Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poverty as roulette

There is a game I have been forced to invent. I call it ‘travel roulette’. The rules are pretty simple: You go alone to a place you have never been before, where you know no one, with the minimum amount of money you need to get there and back. If, for example, you are going to, say, Athens, you should just take your return ticket, money for your hotel stay, and local bus fares. Nothing extra. You win if you enter the airport on your way back with zero euros on you. If you miscalculate and run out of money, you get stuck in whichever place you are at.
I’ve never managed to achieve the zero cash state. I got out of Paris with ten euros on me. It was all the money I had. I got out of Istanbul with five turkish lira on me. Again, it was all the money I had.
But my best performance so far came this week, on a trip to Mcleodganj. I got out of the place with Rs 2.50 in my possession.
Apart from the thrill of danger – not a quick adrenalin rush, as happens in a fight, but a tension that coils up inside you – travelling like this is also an excellent way to learn some values in a hurry.
The first thing you learn is thrift. Spending 60 rupees on a cup of coffee or a thousand on a night out is all very well; however, when you have no money to spend, you suddenly figure out what is wasteful and what is necessary.
The lack of money also translates into a different lifestyle. You stay in a cheap place, so there is no television. That immediately changes the way you spend your leisure. From staring vacantly at a screen and flipping channels, you go to reading, or maybe sitting in a park watching life go by. There is more time for contemplation.
There is probably not much money to throw on alcohol or cigarettes either. Good, healthy habits replace drinking and smoking. Instead of getting drunk until late in the night and waking late with a hangover, you will probably sleep early and wake up in time for a morning walk.
You’ll be walking a lot through the day too – there will be no money for taxis or autos. The choice is between figuring out the buses or using your own two feet. Either way, enough exercise is guaranteed.
You will also learn humility. There is a certain swagger that most people acquire through money. They behave in a certain way, not because of who they are, but because of what they have. They are defined by their possessions – the rich guy or girl, the one with the swank car, etc. A very good way to discover what you are really made of is to leave these crutches behind, especially if you haven’t earned them yourselves.
The most important thing that anyone learns from travelling penniless in a strange place is to value the things that one does have. On my way back from Mcleodganj, with Rs 2.50 in my pocket, I found myself without money to buy dinner when the bus stopped at a dhaba in the middle of the night.
I bought myself one roti with the Rs 2.50, and I was happy.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What militants look like

The word ‘militant’ occurs with increasing frequency in our daily news and lives. What it means, though, is hazy to most people. No one seems to know what ‘militants’ do, or what they are like.
The answer is, they are usually like regular people.
I recently met a quiet, middle aged man from Sri Lanka at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. He spoke softly and laughed easily. He seemed very like a college teacher. It turned out that he was the leader of a militant group that had attempted to take over a country.
D Sitharthan is the head of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). He knows LTTE leader V Prabhakaran from childhood. They were friends for a time, until their goals and paths diverged. Sitharthan went on to join PLOTE, a group founded by a former LTTE chief known as Mukundan who had left the Tigers in 1980 after a power struggle with Prabhakaran. Mukundan and Prabhakaran faced off in a gun battle in the streets of Chennai in 1982. Both of them escaped unhurt, but both were subsequently arrested by the Tamil Nadu police. Both were released on bail.
The LTTE later fought a bloody battle with other Tamil separatist groups in Sri Lanka. It destroyed all of them, including PLOTE. By 1986, there was no doubt which group was the king of the Sri Lankan jungle: it was the Tigers.
That apparently got the PLOTE leaders thinking. They figured they needed a base somewhere. North and east Sri Lanka were under LTTE control. The rest of the country was dominated by the Sri Lankan armed forces. There was no room for them anywhere on the island.
So the PLOTE leaders did some ‘out of the island’ thinking. They decided to take over the Maldives.
On November 3, 1988, 80 PLOTE men, backed by some Maldivian dissidents, landed in the Maldives capital, Male. Sitharthan says they were in control of the city for four hours. They were forced to flee the next day, when Indian commandoes landed on the island. The militants had made a mistake: they had not attacked communication facilities, because they planned to use those themselves. Unfortunately for them, the people they planned to overthrow used them first.
Sitharthan now laughs about that attempt. He looks embarassed at the mention of the incident. His group gave up arms after the Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord of 1987, he says. They are re-arming again, though, because of the failure of the accord.
The PLOTE is now a marginal force in Lankan politics. Sitharthan himself lives in Colombo, and is much like any other political worker, though he does seem more direct and honest than the average politician.
His predecessor Mukundan is dead. He was shot dead in Colombo.
Most of the people I have met who might be called militants are like Sitharthan. On the surface, they are quiet, friendly people. Except, of course, for the fact that they believe very, very strongly in a certain political goal — and they will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. The generally live quietly eventful lives. Some of them, like Mukundan, die sudden, violent deaths.

Saturday, September 30, 2006


After Helen

Most airports get pretty forlorn at three a.m. Delhi is no different. Stifling yawns, I walk into the departure lounge and look around to see who else will get airborne with me. The sight wakes me up. This Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul is full of burly men wearing Daler Mehndi T-shirts.
Most seats are taken. I find myself a place next to one of the men in Daler T-shirts. He is a big sardarji. We say hello. It turns out that he is Daler paaji’s elder brother. The whole Daler troupe is on its way to a performance in Istanbul. Balle balle on the Bosphorus, I tell myself.
Less than six hours later we’re over that famous waterway. From a kilometre up in the sky, it looks like an arm of the blue sea thrust into the belly of the green-gold land. Dots that are ships weave long white trails in the water behind them.
Istanbul airport is pleasant and thoroughly modern. The first impression, for the visitor from Delhi, is that this is more Europe than Asia. The city itself is more confusing. On the ride from the airport, it looks neat and Western – but there are those ancient minarets rising into the sky. And every now and then, there’s a glimpse of a Byzantine ruin here or an Ottoman one there.
It’s quite clearly a fascinating place. For now, though, it is not my destination. I am on my way to another place out of myth and history, older than Constantinople. I am headed for Troy.
A flying carpet or winged horse seems the appropriate mode of transport to a place like that. Unfortunately, however, I can only get a ticket on an air-conditioned bus. It’s a long ride – more than six hours – to the quaint little town of Canakkale at the mouth of the Dardanelles Strait, 310 km away, where we will halt for the night. Gentle hills clothed in sunflowers roll past on one side of the road for most of the way. On the other side is the Sea of Marmara. We stop once for a cay (chai-tea) and corba (dal-lentil soup) break at a highway restaurant that has a zoo in its backyard. Meal over, some of us from the Troy bus wander around, looking at the strange birds and sad monkeys.
By afternoon we’re at the site of an old battleground. Around 250,000 soldiers died here on the Gallipoli peninsula at the far end of Europe during World War I. Across the Dardanelle Strait, in easy view, is Asia – and the town of Canakkale.
The Battle of Gallipoli was one of the bloodiest ever fought anywhere. In 1914, a combined Anglo-French naval attack orchestrated by Winston Churchill was defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the mouth of the Dardanelles near Gallipoli. The aim of the attack was to open up the sea route from the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas to the Black Sea in order to help Russia. Following this defeat, the Allies realised that a land attack was needed to support the naval offensive. In 1915, Australian, New Zealander, British (including Sikh and Gorkha) and French troops attacked Gallipoli. They were held off till January 1916 by Turkish forces, including some led by Kemal Ataturk, and departed in defeat.

Today the wooded green hillside and the gentle Aegean Sea are the only remaining witnesses of this epic battle. They show no evidence of the slaughter. Captain Ali, our guide and a former submarine captain in the Turkish Navy, points to two narrow ditches on either side of the narrow road. Those are the trenches, he says. Barely 10 feet apart. Men shot each other at that range. They killed each other in thousands without either side gaining an inch.
Eventually, the Allies won the World War, and the Ottoman Empire was dismembered. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Palestine (now Israel) were among the territories carved out from it.
A massive statue of Ataturk stands at the site in Gallipoli where he was shot – and saved by a watch he kept in his chest pocket. He was the hero for the Turks. He went on to lead Turkey.
We click pictures, and depart, shaking our heads at fate, will and the boundless inhumanity of the human race. The bus drives down the hill and onto the ferry.
Night comes late in these parts. It’s 9 p.m., and still light. We are in Canakkale, Asia. We have a dinner of octopus and fried calamari in a seaside restaurant overlooking the Dardanelles. Drinks follow, interrupted only once by the cry of the muezzin. Our Turkish friends put down their beers and cigarettes, uncross their legs and sit up straight until the call to prayer is over. Then everyone picks up where they’d left off.

Next morning, bright and early, we head for Troy. The first sign that we are on the land where Achilles, Hector and the beautiful Helen once walked is a touristy wooden horse. The replica Trojan horse is as big as the original, we’re told – the only design changes are windows from which sheepish-looking adults and excited children stick their heads out for photographs, and a sort of hut on its back.
Little remains of the famed seventh city of Troy that was immortalised by Homer, and much later, Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. Captain Ali walks us into the city through the main gate – the one that Hector supposedly walked out of in the movie, for his last battle with Achilles. The real gate is just a gap in the stone walls now. It’s less imposing than Warner Brothers would have you believe, but more clever.
The gate is not visible from outside. It’s hidden by an outer wall, and is set at a sharp turn. This construction feature made it impossible for attackers to use battering rams against the gate of Troy – one reason that the Greeks had to employ trickery to get into the city.
We walk around looking at the remains of the legendary city. Three thousand years have taken their toll. The temple where Paris and Hector worshipped is a few small piles of stones. The tomb of Achilles, where Alexander the Great came to pay his respects in 334 B.C., is nearly obliterated.
Looking out over the Trojan plain we see a peaceful scene; fields and, in the distance, the glimmering sea. It reminds me of Gallipoli. Captain Ali takes us to an ancient amphitheatre and insists we sit on the seat where royalty used to sit. I wonder if Helen ever sat there, and feel both incredulity and goosebumps.
Excavations are still on in Troy. Archaeologists are still trying to peel back layers of time from this place where so many cities have been built, and legends born. The last of the nine cities of Troy was built by the Roman emperor Augustus in days when Jesus walked the earth. It fell into decline about 400 years later, after the birth of Constantinople, and was lost and forgotten in the course of the centuries until a German grocer-turned-indigo merchant- turned archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann found it in 1873.
Schliemann later discovered a treasure at the site, said to be the treasure of King Priam. He dug out the jewelry, gold cups and silver goblets, and weapons that were perhaps wielded by the Trojan heroes, and smuggled them out of Ottoman Turkey. The treasure eventually found its way to Nazi Germany. It disappeared from Berlin at the end of the Second World War, and resurfaced in Moscow in 1993. It can now be seen at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It is a bone of contention between Russia, Germany and Turkey to this day.
Only a few artifacts from Homeric Troy are at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. On my return to that city, I spent the better part of a day wandering around the place, and still saw only a little of the museum’s collection. The Trojan collection here isn’t very impressive – it could hardly be, considering most of it is in Russia. However, there are enough Greek, Roman and Ottoman treasures there to take one’s mind off this absence, at least for a day.
Up the hill from the Museum, at the corner of Sultanahmet square next to the Hagia Sophia, there’s a lovely little cafĂ© where one can watch the trams and the people flow by, and reflect on life and its evanescence over a cup of delightful Turkish coffee. It’s the sort of place that evokes such strange moods – thoughtful, melancholic and joyous, all at once.
The view from there includes the magnificent 17th Century ‘Blue Mosque’ of Sultan Ahmet, where worshippers still gather at prayer times. The Hagia Sophia, once the centre of power of the Byzantine church, and later a mosque after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, is now a museum.
I sat there, alone, reading Orhan Pamuk and wondering where I might see more of the huzun – melancholy – of Istanbul he wrote so much about. Only a businesslike, modern city with a colourful past and a split personality showed itself.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Rougher than Rough Guides, Off the Lonely Planet

The welcome to Tawang is promising enough. A board placed just outside town greets visitors with the message, "Welcome to Arunachal Pradesh…Explore exotic locals & Enjoy warm hospitality". After spending three hours stranded in the snow at Se La pass, 13,700 ft above sea level, warm hospitality sounds good. And as for "exploring exotic locals" – well, maybe tomorrow.
The ride up to here has been harrowing. The 330-km bus ride from Itanagar to Bomdila was bad enough. We crossed a rainforest, with its cover of perpetual fog, in the middle of the night. Our headlights only showed an endless wall of white in all directions – and no road. The driver kept swerving right on, all the while busy playing DJ. Even the large mongoloid man with the foot-long knife in his belt who was sitting dozing next to me, his head on my shoulder, woke up and cursed the driver for playing so much music.
The 185 km from Bomdila to Tawang was worse. I lost count of the number of hairpin bends. This driver was a real DJ; he had his girlfriend alongside, and periodically would leave the steering for her to manage while he bent and pounded a troublesome cassette. The road was covered in snow, and it had taken the bulldozers of the Border Roads Organisation (Motto: Fikar Not) a while to clear a path. The scenery was ice-covered rock wall on one side and a drop into an abyss on the other. Perfect for a little synchronised driving with the girlfriend.
Now I’m relieved to be finally in Tawang. It has been a non-stop 24 hour journey by road from Itanagar. The Monyul hotel is the first we come to, and I have no energy to go further. There’s no one at the reception or anywhere else. Finally the boy who looks after the hotel walks in and gives me a room. It is unheated and uncarpeted, like all others. I look at the snow outside and ask if there’s no heating system. "We give electric heaters in cold weather", he replies. Since this is April, it must be summer.
Tawang has one main street about 500 m long. Here you’ll find the Monyul arts centre, the Monyul hotel, the Monyul lodge, and a few other Monyul establishments. They all belong to the local Monpa people. Up the mountain from Tawang is the most famous sight in the town – the 400-year-old Tawang monastery.
Life in Tawang for long revolved around this monastery. Legend has it that the site was chosen by the horse of the Lama who founded the monastery. That’s why it’s called Tawang – ‘Ta’ means horse, and ‘Wang’ means chosen. That horse must have been the reincarnation of an architect. The monastery is beautiful, and beautifully located. It has a sheer, vertical cliff, behind it, and all of Tawang before.
You’ll find the maroon-robed monks everywhere in Tawang. They are there in the shops, buying shoes and jackets, in government offices, getting work done, and even in the local Playwin lottery counter. Renunciation doesn’t seem to be the mantra here.
But then, it probably never was. This is the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama, the one who’s famous for being a poet and a lover of wine and women.
For two days I rush around in Tawang meeting government officials and lamas, and sneaking the occasional visit to a Gompa. I’ve brought the bustle of the city dweller with me; no one else in this little town seems ever to be in a hurry. Life ends at dusk here, and dusk is 5 p.m. With mornings spent clearing the roads of snow, there’s not much time left for work.
Two days later, I leave the beautiful, magical Shangri La. This most peaceful of places is now at the centre of a border dispute between China and India. It has been for the past 50 years. All along the road, memories of the 1962 war when the Chinese captured Tawang and marched downhill up to Bhalukpong are alive.
Signs of another war are evident too – the war between tradition and modernity, city and countryside, contentment and economics. The enchantment is about to go.

On the ghost road to Burma

I am heading now to the other end of Arunachal, to another remote area – the Myanmar border. There’s a legendary road there that snakes its way from Assam through Arunachal into Myanmar and China. It’s called the Stilwell Road.
During World War II, the Nationalist Chinese army of Chiang Kai-shek and the Americans were united against a common enemy: Japan. The Japanese had already captured eastern China and controlled its seaports. After they conquered Burma, the only Allied supply route to China, the Burma Road, was cut off. There were fears that China would fall to the Japanese. This would free up Japanese forces for attack elsewhere. The Americans decided they needed to prop up the Chinese, and so, US army General Joseph Stilwell built a road from Ledo in upper Assam to Kunming in China.
Stilwell was Chiang Kai-shek’s Chief of Staff. He was the second foreigner after Marco Polo to command a Chinese army. The road he built was one considered impossible until it was done: through rainforests, swamps and minefields, under enemy fire, with equipment brought in from the US 12,000 miles away. It was a road built on the bodies of men who fell building it – a grand and tragic exercise. More so because it was abandoned and forgotten barely five years after it was built.
The drive from Tawang to Tezpur in Assam, the first major town on my route, is 325 km. Tezpur is army territory – the headquarters of IV Corps. It takes more than 12 hours to do this distance. My next stop is Dibrugarh, another eight hours away, and the road now winds through elephant country. This is the edge of the Kaziranga National Park. It’s also militant country: Sibsagar, on the route, is where the ULFA was founded.
I reach Dibrugarh on a rainy evening. It’s been raining non-stop here, and the Brahmaputra is over danger level. The rain is also affecting the tea crops, and worrying planters.
From Dibrugarh through Makum, the first place in India where oil was found, to Digboi, where the first refinery in Asia was built, the road passes through a series of tea gardens. It’s a rich land with a past steeped in adventure, and a present taut with many tensions.
Then we are at Margherita, the tea town named, no one remembers why, after a queen of Italy. Next is Ledo. We cross coalmines and find ourselves driving alongside an abandoned railway track. The Assam Rifles soldiers with the AK guns look suspiciously at our car as it crosses the 25 Battalion headquarters. A sign just across says we are at the starting point of the legendary Stilwell Road. It’s 30 km from here to the Assam-Arunachal border, and 1736 km to Kunming.
The land begins to change. The inhabitants here are Singphos – the same people who are known as Kachins in Myanmar. The Assam-Arunachal border is at nearby Jairampur, a little collection of ramshackle houses and huts. The dominating feature on the road here is a sign that says, "Militancy is dangerous". The NSCN has been known to kill district officials in these parts.
An Assam Rifles guard stops us to check our papers, and sends us back. We need a special permit to go to the border. The local Extra Assistant Commissioner, a Mr Roy, has the authority to grant the permit but is reluctant. He eventually lets us through but by then it is 3 p.m. – too late to push for Pangsau Pass, the border point between India and Myanmar. We’ll have to come back the next day.
Next morning we resume our unusual journey. The Stilwell Road is now alongside us at some places. At others, it’s the road we are on, in its new avatar as NH 153. The government wants to take this highway to Nampong 14 km from Pangsau Pass.
Development has begun to make inroads here. New tea gardens stretch almost the entire way to Nampong. Locals say they belong to politicians. The rain forests that killed so many men in Stilwell’s time are dying. It’s only after Nampong and the last DTH television antenna that we get a glimpse of things the way they were.
The road ends here. Only a bumpy mud track that was the Stilwell Road remains. For us, travellers chasing a road rather than a destination, that is good enough. I bump my head against the roof of the four-wheel drive as we inch along in the mud through forest where ferns grow as tall as trees.
The 14 kilometres take one hour to drive. A Burmese border guard with an AK and no uniform stops our vehicle and tells us to walk on. Our visa is a cardboard token that we have to return at the border. We’re on the other side, in Myanmar, and looking at the Lake of No Return.
The road goes on. China and India want to open it up, make it a highway. Powerful commercial interests are at work here. It will bring ‘development’, I know, but a part of me is sad. Like Tawang, this is one of the few places on earth that has not sold its soul to globalisation. It will grow up to be just like everywhere else. It will lose its innocence.

The Tour Map

Take a flight or train to Guwahati. From there onwards, the journey is by road through Tezpur up to Tawang. Buses and Sumo taxis ply regularly. Alternately, take the flight to Tezpur from Kolkata – but this is only twice a week. To get to Myanmar side, follow the route described in the article, or fly to Dibrugarh. You’ll have to hit the road from there. Travel advisory: Make sure you have all your permits. And don’t attempt the journey without a four-wheel drive. Also, don’t attempt it between April-September if you don’t want your plans washed out by rain.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Sitaram Yechury's response

A piece I'd written for the Hindustan Times, which is also on this blog, invited this response from Sitaram Yechury. Mr Yechury's article appeared in HT's Edit page on June 29.

THE IMMEDIATE provocation for this fortnight’s column is a piece that appeared on these very pages a few days ago (CPI(Muddled), June 22, by Samrat). It goes on to characterise the CPI(M) as the Casteist Party of India (Mandal). This echoes the widely misplaced and inadequate understanding of Marxism as looking at society in terms of “only two basic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”. Such a mechanical simplification of Marxism ignores its rich analysis of society, in which exists a large section of people who Marx called petit bourgeoisie, which includes the peasantry. However, let us move to the central issue: since communists believe that class struggle is the mover of social change, they ought not engage their attention with matters of caste.
The living essence of Marxism is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. The coexistence of precapitalist forms of production with growing capitalist relations in India means that the process of development of our society, divided into modern capitalist classes, is taking place constantly within the caste stratification that has come down to us over centuries. Despite all the refinements and changes within castes and between castes that have taken place over the years, the basic structure, in so far as the oppression of the Dalits or the backward castes is concerned, remains.
Since the process of class division is taking place within the existing class stratification, the issue is not one of class vs caste. To a large extent, the most exploited classes in our society constitute the most socially oppressed castes. There is a casteclass overlap. And, to that extent, the struggle against class exploitation and the struggle against social oppression complement each other. It is this complementarity that needs to be recognised, and on the basis of such recognition follows the important task of the communists to seek the integration of the struggles against class exploitation with the struggles against social oppression.
Both these constitute the two mutually inclusive aspects of the current class struggle in the country.
The source of provocation referred to above goes on to say that, “The caste system is an anachronism that needs to be removed from Indian society. This can only be done when the terms on which people identify themselves and one another are changed. Therefore, to begin with, all surnames that indicate a person’s caste should be dropped.” My name at birth was Yechury Venkata Sitarama Rao. The caste title has ceased to exist, by my own volition, for over three decades. Nothing has changed substantially in our society during this period. On the contrary, the number of NRIs — many of whom have never set foot in India — seeking alliances in their specific sub-castes, in matrimonial columns has increased.
However, let us leave aside these minor aspects and try to understand why the curse of caste oppression continues to plague us after all these years of Independence. Mahatma Gandhi had coined the term Harijan and appealed for a change of heart in our attitude towards Dalits and lower castes. Among other giants who stand out in the powerful anti-caste movements in the country was Jyotiba Phule. He was a great secular democrat who wielded a significant political influence in his time.
The Satyashodhak movement that he launched continues to hold influence today. Baba Sahib Ambedkar, one of the most outstanding and tireless fighters against caste exploitation, had to finally ask his followers to embrace Buddhism to escape the injustices of high caste Hindu socie ty. The powerful Dravidian movement led by Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker roused strong feelings against caste oppression and untouchability. His influence and that of the movement he launched continues to have its impact on presentday politics in Tamil Nadu.
Yet, despite such tall leaders and the powerful movements that they launched, caste oppression and discrimination continues to plague us. Despite the glorious uncompromising role of such leaders, the objective of ending caste-based social oppression could not be achieved. Why?
The answer lies in the communist analysis of how to eradicate this social curse. Mere appeals for a change of heart or behaviour cannot and will not eliminate this obnoxious system. In order to do so, we require to bring about a radical realignment in the economic empowerment of these sections. This means the implementation of sweeping land reforms that will empower the vast majority of the socially-oppressed sections. With economic assets as the basis, the struggle against social manifestations of caste oppression can be conducted.
Mere moral outrage or even a correct understanding of the social roots of the problem cannot lead to its elimination unless sweeping agrarian reforms are implemented. It is precisely this that the dominant political leadership of Independent India did not do. It is precisely this that communists seek to achieve. The implementation of land reforms in West Bengal and Kerala may not have eliminated caste identity but have surely led to a quantum decline in caste-based social oppression.
Since we continue to work for such changes elsewhere in the country, our support for reservations, therefore, cannot be seen as the final solution for ending caste oppression. Reservations in the present conditions are a necessity that offer some relief to some individuals in these communities, enhance their confidence in their advance and seek to make them more equal in the vastly growing unequal society in India. However, by themselves, reservations cannot be the final solution to the problem. The final solution can come only with a sweeping agrarian revolution that economically empowers these sections.
This is attested by the fact that even after five decades of reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in our country, the overall status of these communities has not radically changed. Between 1980 and 2000, the total enrolment in the primary stage for SCs went up from 15.11 per cent to 17.98 per cent and that of STs from 6.41 to 9.37 per cent. However, 49.35 per cent of SCs drop out at the primary stage, 67.77 at the middle stage and 77.65 per cent at the secondary stage. The similar figures for STs are 62.52, 82.19 and 85.01 per cent.
This, naturally, reflects in the entry of these sections into higher education. In all courses of graduation and above, only 8.18 per cent of SCs and 2.9 per cent of STs are enrolled as against the 20 per cent reservations provided for them. Hence, the fear that extension of reservations to the OBCs will deprive the general category of students must be tempered with this reality.
Clearly, while reservations are not the final solution, the benefits of this should naturally reach the most needy sections within the OBCs. Introduction of an economic criteria, which the CPI(M) alone had suggested in the Nineties, was mercifully upheld by the Supreme Court in its definition of the ‘creamy layer’. This will have to be integrated with the OBC reservations in higher education.
The CPI(M), while supporting reservations, is engaged in strengthening the struggles on the larger agenda of the economic empowerment of these sections. This alone can render the caste system and the associated caste oppression as an ‘anachronism’ in modern India.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The hard lives of superheroes

Krrish is here, and Superman is flying in faster than a speeding bullet. The superheroes look like they will win a few battles at the box office.
Like most guys I know, I love superheroes. Like most guys, I don’t know why. It’s been many years now since I was in school. I am way past the age when I could allow myself to believe that a nip from a radioactive spider would do me wonders. Yet here I am, a journalist and a hardbitten cynic, getting all excited about alleged descendants of aliens.
Is it fascination with the powers they have that still engages the adult me? Or is it fascination with the double life that every superhero, inevitably a tortured soul, must lead? Or is it perhaps some strange satisfaction in seeing one’s version of 'good' triumph?
Perhaps it’s the combination.
The typical tale of every superhero is one of pain. He is always the ordinary guy who comes to have extraordinary powers. He always becomes a superhero in very difficult circumstances. Superman became superman because his planet was destroyed. Batman had it easier; only his family was destroyed. Spiderman’s grandfather died before he became Spiderman.
Every superhero uses his powers to protect the values he believes in. This brings him into conflict with others who have different values, and with his own self. Every superhero is always lonely. For, the superhero must suffer pain and loss to keep his secret even from the few who love his ordinary avatar. He knows he will live a life of danger – does he have a right to endanger those he loves?
Thus Peter Parker, the lonely, shy, gawky, bespectacled boy who is Spiderman, walks away from Mary Jane. Bruce Wayne, the brooding, solitary man who is Batman, must risk looking the rake before his love Rachel. Superman keeps running away from Lois and is eventually ditched by her after a decades long courtship. The Hulk, arguably the angriest superhero of them all, has it all bad – he can’t be with his girl because of the power he has. Our own Krrish is luckier in the end, because he is from Bollywood, but he too lives his entire life until superher-dom in a cloud of loneliness.
Of course the superhero soldiers on with his job of saving the world. That’s why we love them. They have problems, like everyone else. They suffer reverses. Yet when they are down, they find strength within themselves. They have courage to do the right thing. In the end, they always win. It is in this mythical ‘coming good’ of the loser, and the eternal victory of good over evil, that we rejoice.
The philosophical question – what is good – is not so easily answered.
The superhero always stands for the status quo. He stands for preserving the existing order or restoring the old order. He isn’t on the side of revolution. Continuity and incremental change are more to his taste.
Would any superhero support an uprising against the government? Or a new religion? I think not. Those are things villains do. They are the agents of change. They may do evil, but they are potentially catalysts for good. That's why the Kauravas went to heaven, like Ravana.
Obviously, there’s more to superhero stories than meets the eye.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

CPI(M), Casteist Party of India (Mandal)

I'd always thought CPI stood for Communist Party of India, and CPI (M) for Communist Party of India (Marxist). However it now seems that I was mistaken: CPI is the Casteist Party of India and CPI (M) is Casteist Party of India (Mandal).
Communism looks at society in terms of class. It recognises only two basic classes, the bourgeois and the proletariat. Accepting a religiously ordained system of social stratification like caste is quite clearly against the most fundamental principles of communism. Yet that is what both these political parties have done, apparently after much thought. In deciding, time and again, to support the Mandalisation of society, they have betrayed both their hunger for power, and the ideals they pretend to espouse.
Perhaps they were concerned about the fact that their leadership since Independence has been predominantly high-caste. In that case, they should have done something about inner party democracy. They should also have fought to demolish the caste system itself. Instead, they accepted it as a historical reality. By accepting the paradigm of caste, they became followers of Manu and Mandal rather than Marx.
The caste system is an anachronism that needs to be removed from Indian society. This can only be done if the terms in which people identify themselves and one another are changed. Therefore, to begin with, all surnames that indicate a person's caste should be dropped. The so-called communists, instead of supporting certain castes at the expense of others, would do well to start by dropping the caste identifiers from their own names. They can also campaign to motivate others to do the same.
The terms of the debate about equality of opportunity need to be changed. No sensible person would argue against equality ofopportunity. However it is difficult for any sensible person to accept that only people from certain castes are backward, especially considering the absence of empirical data on this. Instead of framing the argument for equality on caste terms, a more modern way to do it would be to devise and apply deprivation indices to the population. If the communists are indeed concerned about the backward classes, they ought to have no problems with all backward people being identified as such, regardless of caste.
If after identifying the backward in a scientific manner, it is found that a certain percent of the population, say 27 per cent, need a helping hand from the government and society, they should be given all help. It may be that they are all from the same castes currently recognized as OBC or SC; no matter. My argument is with the nomenclature.
Development experts should chalk out the best strategy to ensure that each of them can develop their talents to the fullest. This will probably entail good school education and a revamp of the entire school system in India. It is a mammoth task, but it needs doing.
This prescription is of course no panacea. However it has what I consider a significant merit: It is not derived from any 'ism'.
When a person is seriously ill, he or she only wants to get cured. He does not care whether the doctor curing him is Hindu or Muslim, allopath or homeopath. He is likely to try everything. His interest is in whatever works for him. Similarly, a backward person will be interested in whatever helps him deal with or overcome his situation. The solution may come from socialism, communism, capitalism or religion – to him the theory matters far less than the cure.
Yet the people who have to provide the cures can't think outside their boxes. They are allopaths or homeopaths, communists, or capitalists, or fundamentalists, or something. These types often genuinely believe that their cure is the best cure – or even the only cure – and try to apply their medicine to all situations. They are angry when it does not work, or others disagree.
It would benefit humankind if all the believers of all the 'isms' learnt to apply their minds to solving problems, instead of trying to prove the superiority of their pet theories in addressing every problem.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

That Studied Look

There’s nothing on earth that a ‘study’ hasn’t already studied. There’s also nothing that a study has proved, that another, appropriately funded, cannot disprove.

A study recently proclaimed that drivers of white cars are ‘status-seeking extroverts’. Black cars are apparently driven by aggressive, rebellious types. So for the first time in recorded history, we have a satisfactory explanation for taxi driver behaviour.

However the bit about white cars seems a little iffy. White cars cost less than the other colours, which is a damn good reason for people to buy them.

The best personality is apparently that of pink car drivers. These are ‘gentle, fun-loving and affectionate’ people. I would have rushed to get my car painted bright pink to proclaim my fun-loving nature, but I’m afraid it might send the wrong signals.

I guess there’s only one solution. We white car owners must fund a study to prove that we are the nicest people on four wheels.

There are a few other issues to clear as well. For example, a study on the ‘Reactions of felines to bearded men’ proved that cats don’t like bearded men. The methodology consisted of holding cats in front of photos of bearded men and checking their response. If I remember correctly, they had done this to a few thousand cats before the animal rights people got in on the act and stopped the study on grounds of cruelty to animals. Every bearded man with a pet cat therefore has a moral responsibility to contribute one day’s salary towards research that proves that their cats love them.

The air-conditioning properties of the beard have also been studied. A gentleman who shaved off the beard from the right half of his face, while leaving the rest intact, found that the bearded side felt warmer.

Now somebody’s gone and done research to prove that keeping the cell phone in the trouser pocket makes men impotent. This came after research that proved that keeping the cell phone in the shirt pocket sends the heart into a tizzy, and holding it next to the ear fries the brains or something. The thing to do, therefore, is to tow our cell phones behind us on a leash, or start carrying handbags (and driving pink cars).

On the other hand, there’s also great scope to use this impotency property of mobile phones. Considering the billions of dollars being wasted on finding a ‘male pill’, it might be simpler to just ramp up the dose of whatever electromagnetic waves knock sperms out, and market this as the ‘pill mobile – two-in-one fun’. Imagine, India could get its population under control.

The way features are being added on to mobile phones, it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens. There’s already a phone for women that keeps track of their periods and all. I’m not sure how it operates but if it’s selling, it must work.

Of course, mobile vanity is touching new heights as well. These days, if you don’t have a phone with advanced features, people look down upon you like you’re a worm. Anyone who uses the phone for talking is treated like a second-class citizen.

A friend of mine, who has an ancient phone without colour screen, polyphonic ringtones, GPRS, or any of the other things you don’t really need, recently had to put up with some munna mobile quizzing him on his cell phone’s properties. His answer elicited such shock-horror that he had to tell the guy he already had a separate digital camera, and was waiting for a cell phone with a built-in washing machine and microwave.

Paris and Delhi

An old friend wrote from Paris the other day. “Life is wonderful”, he said. “There’s not much work and I stay at home a lot. I watch TV and cook biriyani. I am very good at both. My wife has stopped shouting at me. She shouts at the dog instead. Her taste buds remain French. She would rather have baguette than biriyani.

I am very worried about my driving licence – I don’t have one. These French, I tell you. They charge 1,000 Euros for a driving licence! That’s more than 50,000 rupees. I got my first licence in India when I was 16, and it cost 1,000 rupees. I didn’t even have to go for the test. The money was paid; the licence was home-delivered.

Office is okay. I got out of Kiev the day their presidential election riot was happening. I was worried the flight may be delayed. They now send me brochures and marketing data from Kiev. I suspect it is machine translated. It says things like “turbine excellent give electric wind”. Since I have to sell it here, there is no problem. I don’t know Ukrainian and speak very little French, and my customers don’t know Ukrainian and speak very little English, so I explain the turbine’s operations in sign language. They read the specifications and see the product and figure out the rest.

Everything else is fine except that the biriyani is beginning to show around my waist. I have started morning walks, but it spoils my day to see that the neighbour’s dog has chosen my car to do his poo-poo. It’s always there, just next to the front door. I think I will shoot that dog. Lucky for him I’m from India and not some other part of Asia. Otherwise I would have him on a platter.

You should visit Paris in summer. Life is wonderful out here”.

I wish I could take up his invite.

Life is great in Delhi too, I replied. It’s full of activity. There’s office and there’s home and there’s the adventure of driving between the two. Apart from that, it’s pretty uneventful. I find no time for cooking. And I have cancelled my cable TV connection. There was no time to watch TV. I eat vegetarian food. The fish market is some way off. There’s no time to go shopping for fish. I am suffering from fish deprivation.

For the rest, all is well. I have to make my tax plans. The deadline is near. I go for walks too. I don’t even eat biriyani. Yet my belly insists on looking like it’s well fed. Walking is great, there’s a park just behind my house. In the morning you can see a procession of joggers flowing through it. If you are careful you might avoid bumping into anyone. Today I saw a man in a blue office shirt and cream trousers jogging. It was very funny. I wonder whether he was jogging to office?

There’s only one problem with living in Delhi. Pesky insects are everywhere. It’s growing hot too, but the insects bother me more. There’s a line of ants next to my bed. I have been watching them for two days. Every time I sweep them off, they are back. I have tried to confuse them with turmeric but again they are there, climbing, driving me up the wall.