtrian countryside, I took the wheel next and we crossed over into Gujarat driving past towns like Vapi, Salvav and Pardi, more familiar names like Valsad and Navsari and bypassing Surat via Kamrej. This was the stretch where we saw the most interesting stuff being carried on trucks and where our nostrils filled with strange smells at some of the industrial areas we passed by (a post on trucks will be contingent on Nupur supplying me the pictures!). A large number of rivulets, tributaries of the mighty Tapi river, criss-cross through this part of Gujarat heading down to meet the Arabian Sea not far out to our left and it was fun reading out their names.
But it was the Narmada at Bharuch that really halted us in our tracks. Mighty and magnificent, we were fascinated by these waters as we crossed the long bride over it. We spotted some ghats (steps) and impulsively turned in their direction. I have to mention that on this trip, impulsiveness was as much a reward as planning. We found ourselves in a temple on the banks of the Narmada. A few families were there, including one all the way from Bengal, engrossed in rituals and filling up on the holy waters. We sat on the ghats, watching some young men fish, some cattle wandering past and an old lady staring into the water.
This was a spiritual experience of sorts, just watching this massive body of water flow by us. It was hot and still and life seemed to simply stop. There are so many legends around holy rivers in India. You need to find a spot like this next to one and take the moments off to appreciate why!
Nupur was driver next. A short halt at a nondescript Café Coffee Day to rehydrate, grab a bite and empty the bladder and we were on our way to Amdavad, where we planned to halt for the night. An aside on the bladder issue: I was anticipating finding decent places to relieve ourselves to be the biggest issue on the trip, but we got lucky with this aspect, finding halfway decent toilets most places.
The Vadodara to Amdavad highway is a dream run in many ways and perhaps the most enjoyable section of the trip. Sadly, I slept through some of this. What makes it work are good design (verges, exits, landscape, all much better than he standard NHAI format), excellent road surface (we saw them repair it and they don’t do patchwork but actually take off and relay the surfaces that need attention) and the lush green landscape. I was pleasantly surprised to see neither Vadodara not Amdavad sprawling endlessly along the highway and neither Anand nor Nadiad that fall on the way made their presence overtly felt as we drove past. A new experience indeed!
Our divided political views were what made the Gujarat stretch particularly interesting. I am no Modi supporter, nor is Nupur, but Rachna is of the view that he is a doer and deserves a chance. We’ve ended up arguing about this once before, but I think we all decided to leave the issue aside for this road trip. Driving through Gujarat though, it’s hard to ignore the obvious signs of development—industrialisation, managed urban growth, agricultural prosperity all stare you in the face. Finding fault was a task and terms like vikas and prateek were being bandied about. At one point, Rachna asked me why I was so taken in by these two men? And I answered, “That’s because I am a men’s lady (inverse of ladies’ man). That’s the sort of ridiculous humour that marked this leg of the trip, intertwined with more serious observations and the twitter hash tag #vikaskaprateek was thus born!
The tag took on a slightly sarcastic tone as we crossed the vast slums of Narol on our way into Amdavad city. Congested and unsanitary, I could see this was a Muslim majority stretch, another sensitive topic we avoided. Conflagrations weren’t on the menu for the trip!
Google Aunty got us right to Pappu mama’s doorstep. Nilay Kapoor is Rachna’s mama (mother’s brother) and we call him Pappu mama. A figure from our schooldays, he works for India’s large public sector rural bank NABARD. I remember him as one of the most intelligent people I knew outside of my parent’s medical community back in the Lucknow days. He was always urging us towards academic excellence and I had fond memories of Pooja mami, his wife, who was a pretty young mother back in school!
An evening of family fun ensued. Amid chai, nashta, nostalgia and chitter chatter, Pappu mama offered nuggets from his own visits to rural India, on other postings and here in Gujarat. An unapologetic fan of Narendra Modi, I was impressed by his neutrality as he discussed Gujarat’s struggle with education and malnutrition and praised its co-operative movements and community feeling. Kejriwal, not one to be left out of any discussion on politics today, was also on the menu, as was shopping and the delectable Gujarati thali at Sasuji on CG road. I was, of course, tickled to find that idli sambar had now officially become a part of the Gujarati thali here! Another example of the myriad manifestations of cultural exchange in our country that make life very interesting.
Harish Khare’s editorial in The Hindu titled This perverse rage against the poor today really struck a chord. He writes about the inherent class bias in a situation when the media blames the falling Sensex on the passing of the Food Security Bill, he writes about the irrationality of the rage against the poor and the belief that the poor are weighing the nation down when in fact India needs to distance itself from the needy and focus on economic development. I am aware that many people I know would regard Khare’s views as biased ‘Congressi’, ‘pseudo-secular’ rants, but I do think they merit some introspection.
An irresponsible media has made it easier still for an already isolated middle class and elite population to shrug off concerns about equity and inclusiveness. Yesterday, I was struck by a few conversations with fellow teachers as well as students as I was teaching a research seminar at SPA (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi) of which I am an alumnus.
As one teacher worked with his group, advocating the democratic use of common resources in the context of sustainability, another called him a socialist and exclaimed, “But capitalism works, doesn’t it?”. The students looked on, quite confused and even alarmed about the sudden turn of debate away from architecture and design to politics!
A short while later, as my group hotly debated the place of the urban poor in slums in a futuristic ‘smart’ city, one of them lamented in the most heartfelt manner: “Why is everything in India always a problem with no solutions, except idealistic impossible ones?”
The conversation went something like this: You can start with any development related issue in India and the discussion would boil to your belief system- whether it agrees with what the nation’s Constitution started out with, a socialist welfare State, placing our collective political believe firmly left off center. Or whether it veers to the right or further left. In the 67 years of being independent, India has naturally meandered along, testing this belief system, challenging it, twisting it, etc. Young people across the country, however, are unable to contribute meaningfully to national growth, frustrated by inefficiencies of the State and driven to cynicism by the apparent unwillingness of the political and bureaucratic class to really put their weight behind this belief system. The pursuit of material goals solely for personal gain, the perception of oneself as the productive worker and nothing more, not only makes the citizen feel useful but also absolved her of the responsibility of doing more, and even thinking more!
My students are highly idealistic. I can see it in their eyes. The need to dream and believe in a better collective future. I also see the skepticism and much of the angst is about resolving these two conflicting emotions and figuring out how they could play a role. I still feel the same. So do many of us. We refuse to let our dreams die, but are steadily reminded of the futility of these idealistic notions.
If idealism were to die, then what would be living for?
I, for one, would find it quite hard. And so I persevere. To instill in young people an empathy towards those who did not get a head-start in life like we did, is a starting point. To address the rage we feel about the world around us, to deconstruct its origins and emerge with a better understanding of how to address it, is another step in the right direction. To remind ourselves everyday that we have a right to dream and no one can take that from us. And to train ourselves to listen to the other point of view, for even those who speak in a very different voice may in fact be saying the same thing!
Morning conversations while dropping kids off at the bus stop sometimes linger through the day. This morning, we spoke about the need to convey to kids the importance of passion. Personally, I think in demanding all round excellence from children, we fail to recognise and feed their interests and passion.
Now, as I read several editorials that celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, I wonder what drove great leaders like him to sacrifice their personal ambitions, face extreme difficulties and overcome enormous obstacles in order to achieve greater good? I am struck by the idea that great leaders are not just driven by passion, but have the rare gift of empathy and an ability to connect with fellow humans on a very basic level. Madiba and Bapu both had that and there is a reason why millions followed these men in a surge of passion with the belief that they were being led towards betterment and emancipation.
Are we a more cynical bunch of people today, us citizens of India who are quick to criticise but lazy to act even in matters of our self-interest? Or is it that leaders today are too far removed from our hearts? It is hard to believe that Rahul Gandhi, for instance, could truly empathise with the experiences of an ordinary citizen. Perhaps Modi’s non-dynastic humbler origins are what give so many Indians a level of comfort because they believe he may understand their daily struggle and genuinely seek to uplift them. Be that as it may, I cannot think of a single political leader today who I may believe to be selfless and exemplary.
Then there is the aspect of new leadership. We expect a generation of elite youth disconnected from the realities of how most of our countrymen and women live, burdened by the privilege of their education to step into the lead-heavy shoes of leadership? Why would they when the pursuit of self-interest is easier?
Perhaps if we’re to permit passion to drive young people without constantly judging them and assessing their ‘performance’, we might see emerge into politics young people with drive, with inherent qualities of empathy and leadership. When you look around you and see the enormous energies trapped inside young people, wasting or being misdirected, you just have to find a different approach to harnessing it. Politics must stop being a dirty word in our minds if we are to change the future world that our children inhabit. And, like many great people have said, we could begin the change from our own communities and neighbourhoods. I have a plan brewing in my head as I write this.. Will keep you posted!