Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Identity and Violence

I don’t think there can be any more apt title to my article, which I’ve been thinking of writing ever since one Mr Raj Thackeray has been inspiring the Indian Press to popularize a term called “Marathi Manoos”. There is nothing wrong in the term. It refers to the Marathi people. But the context in which the term is being over used nowadays in the media has resulted in seeing it in a bad light. “Marathi Manoos” has become synonymous to violence against the North Indians, specially the Biharis, in Bombay on the statistically wrong allegation that they are snatching the employment opportunities from the localites.

The entire episode stirred several questions in my mind. A similar allegation has been levelled by a much lesser known outfit called “Kannada Rakshaka Vedike” in Bangalore against the outsiders. The first question that came to my mind is what’s the identity of a localite. A further extension of the question is what’s my identity. Am I a localite in Bangalore? Let me try to find the answers to my questions.

I was born more than some three decades back in a place, which no longer exists. The name of my birthplace has been changed. Officially there’s no place called Calcutta now. So I don’t know what’s the official status of my ‘birth place’. My mother has inherited the knowledge of spoken Bengali from her parents. So from that point of view officially I can claim that my mother’s tongue is indeed Bengali. To make things simpler my father’s mother tongue also happens to be Bengali. So there’s no confusion with regards to my mother tongue. So that makes me a Bengali speaking, by birth. I started speaking Bengali at home. As a matter of fact I still speak Bengali at home with my wife, whose mother’s tongue also happens to be Bengali. So apart from being born a Bengali speaking, I’m also a surviving Bengali speaking person. But then I was never a permanent resident of any place within West Bengal. I never paid any tax in West Bengal. I voted only once in West Bengal. I’ve been staying in Bangalore for the past eleven years. I paid more than 95% of my total income tax till now in Bangalore. I’ve regularly voted in Bangalore for the past eight years. I own properties only in Bangalore. I own cars registered only in Bangalore. My passport has my Bangalore address as the permanent address. My PAN card, Voters ID card, Ration Card everything has my Bangalore address. Apart from the mention of the now non-existent ‘Calcutta’ as my birth-place in my passport there’s no other reference to my connection to any place other than Bangalore anywhere in any official document.  So what’s my locality? Do I belong to Bangalore or I still belong to Calcutta?

Unlike most people in Bangalore, whose mothers’ tongues happen to be a language called Kannada, I don’t speak the ‘local’ language. Wait a minute, what’s the definition of local language? Is Bengali the local language of Calcutta? Or is Kannada the local language of Bangalore? Well, officially not, but unofficially yes. The constitution does acknowledge Bengali and Kannada languages as major languages spoken in India, but there’s officially no reference to tagging Bengali to Calcutta or West Bengal and Kannada to Bangalore or Karnataka. There’s no discrimination between the Kannada spoken in Deshpriya Park in Calcutta and that in Bangalore in Karnataka. I understand that the rights of people speaking Kannada at home in Deshpriya Park are exactly same as that of the majority of the people speaking the language in Bangalore. In Deshpriya Park, if an entire ‘para’ or locality speaks Kannada, then the children there can surely grow up with the idea that their local language is indeed Kannada and not Bengali, though the later might be spoken by more people around – outside their ‘para’. Till now my kid of six years has encountered more Bengali than Kannada speaking people in his life. In his world he still knows that ‘majority’ of the people around him speak Bengali in Bangalore. He has been to Durga Puja where he has seen thousands of people speaking ‘his’ language. He is yet to see such huge crowds speaking any other language. So there’s no wrong if he feels that he speaks the language that’s spoken by majority of the people in his locality and that language is Bengali. So you see, there’s a difference in perception of the ‘local’ language between him and myself. So the question remains – is there any definition of a ‘local’ language? Yes, there’s always a statistical definition of the majority language in any city or state or locality. But I don’t know how to define a local language.

The survival of any language or religion or tradition doesn’t depend on who speaks the language or who practises the tradition. They survive naturally as long they are required to survive. Despite royal patronage, Sanskrit or Pali couldn’t survive because they were no longer required by the people. The survival of Kannada doesn’t depend on whether 100% of people staying in Karnataka speak or respect the language. Even if majority of the people in Karnataka stop speaking Kannada it might still survive if it’s really required to survive. Just by enforcing people to use Kannada can neither ensure the survival of the language nor impact the growth of the language. From this point of view it makes no sense to make the knowledge of any language a necessary or sufficient condition for association of an individual with any locality.

So coming back to my original question: Where do I belong? I don’t speak the majority language in Bangalore and I don’t stay in the place whose majority language I speak at home. Physically, financially and economically I’ve been connected to Bangalore for more than a decade. So which one takes precedence? What decides where I belong?

Well, truly speaking, there’s absolutely no necessity to find out authentically where I belong because none of my official work or identity requires that. Constitutionally I have the same rights irrespective of my belonging to Calcutta or Bangalore. So why the hell am I bothered about finding out if at all I belong to Bangalore? Well, I shouldn’t bother at all. There’s no statehood or cityhood in India. The reference to Calcutta, my birth place, is just a matter of fact that’s mentioned in my passport. There’s no special status or identity attached to this matter-of-fact. In the same way my residential address of Bangalore is also mentioned as a matter of fact in my passport. My identity would have been the same had my place of birth been some nondescript place in Ladakh and my permanent address some unknown hill-top in a tribal village in Coorg.

I’ve only one identity and that’s I belong to the sovereign socialist republic of India. Any locality can have any majority language or religion or creed or ritual or tradition. That has nothing to do with the identity of the people of the locality.

Alas!! There are many people who have absolutely no regards for our constitution. They commit the criminal offence of distorting and disrespecting our constitution and thwarting self-claimed identities to the people of India. Calling an Indian by any other name, be it the name of a language or religion, is itself showing disrespect to the very idea of ‘India’. More than a nation, India is a symbol of pluralism, an epitome of a civilization of humanity where all other identities and traditions and rituals and religions have amalgamated into just one identity – that’s of an Indian. No other identity can bear our true identification. The only commonality that ties each and every Indian is this very identity of Indianness, something that the people of the whole world have identified us with forever. For centuries and millennia, the people throughout the world have always found this striking commonality among all of us. It’s not for no reason that we all have been always identified with India or Hindustan or Hindi or Hindu or Sindhu or Indi what so ever similar names irrespective of the fact that we always spoke so many languages and followed so many different traditions forever. If we could retain our identity since time immemorial, why should we change that and identify us with some other names now? Any other identity of an Indian will just lead to violence and nothing else.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Don't Divide Us Further

This is with reference to the recent euphoria about conferring the status of Classical Language to Kannada and Telegu languages.

It's really shocking to see that many so called non-political literary people were involved in demanding classical status for their languages. As if, without the official status the fate and status of these languages would have been questionable. Technically, culturally and emotionally, each and every language in the world is classic in it's own way. The development of a language is perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the human race. Each language shapes up over so many years to express the feelings, emotions, love, technology and above all the culture of a race or creed. This evolution itself qualifies each language, irrespective of it's age and usage, to be classic in it's own unique way. So it really sounds so gross to attribute some special status to a particular language. It's also another way of further dividing our already divided country on another basis.

Linguistically, the present form of any language, be it Tamil or Hindi or anything else, is way different from what it used to be thousand years back. Each language has undergone tremendous changes over the years. Majority of the Indian languages have come from the Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan and the Austric group of languages. Both the Dravidian and the Austric groups are much older than the Indo-Aryan group. Apart from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, languages with Dravidian origin are still spoken in far off places like Baluchistan (Brahui) and Bengal (Malto). Most of the tribal languages of the Santal, Kol, Bhil, Mundas etc are derived from the Austric family, which is as old as the Dravidian group. Apart from this, most of the modern day major languages of Indo-Aryan group like Bengali, Assamese, Gujarati and Marathi can be traced back to 10th century AD. Manipuri language can be traced back to 3rd century AD. But none of these languages resemble much the primitive forms that existed thousand years back. The fascinating thing is that there have been so much amalgamation between all these languages that it's really hard to isolate the unadulterated nascent forms. This very amalgamation has created, in Tagore's words, the "ocean of the super humans of Bharatavarsha", on the pure banks of which he aspires his mind to arise - "He Mor Chitta, Punya Tirthe Jago Re Dheere / Ei Bharater Mahamanaver Sagar Teere". Let's not speak of Bengali or Tamil or Hindi. Let's realize that we all speak only one language and that's the language of Bharatavarsha. There's no division, there's no special status, there's no rivalry. As mentioned in Upanishads, "Srunvantu Vishve, Amrutashya Putrah", we, all Indians are the children of immortal bliss. We all are equal and for God's sake, let not the politicians divide us further!!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Finally, a lifeline for India’s poor

GURCHARAN DAS, Times of India, 2nd Nov, 2008

Nothing causes as much anxiety in a family as when someone falls sick. Nearly 65% of India’s poor get into debt and 1% fall below the poverty line each year because of illness, according to National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2004. The answer, of course, is health insurance, but only 6% of India’s workers have it. Free public hospitals are not an option as two out of five doctors are absent, and there is a 50% chance of receiving the wrong treatment, according Jishnu Das and Jeffrey Hammer’s study. This tragic state of affairs is, however, set to change dramatically with Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), a visionary national health insurance scheme, which provides Rs 30,000 ‘in patient’ health benefits at a premium of Rs 600, which the government pays if you are poor. A brainchild of an IAS officer, Anil Swarup, this scheme will succeed when others have failed because of choice, competition and a magical ‘smart card’. A patient can choose from almost 1,000 private or government hospitals. States can choose from 18 public or private insurance companies. Insurers have the incentive to recruit the poor as they earn premiums by doing so. Hospitals will not turn away the poor because they don’t want to lose the Rs 30,000 in potential revenue. The poor have a choice to exit a bad hospital, something that only the rich can do today. Competition between hospitals will improve the quality of healthcare and new hospitals will come up because there is now money in catering to the poor. The insured carry a smart card with a photo, fingerprints of the family, and an official’s ‘key’ who is accountable. It makes transactions cashless and paperless for the 725 pre-agreed medical procedures. This card contains Rs 30,000 and it tracks expenses day to day in the hospital and the money is deducted automatically after each procedure. No need for pre-approval or reimbursement. Since the poor are migratory birds, the smart card empowers a Bihari to use a hospital in Gujarat. Smart cards are designed to prevent fraud because of 11 unique types of embedded software. So far 500,000 cards have been issued in six months covering 2.5 million people. Most states have agreed to the scheme because the centre foots 75% of the premia. Haryana and Gujarat are the most enthusiastic states. Uttarakhand and Orissa are dragging their feet. Kerala is offering it to everyone as long as the non-poor pay their own premia; thus, it has become a universal product of the insurance company. Only Madhya Pradesh and the North-East states, to their disgrace, have not joined. If all goes according to plan, 30 crore people or one third of India will be covered in five years at an annual cost of Rs 4500 crores — a tiny sum compared to the money wasted in dozens of other schemes. Previous state health insurance schemes failed because they insisted that people use public hospitals and public insurers — with predictable results. This one will succeed because insurance companies, hospitals, and patients all have ‘skin in the game’. Smart cards can dramatically cut corruption in all our social programmes. India spends 14% of GDP in subsidies for the poor, which is more than enough to wipe out poverty. But poverty persists because subsidies leak out through corruption. Smart cards can also carry data on payments for rations (PDS) or earnings from employment schemes (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) and it can expose corruption very quickly. Despite the Left’s strident rhetoric, middle class Indians do not resent income transfers to the poor as long as the benefits reach the poor. Our problems in India are of the ‘how’, not of the ‘what’. The smart card addresses the ‘how’, and we know it’s powerful because corrupt officials and politicians are trying hard to kill it. For the nation, it is the best Diwali present amidst all the gloom in the marketplace.

Threat of vigilantism

SWAPAN DASGUPTA - Times of India, 2nd Nov, 2008

In the sixth series of the gripping BBC tele-serial Spooks, the MI5 is confronted by two contrasting adversaries: an Iran hell bent on becoming a nuclear weapons state; and the covert or ganisation, Yalta, that seeks to restore global multi-polarity by bringing the US several notches down. Made up of patriotic stalwarts of the British establishment, Yalta runs a parallel intelligence network, strikes deals with the Islamists and un dertakes bombings and assassinations. Many MI5 agents are lured by Yalta operatives into joining the secret war because they, too, are disconcerted by Britain’s skewed “special relationship” with the US Although over-dramatised and far removed from the cerebral espionage games of John Le Carre’s Cold War thrillers, Spooks addresses a problem confronting the liberal State in an age of crime, sleaze and terrorism: the threat of vigilantism. Modern societies with codified laws and elaborate checks and balances have based themselves on the unstated assumption that the State enjoys a monop oly of violence. Just as there is no legitimacy for insurgents, warlords and ter rorists, there is no space for modern day Robin Hoods or, for that matter, Su perman. Those like Yalta who take it upon themselves to rectify national prob lems through unilateral violence are likely to be viewed in the same vein as say, al-Qaida terrorists as outlaws. The people’s adherence to non-violence is n’t a Gandhian fad; it is a pillar of statecraft. There is no compelling evidence as yet to determine whether the flamboyant Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and her associates — the alleged practitioners of ‘Hindu terror’ — are guilty of vigilantism or are victims of an elaborate frame up. The signals are confused and conflicting. There are hints that Muslim-domina ted Malegaon was bombed on September 29 as an act of retributive violence — to force Muslims to share the pain of terrorism. At the same time, the instant secularist equation of ‘Hindu’ terror with jihadi terror has prompted concern of a frame-up by a beleaguered government. Certainly, the suggestions of a conspi racy involving serving and retired army officers seem utterly fanciful and could even provoke a backlash. If, for argument’s sake, a Hindu hand in the Malegaon bombings is established does it imply that terrorism is a problem of competitive extremism? This is pre cisely what the government would like us to believe — that there is an immoral equivalence between radical saffron outfits and the treacherous SIMI, and that a ban on one should automatically lead to curbs on the other. Apart from driving a wedge between the BJP and its NDA allies just prior to the election, unearthing a Hindu terrorist conspiracy may help the government project an image of even handedness to those Muslims who feel done in by counter-terrorism. Yet, despite the law treating all terrorists as equal outlaws, there are im portant differences between jihadi terror and the Sadhvi’s alleged criminali ty. Jihadi terror is directed both at the kafirs and the sovereignty of India. Nei ther SIMI nor the Indian Mujahideen have faith in the Constitution. They want nizam-e-mustafa (the rule of God) and terrorism is a means to that elusive pipe dream. Their target is the Indian way of life. The Hindu extremists have a more limited agenda. They want retributive justice against the killers; they feel Hindus are too meek and effete; they want a militarised Hindu society that takes an eye for an eye; and they believe that the alternative to vote-bank politics is to combine the roles of prosecutor, judge and executioner. Jihadi terror is based on warped theology; the extremist Hin du is driven by revenge and frustration. Let’s not delude ourselves that the two are fringe phenomena. The Batla House encounter may have triggered Muslim fury but the Sadhvi is fast ac quiring cult status among angry Indians seeking quick-fix solutions. Terror ism hasn’t won the day but it has disfigured the cosy assumptions on which In dia operated. The moral authority of the state is in tatters.