Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Tamil Muslim & Liberalism

That the internet makes dichotomies starker is truism worth repeating many times over. Except in India, that effect spilled over beyond the interwebs and got a crassness amplifying effect to make the internet appear nuanced. One can despair at the state of affairs and feel smug and superior about mathematically illiterate pundits and history-ignorant narrative pedlars on print and television, in the other places of popular culture and worse even in academia.

Yet, the wonder of such a highly populated place is that there are still enough people who truly make one proud of others’ thought in a way Rabindranath Tagore aspired. Sometimes one meets them when interviewing for a job or attending a conference. At others, a remarkably original paper or an auto driver. Or, Kombai S. Anwar. As Anwar mentions in his documentary, he is Tamil, Muslim and many other things. Among them, a man of that old City called Madurai. The most endearing aspect about his presentation is usually the thoughtful helplessness he displays when some opinionated blowhard tries to assert a certain view point.

The documentary itself is fascinating and you should buy it simply for the reason that as a society we need more Anwars doing even better historical research and they should see a way to sustain themselves doing that. As a frill, you get to listen to MS Subbulakshmi reciting the Alhamadhu Sura and that sort of indicates the tone for much his documentary — an honest and proud Tamil son’s exploration of his Muslim identity[1].

The relevance of Anwar’s research and exploration to Puram is slightly different, however. And that begins with his wry observation that when he travelled to a large Indian metro, other Muslims there asked him “You don’t know Urdu? What kind of a Muslim are you?” And how he struggled to explain that he came from a family that was a serious participant in the anti-Hindi agitations and that they were Tamil. That and his wonderful use of temple scriptures to point to how Muslims were integral to the village fabric in the Tamil country from the 10th Century on makes it apparent that unlike many of India’s Muslims in northern parts, Tamil Muslims[5] did not come from invasions. Their presence, as noted by the temple inscriptions, came about in order to take pepper in return for gold. Later, they were settled close to the temple in every Tamil village, next only to the priests in many cases, because the Muslim brought in the horse for Tamil kings[2].

Anwar in reaffirming the closely interwoven nature of the social fabric in Tamil country, made one wonder about an uncomfortable question he did not raise: but what if that person isn’t as much a Tamil and is just Muslim? Does that make that late entrant any less worthy of celebration[6]? The political loyalty of the Tamil Muslim, as Anwar mentions, is with mainstream Tamil parties and often indistinguishable from other social groups. In other parts of India, this is often not the case and their loyalties may strictly be against one group, if not for another. Whether this is attributable to later entrants being seen and invaders initially and not being woven into the social fabric early enough or if it’s simply attributable to Muslims forming a larger proportion of population in states like UP and Bihar is a question one then grapples with.

In the same Lit Fest, Rahul Pandita spoke about the silence of the majority Kashmiri Muslims in driving the minority Pandits out of Kashmir. That made one even more uncomfortable. Whatever errors of silent omission that are attributed to friends, neighbours and colleagues among the Muslims of Kashmir in 1991 is easily attributable to ordinary Germans in Nazi era, ordinary Serbs in Bosnia, Hutus in Rwanda and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka[4]. And the silence of ordinary members of the majority, not in commission but in omission, is what seems to always be a sufficiency criterion of violent oppression. And the necessary one — a sense of majoritarian victimhood. It’s deeply disturbing to think that is precisely what the BJP’s political rhetoric tends towards in recent times; more among their loud mouthed and astro-turfed Twitter gangsters than actual office bearers, though that distinction is fast eroding with a constant feedback loop that has resulted in more of the absurd M Lekhi and less of affable Nalin Kohli.

Whatever one may think about these questions, it simply is clear that the burden of cosmopolitanism is simply not on the minority. And is always on the majority. So the expectation of assimilation from the ‘other’ is idiotic, illiberal and chauvinist. And this especially when the minority in question, on average lives atrociously poor lives with appalling social indices[3].


[1] — Here you can listen to Kumari Aboobacker sing the Thirupugazh on Prophet Muhammad! His rendering of ‘kaapi raagam’ was quite good, too.

[2] – The mosque in Kilakkarai is beautiful and as Anwar points out, it’s built in Dravidian style.

[3] – Muslims as a group are worse off than the average in most measures.

[4] – Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour cites a slight variant where middle class residents of Delhi looted shops in the aftermath of 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

[5] – These are Muslims from the southern part of Tamil Nadu. As Anwar indicates elsewhere, some Muslims in Tamil Nadu from the northern part came in with Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah as the Mughal Empire’s foray and thus descend from the same stock that Mulsims from other parts of India do.

[6] – And as a coincidence one such bleak and hopeless portrayal won the prize.

AAP’s Impact: Lesson II

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was a kind of Paris Hilton of her day. She was famous because she was famous but used her fame to very good financial advantage unlike most women of her time. She was an ‘aristocrat’ in the early Republic and a monarchist at that when Americans where at best ambivalent about the idea of aristocracy. She’d divorced Jerome Bonaparte, the brother of Napolean, and supposedly attired herself in ways that scandalised the American prudes[0]. In all, she’s perhaps far more interesting than any of America’s founding fathers and her excellent biography written by Charlene Boyer Lewis chronicles ambition at a time when American women weren’t supposed to be ambitious.

Why Elizabeth Bonaparte matters to us is because in one of her letters to her father[1] she writes how it was silly to not have a King. The reason she says that, as Lewis implies, may be that she wanted to belong to an aristocracy. But she then goes on to make an observation in that letter that seems pertinent to the way our own feudal order works in India. She mentions that women had better rights in an aristocracy where order was established and the aristocrats weren’t threatened by women. But that in the republic where everyone had a vote, the prudishness and insecurity of the common people was forced on women[2].

That seems very relevant to the times we live in. Anecdotal evidence in India suggests there is growing intolerance in the past 30 years. The relevant correlate is that in this period democratic assertion in India spread to groups that weren’t part of the Nehruvian elite. And one is tempted to draw a parallel. The hypothesis that one could come up with is, as the previously marginalised sections of society get empowered, illiberalism is a counter-intuitive cost to pay. And the converse question one therefore might ask is: what is the extent of short term illiberalism that one can tolerate to undo the structural inequality imposed by having an entrenched elite[3]?

The only honest position seems to be: that’s an impossible question to answer a priori.

Along those lines, the DMK is a prime example of lower caste assertion two generations ago. The BSP of Dalit assertion one generation ago. The SP, JD(S) in its current avtar, the JD(U), the SS and SAD all fall into this category one way or another. Heck even the BJP does, except in its case the assertion was from the under class amongst upper castes. And the only common thread among all of these parties seems to be that none of them had Macaulay’s children form their core. The AAP as the latest entrant is an interesting experiment in that long line of assertion. Arvind Kejriwal is no Macaulay’s child despite his degree from a government subsidised college; and his erstwhile collaborator Anna Hazare certainly wasn’t. But a few of their spokespeople seem to be. Perhaps some of their voters are, too. How this equilibria plays out and whether the equilibria’s current origin in the latest instance means the bottom of the caste pyramid has no more space for assertion are questions that are interesting in themselves. Whether AAP wins another election is not.


[0] – By all accounts she was spectacularly hot. As Lewis mentions, men of her time said she had the best shoulders in America. Though what kind of a man looks at a woman and thinks about shoulders? Perhaps that was euphemism I did not get, to think of it now.

[1] – Maybe that letter was to her son. I forget.

[2] – Of course she means incredibly wealthy women like herself.

[3] – The assumption of illiberalism being short term is made by rating that republic called the USA in the current day to be liberal in an intellectual sense, if not fiscal.

AAP’s Impact: Lesson I

In his first book[1] published almost two decades ago, Mark Kingwell invoked an analogy similar to the tragedy of commons for philosophy. He was discussing the ethics of civility and argued something along the lines of: civility is much like an individual’s need for a bigger car that makes one go faster/ feel safer; except it only makes everyone else join the race and thus make everyone including the original individual feel less safe and travel slower. Implying a sort of arms race at every level of human need.

It’s an indication of the political climate one inhabits that reading Mark Kingwell’s analogy reminded one of the middle class political space occupied by the BJP and AAP. Until a few months ago the opinion polls and conventional wisdom suggested that space was largely occupied by the BJP; recently, at least a part of that has been usurped by the AAP in certain pockets of North India. While the relative merits of the two parties is not at all interesting, the inherent volatility of the space is. Further, this usurpation is remarkably similar to the arms race situation in all the other zero sum games of the kind Mark Kingwell describes. After all heightened rhetoric, symbolism and display of earnestness are hardly the preserve of any one group.

What stands out here however is the contrast of this space with the decidedly sticky caste based non-urban vote. Regardless of the AAP’s appeal to Valmikis in Delhi, UP’s Dalits are mostly going to vote BSP. As are Yadav’s going to vote SP. Because those parties exist because the castes do — not vice-versa as the casteless society visionaries from Delhi will have us believe. In other words, the lesson that traditional political parties are likely to take from the AAP’s usurping of a cosmopolitan vote is:  they are better off having a base that isn’t fickle enough to be swayed by vagaries of election cycle.

[1] – Yes, the book has 2 comments on Amazon and both written by Mark’s wife. Philosophers live a strangely sad life.

Democracy as Dharma

Two countries on either side of India pose interesting political questions.

The first is Egypt. As we well know, the popular narrative is as follows: there was a popular uprising against a military backed dictatorship. A new government that was elected happened to be socially ultra conservative and economically incompetent. Within a year the protestors were  back on the streets. The military took the opportunity to wrest power back and declared the popularly elected political party a terrorist organisation.

Then there is Thailand. The country offers a far more complex and complicated political landscape. The story as we know it runs thus: once there was a very rich person who got elected as Prime Minister by promising the poor he was on their side against the elites in the cities. Then he got thrown out of the country by the said elites for corruption. But in the subsequent elections, after some bloodshed, his sister got elected. After a while, the city elites wanted to throw her out as well and not have elections but simply take over power. Because they argued, the poor are too stupid to decide wisely. And that only they knew how to vote wisely. The solution proposed therefore was transfer of power without popular mandate. Or something close. Such as physically blockading candidates from filing nominations.

David Runciman’s book on the subject, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present explains this somewhat. Runciman argues that Democracy’s only strength is its ability to handle crises that the system inflicts upon itself. While every other system is far far better in every other measure, they all do quite badly in terms of their ability to weather crises — self inflicted or otherwise. His example of local politics and short-termism binding John F Kennedy in his negotiations with Nikita Khrushchev actually playing a positive role in the Cuban missile crisis makes the point quite convincingly. In the context of Egypt and Thailand, it appears that the unwillingness of society to pay the cost of sustaining failures elsewhere is another fundamental threat to nascent democracies. They’d probably be served well to be reminded of Bhishma’s answer to Yudhistra’s question on what Dharma was/is in the Karna Parva: ‘that which sustains is Dharma’. 

The question one is then left with is: what do political opponents in a democracy do? What’s their philosophical onus? Is it to the system? Or their own raison d’etre in terms of their politics? A question that perhaps someone has already answered. Pointers?

Private Members’ Bill: Poor Incentives & Hard Working MPs

The Private Members’ Bills and Resolutions is a strange provision of the Indian Parliament.

In theory it allows, as the name suggests, any Member of Parliament to introduce a bill. As opposed to just the government introducing it. In practice not a single such bill has been passed in over 4 decades. In countries that have such a provision — typically ones with a Westminster system — the success rate of such bills is low. However, India has an unusually low rate still. Worse, almost none of the proposed bills get discussed; let alone becoming the law of the land.

In the Westminster system’s instance in India, a legislator does not have the possibility of grandstanding as an American lawmaker does. For example, no law in India will get named Tiwari-Jaitley as say a Dodd-Frank or McCain-Feingold get called; this even if the Lok Sabha somehow miraculously passes the bill. The last such bill made into law in India is blandly called The Supreme Court (Enlargement Of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Act, 1970. There is no mention of Anand Narain Mulla, the independent MP from Lucknow, who introduced it. Not in the Act’s name or even in its citation. So, a politician really has no reward from an electability or popularity or even populist standpoint for doing this except in very rare circumstances — such as the ‘send ’em to the gallows’ bill that Sushma Swaraj proposed.

That leaves us with the question: why then do MPs still propose legislations as private members? They don’t get discussed in the media, they aren’t getting discussed in Lok Sabha and they certainly aren’t winning them elections. And because there is no tangible outcome, one can also make a reasonable case that there isn’t much of “introducing a legislation at lobbying’s behest.” To understand this better, let’s see where these originate.

Let’s first tabulate the data[1] on the basis of states’ whose MPs introduce these bills and benchmark them to the strength of that state in the Lok Sabha. If we do that, the scatter plot looks like this,

private members bill 1


The interesting states are Delhi, Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra. But a closer look reveals that in 3 of these states 2 or less MPs contribute to a majority of the bills. The prolific Hansraj Ahir from Chandrapur, Maharashtra for instance has introduced 31 bills. With none being discussed.

The question one is tempted to ask then becomes — are opposition MPs in a Parliamentary Democracy with anti-defection laws and an inability to vote contrary to their party whip’s diktat more likely to introduce Private Members’ bills? To understand that, let’s do the above tabulation party-wise instead. We then get a rather strange looking,

private members bill 2


So, yes the opposition does tend to use the provision more. But only by margins far less than what one’d have expected. What’s surprising is that certain high-profile members of the ruling party choose to take the private route — such as Sashi Tharoor seeking a High Court in Tiruvananthapuram and in every other State capital in India.

Another interesting dimension to look at the data will be: what is the Ministry under which the bill is being introduced. Lok Sabha’s website makes that data collection really troublesome but an initial estimate suggests that Home Affairs, Finance, Agriculture and Health have the maximum proposals. Some of them are in fact quite interesting. Dr Ajay Kumar seems to want Obamacare in India for instance; L Rajagopal wants MPs to lose pay for disrupting Parliament. A constant factor across party lines when one looks at the MPs having having a high number of such notices is that they all attend Parliament regularly, have a very large number of debate interventions and are virtually unknown to the English news watching audience.

The depressing lesson to take from this is that India’s system fails its enthusiastic MPs. Though much of the proposed laws, especially by dynastic MPs, are often authoritarian and don’t respect the federal structure enough. On the bright side however, one may also think, these MPs are largely working on things unlikely to yield result. Even if one excludes the large number of bills that may have been introduced only to make impossible an introduction of another; the Lok Sabha disallows two competing bills on the same subject. They still seem to have some notion of what ought to be — even if that is horrendously wrong and will never fructify. After all, isn’t that why their electorate sends them to the Lok Sabha? To deliberate on what ought to be?

[1] — Data was mostly downloaded from Lok Sabha’s website. Their search here is difficult to use, any help to further analyse this will be appreciated.