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COVER STORY

01-09-2017

How free are Indians?

India at 70

Briefing

Cinema

In the south: Local flavour, global reach

C.S. VENKITESWARAN cover-story

The phenomenal success of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, which grossed more than Rs.1,750 crore, is the most recent testament to the strength and potential of “regional”, “vernacular” cinema to create state-of-the-art spectacle that can take on both Bollywood and Hollywood on their own terms. Dubbed into other languages and released across the globe, this “Telugu” film showed that Indian cinema is not just Bollywood but much more diverse and complex than that. Keeping a global audience in mind, the film has no specific regional markers to it but is set in a totally fictional and imaginary space and time. At the same time, it also cleverly plays with certain “pan-Indian” tropes such as racial/casteist prejudices, glorification of macho heroism, and obsession with fair skin.

One major narrative strand of Baahubali 2 is the jealousy and feud between two brothers, the biological child and the adopted one. This sibling rivalry and the warring claims of the brothers over the kingdom could be read as a metaphor for Indian cinema too, where the tussle for the audience market and for the nomenclature “Indian cinema” is between the colossal Bollywood on the one side, which represents the “Indian”, and the various other major cinema industries in India such as Tamil and Telugu on the other, which are dubbed “regional”. If Hollywood is the major opponent for all national cinemas in the world, within the Indian national territory, Bollywood has a similar presence and scale that looms large over the horizons of “vernacular” or “regional” cinemas. So, the sibling rivalry in Indian cinema invariably extends to claims over the Indian cinema kingdom, as its real and authentic inheritor.

Like Baahubali, non-Hindi cinemas in India, despite their proven skills, technical virtuosity and rich lineage, have long been banished to the margins of the empire of Indian cinema and from the status of “national” cinema. They are often called “local”, “vernacular” or “regional” cinema, while Bollywood anoints itself as “Indian”. Sadly, this is reiterated and reaffirmed by Indian film writing, theorising and also history writing, where Hindi cinema occupies the central position around which the whole discourse is spun. It is replicated in the “Indian Cinema” sections, retrospectives and packages in the international film festival circuit too. In effect, Bollywood has been magnified to its present status by brute commercial power as well as by the social acceptance and cultural capital it has accumulated in the post-Independence decades.

Quantity & reach

The language-wise data of the Central Board of Film Certification show that of 1,902 films certified during 2015-16, Hindi tops the list with 340 films, closely followed by Tamil (291), Telugu (275), Kannada (204), Marathi (181), Malayalam (168) and Bengali (149). The rest of the films (294) are made in 34 languages and constitute only 16 per cent of the total. Although, in terms of numbers Hindi cinema constitutes only 18 per cent, with regard to revenue it accounts for 43 per cent! Tamil and Telugu cinemas come next with 19 and 17 per cent respectively, with the rest of the other regional cinemas accounting for only 14 per cent (Deloitte Report on Economic Contribution of Indian Motion Picture and Television Industry, 2016).

According to the Deloitte Report, “South Indian film industry is very vibrant with revenue expected to grow at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 12 per cent reaching over INR 42 billion by 2017. This segment is dominated by Tamil and Telugu films (90 per cent) with 365 films released in 2015…. Tamil and Telugu films have started to gain nation-wide and international popularity.” Obviously the sibling rivalry is gathering storm, and if films like Enthiran and Baahubali are any indication, one can expect south Indian cinema to command more share in terms of revenue too.

The first encounters

The first ever film screening in south India was in Madras (now Chennai) in 1897, just two years after the Lumiere screening in Paris. Within three years, the first ever cinema house in south India, Electric Theatre, was also built. Nataraja Mudaliar made the first feature film in south India, Keechakavadham, in 1917, and the first talkie, Kalidas, came out in 1931. Soon studios came up in Madras, making it the centre of production for films in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam too. The first films in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam appeared in the 1920s, followed by talkies in the next decade.

According to historians, hundreds of silent films were made in Madras and were distributed across south India. But from among them only one film survives: Marthandavarma (1933), a historical made in Malayalam; its print survived as it was seized following a legal dispute over the copyright of the novel on which the film was based.

By 1947, south Indian cinema had already established itself as a full-fledged industry with Madras as its centre. Major studios such as Modern Theatre, AVM, Gemini and Vijaya-Vauhini produced 33 films on an average every year in the 1940s and around 151 films in the 1950s in all south Indian languages. If south Indian films accounted for 17 per cent of the total number of films in the 1940s, their share shot up to 54 per cent in the next decade. Currently, it is still around 50 per cent; figures for 2016 show that it is 938 films out of 1,902 made in the country.

In the period up to 1947, when cinema was a new medium carving a space for itself, it resorted to picturising narratives that were already popular and known; most of the films made during this period in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada were based on the puranas, the epics, folk tales and stories about saints. According to N. Kalyanaraman, “the talkie cinema in its initial years availed of the pre-existing cultural resources in society, namely, drama troupes and their personnel. It also drew on the collective memory of society in the form of the mythological to establish itself in the popular imagination.” Malayalam cinema, comparatively a latecomer on the scene, was an exception to this. Following the trends in theatre and literature of the times, which was heavily influenced by social realist themes and the search for indigenous realism, the Malayalam film scene was dominated by “socials”. In each language, movies, even while following the same montage styles and mise en scene patterns, explored stories that were in conversation and continuity with other narrative mediums and also the sociopolitical and economic forces at work in society.

Decades of self-respect and self-criticism

By 1950, major studios in Madras were churning out films in all the four major south Indian languages. Since they all used the same talent pool of technicians, studio sets, post-production units, labs and other facilities, their visual language, editing patterns, lighting, indoor settings, background score, music, songs, and so on, had a lot of features in common. As films from all the languages often shared the sets, especially of indoors, and used the same music scores for songs and dance, they had the same look, sound and feel. But with regard to their major thematic concerns and stories, they drew from local literature and theatre. In all cinemas, there was also an intense feeling of cultural and linguistic identity that had a constant and sometimes uneasy engagement with the dominant idea of the Indian nation that circumscribed, contextualised and complicated their political vision.

In the years before and after Independence, a number of films fired by the nationalist ethos and the spirit of the freedom struggle were made in all the languages (here too, Malayalam remains an exception). Apart from mythological and saint films that had both spiritual and social implications, those dealing explicitly with social evils such as untouchability, and economic issues like poverty, conflicts of urbanisation, and confrontations with modernity were also made. But in each State, an amalgam of erstwhile princely states and presidencies, these themes and issues took different cinematic avatars, with wide differences in emphasis and priorities, depending on intra-State issues of various kinds like caste equations, regional power balance and economic divides. Likewise, cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi have also played a major role as the setting and stage of film narratives.

The changing role and status of these cities in their respective cinemas document the history of the region within the nation, the effects and affects of the development agenda in the post-Independence decades, and their effects upon spatial geography and human survival. Another significant factor that contributed to regional diversity is the diaspora community of each language which influenced the cinemas in a big way, both as financiers and as overseas market. Tamil cinema has a huge following from its diaspora spread all over the country and the world, which is the case with Telugu too, while it is very limited in the case of Kannada. For Malayalam, since the 1970s the Gulf migrants have been a consistent source of investment.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the emergence of the first generation of superstars such as Sivaji Ganesan and M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil, Sathyan and Prem Nazir in Malayalam, N.T. Rama Rao and Nageswara Rao in Telugu, and Rajkumar in Kannada. At the national level, an array of public institutions and arrangements came into being during this period: the Film Finance Corporation, the Film & Television Institute of India, the National Film Archives of India, the National Film Awards, and the International Film Festival of India. These institutions, for the first time, recognised cinema as an art form worth teaching and promoting and as a national cultural heritage worth preserving. The impact of these institutions began to be felt pronouncedly in the next decades—especially by recognising and showcasing the best of “regional” cinemas at the national level every year and through funding some of the landmark films which produced some of the most creative artists and technicians who made significant contributions in the next decades.

By the 1960s, in all languages, “socials” emerged as the most popular genre, focussing on social issues of various kinds within the imaginary of the nation. It necessarily had an idealist hero, and sometimes a heroine, at the centre of the narrative, and its conflicts were elaborated and played out in the arena of the community and family, which was under severe stress in its confrontations with modernity and urbanisation.

The decades of anger and despair

By the late 1960s and early 1970s there were conscious efforts on the part of State governments to relocate their film industry from Madras to their own States, by creating sufficient facilities and giving subsidies to promote local industry. This not only relocated the industry but also facilitated “localisation” of the narratives, bringing into the visual field different locales, cityscapes and architecture that gave the films a more authentic look and feel. Freed from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the studios, cinema in many languages returned to the villages. Film-makers such as Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, P.N. Menon, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Bapu, K. Viswanath, Jandhyala, Vamsi, B.R. Panthulu, Puttanna Kannagal, B.V. Karanth, K.S. Murthy and R. Ramamurthy brought into the glamorous and melodramatic world of cinema a certain rural rusticity and realistic aesthetic. Their stories were about people who yearned to break the shackles of the past and become citizens of a modern, secular nation.

Such localisation, while individualising cinemas, limited the synergic interactions and exchanges that used to happen in the earlier decades through remakes, and also the release in other States of films dubbed into those languages. But it helped the development of film music in a big way. Singers, music directors and lyricists in each language experimented boldly with folk, classical, Western and pop music, mixing and tweaking them to create a secular and modern musical experience. In many cases, more than the films themselves, the songs lasted in public memory far longer through radio and, later, television.

If cinema of the two post-Independence decades were that of idealist protagonists who represented society, community or certain class, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of a generation of angry young men who were disillusioned, lonely and frustrated with the system. Actors such as Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan and Ambarish, Mammootty and Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna gave body and voice to the angst and anger of the angry decades. The institutional initiatives in the earlier decades gave birth to a radical transformation in the film idiom and narrative styles in many languages, resulting in an “Indian new wave” of sorts. But its impact was not uniform across south India.

If institutional funding and national and international recognitions, along with art movements and institutions at the State level, triggered a host of films and film-makers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Pattabhirama Reddy and Girish Kasaravalli in Malayalam and Kannada, its impact was minimal or feeble in the other two cinemas, which continued with their emphasis on commercial and entertainment quotients. It was a time when the industry was shifting from black and white to colour; these new film-makers produced a slew of films that captured the angst and anger of the times. There was a sense of despair and despondency in the air, and films resonated with the political turmoil of the period. If in Malayalam it was a curious mix of existentialism and political extremism, in Karnataka the art films of the period were devastating critiques of tradition and the feudal order. In Tamil, film-makers such as Jayakanthan and K. Balachander looked at the moral degeneration and decay of the middle class and the despairs of urbanisation.

Cine-politics

Apart from the rise of the so-called “new wave” in various languages, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the rise of cine-politics in the south. One of the most striking features of south Indian cinema that fascinates and intrigues political scientists and film scholars is the curious relationship between cinema and politics in south Indian States. Except for Kerala, in all other States, film stars have had a huge impact on politics in the post-Independence decades, which scholars like Madhavaprasad terms “cine-politics” where “a virtual political community is forged between a star and his fan following”. C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and Vijayakanth in Tamil Nadu, N.T. Rama Rao and Chiranjeevi in Andhra Pradesh, and Rajkumar in Karnataka had a huge following both in the film and in the political arena. If the MGR persona was built through a careful calibration of the image of a people’s leader, it was a different story in Andhra Pradesh where N.T. Rama Rao built his political image through mythological and folklore films. Although Rajkumar never launched a party of his own, he wielded immense influence over public opinion, which was evident when he came out in open support of the Gokak agitation which demanded primacy for the Kannada language in education and administration.

In Tamil Nadu, if cinema was used as a medium to propagate anti-caste politics of the Dravidar Kazhagam among the masses in the early period, later the image capital accumulated by stars began to dominate and direct the political scene. If cinema followed politics earlier, it was the other way round later. Such political mobilisation was made possible through fan clubs (another south Indian phenomenon) that were already active, which, when the stars became politicians, transformed themselves into party branches of sorts.

Curiously, it was in the post-Emergency period that cine-politics began to make real headway. Nehruvian ideals were losing their sheen, and the state had shown, even though briefly, its authoritarian face during the Emergency. Why it happened only in certain States is intriguing, but as Madhavaprasad points out, “the phenomenon of cine-politics makes a vital difference to our understanding of Indian political history, and demands that we return to the drawing board to reconceptualise the political order we inhabit.

Given the context of the supranational identity of India, other national identities are obliged to express themselves indirectly. The virtual political orders produced by cinema serve this specific function. In the moment of their transition from such virtual politics into real political processes in historical time, stars and their political parties participated in and contributed to the emerging trend across the country towards the assertion of regional autonomy against central dominance. They helped to institute, within these realms, alternative sovereignties through which demobilised populations attained subjecthood” ( Cine-Politics, pages 26-27). Obviously, this observation about cine-politics closely resonates in the field of film economy, too, where Bollywood plays the role of the centre pushing all other cinemas to seek alternative sovereignties.

Actor duos

Another interesting feature of south Indian cinema has been the rise and popularity of male actor duos. This was especially prominent in the “analog”, pre-television decades prior to the 1990s. By the 1960s, when the cinema industry struck deep roots with the rural electrification programme and the coming of large theatre networks across the region, stars began to emerge and became the most prominent selling point. Along with it, there arose male star “duos” such as M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, N.T. Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageswara Rao, Sathyan and Prem Nazir, followed by Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, Mammootty and Mohanlal, and Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna. Among them, one star embodied the macho, idealist, swashbuckling and sometimes mythical figure, while the other was the melodramatic, romantic and tragic hero. If one was a masculine crusader and patriarch, the other was vulnerable and fragile. In a way, the persistence of these duos points towards society’s ambivalence towards sexuality and the inner conflicts within a male imagination about women that is caught between the patriarch who yearns to protect and rule, and the romantic, who loves to care and share. Interestingly, Kannada cinema may be the only exception to this, maybe because of the predominance of Rajkumar, who ruled over the film narrative world, donning all the roles.

Interestingly, women and family played a central role in the narratives that shaped the duo—it is within the imaginary of family, society and community that these men proved their mettle and settled scores, won wars and loves, and fought evils and wrongs. But since the 1990s, most probably with the emergence of television as the most pervasive visual entertainment medium, the centrality of film narratives, and the power of film heroism in the public imagination gradually eroded. Certain communalist macho heroes emerged onscreen. They were from certain caste groups in rural areas or from the underbelly of the urban jungle, and they were like lone wolves venting their masculine frustrations upon a hostile world that neither cared for rural solidarities, nor provided them urban anonymity and freedom.

The conquistadors who went north

Interestingly, while male actors mostly stuck to their languages, female actors from south India made victorious and glamorous forays into other cinemas, especially Hindi. Sarada, Lakshmi, Sreevidya, Silk Smitha, Nayantara and Bhavana acted in several south Indian language films, while others such as Padmini, Vyjayantimala, Rekha and Sridevi made it big in Hindi cinema too. Likewise, many film-makers from the south were multilingual film-makers who were at ease with several languages. In the 1950s, film-makers such as S.S. Vasan found greener pastures in Hindi with spectacles like Chandralekha that left the nation spellbound. In the next generation, directors K.S. Sethumadhavan and K. Balachander, both of whom made successful films in all south Indian languages, made forays into Hindi, turning out hits like Julie and Ek Duje Ke Liye. In the 1990s, talented film-makers such as Maniratnam, Ram Gopal Varma and Priyadarshan migrated to Hindi and made a significant impact on the industry. Their films were not mere spectacles, but those which dared to explore very sensitive subjects and thematic territories. Maniratnam films Roja, Bombay, Dil Se and Kannathil Mutthamittal dealt with burning issues like the communal divide in the post-Babri Masjid years, separatist movements in Kashmir and north-eastern India, and the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. In films such as Shiva, Satya, Rangeela, Company and Drohi, Ram Gopal Varma delved into the dark, violent world of student politics, urban gangsters and mafia gangs. Priyadarshan created a niche for himself with a series of comedy films like Hera Pheri, Chup Chup Ke, Bhagam Bhag and Malamaal Weekly. Most of them were remakes of successful Malayalam films. But in the new millennium, this trend seems to have been reversed, with big-time directors like Shanker and Rajamouli making films primarily in their own languages and packaging them as multilingual productions targeting a national and global market.

The era of liberalisation & television

Economic liberalisation led to the retreat of the state from several vital areas of the economy and culture, and the entry of private television channels in many ways transformed the Indian film industry and its old revenue models. With a plethora of television serials entering homes, cinema encountered a serious threat in many of the thematic terrains, especially the family dramas that used to sustain it. Though television provided yet another source of revenue and publicity, cinema had to reinvent itself thematically and visually in order to lure its audiences from home to the theatre. There was a shift towards the big and the spectacular; and the male star began to gain more machismo and power. It was as if television became female and cinema, male. An era was coming to an end and a new set of young directors and actors entered the scene during this period.

Breaking away from the narrative modes and mores of the earlier decades, the films of the post-globalisation decades had a new, violent vigour to them. Whether set in an urban or rural milieu, their heroes were from the underclass, gangsters or revenge-seekers who functioned outside civic institutions and morality. They were free of the social, political and moral obligations and allegiances of their predecessors. The most glaring visual symbol of this shift is the all-pervasive presence of the aruval (the long-handled machete) that glorified and propagated the mythology of a community based on martial pride and honour. Interestingly, this so-called Madurai genre of films had its imitators in all south Indian languages. Equally violent and macho notions about honour, especially with regard to “ownership” of women, became popular among the youth. In a way, they seem to embody certain angry reactions against a world that was changing beyond recognition, where village economies and allegiances were crumbling, with the new urban formations not giving any scope or space for a better life.

Shifts in focus

In the new millennium, with the shift from analog to digital, there has been a radical change in all areas of film-making. The facility to work with small crews and ease of access to technology spurred a lot of young film-makers to work outside the mainstream and experiment with the medium. One finds a new generation of film-makers in all languages who are able to develop a visual idiom and thematic terrains of their own. Bala, Mysskin, Sasikumar, Vettrimaran, Amshan Kumar, Pa Ranjith, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, Vipin Vijay, Sudevan, Rajeev Ravi, Aashiq Abu, and Dileesh Pothen, Rama Reddy, Pawan Kumar, Lingadevaru and Rakshit Shetty explore the inner and outer, personal and social, political and casteist conflicts of life in India in post-globalisation times.

What is evident is a shift in focus from the nation to the region, and to the sociopolitical and caste dynamics within States, which itself is a federation of erstwhile princely states and colonial territories. For instance, M.K. Raghavendra describes the narrative terrains of contemporary Kannada cinema thus: “On the subject of how Kannada cinema regards Karnataka today, one could say that the state is segmented into three partly overlapping territories and while the first territory (‘the region’) is the geographic space once constituting princely Mysore, the second is apparently Bangalore/Bengaluru. Kannada cinema today regards as its major constituency those with their roots in the first territory but economically dependent on Bengaluru. The third territory is constituted by the Kannada-speaking areas excluded by the first two, territory that Kannada cinema has generally declined to address.” Likewise, the narratives on and about Telangana have a different story to tell within the contours of the linguistic territory of Telugu.

Another major thematic area coming to the fore recently is the life and experiences of other genders that were either ridiculed in or erased from the narrative world. The past decade saw many films going beyond heterosexual horizons and into the lives and experiences of other genders. The after-effects of rampant urbanisation, displacement caused by “development” and migration for livelihood, and, more importantly, subtle ways in which caste persists in our lives today and so on constitute other major themes in films today.

So, films such as Baahubali, even when they make phenomenal commercial success and command immense popularity, do not represent or connect with any specific locality or cultural history. The crisis of the local and regional in globalised times is that its own audience is hooked on the global; as a result, film-makers of the local find it difficult to talk to the local, for the latter’s tastes, expectations and notions about technical excellence are moulded and ruled by consumption of global products. So, if any kind of alternative cinema is to survive, they need to create new narratives of space and time, by bringing everything back to human scale, natural pace and historical moment. If at all alternative cinema is possible, they will have to invent new sites of interaction and modes of interface, supported by fresh critical and theoretical discourses that are historically and politically informed.

There is no doubt that very interesting and provocative films are being made in all languages, but for these individual adventures to transform themselves into a common journey, there is a need to initiate intercultural dialogues and create solidarities across genres, languages, cultures and boundaries. This is all the more important in our times, when cultural diversity and freedom of expression are under severe threat from global-scale revenue models in economy, authoritarian political projects and monolithic notions about life, society and the world.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic.

Gender Issues

A silent struggle against inequality

JAYATI GHOSH cover-story

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WOMEN were significant participants in the national movement. Leaders such as Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kripalani, Kalpana Dutt Joshi, Bhikaji Cama and Aruna Asaf Ali became emblematic of the freedom struggle. But even more than their presence, there was widespread involvement of ordinary women from different walks of life in different regions. Many of them came out of their homes into “public life” for the first time, often inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who made their participation an important part of his own political strategy of non-violent non-cooperation.

Inevitably, these women would have had their own notions of freedom: their goals would have been somewhat different from those of their male counterparts, and their expectations of living in a newly independent country must have been coloured by their very unequal and often oppressive social and economic circumstances. But it may still be safe to say that the writers of the Constitution did manage to encapsulate many of the hopes and dreams of the women of the time.

Consider what the Constitution offered: explicit recognition of equality before law and rejection of any kind of discrimination, including on grounds of gender, along with empowering the state to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women, to neutralise the cumulative socio-economic, educational and political disadvantages they faced. Article 16 promised equality of opportunity for all citizens (and, therefore, for all women) in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state; Article 39(a) noted that the state should direct its policy towards securing for men and women equally the right to an adequate means of livelihood; and Article 39(d) stressed equal pay for equal work for both men and women. Several other provisions took note of the need to provide dignity and empower women in various ways. Over time, other legislation banned traditional customs and practices that were clearly unjust and discriminatory, such as dowry and child marriage.

So far, so positive, and if these declarations had been mostly or even substantially fulfilled, the granddaughters of those millions of women of 1947 would today be living their dream. After all, seven decades is a reasonably long time in the life of a country, and should be more than enough to effect significant progress along the lines of the announced social contract. So how far have things actually changed for Indian women in this period?

Equality before law has certainly existed as a basic principle, but it has not been accompanied by equally just implementation; and both the letter of the law and its functioning have not conformed to the basic spirit of the Constitution. In the absence of a systematically codified set of laws recognising and providing remedies for various kinds of gender discrimination, women’s equality before law has had to be interpreted through case law, which has on occasion provided surprising and unfavourable outcomes. This has been true of the personal laws affecting marriage and divorce, as well as laws relating to inheritance and property. It is true that over the years various laws have been enacted for equal remuneration, maternity benefits for working women, rape, dowry deaths and the like. But it is also unfortunately true that these laws are still honoured mostly in the breach, and a sense of impunity still characterises many perpetrators of such crimes.

The workings of the criminal justice system, and indeed of the civil courts, are replete with instances of blatant gender discrimination that severely limit women’s access to justice, especially for women from poor and disadvantaged contexts. Meanwhile, the persistence and even increase in acts of violence against women may be partly a result of increased awareness and willingness of the survivors to go public, but the apparent increase in the brutality of such crimes suggests that other darker social forces may also be at work. Certainly, we must admit that in India, we are still very far from ensuring safe, free and just legal and social spaces for most women and girls to live, work and achieve their potential as creative and empowered human beings.

In terms of some of the most basic demographic indicators, there is obvious improvement. Average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled for women, from an estimated 32 years around 1950 to nearly 70 years today. In fact, women’s life expectancy at birth was actually lower than that for men until the late 1970s; thereafter it changed, with higher numbers for women. But women are known to have better survival chances than men, and the gap in India is still lower than in developed countries or even countries with similar per capita income.

Much of this decline in mortality rates is due to the decline in infant mortality rates, which have fallen from more than 150 per 1,000 live births in 1950 to around 40 in recent years. But gender gaps in neonatal mortality (before the age of one month) remain high, and have even increased slightly over the past decade.

Maternal mortality rates (MMR) have also fallen; they were estimated to be around 1,300 per 100,000 live births but are now around 170. This is certainly a big decline, but in fact it is not nearly big enough: India is one of the few countries to have failed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality by 75 per cent compared to its 1990 level, which would have implied an MMR (at the national level) of 103 at most. The country has the shameful distinction of accounting for the highest number of maternal deaths in the world (around 17 per cent), 10 times the number in China, even though China still has a larger population of women of child-bearing age.

This poor performance in maternal mortality is an indicator of broader failures that show that progress in improving the conditions and status of Indian women has been limited and uneven. Indeed, other human development indicators show the persistently low status of women and girls in society, which is then reflected in many related features. Death due to childbirth is often related not just to lack of adequate medical facilities and prenatal care, but also to poor nutrition. The relative paucity of proper and affordable health care is one of the big failures of Indian development, but it also has a strong gender dimension, with women, especially poorer women in rural and more backward areas, routinely denied access to these basic services, including for reproductive health.

Women and girl children in India continue to exhibit some of the worst nutritional outcomes, similar to or worse than some least developed countries where per capita incomes are much lower. The proportion of women with anaemia is nearly double the global average. This is obviously related not only to the aggregate insufficient calorie consumption among poor households, but to disparate intra-household consumption patterns, through which women and girl children eat less in terms of quantity and quality, not only because of deprivation but because of self-denial.

Another reason for high maternal mortality is early age at childbirth and this remains a persistent concern because of early marriage of girls. The average age at marriage has certainly gone up in India. Yet, even now 61 per cent of all women are married before the age of 16 and half of them have their first pregnancy before 19.2 years.

Sex ratio and son preference

Perhaps the demographic indicator that reveals most starkly the continued inferior position of women in Indian society is the sex ratio (the number of women per 1,000 men). Globally, the sex ratio stands at around 984. But in India, it was an abysmal 940 in 2011. What is even more shocking is that this sex ratio has actually deteriorated since Independence; it was estimated to be 946 in the 1951 Census. The ratio is worse in urban areas (926) than in rural areas (947) and typically lower in higher income locations and among upper castes compared with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The child sex ratio (for the age group 0-6 years) is even worse, and has fallen further from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011, pointing to the effects of the combination of son preference among families across the subcontinent and newly available technologies that have combined to prevent female births, and greater neglect of girl infants compared to boys in the early phases of life. Incidentally, son preference also casts a shadow on other institutions like marriage: data from the India Human Development Surveys reveal that women with no children or only daughters were twice as likely to face divorce or separation than women with only sons.

Female literacy

Education appears to be one area of progress compared to 70 years ago, but here too the progress has been far too delayed, limited and slow, and indeed very poor compared to most developing countries. Female literacy rates have improved over the past decades, but at 65 per cent in 2011, they were still well below the global average of 80 per cent. Girls’ enrolment in primary education has improved significantly to be near-universal today, but around one-third of girls now in their teens and early 20s were never enrolled in schools. Dropout rates remain high and there are significant gender gaps in dropout, especially by the time the age of middle school is reached. Most surveys suggest that families find that schooling for girls beyond the most basic level is “not necessary” or “too expensive”, or that “the school is too far away”, while some simply claim that the child “is not interested”. The inability to ensure that every child receives full good-quality elementary education, despite all the grandiose promises made immediately after Independence, is shocking in any case, but it affects girls and young women severely.

But if all these were not proof enough of the deep and pervasive gender inequality that still persists in India, the evidence on employment must be clinching. India always had a very low recorded work participation rate for women by global standards, including when the first employment surveys were conducted in the early 1950s. Thereafter, successive surveys by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) have shown hardly any increase in these low rates, which have been marked by a depressing stability over the “socialist planning” as well as the neoliberal reforms phases of economic and social policy. But shockingly, for the most recent period for which such data are available, women’s work participation rates actually showed a significant decline from 28.2 per cent of women aged 15 years or more in 2004-05, to as low as 21.6 per cent in 2011-12. This was mostly because of a decline in the number of recorded rural women workers, particularly those classified as self-employed in agriculture.

This makes India truly unusual, possibly even unique, in both comparative terms as well as in historical terms. It is hard to think of any other society whose economy has apparently been growing rapidly for nearly three decades, where women’s work participation has not only not increased but actually fallen.

Various explanations have been offered for this, including rising real wages that have allowed women in poor households to avoid or reduce involvement in very physically arduous and demanding work with relatively low wages and instead focus more on “domestic duties”. There have also been arguments about the loss of access to common property resources that allowed women to work collecting plants and herbs, as well as mechanisation of agriculture that is paradoxically typically associated with women losing work once it becomes less physically demanding and arduous. In any case, there is the point that whatever occurred in agriculture, other forms of recognised employment for women in other sectors like industry and services simply did not increase enough to make a dent.

Unpaid work

But there is another deeper point. Work, including paid and unpaid work, defines the conditions of human existence in fundamental ways. Social recognition and valuation of the work that is performed by different categories of people is an important reflection of the value that societies attach to the people who perform it. So, low recorded work participation of women is often a reflection of the low status of women in society, since the huge amount of unpaid labour that they perform is simply not recognised.

This is confirmed by the same NSSO surveys that recognise various categories of people who are described as “not in the labour force”. These include (in addition to those in educational institutions and those who are too old or sick to work) those engaged in what has been called social reproduction. Specifically, two categories are of relevance here: Code 92, which refers to those who attend to domestic duties in unpaid fashion within the home, and Code 93, covering those who attend to domestic duties and are also engaged in free collection of goods (vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed, etc.), sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc. for household use. It is obvious that these are all economic activities, and would be recognised as employment, if they led to any payment. But since they are unpaid, those who do such work are not even recognised as being productively employed.

Once these categories are included in the definition of work, then the picture changes dramatically. Firstly, instead of women’s participation rates being less than half those of men, they turn out to be higher (at 86.2 per cent, compared to 79.8 per cent for men). Secondly, there is less evidence of a significant decline in women’s work participation in recent times. Indeed, the decline in male work participation appears to be stronger than that for women, and both declines can then be explained dominantly by increasing involvement in education. So the basic shift in recent times has been the shift of women from paid or recognised employment to unpaid work. And most of this shift has been in Code 93, that is, women are forced to engage in various activities such as fetching firewood and water for household consumption, because of the failure of the state to provide basic infrastructure and amenities, in addition to the denial of adequate affordable care services.

This provides a huge, and unnoticed, subsidy to the economy, whereby the unsung contributions of women workers are critical in underwriting the very existence of society as well as the rapid output growth. But it also has adverse implications for those women who do engage in paid work. Where there is a large amount of unpaid work that is performed in a society and where the bulk of that is performed by women, the participation of women in paid work tends to be much more disadvantaged. Since the unpaid labour performed by women in “domestic duties” is not remunerated, and often not even recognised, it is easier for society to undervalue such work in general as well as other paid work performed by women. And this, in turn, leads to lower wages and worse working conditions, so the very existence of the unpaid-paid work continuum affects not only the bargaining power of paid women workers, but also social attitudes towards them and to their work, and indeed their own reservation wages and self-perception. So it is hardly surprising that the gender gap in wages in India is among the highest in the world and that women workers tend to be concentrated in the most low-paid, vulnerable and insecure jobs with poor working conditions.

This is not to say that conditions are so stark for all women in the country. There is a huge amount of diversity, not only across urban and rural areas but across different States, socio-cultural groups and income classes. And there has been substantial progress for particular groups of more privileged women and girls. But in a broader sense, the promises that inspired the enthusiastic participation of so many women in the national movement have remained unfulfilled.

The question then must be: why has this been the case? Some of this reflects deep patriarchal structures in Indian society, which combine with other forms of social discrimination and hierarchy (such as caste) to create complex inequalities that are not easy to change. But Indian capitalism has also relied on such inequality and used the segmented labour markets that it provides to benefit from cheaper labour and allow greater surplus extraction. That is why, even in the more recent phase of liberalised markets and rampant profit orientation, the system has continued to perpetuate, both explicitly and implicitly, some of the more egregious forms of gender discrimination.

Changing this requires much more than pious statements about women’s empowerment: it would require not just changes in mindset but a huge transformation in the approach to economic development and policies.

Trade Union Movement

Victims of the neoliberal order

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

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“Whither trade unionism” and “whither trade unions” are among the most popular posers that trade unions and their leaderships face today. As India’s independence nears the completion of 70 years, there is a notion that trade unions and trade unionism are now passe and that new forms of mobilisation are required. Trade unions are thought to have failed to organise the unorganised sector and are in need of reinventing themselves; more significantly, trade unions and trade union activity are said to be disruptive in the agenda of development. This view has gained currency not only nationally but also internationally despite the fact that workers continue to organise themselves in myriad ways and raise fundamental questions of livelihood and basic survival. Their peaceful struggles and the issues they flag are mostly ignored in the mainstream media. Over the last few years, some State governments have actively collaborated with managements in breaking strikes, making registration of unions difficult and diluting demand notices.

In the United States, the unionisation of Disney World employees to seek increases in hourly wages is the most recent case of new forms of unionisation and worker mobilisation. With seven decades of Independence behind them, trade unions in India find themselves grappling with many fundamental issues, including that of getting the government to implement the minimum wage, and even graver challenges, this time not from a colonial entity but from Indian industry and the corporate sector that seem to enjoy the unbridled support of the government, which is driven with the agenda of “ease of doing business”.

On August 8, 10 central unions resolved at a national convention at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium to intensify their joint and individual struggles against the “authoritarian character of the government”. They had a 12-point charter of demands, including a demand for a pension of Rs.3,000 for the entire working population. The charter demanded universal social security to all workers, a universal public distribution system and strict enforcement of labour laws and punitive measures for their violation. It called for an end to disinvestment and strategic sale in Central and State public sector undertakings (PSUs). It demanded that workers in permanent or perennial employment should not be put on the contractual system and that workers on contract should be paid wages on a par with regular workers for the same kind of work. It called for removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility for bonus and compulsory registration of trade unions within 45 days from the date of submission of the application and immediate ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98. The convention ended with a call against all labour law amendments. A three-day protest will be held in November, which might get converted into an indefinite protest. “We have had to constantly reinvent ourselves. If we feel that a one-day protest isn’t enough, we take it forward and sometimes it can be an indefinite one, too,” explained Amarjit Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).

Trade unions in India today face a peculiar situation. They not only have to resist the dilution of labour laws and defend the gains made over the years for the organised sector, gains that accrued with the enactment of various labour laws, but have to organise sections of the precariat (the precarious proletariat especially in the unorganised sector), made vulnerable by the nature and terms of employment in present-day India. The overlying proof that Indian trade unionism is still active and relevant can be seen in the unionisation of “scheme workers”—a category of workers recruited to implement government programmes, who receive a paltry honorarium and no social or job security. “Twenty four hours” is the code word used to describe such workers employed in various such scheme-based programmes of the government like the Integrated Child Development Services or the Midday Meal scheme. It denotes that they are employed only for 24 hours and can be sacked any time.

In India, the period before Independence and post-Independence until 1991, was a phase when trade unions were respected and feared. Since 1991, trade unions have been ignored, tripartite dialogue has been sidestepped and tripartite decisions have been put on the back burner. Yet, the post-1991 period saw greater solidarity among central trade unions, cutting across political hues, and with individual trade union support sometimes contingent on the nature of the political party ruling at the Centre. The government today recognises 12 trade unions on the basis of their strength.

The organisation of the Indian working class into trade union activity predates Independence. It coincides with the industrial revolution in Britain and the spread of capitalism outside Britain and in the rest of Europe. Sukomal Sen’s Working Class of India: History of Emergence and Movement, 1830-1970 describes the political and economic backdrop that shaped the growth of trade unions and trade union activity before Independence and for five decades thereafter. Sen wrote about the “overpressure on the agrarian economy” and the growth of Indian industry that laid the context for the emergence of the Indian working class, its development and the “intricate problems connected with it”. Sen did not live to see the farmer suicides in the post-1991 period, continuing to date. The agrarian crisis continues in that sense. Rural-to-urban migration persists, with urban slums and industrial ghettos manifesting the nature and extent of the crisis.

“The Swadeshi movement considerably satisfied the urge of the Indian bourgeoisie for industrial entrepreneurship. But the swelling of the ranks of the Indian industrial proletariat in consequence of this phase of industrial entrepreneurship was of cardinal importance in the revolutionary history of India,” wrote Sen. The unified Swadeshi movement before Inndependence was anti-colonial in character unlike the individual one led by the present-day Sangh affiliate, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, whose calls for going “Swadeshi” are couched in nationalistic rhetoric without any road map for self-reliance. One such unique Swadeshi campaign that trade union leaders from the South are familiar with was led by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, also known as Kappalottiya Tamizhan or the Tamil Helmsman. He founded the Swadeshi Stream Navigation Company to break the monopoly that the British had over maritime trade in India.

First labour union

In 1918, the first labour union was formed with the founding of the Madras Labour Union by B.P. Wadia. It was, as Sen documents in his seminal work, the “first systematic attempt at forming modern trade union organisation in India”. But Wadia himself had a “reformist and constitutionalist” outlook. By 1920, there were already some 125 unions with a total membership of 2,50,000. But the first organisation of the Indian working class at a national level, which arose in the period following the First World War and the October Socialist Revolution, was the AITUC. “The founding session of the AITUC was held in a period when the beginning of the communist movement and the birth of a political party of the Indian working class were yet to take place,” wrote Sen. The AITUC was the fulcrum of all popular struggles.

In 1947, the Congress broke off from the AITUC, which was the united platform until then, and formed the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). The years following the formation of the AITUC, particularly from 1922 to 1926 and after 1928, were trying times for the working class. Indian industry was in recession, partly because of the Montague-Chelmsford reforms which aimed to “preserve the Indian market as an exclusive privileged zone” for the British government. There was a bitter struggle as wages were sought to be reduced, records Sen. According to the statistics brought out by the Royal Commission on Labour, there were strikes mainly on the issue of wages and bonus.

The Railway employees’ agitation for fair wages and bonus in 1974 was a landmark; it culminated in the National Campaign Committee of Railways for Struggle (NCCRS). The 20-day strike involving 17 lakh workers, led by George Fernandes as the president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, was phenomenal. It was put down mercilessly by the then Congress government and thousands were imprisoned. Eventually, the government conceded the demands.

Agitations by workers intensified in the years between 1968 and 1977. A United Council of Trade Unions was formed. In 1977-78, there were attempts to tinker with the Industrial Relations Bill. All trade unions opposed the Bill, recalls A.K. Padmanabhan, president, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). In 1980, a National Campaign Committee was formed, and this included the INTUC and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). The next big joint action was a one-day strike on January 19, 1982, when for the first time trade unions put forth their demands along with those of the peasantry. The demands included remunerative prices for agricultural produce and separate legislation for agriculture to ensure a comprehensive minimum wage for labour that would take into account the cost of living and the calorific need of rural and urban workers. That has not yet materialised.

Trade union leaders such as A.K. Padmanabhan and J.S. Majumdar of the CITU and Amarjit Kaur of the AITUC feel that the impetus given to the public sector played a major role in spurring a strong trade union movement in the years after Independence. Several labour laws were enacted both before and after Independence in favour of workers, though some were problematic as they favoured industry rather than workers. Several pro-worker judgments were also passed in the subsequent years. Notable among them was Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board vs A. Rajappa (1978), in which a seven-judge bench (majority judgment delivered by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer) expanded the definition of industry under the Industrial Disputes Act. The Industrial Relations Bill, introduced in 1978, sought to integrate the Trade Union Act, 1926, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, and introduce a clause that would effectively make it easy for employers to retrench workers and shut down factories without the government’s approval. It could not be carried through as unions resisted it. There were court rulings that held that if minimum wages were not paid, the government had no right to exist. But over the years, there were rulings against holding protests, dharnas and strikes. There were legal restrictions on gate meetings.

Modern-day middleman

The conditions of the working class in the late 19th and early 20th century and the manner of recruitment in factories run by the Britishers were similar to the present-day form of recruitment. Sen writes: “The exploitation of the proletariat was distinguished by features which as a rule, were no longer to be found in the developed capitalist countries and which aggravated the problems of the workers. There was usually a middleman between the workers and employers, who did the recruiting and to some extent paid the workers. He was called by a variety of names: jobber, sirdar, mistri, mukaddam, choudhri, etc. according to the variance of dialect and language in different parts of the country. The undeveloped character of the labour market and the chaotic situation of the economy in general accounted largely for the existence of such middlemen.” Today, these middlemen who recruit the workforce for large sections of industry are commonly called thekedaars and the workers employed through them are called “contract workers” or theka mazdoor.

Despite a law seeking a ban on and regulation of contract labour and multiple judgments favouring workers, including the latest one on treating contract workers on a par with regular workers and applying the principle of equal pay for equal work, contractual labour is commonplace even in perennial forms of employment, including in government departments. For trade unions today, organising contract employees, a good percentage of whom belong to the public sector, is a major challenge. Not only are these workers denied a decent living and a minimum wage, but they are at their employers’mercy. In the aftermath of the November 2016 demonetisation, a large number of them found themselves unemployed, especially as the small- and medium-scale sector transacted mainly in cash.

The regulation of factory conditions in India had not arisen out of any empathy for workers’ conditions. As Sukomal Sen explains, the Indian Factories Act of 1881 was enacted largely in response to the textile magnates of Lancashire “who were faced with an embarrassing competition from their Indian counterparts who had the advantage of cheap labour and arbitrary exploitation of the labourers, whether male, female or child”. Sen writes that “in the background of exploitation on the Indian workers and the resistance they put up against it, the imperialist government was compelled to enact certain labour legislations”. The purpose of the legislation, he says, is to exercise control over the working hours and other conditions of service. But colonial India wanted labour laws to create a permanent workforce for the employers. There was still no regulation of hours, and workers were made to work for 15 to 18 hours at a stretch.

The number of industrial disputes increased between 1951 and 1962. During this period, several social security enactments were made—the Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, the Bonus Act, the Employees State Insurance Act and the Minimum Wages Act. Trade union leaders recall how at the 15th Labour Conference, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was present for the entire duration of the conference. No Prime Minister or even Labour Minister would now do this, notwithstanding the pro-poor rhetoric.

The trade union movement suffered a setback in the first tenure of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when a Ministry for Disinvestment was created for the first time. In the second tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, foreign direct investment (FDI) was allowed in crucial sectors. Meanwhile, several pieces of welfare legislation were enacted for bidi workers, mine workers and brick kiln workers. Trade union leaders do not accept that the central trade unions ignored the unorganised sector. The closure of several traditional industries in textiles and engineering was not because of trade unions, as is commonly assumed, but because they could not modernise and keep up with the competition.

The issue of minimum wage

A formula for calculating the minimum wage was decided at the 15th session of the Indian Labour Conference. The formula, which took into account the calorific requirement of urban and rural India and family sizes, has not been implemented. All trade unions have agreed that Rs.18,000 should be the declared minimum wage with indexation, whereas the government has not agreed to this proposal. Bipartite dialogue between workers and employers is considered the best form of collective bargaining, but wage agreements are never complied with, necessitating tripartite discussions. But even decisions arrived at tripartite bodies and after consensus are not taken forward. Attacks on workers intensified after the 1990s. Televised protests, like that of Honda workers or Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) employees, at least drew some attention to the workers’ plight. Around 150 MSIL workers, all young men, were put behind bars for nearly one and a half years, without bail. More than the company, the government seemed keen to teach the workers and the trade unions a lesson.

Struggles to get labour laws enforced, including those for better wages, continued after Independence. The gradual devaluation of the public sector after the 1990s set the pace for a renewed phase of agitation. Until 1991, the public sector was a model employer. Self-sufficient public sector townships had once provided quality residence and affordable health care and education. Some of the best hospitals were found in these townships. Now, they are reduced to ghost towns.

The NDA government’s latest bid to codify 44 labour laws in four codes to simplify procedures and to facilitate ease of doing business seeks to undo all the gains made in the past. The code on industrial relations, it is learnt, is drafted in such a manner that it will make it impossible to hold strikes. It aims to subsume the Industrial Dispute Act (IDA) and the Trade Unions Act within it. The code on wages attempts to subsume the Payment of Wages Act, the Minimum Wages Act, the Payment of Bonus Act and the Equal Remuneration Act. The amendments to the Factories Act that were carried out in some States exclude the great majority of workers from its ambit by raising the threshold of exemption under the Act. Trade unions have little knowledge of the blueprint of these amalgamated codes. The worst, trade union leaders say, are the amendments to the Apprentices Act, which sets 14 as the minimum age for being engaged as an apprentice. Hours of leave or work shall be at the discretion of the employer. There is no ceiling regarding the number of apprentices an employer can keep and the penalty for violating the Act is a paltry Rs.500.

New challenges

The neoliberal economic policies that were adopted in the decade following 1991 made the unions see the need for a unified struggle. In 1992, owing to the events leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the relations of left-leaning trade unions with the BMS got affected. Barring the INTUC and the BMS, the other trade unions undertook joint action with 16 general strikes from the early 1990s until 2013. The INTUC, despite an initial reluctance, began speaking out during the second tenure of the UPA.

By 2009, there was total unity, which continued until the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. That was the turning point for trade unions, too. As long as there were coalition governments with no single party with a significant majority, the trade unions managed to stave off major changes in social security provisions and other labour laws. The mandate of 2014 changed all that; the government was not interested in listening to the trade unions anymore. Trade union formation had become difficult. Earlier, seven workers could form a union and apply for registration. Now if they attempted to do so, they risked losing their jobs. The entire machinery of the government, from a gentle tilt, had now completely leaned towards the management. The “level playing field” demanded by the Indian corporate sector in the 1990s vis-a-vis foreign companies was now being demanded by the latter so that they could enter crucial sectors like defence. The labour movement and trade unions had another challenge—how to keep the communal virus away from joint class struggles.

In 2015 and 2016, the BMS, which earlier was part of a few joint programmes, opted out of all joint struggles. Yet, the intensity and frequency of trade union actions has been on the rise; the next general strike is planned in 2018. Just as in the period preceding Independence, the industrial workforce was primarily rural in character, comprising artisans who were either landless or whose skills were made redundant by the industrial requirement in that period, the industrial workforce today is also largely rural in character. The trade union movement seems to have expanded from the traditional federations representing the public sector to newer areas including unorganised labour.

Broader solidarities

Trade union leaders opine that there is a concerted effort to weaken and attack the trade union movement. Yet, with more and more sections joining joint struggles, there is a realisation that the employment scenario is only going to get worse. In recent months IT workers in Bengaluru have come out onto the streets to voice their grievances. Stories of worker solidarities seldom make news—whether of students joining trade union protests or CITU workers from Tamil Nadu collecting Rs.5,00,000 for the families of the jailed MSIL workers, or even workers from Hyundai, South Korea, who came to express solidarity with their striking counterparts in India. Trade unions across the board, even those ideologically affiliated to the government, today know that supporting anti-worker policies are untenable for their own survival. The BMS on more than one occasion has been guardedly critical of the government and NITI Aayog on issues of disinvestment and mindless labour reforms. The compulsion has come from below.

A good section of the middle class has been made to believe that all its rights at the workplace have been given willingly by governments. Yet the simmering discontent in all classes, especially the middle and lower classes, cannot be ignored. And if ever there has been a moment for greater trade union relevance, this is it.

Constitution

Composite culture and its discontents

M.P. RAJU cover-story

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HOW much Indian is India’s Constitution? This question is raised by a few on the basis of an allegation that the constitutionalism based on the value of composite culture is alien to Indian traditions and civilisation. Recently, there has been a call from some quarters to frame a substantially different and new Constitution on a purported tradition, culture or religion. This bogey is flogged to life by some now and then.

Last year, Ram Bahadur Rai, a senior Hindi journalist who is the Chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and a former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP) general secretary asserted in an interview with Pragya Singh of Outlook (June 13, 2016) that the present Constitution is “a new testament of our gulaami (slavery)”. He also desired that the 16th Lok Sabha should be converted into a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new Constitution.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has been unhappy with this Constitution and had wanted it to be replaced by Manusmriti (Codes of Manu). Organizer in an editorial (“The Constitution”) on November 30, 1949, specifically expressed it and wrote: “The worst about the new constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it.” M.S. Golwalkar, who was the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS (1940-1973), had expressed similar sentiments in his Bunch of Thoughts (1966), stating that our Constitution has “absolutely nothing, which can be called our own” and that it contained some lame principles drawn from the United Nations Charter and some features from the American and British Constitutions which have been “just brought together in a mere hotchpotch”.

Before and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, there have been instances of booklets being released denouncing the Constitution as “anti-Hindu” and putting forward a prototype of the kind of Constitution visualised by them. On January 14, 1993, RSS leader Rajendra Singh in an interview to Indian Express called for a new Constitution more suited to the ethos and genius of this country since India’s was “not a composite culture”.

Human race as a whole and each civilisation individually have been evolving a few core values as universal values. These were derived from all their constituent cultures and subcultures, including the little ones, through a process of mutual cross-pollination. At the same time, with a few exceptions, even unpopular cultures and their values were permitted and promoted unless they were diametrically opposed to a few publicly accepted universal values. India was no exception and our Constitution is based on the ideal of such a composite culture evolved gradually from very ancient times.

In Article 51A(f) of the Constitution, we have declared a solemn fundamental duty of every citizen to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture. This was the result of an amendment in 1977, but it did not add anything new, reiterating what was already expressed throughout various provisions of the Constitution. For example, with regard to the duty to develop the Hindi language, Article 351 requires the Union to see that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of “the composite culture of India”.

A constitutionalism based on a few universal objectives flowing from the composite culture of India was at the root of the framing of the Constitution. This is exemplified in the words of Dr Rajendra Prasad in the Constituent Assembly: “I will request ….(all) now to stand in their places…”. He was addressing the members of the Constituent Assembly as its President. The Assembly had gathered to frame the Constitution for independent India. India had not yet become independent; nor had it suffered the tragic partition. The Assembly consisted of great persons who represented almost all the different sections and groups in India. Thus, at the threshold of framing the Constitution, the founding mothers and fathers wanted to try whether they could agree on the values and objectives of the Constitution to be framed. This was called the Objectives Resolution. After detailed debate and discussion, the resolution was ready to be passed on January 22, 1947. The members wanted to send a message to posterity on the importance they attached to it. Hence, they decided to pass the resolution, all the members standing.

Thus, at the outset of the framing of the Indian Constitution, the centrality of our composite culture was categorically stressed and declared. The declaration of these composite values as the objectives resolution with a few changes found place in the Constitution when it was finally framed—the Preamble of the Constitution of India.

Sheel and success

More than 4,600 years before the passing of the Objectives Resolution, there was an important occasion which stressed the centrality of composite culture in the theory of governance. We find the narrative in this occasion as an anecdote repeated throughout the history of this subcontinent. The time was pre-Vedic. It certainly came from the collective memory of two distinct groups of peoples and cultures— devas and daityas, or aryas and asuras.

Sheel (virtuous character) consisting of universal values of non-violence ( adroha), compassion ( anugraha) and charity ( danam) came to be accepted by both daityas and devas ( aryas and asuras) as the key to successful and good governance. From the time of the initial rivalry between Aryans and non-Aryans, sheel was considered to be the secret of the success of a king and his governance (Mahabharata 12 (Shantiparva):124:66).

Prahlada, the leader of the asuras, could win the battle over Indra, the leader of aryas, on the strength of the sheel consisting of these values. Indra could win over Prahlada only when Indra could obtain this sheel from Prahlada. This is quoted in Mahabharata as being narrated by Dhritarashtra to his son Duryodhana, the eldest of Kauravas. The importance of sheel as the key to a king’s success being the composite theory of both devas and daityas has been highlighted from the earliest available narratives belonging to the collective memory of our composite culture of this subcontinent. Moreover, the three values of non-violence, compassion and charity were considered to be the main constituents of a constitutional governance flowing from the values of dignity and fraternity.

Like similar civilisations of the world, Indian civilisation had accepted some universal values or principles of conduct as central not only to different aspects of human life, but even to nature. This idea of “rita”, which subsequently got morphed into the concept of dharma, included both cosmic law and social law. This dharma is substantially different from the present popular usage of this term to mean religion.

Fourfold duties

When various Vedic and Brahmanic traditions were agreeing on a few values as universal and fundamental, the Sramanic groups were also developing almost identical values as universal. They were preaching a few values as applicable to all people even though they had been questioning and rejecting some of the values that were being followed in Vedic tradition such as the necessity of performing Vedic yagnyas and animal sacrifices. Among the Sramanic groups of the time Parshvanath (872-772 BCE) had preached four supreme values, which he recommended for all, C haturyama Dharma: the fourfold duties ( ahimsa, satya, asteya and aparigraha). During the Upanishadic period, Rishi Gora Angirasa gave the instructions on the fundamental values to Krishna, son of Devaki, to the extent stating that these values are the real essence of the sacrifice or yagnya (Chandogya Upanisad III/17/ 4): “ atha yat tapo danam arjavam ahimsa satya-vacanam iti, ta asya daksinah” (And austerity, alms-giving, uprightness, non-violence, truthfulness, these are the gifts for the priests). Some authors suggested a close relationship between the Sramanic and Upanishadic teachings of a few fundamental universal values.

In Mahabharata, a composite culture evolving from plurality of lifeways is accepted by Krishna when he explains to Arjuna that according to some people dharma (moral values) is derived from Vedas whereas others hold that dharma (moral values) can be known only through reasoning. Krishna states that he does not want to contradict any of them (Mahabharata, Karnaparva:69:58).

Around 600 B.C. a healthy rivalry was apparent among a number of sects, such as the Charvakas, Jainas and Ajivikas, whose doctrines ranged from pure materialism to determinism. This intellectual liveliness was reflected in the eclectic interests of the Mauryan rulers, since it was claimed by the Jainas that Chandragupta was a supporter and there is evidence that Bindusara favoured Ajivikas. The five precepts taught by the Buddha are almost identical to the universal values arrived at in both the Brahmanic and Sramanic traditions.

We also have this ideal of composite culture prescribing universal obligations, duties common to all, that is, as sadharana dharma or sarvesham without any difference of varna or ashrama, profession or stages of life. Thus, we have in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, considered to be of 4th century B.C., that the duties common to all are non-violence ( ahimsa), truthfulness, uprightness, freedom from malice, compassion and forbearance (Arthashastra 1:3;13).

In ancient India, Asoka, the Mauryan king, was one of the famous rulers who established the importance of universal values in the political realm. He used the term dhamma, or dharma, for these universal values and ideals to be followed by everybody.

According to P.V. Kane, almost all the Dharmashastra works prescribe for all varnas a brief code of morals, such as ahimsa, truthfulness, non-stealing (that is, no wrongful taking of another’s property), purity and restraint of senses. Thus, we see in India, there has been a long tradition of agreeing on a few values as universal ones while acknowledging different values followed by different groups and persons. It is safe to infer that this tradition helped us to arrive at a composite culture as the basis for a constitutionalism.

The Dravidian region has given us examples of an evolution of this composite culture. Chitalai Chathanar’s Tamil poem Manimekalai (sixth century C.E.) is remarkable in its comprehensive treatment of the composite culture of that period. Manimekalai is the eponymous story of a south Indian temple dancer and courtesan, Manimekalai. She decides, with her mother Madhavi, to leave her profession and become an ascetic and pursue the virtue of charity.

Chathanar’s descriptions of different world views through Manimekalai make it explicit that the lifeways or sects which were popular at that period were not solely the religious ones in the modern sense, they included major materialist and non-religious ones, like Lokayatas and Bhutavadis. These were in addition to the Nastik, or heterodox, ones like Nirgranthas and Buddhists on the one side and the Vaiseshikas and Samkhyas on the other. Medieval Bhakti movements of the south and the north are the evolved expressions of the secular or pluralistic character of the Indian society evolving a composite culture. All these movements were popular movements, which can rightly be termed as people’s movements.

The Nath Yogi Gorakh, or Gorakhnath, who lived in circa 11th or 12th century, gives examples of the concept of composite culture: By birth [I am] a Hindu, in mature age a Yogi and by intellect a Muslim (Sabadi 14, in Barthwal (ed.) 1960: 6).

Kabir (1450-1520) admonishes both Hindus and Muslims and his verses invite all to embrace the true composite human values:

God has taken many names:/ Names like Allah, Ram, Karim,/ Kesav, Hari, and Hajarat./ Gold may be shaped into rings and bangles./ Isn’t it gold all the same?/ Distinctions are only words we invent/ One does namaz, one does puja./ One has Siva, one Mohammed,/ One has Adam, one Brahma./ Who is a Hindu, who a Turk? /Both must share a single world. /Koran or Vedas, both read their books./ One is a panda, one a mullah. /Each of them bears a separate name,/ But every pot is made from clay (Kabir bijak, Sabda 30 (Kabir, 1982)).

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) gives the call for adhering to composite universal human values forgetting the silly differences between the religions of Hindus and Muslims. For example, we have this famous phrase, “Nobody is Hindu, nobody Turk” ( Hindu turka na koi).

Kanhavat (an epic poem on Krishna) by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the Sufi poet who is famed for his work Padmavat, is an eloquent example of Islamic contribution to the composite evolution of our constitutional culture as indelibly recorded in popular literature.

This pluralistic evolution of a composite culture reached its zenith during the independence movement, which found its expression in the Constitution. Thus, what our composite culture requires and the Constitution mandates is a regime of relative universality, or “variform universals”, as Lonner (1998) called it, or a pluralist universalism as Bhikhu Parekh advocates or a regime of human rights-sensitive pluralism. This can also be seen as an “overlapping consensus” among differing ideologies and world views.

Mosaic and not a melting pot

The democratic ideal of a composite culture can best be conceptualised as a mosaic and not as a melting pot. In the Minerva Mills case (1980) the Supreme Court said: “India represents a mosaic of humanity consisting of diverse religions, linguistic and caste groups.”

In 2002, the Supreme Court through a Constitution Bench of 11 judges unequivocally reiterated the same in beautiful words in the case of the TMA Pai Foundation: “The one billion population of India consists of six main ethnic groups and 52 major tribes; six major religions and 6,400 castes and sub-castes; 18 major languages and 1,600 minor languages and dialects. The essence of secularism in India can best be depicted if a relief map of India is made in mosaic....” In the same case, Justice Ruma Pal was categorical when she said: “The Constitution as it stands does not proceed on the ‘melting pot’ theory. The Indian Constitution, rather represents a ‘salad bowl’ where there is homogeneity without an obliteration of identity.”

Constitutionalist heritage

According to the great advocate and jurist N.A. Palkhivala, India has developed these constitutional values through her crowded history of 5,000 years. They are essential not only for the rebirth of the Indian nation but also for the re-education of the human race (India’s Priceless Heritage, 1980, pages 38-39). Constitution is not a parchment of paper as Justice H.R. Khanna has put it: “The edifice of nations and national institutions, we should remember, take long to build. Behind them is the story of sweat, blood and tears, of untold suffering and sacrifice; yet they can be destroyed overnight by the banishment of principles or by the selfishness, petty mindedness or folly of men. If the Indian Constitution is our heritage bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers, no less are we, the people of India, the trustees of the values which pulsate within its provisions” ( Making of India’s Constitution, 1981, page 121).

Dr M.P. Raju is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court of India. His latest book, “India’s Constitution: Roots, Values and Wrongs ”, published by Media House, is expected to be released soon.

Gender Issues

A silent struggle against inequality

JAYATI GHOSH cover-story

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WOMEN were significant participants in the national movement. Leaders such as Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kripalani, Kalpana Dutt Joshi, Bhikaji Cama and Aruna Asaf Ali became emblematic of the freedom struggle. But even more than their presence, there was widespread involvement of ordinary women from different walks of life in different regions. Many of them came out of their homes into “public life” for the first time, often inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who made their participation an important part of his own political strategy of non-violent non-cooperation.

Inevitably, these women would have had their own notions of freedom: their goals would have been somewhat different from those of their male counterparts, and their expectations of living in a newly independent country must have been coloured by their very unequal and often oppressive social and economic circumstances. But it may still be safe to say that the writers of the Constitution did manage to encapsulate many of the hopes and dreams of the women of the time.

Consider what the Constitution offered: explicit recognition of equality before law and rejection of any kind of discrimination, including on grounds of gender, along with empowering the state to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women, to neutralise the cumulative socio-economic, educational and political disadvantages they faced. Article 16 promised equality of opportunity for all citizens (and, therefore, for all women) in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state; Article 39(a) noted that the state should direct its policy towards securing for men and women equally the right to an adequate means of livelihood; and Article 39(d) stressed equal pay for equal work for both men and women. Several other provisions took note of the need to provide dignity and empower women in various ways. Over time, other legislation banned traditional customs and practices that were clearly unjust and discriminatory, such as dowry and child marriage.

So far, so positive, and if these declarations had been mostly or even substantially fulfilled, the granddaughters of those millions of women of 1947 would today be living their dream. After all, seven decades is a reasonably long time in the life of a country, and should be more than enough to effect significant progress along the lines of the announced social contract. So how far have things actually changed for Indian women in this period?

Equality before law has certainly existed as a basic principle, but it has not been accompanied by equally just implementation; and both the letter of the law and its functioning have not conformed to the basic spirit of the Constitution. In the absence of a systematically codified set of laws recognising and providing remedies for various kinds of gender discrimination, women’s equality before law has had to be interpreted through case law, which has on occasion provided surprising and unfavourable outcomes. This has been true of the personal laws affecting marriage and divorce, as well as laws relating to inheritance and property. It is true that over the years various laws have been enacted for equal remuneration, maternity benefits for working women, rape, dowry deaths and the like. But it is also unfortunately true that these laws are still honoured mostly in the breach, and a sense of impunity still characterises many perpetrators of such crimes.

The workings of the criminal justice system, and indeed of the civil courts, are replete with instances of blatant gender discrimination that severely limit women’s access to justice, especially for women from poor and disadvantaged contexts. Meanwhile, the persistence and even increase in acts of violence against women may be partly a result of increased awareness and willingness of the survivors to go public, but the apparent increase in the brutality of such crimes suggests that other darker social forces may also be at work. Certainly, we must admit that in India, we are still very far from ensuring safe, free and just legal and social spaces for most women and girls to live, work and achieve their potential as creative and empowered human beings.

In terms of some of the most basic demographic indicators, there is obvious improvement. Average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled for women, from an estimated 32 years around 1950 to nearly 70 years today. In fact, women’s life expectancy at birth was actually lower than that for men until the late 1970s; thereafter it changed, with higher numbers for women. But women are known to have better survival chances than men, and the gap in India is still lower than in developed countries or even countries with similar per capita income.

Much of this decline in mortality rates is due to the decline in infant mortality rates, which have fallen from more than 150 per 1,000 live births in 1950 to around 40 in recent years. But gender gaps in neonatal mortality (before the age of one month) remain high, and have even increased slightly over the past decade.

Maternal mortality rates (MMR) have also fallen; they were estimated to be around 1,300 per 100,000 live births but are now around 170. This is certainly a big decline, but in fact it is not nearly big enough: India is one of the few countries to have failed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality by 75 per cent compared to its 1990 level, which would have implied an MMR (at the national level) of 103 at most. The country has the shameful distinction of accounting for the highest number of maternal deaths in the world (around 17 per cent), 10 times the number in China, even though China still has a larger population of women of child-bearing age.

This poor performance in maternal mortality is an indicator of broader failures that show that progress in improving the conditions and status of Indian women has been limited and uneven. Indeed, other human development indicators show the persistently low status of women and girls in society, which is then reflected in many related features. Death due to childbirth is often related not just to lack of adequate medical facilities and prenatal care, but also to poor nutrition. The relative paucity of proper and affordable health care is one of the big failures of Indian development, but it also has a strong gender dimension, with women, especially poorer women in rural and more backward areas, routinely denied access to these basic services, including for reproductive health.

Women and girl children in India continue to exhibit some of the worst nutritional outcomes, similar to or worse than some least developed countries where per capita incomes are much lower. The proportion of women with anaemia is nearly double the global average. This is obviously related not only to the aggregate insufficient calorie consumption among poor households, but to disparate intra-household consumption patterns, through which women and girl children eat less in terms of quantity and quality, not only because of deprivation but because of self-denial.

Another reason for high maternal mortality is early age at childbirth and this remains a persistent concern because of early marriage of girls. The average age at marriage has certainly gone up in India. Yet, even now 61 per cent of all women are married before the age of 16 and half of them have their first pregnancy before 19.2 years.

Sex ratio and son preference

Perhaps the demographic indicator that reveals most starkly the continued inferior position of women in Indian society is the sex ratio (the number of women per 1,000 men). Globally, the sex ratio stands at around 984. But in India, it was an abysmal 940 in 2011. What is even more shocking is that this sex ratio has actually deteriorated since Independence; it was estimated to be 946 in the 1951 Census. The ratio is worse in urban areas (926) than in rural areas (947) and typically lower in higher income locations and among upper castes compared with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The child sex ratio (for the age group 0-6 years) is even worse, and has fallen further from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011, pointing to the effects of the combination of son preference among families across the subcontinent and newly available technologies that have combined to prevent female births, and greater neglect of girl infants compared to boys in the early phases of life. Incidentally, son preference also casts a shadow on other institutions like marriage: data from the India Human Development Surveys reveal that women with no children or only daughters were twice as likely to face divorce or separation than women with only sons.

Female literacy

Education appears to be one area of progress compared to 70 years ago, but here too the progress has been far too delayed, limited and slow, and indeed very poor compared to most developing countries. Female literacy rates have improved over the past decades, but at 65 per cent in 2011, they were still well below the global average of 80 per cent. Girls’ enrolment in primary education has improved significantly to be near-universal today, but around one-third of girls now in their teens and early 20s were never enrolled in schools. Dropout rates remain high and there are significant gender gaps in dropout, especially by the time the age of middle school is reached. Most surveys suggest that families find that schooling for girls beyond the most basic level is “not necessary” or “too expensive”, or that “the school is too far away”, while some simply claim that the child “is not interested”. The inability to ensure that every child receives full good-quality elementary education, despite all the grandiose promises made immediately after Independence, is shocking in any case, but it affects girls and young women severely.

But if all these were not proof enough of the deep and pervasive gender inequality that still persists in India, the evidence on employment must be clinching. India always had a very low recorded work participation rate for women by global standards, including when the first employment surveys were conducted in the early 1950s. Thereafter, successive surveys by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) have shown hardly any increase in these low rates, which have been marked by a depressing stability over the “socialist planning” as well as the neoliberal reforms phases of economic and social policy. But shockingly, for the most recent period for which such data are available, women’s work participation rates actually showed a significant decline from 28.2 per cent of women aged 15 years or more in 2004-05, to as low as 21.6 per cent in 2011-12. This was mostly because of a decline in the number of recorded rural women workers, particularly those classified as self-employed in agriculture.

This makes India truly unusual, possibly even unique, in both comparative terms as well as in historical terms. It is hard to think of any other society whose economy has apparently been growing rapidly for nearly three decades, where women’s work participation has not only not increased but actually fallen.

Various explanations have been offered for this, including rising real wages that have allowed women in poor households to avoid or reduce involvement in very physically arduous and demanding work with relatively low wages and instead focus more on “domestic duties”. There have also been arguments about the loss of access to common property resources that allowed women to work collecting plants and herbs, as well as mechanisation of agriculture that is paradoxically typically associated with women losing work once it becomes less physically demanding and arduous. In any case, there is the point that whatever occurred in agriculture, other forms of recognised employment for women in other sectors like industry and services simply did not increase enough to make a dent.

Unpaid work

But there is another deeper point. Work, including paid and unpaid work, defines the conditions of human existence in fundamental ways. Social recognition and valuation of the work that is performed by different categories of people is an important reflection of the value that societies attach to the people who perform it. So, low recorded work participation of women is often a reflection of the low status of women in society, since the huge amount of unpaid labour that they perform is simply not recognised.

This is confirmed by the same NSSO surveys that recognise various categories of people who are described as “not in the labour force”. These include (in addition to those in educational institutions and those who are too old or sick to work) those engaged in what has been called social reproduction. Specifically, two categories are of relevance here: Code 92, which refers to those who attend to domestic duties in unpaid fashion within the home, and Code 93, covering those who attend to domestic duties and are also engaged in free collection of goods (vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed, etc.), sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc. for household use. It is obvious that these are all economic activities, and would be recognised as employment, if they led to any payment. But since they are unpaid, those who do such work are not even recognised as being productively employed.

Once these categories are included in the definition of work, then the picture changes dramatically. Firstly, instead of women’s participation rates being less than half those of men, they turn out to be higher (at 86.2 per cent, compared to 79.8 per cent for men). Secondly, there is less evidence of a significant decline in women’s work participation in recent times. Indeed, the decline in male work participation appears to be stronger than that for women, and both declines can then be explained dominantly by increasing involvement in education. So the basic shift in recent times has been the shift of women from paid or recognised employment to unpaid work. And most of this shift has been in Code 93, that is, women are forced to engage in various activities such as fetching firewood and water for household consumption, because of the failure of the state to provide basic infrastructure and amenities, in addition to the denial of adequate affordable care services.

This provides a huge, and unnoticed, subsidy to the economy, whereby the unsung contributions of women workers are critical in underwriting the very existence of society as well as the rapid output growth. But it also has adverse implications for those women who do engage in paid work. Where there is a large amount of unpaid work that is performed in a society and where the bulk of that is performed by women, the participation of women in paid work tends to be much more disadvantaged. Since the unpaid labour performed by women in “domestic duties” is not remunerated, and often not even recognised, it is easier for society to undervalue such work in general as well as other paid work performed by women. And this, in turn, leads to lower wages and worse working conditions, so the very existence of the unpaid-paid work continuum affects not only the bargaining power of paid women workers, but also social attitudes towards them and to their work, and indeed their own reservation wages and self-perception. So it is hardly surprising that the gender gap in wages in India is among the highest in the world and that women workers tend to be concentrated in the most low-paid, vulnerable and insecure jobs with poor working conditions.

This is not to say that conditions are so stark for all women in the country. There is a huge amount of diversity, not only across urban and rural areas but across different States, socio-cultural groups and income classes. And there has been substantial progress for particular groups of more privileged women and girls. But in a broader sense, the promises that inspired the enthusiastic participation of so many women in the national movement have remained unfulfilled.

The question then must be: why has this been the case? Some of this reflects deep patriarchal structures in Indian society, which combine with other forms of social discrimination and hierarchy (such as caste) to create complex inequalities that are not easy to change. But Indian capitalism has also relied on such inequality and used the segmented labour markets that it provides to benefit from cheaper labour and allow greater surplus extraction. That is why, even in the more recent phase of liberalised markets and rampant profit orientation, the system has continued to perpetuate, both explicitly and implicitly, some of the more egregious forms of gender discrimination.

Changing this requires much more than pious statements about women’s empowerment: it would require not just changes in mindset but a huge transformation in the approach to economic development and policies.

Trade Union Movement

Victims of the neoliberal order

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

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“Whither trade unionism” and “whither trade unions” are among the most popular posers that trade unions and their leaderships face today. As India’s independence nears the completion of 70 years, there is a notion that trade unions and trade unionism are now passe and that new forms of mobilisation are required. Trade unions are thought to have failed to organise the unorganised sector and are in need of reinventing themselves; more significantly, trade unions and trade union activity are said to be disruptive in the agenda of development. This view has gained currency not only nationally but also internationally despite the fact that workers continue to organise themselves in myriad ways and raise fundamental questions of livelihood and basic survival. Their peaceful struggles and the issues they flag are mostly ignored in the mainstream media. Over the last few years, some State governments have actively collaborated with managements in breaking strikes, making registration of unions difficult and diluting demand notices.

In the United States, the unionisation of Disney World employees to seek increases in hourly wages is the most recent case of new forms of unionisation and worker mobilisation. With seven decades of Independence behind them, trade unions in India find themselves grappling with many fundamental issues, including that of getting the government to implement the minimum wage, and even graver challenges, this time not from a colonial entity but from Indian industry and the corporate sector that seem to enjoy the unbridled support of the government, which is driven with the agenda of “ease of doing business”.

On August 8, 10 central unions resolved at a national convention at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium to intensify their joint and individual struggles against the “authoritarian character of the government”. They had a 12-point charter of demands, including a demand for a pension of Rs.3,000 for the entire working population. The charter demanded universal social security to all workers, a universal public distribution system and strict enforcement of labour laws and punitive measures for their violation. It called for an end to disinvestment and strategic sale in Central and State public sector undertakings (PSUs). It demanded that workers in permanent or perennial employment should not be put on the contractual system and that workers on contract should be paid wages on a par with regular workers for the same kind of work. It called for removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility for bonus and compulsory registration of trade unions within 45 days from the date of submission of the application and immediate ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98. The convention ended with a call against all labour law amendments. A three-day protest will be held in November, which might get converted into an indefinite protest. “We have had to constantly reinvent ourselves. If we feel that a one-day protest isn’t enough, we take it forward and sometimes it can be an indefinite one, too,” explained Amarjit Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).

Trade unions in India today face a peculiar situation. They not only have to resist the dilution of labour laws and defend the gains made over the years for the organised sector, gains that accrued with the enactment of various labour laws, but have to organise sections of the precariat (the precarious proletariat especially in the unorganised sector), made vulnerable by the nature and terms of employment in present-day India. The overlying proof that Indian trade unionism is still active and relevant can be seen in the unionisation of “scheme workers”—a category of workers recruited to implement government programmes, who receive a paltry honorarium and no social or job security. “Twenty four hours” is the code word used to describe such workers employed in various such scheme-based programmes of the government like the Integrated Child Development Services or the Midday Meal scheme. It denotes that they are employed only for 24 hours and can be sacked any time.

In India, the period before Independence and post-Independence until 1991, was a phase when trade unions were respected and feared. Since 1991, trade unions have been ignored, tripartite dialogue has been sidestepped and tripartite decisions have been put on the back burner. Yet, the post-1991 period saw greater solidarity among central trade unions, cutting across political hues, and with individual trade union support sometimes contingent on the nature of the political party ruling at the Centre. The government today recognises 12 trade unions on the basis of their strength.

The organisation of the Indian working class into trade union activity predates Independence. It coincides with the industrial revolution in Britain and the spread of capitalism outside Britain and in the rest of Europe. Sukomal Sen’s Working Class of India: History of Emergence and Movement, 1830-1970 describes the political and economic backdrop that shaped the growth of trade unions and trade union activity before Independence and for five decades thereafter. Sen wrote about the “overpressure on the agrarian economy” and the growth of Indian industry that laid the context for the emergence of the Indian working class, its development and the “intricate problems connected with it”. Sen did not live to see the farmer suicides in the post-1991 period, continuing to date. The agrarian crisis continues in that sense. Rural-to-urban migration persists, with urban slums and industrial ghettos manifesting the nature and extent of the crisis.

“The Swadeshi movement considerably satisfied the urge of the Indian bourgeoisie for industrial entrepreneurship. But the swelling of the ranks of the Indian industrial proletariat in consequence of this phase of industrial entrepreneurship was of cardinal importance in the revolutionary history of India,” wrote Sen. The unified Swadeshi movement before Inndependence was anti-colonial in character unlike the individual one led by the present-day Sangh affiliate, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, whose calls for going “Swadeshi” are couched in nationalistic rhetoric without any road map for self-reliance. One such unique Swadeshi campaign that trade union leaders from the South are familiar with was led by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, also known as Kappalottiya Tamizhan or the Tamil Helmsman. He founded the Swadeshi Stream Navigation Company to break the monopoly that the British had over maritime trade in India.

First labour union

In 1918, the first labour union was formed with the founding of the Madras Labour Union by B.P. Wadia. It was, as Sen documents in his seminal work, the “first systematic attempt at forming modern trade union organisation in India”. But Wadia himself had a “reformist and constitutionalist” outlook. By 1920, there were already some 125 unions with a total membership of 2,50,000. But the first organisation of the Indian working class at a national level, which arose in the period following the First World War and the October Socialist Revolution, was the AITUC. “The founding session of the AITUC was held in a period when the beginning of the communist movement and the birth of a political party of the Indian working class were yet to take place,” wrote Sen. The AITUC was the fulcrum of all popular struggles.

In 1947, the Congress broke off from the AITUC, which was the united platform until then, and formed the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). The years following the formation of the AITUC, particularly from 1922 to 1926 and after 1928, were trying times for the working class. Indian industry was in recession, partly because of the Montague-Chelmsford reforms which aimed to “preserve the Indian market as an exclusive privileged zone” for the British government. There was a bitter struggle as wages were sought to be reduced, records Sen. According to the statistics brought out by the Royal Commission on Labour, there were strikes mainly on the issue of wages and bonus.

The Railway employees’ agitation for fair wages and bonus in 1974 was a landmark; it culminated in the National Campaign Committee of Railways for Struggle (NCCRS). The 20-day strike involving 17 lakh workers, led by George Fernandes as the president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, was phenomenal. It was put down mercilessly by the then Congress government and thousands were imprisoned. Eventually, the government conceded the demands.

Agitations by workers intensified in the years between 1968 and 1977. A United Council of Trade Unions was formed. In 1977-78, there were attempts to tinker with the Industrial Relations Bill. All trade unions opposed the Bill, recalls A.K. Padmanabhan, president, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). In 1980, a National Campaign Committee was formed, and this included the INTUC and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). The next big joint action was a one-day strike on January 19, 1982, when for the first time trade unions put forth their demands along with those of the peasantry. The demands included remunerative prices for agricultural produce and separate legislation for agriculture to ensure a comprehensive minimum wage for labour that would take into account the cost of living and the calorific need of rural and urban workers. That has not yet materialised.

Trade union leaders such as A.K. Padmanabhan and J.S. Majumdar of the CITU and Amarjit Kaur of the AITUC feel that the impetus given to the public sector played a major role in spurring a strong trade union movement in the years after Independence. Several labour laws were enacted both before and after Independence in favour of workers, though some were problematic as they favoured industry rather than workers. Several pro-worker judgments were also passed in the subsequent years. Notable among them was Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board vs A. Rajappa (1978), in which a seven-judge bench (majority judgment delivered by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer) expanded the definition of industry under the Industrial Disputes Act. The Industrial Relations Bill, introduced in 1978, sought to integrate the Trade Union Act, 1926, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, and introduce a clause that would effectively make it easy for employers to retrench workers and shut down factories without the government’s approval. It could not be carried through as unions resisted it. There were court rulings that held that if minimum wages were not paid, the government had no right to exist. But over the years, there were rulings against holding protests, dharnas and strikes. There were legal restrictions on gate meetings.

Modern-day middleman

The conditions of the working class in the late 19th and early 20th century and the manner of recruitment in factories run by the Britishers were similar to the present-day form of recruitment. Sen writes: “The exploitation of the proletariat was distinguished by features which as a rule, were no longer to be found in the developed capitalist countries and which aggravated the problems of the workers. There was usually a middleman between the workers and employers, who did the recruiting and to some extent paid the workers. He was called by a variety of names: jobber, sirdar, mistri, mukaddam, choudhri, etc. according to the variance of dialect and language in different parts of the country. The undeveloped character of the labour market and the chaotic situation of the economy in general accounted largely for the existence of such middlemen.” Today, these middlemen who recruit the workforce for large sections of industry are commonly called thekedaars and the workers employed through them are called “contract workers” or theka mazdoor.

Despite a law seeking a ban on and regulation of contract labour and multiple judgments favouring workers, including the latest one on treating contract workers on a par with regular workers and applying the principle of equal pay for equal work, contractual labour is commonplace even in perennial forms of employment, including in government departments. For trade unions today, organising contract employees, a good percentage of whom belong to the public sector, is a major challenge. Not only are these workers denied a decent living and a minimum wage, but they are at their employers’mercy. In the aftermath of the November 2016 demonetisation, a large number of them found themselves unemployed, especially as the small- and medium-scale sector transacted mainly in cash.

The regulation of factory conditions in India had not arisen out of any empathy for workers’ conditions. As Sukomal Sen explains, the Indian Factories Act of 1881 was enacted largely in response to the textile magnates of Lancashire “who were faced with an embarrassing competition from their Indian counterparts who had the advantage of cheap labour and arbitrary exploitation of the labourers, whether male, female or child”. Sen writes that “in the background of exploitation on the Indian workers and the resistance they put up against it, the imperialist government was compelled to enact certain labour legislations”. The purpose of the legislation, he says, is to exercise control over the working hours and other conditions of service. But colonial India wanted labour laws to create a permanent workforce for the employers. There was still no regulation of hours, and workers were made to work for 15 to 18 hours at a stretch.

The number of industrial disputes increased between 1951 and 1962. During this period, several social security enactments were made—the Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, the Bonus Act, the Employees State Insurance Act and the Minimum Wages Act. Trade union leaders recall how at the 15th Labour Conference, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was present for the entire duration of the conference. No Prime Minister or even Labour Minister would now do this, notwithstanding the pro-poor rhetoric.

The trade union movement suffered a setback in the first tenure of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when a Ministry for Disinvestment was created for the first time. In the second tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, foreign direct investment (FDI) was allowed in crucial sectors. Meanwhile, several pieces of welfare legislation were enacted for bidi workers, mine workers and brick kiln workers. Trade union leaders do not accept that the central trade unions ignored the unorganised sector. The closure of several traditional industries in textiles and engineering was not because of trade unions, as is commonly assumed, but because they could not modernise and keep up with the competition.

The issue of minimum wage

A formula for calculating the minimum wage was decided at the 15th session of the Indian Labour Conference. The formula, which took into account the calorific requirement of urban and rural India and family sizes, has not been implemented. All trade unions have agreed that Rs.18,000 should be the declared minimum wage with indexation, whereas the government has not agreed to this proposal. Bipartite dialogue between workers and employers is considered the best form of collective bargaining, but wage agreements are never complied with, necessitating tripartite discussions. But even decisions arrived at tripartite bodies and after consensus are not taken forward. Attacks on workers intensified after the 1990s. Televised protests, like that of Honda workers or Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) employees, at least drew some attention to the workers’ plight. Around 150 MSIL workers, all young men, were put behind bars for nearly one and a half years, without bail. More than the company, the government seemed keen to teach the workers and the trade unions a lesson.

Struggles to get labour laws enforced, including those for better wages, continued after Independence. The gradual devaluation of the public sector after the 1990s set the pace for a renewed phase of agitation. Until 1991, the public sector was a model employer. Self-sufficient public sector townships had once provided quality residence and affordable health care and education. Some of the best hospitals were found in these townships. Now, they are reduced to ghost towns.

The NDA government’s latest bid to codify 44 labour laws in four codes to simplify procedures and to facilitate ease of doing business seeks to undo all the gains made in the past. The code on industrial relations, it is learnt, is drafted in such a manner that it will make it impossible to hold strikes. It aims to subsume the Industrial Dispute Act (IDA) and the Trade Unions Act within it. The code on wages attempts to subsume the Payment of Wages Act, the Minimum Wages Act, the Payment of Bonus Act and the Equal Remuneration Act. The amendments to the Factories Act that were carried out in some States exclude the great majority of workers from its ambit by raising the threshold of exemption under the Act. Trade unions have little knowledge of the blueprint of these amalgamated codes. The worst, trade union leaders say, are the amendments to the Apprentices Act, which sets 14 as the minimum age for being engaged as an apprentice. Hours of leave or work shall be at the discretion of the employer. There is no ceiling regarding the number of apprentices an employer can keep and the penalty for violating the Act is a paltry Rs.500.

New challenges

The neoliberal economic policies that were adopted in the decade following 1991 made the unions see the need for a unified struggle. In 1992, owing to the events leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the relations of left-leaning trade unions with the BMS got affected. Barring the INTUC and the BMS, the other trade unions undertook joint action with 16 general strikes from the early 1990s until 2013. The INTUC, despite an initial reluctance, began speaking out during the second tenure of the UPA.

By 2009, there was total unity, which continued until the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. That was the turning point for trade unions, too. As long as there were coalition governments with no single party with a significant majority, the trade unions managed to stave off major changes in social security provisions and other labour laws. The mandate of 2014 changed all that; the government was not interested in listening to the trade unions anymore. Trade union formation had become difficult. Earlier, seven workers could form a union and apply for registration. Now if they attempted to do so, they risked losing their jobs. The entire machinery of the government, from a gentle tilt, had now completely leaned towards the management. The “level playing field” demanded by the Indian corporate sector in the 1990s vis-a-vis foreign companies was now being demanded by the latter so that they could enter crucial sectors like defence. The labour movement and trade unions had another challenge—how to keep the communal virus away from joint class struggles.

In 2015 and 2016, the BMS, which earlier was part of a few joint programmes, opted out of all joint struggles. Yet, the intensity and frequency of trade union actions has been on the rise; the next general strike is planned in 2018. Just as in the period preceding Independence, the industrial workforce was primarily rural in character, comprising artisans who were either landless or whose skills were made redundant by the industrial requirement in that period, the industrial workforce today is also largely rural in character. The trade union movement seems to have expanded from the traditional federations representing the public sector to newer areas including unorganised labour.

Broader solidarities

Trade union leaders opine that there is a concerted effort to weaken and attack the trade union movement. Yet, with more and more sections joining joint struggles, there is a realisation that the employment scenario is only going to get worse. In recent months IT workers in Bengaluru have come out onto the streets to voice their grievances. Stories of worker solidarities seldom make news—whether of students joining trade union protests or CITU workers from Tamil Nadu collecting Rs.5,00,000 for the families of the jailed MSIL workers, or even workers from Hyundai, South Korea, who came to express solidarity with their striking counterparts in India. Trade unions across the board, even those ideologically affiliated to the government, today know that supporting anti-worker policies are untenable for their own survival. The BMS on more than one occasion has been guardedly critical of the government and NITI Aayog on issues of disinvestment and mindless labour reforms. The compulsion has come from below.

A good section of the middle class has been made to believe that all its rights at the workplace have been given willingly by governments. Yet the simmering discontent in all classes, especially the middle and lower classes, cannot be ignored. And if ever there has been a moment for greater trade union relevance, this is it.

Constitution

Composite culture and its discontents

M.P. RAJU cover-story

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HOW much Indian is India’s Constitution? This question is raised by a few on the basis of an allegation that the constitutionalism based on the value of composite culture is alien to Indian traditions and civilisation. Recently, there has been a call from some quarters to frame a substantially different and new Constitution on a purported tradition, culture or religion. This bogey is flogged to life by some now and then.

Last year, Ram Bahadur Rai, a senior Hindi journalist who is the Chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and a former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP) general secretary asserted in an interview with Pragya Singh of Outlook (June 13, 2016) that the present Constitution is “a new testament of our gulaami (slavery)”. He also desired that the 16th Lok Sabha should be converted into a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new Constitution.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has been unhappy with this Constitution and had wanted it to be replaced by Manusmriti (Codes of Manu). Organizer in an editorial (“The Constitution”) on November 30, 1949, specifically expressed it and wrote: “The worst about the new constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it.” M.S. Golwalkar, who was the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS (1940-1973), had expressed similar sentiments in his Bunch of Thoughts (1966), stating that our Constitution has “absolutely nothing, which can be called our own” and that it contained some lame principles drawn from the United Nations Charter and some features from the American and British Constitutions which have been “just brought together in a mere hotchpotch”.

Before and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, there have been instances of booklets being released denouncing the Constitution as “anti-Hindu” and putting forward a prototype of the kind of Constitution visualised by them. On January 14, 1993, RSS leader Rajendra Singh in an interview to Indian Express called for a new Constitution more suited to the ethos and genius of this country since India’s was “not a composite culture”.

Human race as a whole and each civilisation individually have been evolving a few core values as universal values. These were derived from all their constituent cultures and subcultures, including the little ones, through a process of mutual cross-pollination. At the same time, with a few exceptions, even unpopular cultures and their values were permitted and promoted unless they were diametrically opposed to a few publicly accepted universal values. India was no exception and our Constitution is based on the ideal of such a composite culture evolved gradually from very ancient times.

In Article 51A(f) of the Constitution, we have declared a solemn fundamental duty of every citizen to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture. This was the result of an amendment in 1977, but it did not add anything new, reiterating what was already expressed throughout various provisions of the Constitution. For example, with regard to the duty to develop the Hindi language, Article 351 requires the Union to see that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of “the composite culture of India”.

A constitutionalism based on a few universal objectives flowing from the composite culture of India was at the root of the framing of the Constitution. This is exemplified in the words of Dr Rajendra Prasad in the Constituent Assembly: “I will request ….(all) now to stand in their places…”. He was addressing the members of the Constituent Assembly as its President. The Assembly had gathered to frame the Constitution for independent India. India had not yet become independent; nor had it suffered the tragic partition. The Assembly consisted of great persons who represented almost all the different sections and groups in India. Thus, at the threshold of framing the Constitution, the founding mothers and fathers wanted to try whether they could agree on the values and objectives of the Constitution to be framed. This was called the Objectives Resolution. After detailed debate and discussion, the resolution was ready to be passed on January 22, 1947. The members wanted to send a message to posterity on the importance they attached to it. Hence, they decided to pass the resolution, all the members standing.

Thus, at the outset of the framing of the Indian Constitution, the centrality of our composite culture was categorically stressed and declared. The declaration of these composite values as the objectives resolution with a few changes found place in the Constitution when it was finally framed—the Preamble of the Constitution of India.

Sheel and success

More than 4,600 years before the passing of the Objectives Resolution, there was an important occasion which stressed the centrality of composite culture in the theory of governance. We find the narrative in this occasion as an anecdote repeated throughout the history of this subcontinent. The time was pre-Vedic. It certainly came from the collective memory of two distinct groups of peoples and cultures— devas and daityas, or aryas and asuras.

Sheel (virtuous character) consisting of universal values of non-violence ( adroha), compassion ( anugraha) and charity ( danam) came to be accepted by both daityas and devas ( aryas and asuras) as the key to successful and good governance. From the time of the initial rivalry between Aryans and non-Aryans, sheel was considered to be the secret of the success of a king and his governance (Mahabharata 12 (Shantiparva):124:66).

Prahlada, the leader of the asuras, could win the battle over Indra, the leader of aryas, on the strength of the sheel consisting of these values. Indra could win over Prahlada only when Indra could obtain this sheel from Prahlada. This is quoted in Mahabharata as being narrated by Dhritarashtra to his son Duryodhana, the eldest of Kauravas. The importance of sheel as the key to a king’s success being the composite theory of both devas and daityas has been highlighted from the earliest available narratives belonging to the collective memory of our composite culture of this subcontinent. Moreover, the three values of non-violence, compassion and charity were considered to be the main constituents of a constitutional governance flowing from the values of dignity and fraternity.

Like similar civilisations of the world, Indian civilisation had accepted some universal values or principles of conduct as central not only to different aspects of human life, but even to nature. This idea of “rita”, which subsequently got morphed into the concept of dharma, included both cosmic law and social law. This dharma is substantially different from the present popular usage of this term to mean religion.

Fourfold duties

When various Vedic and Brahmanic traditions were agreeing on a few values as universal and fundamental, the Sramanic groups were also developing almost identical values as universal. They were preaching a few values as applicable to all people even though they had been questioning and rejecting some of the values that were being followed in Vedic tradition such as the necessity of performing Vedic yagnyas and animal sacrifices. Among the Sramanic groups of the time Parshvanath (872-772 BCE) had preached four supreme values, which he recommended for all, C haturyama Dharma: the fourfold duties ( ahimsa, satya, asteya and aparigraha). During the Upanishadic period, Rishi Gora Angirasa gave the instructions on the fundamental values to Krishna, son of Devaki, to the extent stating that these values are the real essence of the sacrifice or yagnya (Chandogya Upanisad III/17/ 4): “ atha yat tapo danam arjavam ahimsa satya-vacanam iti, ta asya daksinah” (And austerity, alms-giving, uprightness, non-violence, truthfulness, these are the gifts for the priests). Some authors suggested a close relationship between the Sramanic and Upanishadic teachings of a few fundamental universal values.

In Mahabharata, a composite culture evolving from plurality of lifeways is accepted by Krishna when he explains to Arjuna that according to some people dharma (moral values) is derived from Vedas whereas others hold that dharma (moral values) can be known only through reasoning. Krishna states that he does not want to contradict any of them (Mahabharata, Karnaparva:69:58).

Around 600 B.C. a healthy rivalry was apparent among a number of sects, such as the Charvakas, Jainas and Ajivikas, whose doctrines ranged from pure materialism to determinism. This intellectual liveliness was reflected in the eclectic interests of the Mauryan rulers, since it was claimed by the Jainas that Chandragupta was a supporter and there is evidence that Bindusara favoured Ajivikas. The five precepts taught by the Buddha are almost identical to the universal values arrived at in both the Brahmanic and Sramanic traditions.

We also have this ideal of composite culture prescribing universal obligations, duties common to all, that is, as sadharana dharma or sarvesham without any difference of varna or ashrama, profession or stages of life. Thus, we have in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, considered to be of 4th century B.C., that the duties common to all are non-violence ( ahimsa), truthfulness, uprightness, freedom from malice, compassion and forbearance (Arthashastra 1:3;13).

In ancient India, Asoka, the Mauryan king, was one of the famous rulers who established the importance of universal values in the political realm. He used the term dhamma, or dharma, for these universal values and ideals to be followed by everybody.

According to P.V. Kane, almost all the Dharmashastra works prescribe for all varnas a brief code of morals, such as ahimsa, truthfulness, non-stealing (that is, no wrongful taking of another’s property), purity and restraint of senses. Thus, we see in India, there has been a long tradition of agreeing on a few values as universal ones while acknowledging different values followed by different groups and persons. It is safe to infer that this tradition helped us to arrive at a composite culture as the basis for a constitutionalism.

The Dravidian region has given us examples of an evolution of this composite culture. Chitalai Chathanar’s Tamil poem Manimekalai (sixth century C.E.) is remarkable in its comprehensive treatment of the composite culture of that period. Manimekalai is the eponymous story of a south Indian temple dancer and courtesan, Manimekalai. She decides, with her mother Madhavi, to leave her profession and become an ascetic and pursue the virtue of charity.

Chathanar’s descriptions of different world views through Manimekalai make it explicit that the lifeways or sects which were popular at that period were not solely the religious ones in the modern sense, they included major materialist and non-religious ones, like Lokayatas and Bhutavadis. These were in addition to the Nastik, or heterodox, ones like Nirgranthas and Buddhists on the one side and the Vaiseshikas and Samkhyas on the other. Medieval Bhakti movements of the south and the north are the evolved expressions of the secular or pluralistic character of the Indian society evolving a composite culture. All these movements were popular movements, which can rightly be termed as people’s movements.

The Nath Yogi Gorakh, or Gorakhnath, who lived in circa 11th or 12th century, gives examples of the concept of composite culture: By birth [I am] a Hindu, in mature age a Yogi and by intellect a Muslim (Sabadi 14, in Barthwal (ed.) 1960: 6).

Kabir (1450-1520) admonishes both Hindus and Muslims and his verses invite all to embrace the true composite human values:

God has taken many names:/ Names like Allah, Ram, Karim,/ Kesav, Hari, and Hajarat./ Gold may be shaped into rings and bangles./ Isn’t it gold all the same?/ Distinctions are only words we invent/ One does namaz, one does puja./ One has Siva, one Mohammed,/ One has Adam, one Brahma./ Who is a Hindu, who a Turk? /Both must share a single world. /Koran or Vedas, both read their books./ One is a panda, one a mullah. /Each of them bears a separate name,/ But every pot is made from clay (Kabir bijak, Sabda 30 (Kabir, 1982)).

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) gives the call for adhering to composite universal human values forgetting the silly differences between the religions of Hindus and Muslims. For example, we have this famous phrase, “Nobody is Hindu, nobody Turk” ( Hindu turka na koi).

Kanhavat (an epic poem on Krishna) by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the Sufi poet who is famed for his work Padmavat, is an eloquent example of Islamic contribution to the composite evolution of our constitutional culture as indelibly recorded in popular literature.

This pluralistic evolution of a composite culture reached its zenith during the independence movement, which found its expression in the Constitution. Thus, what our composite culture requires and the Constitution mandates is a regime of relative universality, or “variform universals”, as Lonner (1998) called it, or a pluralist universalism as Bhikhu Parekh advocates or a regime of human rights-sensitive pluralism. This can also be seen as an “overlapping consensus” among differing ideologies and world views.

Mosaic and not a melting pot

The democratic ideal of a composite culture can best be conceptualised as a mosaic and not as a melting pot. In the Minerva Mills case (1980) the Supreme Court said: “India represents a mosaic of humanity consisting of diverse religions, linguistic and caste groups.”

In 2002, the Supreme Court through a Constitution Bench of 11 judges unequivocally reiterated the same in beautiful words in the case of the TMA Pai Foundation: “The one billion population of India consists of six main ethnic groups and 52 major tribes; six major religions and 6,400 castes and sub-castes; 18 major languages and 1,600 minor languages and dialects. The essence of secularism in India can best be depicted if a relief map of India is made in mosaic....” In the same case, Justice Ruma Pal was categorical when she said: “The Constitution as it stands does not proceed on the ‘melting pot’ theory. The Indian Constitution, rather represents a ‘salad bowl’ where there is homogeneity without an obliteration of identity.”

Constitutionalist heritage

According to the great advocate and jurist N.A. Palkhivala, India has developed these constitutional values through her crowded history of 5,000 years. They are essential not only for the rebirth of the Indian nation but also for the re-education of the human race (India’s Priceless Heritage, 1980, pages 38-39). Constitution is not a parchment of paper as Justice H.R. Khanna has put it: “The edifice of nations and national institutions, we should remember, take long to build. Behind them is the story of sweat, blood and tears, of untold suffering and sacrifice; yet they can be destroyed overnight by the banishment of principles or by the selfishness, petty mindedness or folly of men. If the Indian Constitution is our heritage bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers, no less are we, the people of India, the trustees of the values which pulsate within its provisions” ( Making of India’s Constitution, 1981, page 121).

Dr M.P. Raju is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court of India. His latest book, “India’s Constitution: Roots, Values and Wrongs ”, published by Media House, is expected to be released soon.

Social Issues

Dalits: In a state of unfreedom

GOPAL GURU cover-story

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In a socially plural society such as India, the idea of freedom tends to acquire internally differentiated meanings with varied emphasis. Hence, it becomes unavoidable for both analytical and political reasons to process this concept through the hierarchy of its significance. In the hierarchy of significance, one meaning of freedom becomes much more significant than another. Thus, during the anti-colonial struggle, Indian nationalists treated political freedom with topmost significance. In the post-Independence period, particularly in the dominant nationalist imagination, political freedom continues to be treated as top priority; this is evident in the language of nation-building and now in the rhetoric of the “Make in India” campaign. For hedonists, it is economic freedom or the freedom of consumption that acquires supreme significance. Most of those who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy would put social freedom or freedom from social bondage right on top of their priorities.

However, in the past 70 years of independent India, the idea of freedom in the public imagination has continued to be articulated with a skewed meaning and an uneven emphasis. This is evident in the case of social freedom or the freedom to appear in public without social stigma—a freedom that has not been able to enjoy stable public support. The recent “spectacle” of Dalits being beaten at Una in Gujarat is a case in point. The growing number of atrocities against Dalits thus is constitutive of unfreedom or denial of freedom to Dalits who constitute one-fifth of India’s population. In this context, it becomes necessary to decide which of the three kinds of freedom (political, hedonistic or social) provides a solid ground on which one can evaluate India’s 70 years of independence.

Let me argue that on moral grounds, it is the situation of the weaker sections, and now the minorities, that is a strong criterion to evaluate the performance of India’s independence. For such an assessment, it would be adequate to address the following questions that have a bearing on the tense relationship between the Dalit identity and the idea of freedom. To what extent has the Indian nation created conditions within which Dalits can enjoy social freedom? How does one assess the progress of the concept of freedom as perceived and received by Dalits?

Viewed from the standpoint of Dalits, the concept of freedom, which is on its way to becoming a reality for Dalits, tends to acquire a paradoxical, if not crooked, form. That is to say, in the past 70 years the concept of freedom has seen moments of progress and regress. Hence it is necessary to put the idea of freedom in a proper historical perspective.

Historicising freedom

In a historical sense, for Dalits, the idea of freedom in its liberal incarnation initially came as an opportunity to pursue their project of emancipation. In such a liberal conception, even for Dalits, freedom comes as a choice that arbitrates and decides between autonomy, agency and assertion on the one hand and spatial segregation, social servility and political subjugation on the other. It was natural for Dalits to make an individual choice for a clean job offered by the market over an unclean job imposed on them by the Jajmani or caste system. It was but natural for Dalits to be part of the radical rotation of job opportunities facilitated by universal criteria and not by the particular criterion of caste. It is in this sense that they had to rely on the state to put in motion a radical rotation of opportunity structures so as to enable them to exercise their freedom to choose jobs that were different from the defiling ones that existed during caste-based feudalism.

Arguably, the public sector, particularly in its heyday, did help Dalits enjoy their freedom to acquire clean jobs that were created and controlled by the Indian state. However, this state-mediated freedom of Dalits seems to have acquired rough edges to its inner dimension which is certainly benign. To put it differently, the very practice of freedom by Dalits and the consequences of such practice have made the very idea of freedom paradoxical.

Paradox of Dalit freedom

The long and continuous history of the oppressive caste system may provide Dalits a valid reason to develop a fascination for individual freedom that promises them a radical separation from servility and subjugation that continue to be the defining features of the caste system. In view of their almost total deprivation, they may find the intervention of the “democratic” state morally less problematic. Some of them even argue that for the sake of the Dalit community they would not mind curtailing their freedom of mindless consumption. They would not be too possessive about their individual freedom. For some Dalits, the moral commitment, such as “pay back to the community”, would appear to be quite revolutionary. It is for this reason that some sections of Dalits find it necessary to mediate this freedom through the intervention of the state and now the market.

But curtailing one’s own freedom for the cause of wider emancipation has two basic problems. First, it insulates one from critiquing one’s inability to separate the act of being politically correct from becoming politically conscious about the structures that determine the asymmetry between giving help and receiving help. Second, within the Dalit discourse of freedom, what dominates Dalits’ political sensibility is the language of obligation rather than the language of rights. It is the language of rights that provides the initial condition for not only making claims to freedom but also appreciating the limited role of “possessive individualism” that seeks to put on test Other Backward Classes’ (OBC) liberal capacity to tolerate Dalits’ right to possess certain individual property.

In the recent decades, it is but true that OBCs have become the custodians of caste ideology. This is borne out by the fact that it is the members of OBCs who are allegedly involved in committing atrocities against Dalits. In such growing violence against Dalits, usually the targets are the symbols of cultural modernity such as pucca houses, vehicles, electronic gadgets, fashionable attire and even modern hairstyles. To put it differently, atrocities against Dalits perform the regulatory function to decide who can exercise the freedom even to participate in the consumer market. It is in this sense that even conservative shades of freedom acquire a dynamic character over the freedom which is driven by morality of obligation.

The dynamism of Dalit freedom is the result of enduring tension between Dalits and OBCs. For Dalits, freedom suggests the following: What is lost in tradition is confidently gained in modernity. For OBCs, freedom means the inverse of that: what is lost in modernity is gained in tradition. OBCs in general and upper castes in particular tend to retain their domination in tradition only to make up for the losses they incur while accessing the shrinking opportunities that define Indian modernity.

The OBCs’ inability to accept Dalits’ claims of freedom is further evident in the civilisational violence that the former inflict on the latter. The social boycott imposed on Dalits amounts to civilisational violence that breaks the comprehensive frame of freedom—freedom to communicate, to carry on dialogue and associate themselves with the collective life of the village. Social boycott imposed on Dalits in many Indian villages gets intensified in the denial of certain natural rights such as water and access to physical spaces. Ironically, it is the stamina with which the labouring Dalits resist that deepens the normative meaning of the concept of freedom.

Normative meaning of Dalit freedom

The robust and transformative conception of freedom is linked with the moral stamina that the labouring Dalits demonstrate in terms of taking the risk of publicly articulating the emancipatory principles of equality, friendship and dignity as given by Babasaheb Ambedkar. These principles inspire the labouring Dalits to exercise their sociocultural and intellectual freedom. Such normative spheres of freedom articulated by common Dalits through their struggle for dignity do not exhaust the strength and validity of the principles given by Ambedkar. On the contrary, these principles get dissolved in the pragmatic motivation nurtured by most Dalit politicians and their cultivated supporters. In other words, these principles acquire enduring life with validity and strength only in Dalit oppositional imagination.

It is the labouring Dalits who show an extraordinary degree of freedom to retain through their struggle the strength and validity of Ambedkar’s principles. But such freedom to show a robust commitment to the principles is contingent upon the moral capacity to remain in opposition to the centres of temporal power or electoral power. Dalit freedom appears in the world whenever Ambedkar’s principles are actualised and asserted in the event of the negation of Ambedkar by his opponents both vocally, as in the case of Maharashtra, and not so vocally elsewhere in the country. As the experience of the past 70 years of independence shows, the response of untouchables to freedom does two things: it deepens the understanding of the complex layers that the concept of freedom has; and secondly, it seeks to expose the hollowness of this concept when it is accessed by the privileged lot of Indian society.Dalit freedom, without commitment to such principles, remains hollow and even false. This falseness is evident in their “presence” in the most obnoxious spheres of informal economy.

Conceits of freedom

Informal sectors such as ragpicking and garbage collection engage workers who are exclusively from the community of untouchables. In fact, a major chunk of those involved in such “self-employed” work are Dalit women. One may consider their work environment-friendly and hence a service to society and even to the nation. Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been projecting a positive image of the workforce engaged in the informal sector. It considers the contribution made by workers in the informal sector vital to the country’s economy.

Dalits have reached a stage where they do not have the opportunity to assert their freedom against the master. Because, in the informal sector they do not have to work under any feudal lord or any employer in modern times. They can say that they are self-employed in ragpicking, waste picking and garbage collection. The very obnoxious nature of this work denies them the advantage of feeling dignified.

Informalisation of the economy under the regime of neoliberalism has been responsible for creating a false sense of freedom among Dalits. The conceit of freedom resides in the incongruence between Dalits’ self-perception and their self-expression. In their perception they do not want to associate themselves with ragpacking or garbage collection, but in their self-expression they project that such jobs are worth doing. In Dalit estimation, which is driven by the force of necessity, ragpicking and scavenging and garbage collection may have some worth, but the same work appears as obnoxious in the moral estimation of both the state and civil society. The conceit of freedom would suggest that the Dalit women are self-employed and to that extent they enjoy freedom without the tangible, or visible, master who during feudal times pushed the Dalit into a state of servility and segregation. What is at the core of Dalit freedom is the moral essence linked to dignity. Secondly, the tag of self-employment seeks to re-feudalise social relations that have led to the degeneration of the quality of life of Dalits to a modern low.

In conclusion, one can say that the freedom to participate in a more creative, competitive and attractive sphere of decent opportunities is treated as the normal conception of freedom. In the past 70 years of Independence, Dalits are yet to enjoy such freedom. Most Dalits are subjected to unfreedom on account of their being continuously pushed into more obnoxious spheres of work. However, this is a weak evaluation of the concept of freedom. There is a strong evaluation of the concept of freedom, which resides in the assertion of Ambedkar’s principle of equality, friendship and dignity.

Gopal Guru is Professor, Faculty, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Economy

Growth without social justice

C.P. CHANDRASEKHAR cover-story

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The defining feature of the economic programme of independent India’s first government was accelerating the transition to a modern economy dominated by industry. Agriculture and related activities at that time accounted for around half of the gross domestic product (GDP) and modern industry in the form of factory establishments for just above 6 per cent. Thus, colonial rule had made India the victim of barriers to productivity increase that are typical of predominantly agrarian economies.

These circumstances influenced the Nehruvian vision that made rapid diversification in favour of manufacturing the principal economic objective. The “big planners” of that time did recognise that this would not deliver the jobs needed to absorb the country’s large underemployed and unemployed labour force and address the extreme poverty and deprivation that colonialism had left behind. But those challenges, it was argued, could be addressed separately so long as growth got going.

At first, it appeared that success was at hand. The years after 1951, and especially after 1956, did see large and rapidly rising investments in industry and infrastructure. But, it is clear, in hindsight, that the process lost momentum rather early. The share of manufacturing in GDP did rise from around 9 per cent in 1950-51 to 16 per cent in 1961. But it did not cross the 18 per cent mark for a little more than a decade after that, and touched 20 per cent at its peak only in 1996. This was well short of what had been achieved in many other comparable economies. In 1971, the share of manufacturing in GDP stood at 29 per cent in Brazil and 35 per cent in China. In 1996, the figure was 27 per cent in Korea, 28 per cent in Malaysia and 26 per cent in Thailand. The contribution of manufacturing to employment in India was, as expected, even more dismal.

There were two principal and proximate factors responsible for this shortfall, relative to targets in a country that showed much promise as a candidate for successful industrialisation. One was the failure to grow the mass market for manufactures through appropriate measures and especially through the implementation of land reforms that would have raised the incomes of the majority among the agriculture-dependent population. The other was the inability of the state to mobilise the resources to finance the expenditures needed to drive and facilitate the process of industrialisation.

Agrarian reform was needed to break down land monopoly, which, by facilitating rack-renting by absentee landlords, who also earned surpluses from usury and control over poorly paid, bonded labour, disincentivised productive investment in land on the part of semi-feudal and feudal landowners. It also deprived the tenants who cultivated the land of the means and the incentive to invest. Productivity-enhancing investments were thus limited. Further, land concentration meant that any increase in agricultural income that accrued was not distributed in a manner that encouraged the expansion of demand for manufactured mass consumption goods.

The expansion of domestic demand for the still-nascent factory sector came to depend on government expenditures, which, by financing direct purchases by the state, increasing demand mediated through employment in the state sector, and the multiplier effects of these, drove manufacturing growth. But the inability of the state to raise the resources needed to finance these expenditures through taxation, and the limits to other forms of potentially inflationary financing, like indirect taxation and borrowing, meant that growth remained at the disappointing pace at which it occurred.

Both these features of the development path—the failure of land reform and the fiscal crunch affecting the state—were, in turn, the result of an uneasy compromise between landlords in the rural areas and the business elite in the urban areas that had as its counterpart a compromise between the conservatives in the Congress, on the one hand, and Nehru and his supporters in Congress governments at the Centre and the States on the other. Land reforms, though flagged in many policy documents and in government statements of intent, remained largely unimplemented, and direct tax revenues were woefully inadequate to support the programme of state-led economic modernisation. Structurally, the economy remained the same, not merely in terms of the degree of diversification but also in terms of the structures of economic dominance, with traditional landlords and business groups concentrating economic power in their hands.

The dominance of a small industrial elite also meant that the government could not push it to produce for export to international markets, which would have helped earn scarce and precious foreign exchange and identified an alternative source of demand to supplement domestic demand. Indian capital preferred the comfort of the protected home market, which, though trapped in slow growth, was quite lucrative for those at the top of the wealth pyramid. The picture was one characterised by slow growth, a neglect of agriculture and balance of payments vulnerability reflected in periodic crises.

One reason why this vulnerability did not result in multiple crises as intense as the inflation-cum-balance of payments crisis that affected India in the mid-1960s—which led to the devaluation of the rupee and forced reliance on the Bretton Woods institutions for recovery—was the ability to use temporary measures of crisis prevention and even growth management. The most striking example of the latter was the adoption of the Green Revolution strategy in the late 1960s, riding on the productivity improvements that new high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds promised if properly exploited. Combining the delivery of HYV seeds, the fertilizers and pesticides needed to accompany them, and credit (including for investments that helped ensure more stable access to water), the government did manage to raise foodgrain production yields. This partly made up for the absence of land reforms since it encouraged resumption of direct cultivation by large landholders on the back of the promise of higher profits from investment. It also reached the benefits of the technology to farmers with medium-sized holdings. The gradual spread of Green Revolution “practices” across the country did help stave off the worst food crises. Combined with a public procurement and distribution system that was partly aimed at stabilising the prices received by farmers, it kept at bay the kind of famines that had historically plagued the country.

What went unnoticed was that the Green Revolution helped shift the issue of land reforms, and the embarrassment of not having implemented it, out of day-to-day policy discourse. The “success” of the Green Revolution also helped conceal the damage inflicted on the soil, on the water table and on the quality of water. The harmful effects of the Green Revolution are now being felt in the form of various threats to the sustainability and viability of farming.

A second temporary reprieve came in the 1980s in the form of access to borrowing from abroad. By the 1970s, the international financial system had changed hugely. Surpluses from oil exporters benefiting from the oil shocks and capital accumulated from the pension funds of the post-War generation were finding their way into financial markets in search of returns. Developing countries like India, which earlier did not have access to private financial capital, were now discovered as emerging markets and favoured with capital flows. To exploit this opportunity, India opened its doors to inflows of credit from the international commercial banking system and non-resident Indian financial investors. Access to this capital allowed the government to increase its own debt-financed expenditures, since the foreign capital could be used to finance imports that kept domestic inflation in control. Public debt rose, foreign debt increased, but public expenditure helped accelerate growth, and imports helped contain inflation.

This was the decade when India was seen to have escaped from the “Hindu rate of growth” in which it had ostensibly been trapped. But it came with a price: a rising import bill and a widening current account deficit, which soon generated fears among foreign lenders that India may not have the foreign exchange to meet its debt service commitments. Soon the credit flow from abroad dried up, reserves collapsed, and in July 1991, a balance of payments crisis forced India to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. To assuage foreign financiers and win the support of the IMF, the government used the crisis to launch a deep-seated programme of neoliberal reforms involving drastic liberalisation of trade and foreign investment and wide-ranging deregulation in the domestic sphere.

Since the reforms were also supposed to enforce fiscal discipline, which would have necessitated curtailing government expenditure, the expectation was that it would slow growth. But that was not to be. In fact, growth stayed at the 1980s level through the 1990s and then accelerated after 2003, taking India into an even higher growth trajectory. Though growth is off the peaks that it touched before the global financial crisis, official figures suggest that India is keeping pace with and often overtaking China as the world’s fastest growing economy.

But this, too, seems to have been because of rather unusual circumstances. When the balance of payments crisis happened in 1991, the fact that India had paved the way for the removal of most controls on the inflow of foreign capital, especially financial capital, into India’s ,equity and debt markets, provided the basis for a third reprieve. The effects of this reliance on foreign capital proved even stronger after 2003 because of a capital inflow surge and its domestic collateral effects.

The 1991 crisis did initially freeze flows from the international banking system to India. But flows from foreign institutional investors, who were now permitted entry into India’s equity and subsequently debt markets, made up for the loss. This allowed continuation of the 1980s-style growth strategy where the government pump-primed the system with deficit spending and kept inflation at bay with the help of foreign exchange. But reliance on foreign finance finally forced the state to implement fiscal reforms, by tying its hands with legislation in the form of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act. The FRBM Act at the Central level was passed in 2003, setting off a process that has brought the fiscal deficit to GDP ratio down to close to 3 per cent. This forecloses growth based on debt-financed government spending.

Despite this cutback in government spending, growth in India shifted onto a higher trajectory because of a spike in debt-financed private spending. The large liquidity infused into the system because of the post-2003 capital inflow surge triggered a boom in bank credit, focussed largely on retail lending such as loans for housing, automobile and durable purchases, and sundry personal expenditures, and on lending to investments in capital-intensive industry and infrastructure. While this spurred growth, it also increased the exposure of banks to areas and projects that were vulnerable and were soon defaulting. The net result is that a decade after the boom began, non-performing assets in the banking system have risen sharply and bank profitability and even solvency are under threat. As a result, banks have turned cautious and credit growth is shrinking, shaving off a few percentage points from the growth rate.

However, for India’s majority, the problem is not just sustained growth. The reliance on fortuitous, unsustainable and volatile stimuli to drive growth has created a pattern of growth that is least suited to employment generation, deepens inequalities and is largely incapable of addressing even the worst forms of social deprivation. Much has indeed changed as India floated across trajectories, driven by one fortuitous factor after another. Yet, little has changed when seen from the point of view of those whom development is supposed to ultimately serve.

DEMOCRACY

Enemies within the system

A.G. NOORANI cover-story

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The framers of the Constitution of India opted for the British parliamentary system, as a matter of course, at the very outset of their deliberations, at a joint meeting on June 5, 1947, of the Union Constitution Committee and the Initial Constitution Committee. Vallabhbhai Patel announced the decision in the Constituent Assembly on July 15, 1947: “Both these Committees met and they came to the conclusion that it would suit the conditions of this country better to adopt the Parliamentary system of Constitution, the British type of Constitution with which we are familiar” ( Constituent Assembly Debates, Volume IV, page 578). That was but natural. But were the leaders and the people qualified to run that model?

Ivor Jennings, one of the foremost authorities on the British Constitution, pointed out in his classic Cabinet Government: “Experience has taught the British people that ‘fair play’ is as necessary in public as in private life. It has taught parties that parliamentary intransigence and electoral dishonesty brings ultimate retribution at the polls. But the real reason is that the parties, like the people, accept the necessary conditions of democracy. They accept the principle, that is, that the majority may govern but may not oppress the minority. Government and Opposition alike assume the honesty of the other. The British Constitution, said Mr Gladstone, ‘presumes, more boldly than any other, the good faith of those who work it’. The ‘understandings and habits of mind’ by which the Constitution functions are ‘bound up with the growth of mutual confidence between the great parties in the State, transcending the political differences of the hour’. Democratic government has its Marquess of Queensberry rules, and public opinion is the referee” (emphasis added, throughout; third edition, page 16.)

He also added: “It is not untrue to say that the most important part of Parliament is the Opposition in the House of Commons. The function of Parliament is not to govern but to criticise. Its criticism, too, is directed not so much towards a fundamental modification of the Government’s policy as towards the education of public opinion. The Government’s majority exists to support the Government. The purpose of the Opposition is to secure a majority against the Government at the next general election and thus to replace the Government. This does not imply that a Government may not be defeated in the House of Commons. Nor does it imply that parliamentary criticism may not persuade the Government to modify, or even to withdraw, its proposals. These qualifications are important; but they do not destroy the truth of the principle that the Government governs and the Opposition criticises. Failure to understand this simple principle is one of the causes of the failure of so many of the progeny of the Mother of Parliaments and of the supersession of parliamentary government by dictatorships” ( ibid, page 172).

In such a system, “The most elementary qualification of a minister is honesty and incompatibility. It is, however, necessary not only that he should possess this qualification but also that he should appear to possess it” ( ibid; page 106). Note that he distinguished between public honesty and personal corruption.

The parliamentary system rests on a recognised set of conventions and tacit understandings. Even if the Constitution is written out, unlike the British Constitution, those conventions apply. The Supreme Court of India holds that constitutional conventions are as binding as the written text (S.C. Advocates on Record Assn vs Union of India [1993] 3 SCC page 656).

No Constitution can possibly provide for all situations. There must be play at the joints, and that play is governed by a culture to which all belong. Writing of the influence of British political culture, young John F. Kennedy, during his stay in the United Kingdom when his father, Joseph Kennedy, was Ambassador, summed up some of its elements—do not put your hand in the public till, nor make money out of politics; conduct party warfare fiercely, but stop at the point where the system itself is threatened; do not press a party advantage too far; the political system and its rules are more important than party gains or power. The system must be worked, not wrecked.

Walter Bagehot’s work The English Constitution is a classic. So is A.J. Balfour’s Introduction to its third edition, which the great jurist and Sanskrit scholar Justice M.M. Ismail quoted profusely in his study The President and the Governors in the Indian Constitution (Orient Longman, 1972; it deserves a reprint).

Balfour went to the very heart of the matter. “Constitutions are easily copied, temperaments are not; and if it should happen that the borrowed Constitution and the native temperament fail to correspond, the misfit may have serious results. It matters little what other gifts a people may possess if they are wanting in those which, from this point of view, are of most importance; if, for example, they have no capacity for grading their loyalties as well as for being moved by them; if they have no natural inclination to liberty and no natural respect for law; if they lack good humour and tolerate foul play; if they know not how to compromise or when; if they have not that distrust of extreme conclusions which is sometimes misdescribed as want of logic; if corruption does not repel them; and if their divisions tend to be either too numerous or too profound, the successful working of British institutions may be difficult or impossible. It may indeed be least possible where the arts of parliamentary persuasion and the dexterities of party management are brought to their highest perfections… Let the political parties be reduced to two (admittedly the most convenient number for Cabinet Government), but let the chasm dividing them be so profound that a change of administration would in fact be a revolution disguised under a constitutional procedure.”

To his niece, Blanche Dugdale, he was more forthright in a conversation on April 25, 1925: “I doubt if you would find it written in any book on the British Constitution that the whole essence of British parliamentary government lies in the intention to make the thing work. We take that for granted. We have spent hundreds of years in elaborating a system that rests on that alone. It is so deep in us that we have lost sight of it. But it is not so obvious to others. These peoples—Indians, Egyptians, and so on—study our learning. They read our history, our philosophy, and our politics. They learn about our parliamentary methods of obstruction, but nobody explains to them that when it comes to the point all our parliamentary parties are determined that the machinery shan’t stop. ‘The King’s government must go on,’ as the Duke of Wellington said. But their idea is that the function of opposition is to stop the machine” ( The World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, pages xxii – xxiii; and Blanche E.C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, Hutchison, page 364, respectively).

Take each qualification and ask ourselves—do we have it? Do Indians know how to grade their loyalties, putting, for instance, the Constitution above party or personal gain? Do we have respect for the law? Practise tolerance? Tolerate foul play? Seek compromises in the public interest? And, most importantly, does corruption, indeed, repel us?

Let me cite a telling case. William Jowitt, a successful barrister, was a member of the Liberal Party, on whose ticket he won a seat in the House of Commons in the general election on May 30, 1929. On June 4, he became Attorney-General in the Labour Government. Announcement of “the rapid conversions” became, as The Times (London) put it, “a topic of recrimination and ribaldry”. He stood again in a byelection on July 11 and won. He undertook also never again to stand from this safe Liberal constituency. Yet he received a stinging rebuke during a debate on the definition of “unemployed” in the Bill as “those genuinely seeking work”. Lloyd George said it applied to Jowitt.

By our standards, Jowitt was a saint. But the rapid conversion was not explained. “From time to time in later life Jowitt had to face remarks which showed that the events of 1929 had not been forgotten. Thus, on the day on which a general election was announced in February 1950, Jowitt entered the dining room at the House of Lords and took his seat at a table with some younger peers—Lords Mancroft, Tweedsmuir, and Fairfax of Cameron. Jowitt remarked that their future was brighter than his. Their political careers would not be seriously affected by the outcome of the election, whereas if Labour lost, he would lose his position and with it his flat in the Palace of Westminster and be obliged to find another residence. ‘I wonder whether there is any room in the vicarage at Bray,’ remarked Lord Mancroft to his neighbour in an audible aside. Jowitt did not pretend to be amused, and thereafter, whenever Lord Mancroft spoke, Jowitt left the Chamber” (R.F.V. Heuston, Lives of the Lord Chancellors 1940-1970, Oxford University Press, page 80).

In India, persons censured by commissions of inquiry or even courts of law do not incur such contempt. Attorneys General who manifestly lacked character remained in office. Two defectors who split their parties and conspired with the opposition became Prime Ministers—Charan Singh and Chandrasekhar. There was another candidate, too, one P.V. Narasimha Rao. The standard of British public life has declined steeply since Margaret Thatcher. It was intolerance of moral and financial corruption that had shaped politics for long, as the Jowitt incident shows.

At the root of the malfunctioning of its constitutional system is India’s utter and prolonged failure to evolve a viable, working political system in which political parties alternate at the seat of power. Ramshackle coalitions are a temporary palliative to counter a single party hegemon in power.

A strong opposition ensures that the conventions are obeyed. Before Independence we resented British criticisms on this score as excuses for not granting independence to India. The Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform (Sessions 1933-34) took a dim view of India’s ability to work “an unqualified system of parliamentary government”. It said: “Parliamentary government, as it is understood in the United Kingdom, works by the interaction of four essential factors: the principle of majority rule; the willingness of the minority for the time being to accept the decisions of the majority; the existence of great political parties divided by broad issues of policy, rather than by sectional interests; and finally the existence of a mobile body of public opinion, owing no permanent allegiance to any party and therefore able, by its instinctive reaction against extravagant movements on one side or the other, to keep the vessel on an even keel. In India none of these factors can be said to exist today. There are no parties, as we understand them, and there is no considered body of political opinion which can be described as mobile” (Volume 1 [Part I] Report, HMSO, London, 1934, HL 6 [Part 1], HCS [Part 1, ibid., page 11).

After Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964, people started saying that the Constitution was not suited to the Indian temperament and began clamouring for the presidential system. But with the conduct we have witnessed of that “temperament”, one wonders if it can sustain any other constitutional system, least of all the presidential one. The Aya Rams, Gaya Rams will, like Newt Gingrich, ensure deadlocks to exact their price and imperil democracy itself. There were and still are those who believe as Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru did in 1930: “I do not believe that we have yet got the necessary mentality for democratic forum of government.” On February 22, 1941, he wrote to the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Sir Maurice Gwyer: “I have never been so foolish as to imagine that in the best of circumstances we could reproduce in this country the conditions of British democracy” (Rima Hooja, Crusader for Self-Rule, Rawat Publications, Jaipur and New Delhi, pages 167 and 194).

Two decades earlier, a directly opposite view was expressed on August 13, 1919, before a Committee on Constitutional Reforms appointed by the British Government. It was by a member of the Congress and was based on personal experience. Lord Islington’s question and his reply are set out here. “What I want to get at is this: You would say that there are people in India who, though they be not literate, have a sufficient interest in the welfare of the country to entitle them to a vote? I think so, and I think they have a great deal of common sense.

“People who have that kind of common sense which would justify them having a vote? — Yes; I was astonished when I attended a meeting of mill hands in Bombay when I heard some of the speeches, and most of them were illiterates.” Another exchange is interesting. “You said you spoke from the point of view of India. You speak really as an Indian nationalist? — I do. Holding that view, do you contemplate the early disappearance of separate communal representation of the Mohammedan community? — I think so. That is to say, at the earliest possible moment you wish to do away in political life with any distinction between Mohammedans and Hindoos? — Yes. Nothing will please me more than when that day comes.

“You do not think it is true to say that the Mohammedans of India have many special political interests, not merely in India but outside India, which they are always particularly anxious to press as a distinct Mohammedan community? — There are two things. In India, the Mohammedans have very few things really which you can call matters of special interest for them — I mean secular things. I am only referring to them, of course? — And therefore that is why I really hope and expect that the day is not very far distant when these separate electorates will disappear.”

The witness was none other than M.A. Jinnah, which proves the utter falsity of Nehru’s charge that Jinnah was against mass politics. What went wrong then? It was Gandhi’s programme of civil disobedience and Nehru’s contempt for the British system and for the liberals who espoused it. They dominated the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. It was served by a Constitutional Adviser, Sir B.N. Rau, and elected a Drafting Committee with Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar as its head. Its members were lawyers of eminence like Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar and K.M. Munshi and men of wide experience in public affairs like Sir Gopalaswami Ayyangar, T.T. Krishnamachari, Sir Mohammed Saddulla of the Muslim League, and N. Madhava Rau.

Nehru’s discomfort

They had all drunk at the fount of the British constitutional system and parliamentary practice, some more deeply and admiringly than others. Jawaharlal Nehru savoured a different and far headier brew. His Autobiography poured scorn on Indian liberals of old, constitutionalists par excellence, for seeing things “through British spectacles of true-blue colour”. He was uncomfortable with the class composition of the Congress, no less. “Most of those who have shaped Congress policy during the last seventeen years have come from the middle classes. Liberal or Congressmen, they have come from the same class and have grown up in the same environment.… As the Congress became more and more representative of the rural masses, the gulf that separated it from the liberals widened, and it became almost impossible for the liberal to understand or appreciate the Congress view point. It is not easy for the upper-class drawing room to understand the humble cottage or the mud hut” ( Autobiography, page 416 and 420). Did Nehru?

The liberals believed that Indians should work the legislatures established by the Act of 1919 to gain experience in the parliamentary system. When, finally in 1937, the Congress accepted office under the Government of India Act, 1935, it was to use the provinces as another front in the freedom struggle. One episode illustrates that. Both Gandhi and Nehru were opposed to P.D. Tandon resigning from the Congress after his election as Speaker of the U.P. Assembly in accordance with British practice. This was the mindset. After Independence, the Speakers have always been the ruling party’s faithful.

Sources of corruption

Corruption reared its head even during the freedom movement, as Dr Tomlinson documented in his work The National Congress and the Raj, based on the archives. Subhas Chandra Bose was not above it. “This independence of outlook and action was the real source of Bose’s challenge to the established leaders. Even Bose’s financial resources were independent of those of the ‘Gandhians’. The main sources of funds open to the ‘right-wing’ leaders were donations from Indian businessmen negotiated by Patel, Desai, Bajaj and G.D. Birla. There was also the capital and interest on certain special appeal funds and the loans that could be raised on them. Nehru had no independent resources; he was completely dependent on the ‘Gandhians’ for money. Bose’s sources of income were smaller, but they were genuinely his own. He could rely on payments for favours shown to Bengali businessmen by the Bengal P.C.C. [Pradesh Congress Committee] and the Calcutta Corporation (as long as he controlled these bodies) and on ‘protection money’ from large industrial magnates in Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Orissa, given in return for good labour relations. He also had support from a group of non-Bengali businessmen, headed by the Delhi mill-owner Shankar Lal, and could use the funds of the Tropical Insurance Company (of which he and his brothers were directors and Shankar Lal Managing Director) to stabilise his finances. From these sources Bose managed to raise Rs.50,000 simply for the expenses of his delegates and canvassers at Tripuri” (pages 123-124). How much could the Rs.50,000 be worth now in 2017? Bad examples were set by the leaders during the freedom movement.

Gandhi’s movements were not free from use of violence by its participants. K.M. Munshi wrote of the Quit India Movement: “Truth to tell, what they did was anybody’s business. It was certainly not non-violent even at the start. Disruption of communications and destruction of public property provoked stern action by the Government, which in turn led to more reckless behaviour by the people—what Gandhiji later pithily described as ‘leonine violence’” ( Pilgrimage to Freedom, page 81).

The wise Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) predicted in an entry in his jail diary: “Elections and their corruption [ sic] injustice and life power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration.

“The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination. Hope lies only in universal education by which right conduct, fear of God and love will be developed among the citizens from childhood. It is only if we succeed in this that Swaraj will mean happiness. Otherwise it will mean grinding injustices and tyranny of wealth.”

Weak constitutional morality

As Dr Ambedkar warned the Constituent Assembly, on November 4, 1948, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only topdressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” ( CAD, Volume VII, page 38).

He was implying, no doubt, that things would improve under the Constitution and that it would help to instil and strengthen constitutional morality which is indispensable for its own survival. Now, decades later, one finds that constitutional morality in India is far weaker than it was when the Constitution was being drafted. There is no gainsaying the reality of the Indian achievement in working a parliamentary system despite grave handicaps. We have erected a democratic edifice on feudal ground. But this achievement is now at stake because we have failed to instil in our polity the values which alone can sustain the Constitution. In the main it is the leaders who are to blame.

As Walter Lippmann wrote: “There is no mechanical gadget by which the moral level of public life can be maintained. There is no spasm of popular righteousness which will raise it much for very long. … In the realm of morals, the example set by the prominent is decisive. It is far more important than the exposure of the wicked. In fact, the example of the prominent shows those who administer and enforce the laws what is expected of them.”

India did worse than fail to evolve a party system. It distorted its shape in a manner that no self-respecting democracy will accept. It reduced MPs and MLAs to bondsmen. This alone suffices to reduce democratic governance to a farce. In the U.K., for instance, the party ticket is awarded by the constituency party and the political parties are so organised. An MP owes no debt to the central leadership; he can defy it so long as his constituents stand by him. He can refuse to obey the party whip on a matter of conscience. The party in power rests on MPs with an independent political base. They have the capacity to rebel. The Indian system not only warps democracy but also freedom.

The Chief Minister owes his job to “the high command” and can only meekly assert his State’s rights vis-a-vis the Centre. He cannot select Cabinet Ministers, nor expand the Cabinet nor advise dissolution of the Assembly to enforce discipline. The Governor is the Centre’s man. In sum, parliamentary government at the State level exists only in form. At the Centre, deviations from the norm are common. The high command has a say on the composition of the Cabinet.

Which other democracy is plagued with defections and distorted by anti-defection laws? Confidence in the integrity and independence of the Speaker is indispensable to the working of the parliamentary system. In India this precondition is absent. Coalitions in Uttar Pradesh provide for change of Speakers when each party takes its turn to form a government. Kashmir has a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) man as Speaker.

The Supreme Court of 2017 is a pale and very disturbing shadow of the court we had and respected in its early years. The doctrine of a “committed judiciary” and the supersession of three of the most senior judges in 1973 robbed the judges of self-confidence and even self-esteem. A good few became populist, in judgments and on public platforms. On sensitive issues judges shirk their duty boldly to do justice even if it invites unpopularity. The right to free speech, minority rights, the right to individual liberty against a state which curtails it in the name of “terrorism” are some of the topics on which the court fails almost invariably. When it comes to Kashmir, the court beats a magnified retreat. One judge refused to touch Longowal’s habeas corpus case. He became the Chief Justice of India. If this be the surrender on Punjab, what do you expect on Kashmir?

It is not the Constitution which has failed the nation. It is the leaders who betrayed the trust which the framers of the Constitution reposed in them. Two pronouncements by Dr Ambedkar record that trust. One was on November 25, 1949: “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of the state such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of these organs of the state depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?” ( CAD, Volume XI, page 975). He added that it was futile to pass any judgment upon the Constitution without reference to the part which the people and their parties are likely to play.

The other pronouncement, on November 4, 1948, is more telling: “I feel that it [the Constitution] is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in war time. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was Vile” ( CAD, Volume VII, pages 43-44).

Space & nuclear power

Space flights, nuclear power and a missile shield

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

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IF India is one of the top players in the world in space, nuclear power and missiles despite embargoes and technology-denial regimes heaped on it, a large share of the credit should go to the founding fathers of these programmes, Vikram Sarabhai, Homi J. Bhabha and Air Vice Marshal V.S. Narayanan respectively. Those who came after them built on this foundation to make the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) institutions that earned the respect of the world.

Success upon success has visited ISRO in the past several years. It successfully put into orbit its spacecraft around Mars in its first attempt on September 24, 2014. The spacecraft completed 1,000 earth days in its orbit on June 19, 2017, well beyond its designated mission life of six months. Its mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, was the first to discover the presence of water molecules on the lunar surface soil and rocks.

On June 5, 2017, ISRO’s first developmental flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-MkIII D1), its heaviest vehicle yet at 640-tonne, successfully put a satellite, GSAT-19, weighing 3,136 kg into orbit, the heaviest to be put into orbit from India. Each of the launch vehicle’s three stages, including its indigenous cryogenic stage, is the heaviest ISRO has built so far.

This came on top of the four straight successful launches of the GSLV-MkII with an indigenous cryogenic engine and 39 successful flights in a row of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) since 1994, with the 38th launch, on February 15, putting a world record number of 104 satellites into orbit. In fact, the PSLVs have put into orbit 209 satellites from abroad, earning big money for Antrix, the commercial wing of the Department of Space.

Today ISRO has the capability to build any type of launch vehicle and any type of satellite that it can launch into any type of orbit. “We have achieved real self-reliance in all areas of launch vehicle technology,” says K. Sivan, Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram.

As for satellites, the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bengaluru has built a whole range of satellites, for communication, remote-sensing, prediction of weather, navigation, cartography, surveillance, ocean studies and education, besides science satellites Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter and Astrosat. Also on its list is an orbiter to Venus, which will have a balloon experiment to study Venus’ atmosphere. Beginning with Aryabhata in 1975, ISAC has so far rolled out 96 satellites.

ISRO’s sights are now set on the totally indigenous Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will involve getting a lander carrying a rover to softland on the lunar surface. The orbiter, the lander and the rover will together weigh 3,250 kg. M. Annadurai, Director, ISAC, said ISRO was aiming for a launch in the first quarter of 2018.

Aryabhata and the two earth observation satellites that followed, Bhaskara-1 and Bhaskara-2 were launched by Russian rockets, and they were followed by APPLE (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment), India’s first experimental communication satellite, launched by the Ariane rocket of the European Space Agency (ESA) from French Guiana. After Professor U.R. Rao became its Chairman in 1984, ISRO came into its own, building full-fledged remote-sensing satellites that are used in agriculture, fishing, and mapping of urban and rural areas.

Using information provided by India’s satellites in low-earth and geostationary orbits, information about the weather over the Indian subcontinent is provided to the India Meteorological Department (IMD) every 15 minutes now. This information is augmented by images coming from Oceansat-2 and SCATSAT-1. In fact, data from SCATSAT-1, which was put into orbit by PSLV-C35 on September 26, 2016, was used to monitor the flood situation in Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in July 2017.

ISRO also has in orbit a constellation of seven navigation satellites, which, according to Annadurai, “are among the fastest realised systems [in the world]”.

A key focus area of ISRO is building reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). In fact, the RLV programme crossed a milestone on May 23, 2016, with the launch and return of a winged RLV-TD in a scaled configuration that flew at a hypersonic speed. On August 28, 2016, ISRO took the next steps towards reducing the cost of access to space when a modified two-stage vehicle developed by the VSSC used air-breathing propulsion in its scramjet engine.

In five decades, ISRO’s has been a remarkable journey in space, which began in the 1960s with the launch of a ‘pencil-rocket’ that reached a height of a few kilometres with a couple of kilograms of propellants.

Nuclear power

The need for total self-sufficiency is what guides India’s three-stage nuclear power programme too. The DAE has achieved this while building Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), which forms the first stage, and is all set to usher in the second stage when the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, goes critical in December 2017. The PFBR, says Kallol Roy, CMD of Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI), is meant to be a techno-economic demonstration of large fast reactors to be built in series. It will be a big jump from the 13 MWe Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam. BHAVINI, the DAE’s public sector undertaking responsible for building breeder reactors, plans to build four more breeder reactors, including two at Kalpakkam. Once the PFBR becomes operational and delivers 500 MWe power to the grid, says Kallol Roy, it will “serve as a stepping stone towards long-term energy security for the country”.

Questions have been asked about why India is pressing ahead with breeders when advanced countries have given them a wide berth. But the French nuclear scientist George Vendryes has gone on record that India is on “the right path” and that he “admired India” for what it is doing ( Frontline, August 25, 2006).

While the PHWRs use natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as both coolant and moderator, the fast breeder reactors use plutonium-uranium mixed oxide as fuel. In the third stage, reactors using thorium as fuel will be built. The three stages are interlinked.

Today, India has 22 reactors with an installed capacity of 6,780 MWe. Of these, 18 are PHWRs. Four, two each at Tarapur and Kudankulam, are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) that use enriched uranium as fuel and light water as coolant. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), DAE’s flagship PSU, is building four indigenous 700 MWe PHWRs—two each at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan and Kakrapar in Gujarat—and they are in an advanced stage of construction.

On May 17, 2017, the Union Cabinet approved the construction of 10 more 700 MWe PHWRs. They are to come up at Gorakhpur in Haryana, Chutka in Madhya Pradesh, Kaiga in Karnataka, and Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan. “If the NPCIL was earlier building reactors in pairs, it will build the 10 new units in a fleet mode as a fully home-grown initiative,” says N. Nagaich, Director (HR), NPCIL. The 10 reactors are expected to generate manufacturing orders worth Rs.70,000 crore to Indian industry that can generate around 34,000 jobs in direct and indirect employment.

The two Russian PWR reactors of 1000 MWe each at Kudankulam are already generating electricity and construction work has begun on two more such reactors on June 29.

Having mastered the PHWR technology and all set to herald the breeder reactors’ era, the DAE has set its sights on building 900 MWe PWRs, which will use enriched uranium as fuel. The DAE gained enormous experience in this area when it developed the 80MWt PWR which powers India’s nuclear-powered submarine Arihant.

The 63-year old DAE is an empire that has 64 organisations under its belt, including PSUs, research centres, academic institutions and industrial organisations that are involved in the entire gamut of activities relating to nuclear electricity generation.

The nerve-centre of the DAE is the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay, Mumbai. It is perhaps the largest R & D facility in the world where the widest spectrum of activities in nuclear science and technology and many other areas are carried out. It has done remarkable work in radiation medicine, nuclear agriculture, irradiation of mangoes, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and spices to prevent their decay and sprouting, radio astronomy, lasers, accelerators, fusion, cryogenics, plasma and so on. Its scientists specialise in supercomputers, robotics, artificial intelligence, superconductivity and virtual reality.

K.N. Vyas, Director, BARC, calls it “a technology powerhouse” that has blended multi-disciplinary skills in basic sciences and engineering disciplines to address the technological challenges of atomic energy. Dhruva, a high-flux reactor at BARC, Trombay; notable capability in synthetic organic chemistry; and expertise in radiochemical processing have been instrumental in developing novel radiopharmaceuticals. After undergoing quality checks and trials in collaboration with Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, they have been released for cancer treatment, says Vyas. Radiopharmaceuticals have also been produced by a medical cyclotron available with BARC.

BARC’s contribution to cancer treatment includes the Bhabhatron, a cobalt teletherapy machine, whose capability has been enhanced to ensure that the radiation dose is delivered precisely to the tumour. It has also developed tiny iodine125-based brachytherapy sources, encased in thin titanium shells, for treating eye cancers.

Vyas says BARC has developed a sewage sludge hygienisation technology, wherein high energy gamma radiation from cobalt 60 source inactivates pathogens, kills weeds, degrades chemical contaminants and enables inoculation with useful bio-nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium bacteria, converting the waste sludge into manure. A dry sludge hygienisation plant, with a capacity of 100 tonnes a day, is being built for Ahmedabad municipal corporation.

Through genetic enhancement, BARC has developed and released, in collaboration with agriculture universities, more than 40 different crop varieties, among them groundnut, urad bean, channa, moong, black gram, pigeon pea, rice, mustard, jute and soya bean, that are high-yielding varieties and resistant to diseases and drought. A semi-dwarf aromatic mutant of Dubraj rice called Trombay Chattisgarh Dubraj Mutant-1, with an improved yield of 35 per cent and 15 days less of maturity period, will soon be released in collaboration with the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya, Raipur.

BARC has also developed a supercomputer called Anupam Agnaya with a capacity of 270 terraflops, spectroscopes for ISRO’s missions to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) and Mars, and lightweight bullet-proof jackets for armed forces’ personnel.

DRDO

In the field of defence research India has a massive empire in the form of the DRDO whose range of activities is staggering. Set up with 10 laboratories on January 1, 1958, it now boasts more than 52 big laboratories situated in different parts of the country. These laboratories can be categorised into seven clusters: aeronautics, missiles and strategic systems, electronics, computational systems, armaments and naval systems, strategic systems, and materials and life sciences. They develop everything that the armed forces need: missiles, main battle tanks, combat aircraft, infantry combat vehicles, bridge-laying tanks, underwater vehicles, radars, sonars, smart materials, stealth technologies, high explosives, torpedoes, parachutes, aerostats, lasers, nano-tubes, robots, desalination plants, assault rifles and so on.

Other products they have developed include foldable stretchers, self-heating socks and gloves for soldiers posted in the rarefied heights of Siachen, underground shelters for use in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, ready-to-eat chapatis, nutritional bars, protein-rich food and so on.

However, it is the portfolio of missiles DRDO has developed at its missile complex in Hyderabad that makes India proud. The complex has three facilities: Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), and the Research Centre, Imarat (RCI). In the portfolio are surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles (SAM), air-to-ground, air-to-air, anti-tank, underwater-launched and supersonic cruise missiles.

In the future, says G. Satheesh Reddy, Director-General (Missiles and Strategic Systems), DRDO, the thrust will be on high-energy propellants, high temperature materials and coatings, sensors and detectors, radomes and material technologies, and highly miniaturised, low-cost and accurate integrated avionics. DRDO will be looking to “establish focussed research centres in specific technologies in R and D centres and academic institutions” to achieve these objectives.

Among the missiles in India’s arsenal, the interceptors form the building blocks of its ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield. They can intercept an enemy missile in the exo-atmosphere (above an altitude of 80 km) or the endo-atmosphere (at an altitude of 15 km to 35 km) and pulverise them either in a “hit-to-kill”, which is a head-on collision, or in a “proximity kill”. The interceptor missions launched from Abdul Kalam Island (formerly Wheeler Island) off the Odisha coast have been spectacular successes, with most of them scoring direct hits on incoming “enemy” missiles simulating the trajectory of ballistic missiles with a range of about 2,000 km.

The exo-atmospheric interceptor is a completely indigenously developed missile with critical technologies such as infra-red seeker, and control and guidance and propulsion systems developed in-house and supported by Indian industry through an ecosystem that DRDO nurtured. The endo-atmospheric interceptor missile features a radio-frequency seeker and an advanced dynamic control system.

The BMD, in the first phase, has been conceived to take care of enemy missiles coming from a distance of 2,000 km. In the second phase it will take care of missiles with a range of 5,000 km. Its critical elements, dispersed across the country, include interceptor missiles, command, control, communication, computer and intelligence (C4I) systems, long-range radars and so on. Only the United States, Russia and Israel have BMD shields.

India’s fleet of surface-to-surface missiles is helmed by the Agni series, Agni-I, II, III, IV and V, which are all strategic missiles armed with nuclear warheads and the bulwark of India’s nuclear deterrence. The single-stage Agni-I has a range of about 750 km and the two-stage, 17-tonne Agni-II has a range of 2,000 km. Agni-III, weighing 50 tonnes, is a quantum jump and it can take out targets 3,000 km away. Agni-IV, with its motor casings made of composites, weighs only 17 tonnes and it can reach targets 4,000 km away. Agni-V, with a range of 5,000 km, is a “game changer”, says Avinash Chander, former Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and former DRDO Director General. The Army has deployed Agni-I, II, III and IV. Four consecutive flights of Agni-V have been successful, with the third and fourth launches taking place from canisters positioned on trucks.

The BMD and the strategic Agni series establish India as a formidable missile power in the world, says a DRDO missile technologist who did not want to be named.

In the SAM class, a success story is the development of the Akash missile. The Army and the Air Force possess it and both have placed production orders of more than Rs.20,000 crore for Akash, which can hit aircraft and helicopters flying 25 km away. “The maturity of private manufacturing agencies in key defence applications is highlighted by the fact that about 85 per cent of the Akash missile systems is supplied by them,” says Satheesh Reddy.

In 2016, DRDO began two new projects of Akash. The first one called Akash New Generation will feature solid propulsion, an electro-mechanical control system, an active radio-frequency seeker and a laser proximity fuse. The system can search, track and fire while engaging 10 targets that fly up to an altitude of 25 km. Akash New Generation has not been tested yet. The second, Akash-Mark 1S, will be tested in the technology demonstrator mode to upgrade the earlier version with an RF seeker.

A new indigenously developed Quick Reaction SAM (QRSAM) has been tested this year. It can search for targets on the move, track them on the move and fire at multiple targets that are flying 30 km away. According to DRDO sources, two advanced SAMs, one each for the Navy and the Air Force, will become operational soon. The Long Range SAMs (LRSAMS), with a range of 70 km, has been developed jointly by DRDO and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the Indian Navy. The three destroyers of the Navy will soon boast of LRSAMs, the flight trials of which were conducted in September 2016 and were aimed at proving three interception scenarios against manoeuvring targets. A medium-range SAM has been developed jointly by DRDO and the IAI for the Air Force, and the flight trials took place in June and July 2016.

Astra, the air-to-air missile, with a capability to destroy aircraft flying in a range of up to 60 km, has been inducted into the Air Force on the Sukhoi-30. This indigenous missile, with variants for extended range, will provide the Air Force the fire power to engage targets at various standoffs.

India’s underwater-launched K-15 missile has a range of 700 km, and flight trials of another underwater-launched missile, the K-4, with a range of 3,000 km, have taken place from submerged pontoons.

In the development of missiles, RCI, an avionics laboratory with a mandate to design and develop advanced avionics technologies, plays an important role. It has developed “systems and sub-systems in the critical areas of navigation, control actuation systems, power supplies, imaging seekers, RF seekers, onboard computers, radomes and antennae, and so on,” says Satheesh Reddy, who was formerly Director, RCI.

Indeed, with such an array of sophisticated laboratories, defence-related research looks set to conquer new frontiers that will help DRDO grow and expand its empire.

Politics

Creed above country: Rise of the Right

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Writing to Members of Parliament a few days before the vice-presidential election, held on August 5, 2017, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the joint candidate of 18 political parties belonging predominantly to the opposition, invoked the speeches and statements made by four legendary leaders of India at the cusp of Independence. His objective in citing Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, B.R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—in that order—was to highlight the idea of India that these freedom fighters had cherished when the nation was making a new beginning on August 14-15, 1947. The apprehensions too that each of them had even while hoping for an illustrious future for the country was ingrained in these articulations. Collectively, the hopes and apprehensions expressed in their comments underscored the vision and farsightedness of these statesmen. The act of highlighting them, Gopalkrishna Gandhi pointed out, was part of an attempt to look back at the past seven decades of independent India and evaluate how responsibly the aspirations and concerns had been addressed during this period. Interestingly, strains of their points of view would seem like commentaries on the state of affairs, 70 years later, in contemporary India.

For instance, in a speech made at the special midnight session of the Constituent Assembly on the night of August 14-15, 1947, S. Radhakrishnan, who later became India’s first Vice President, talks about “our national faults of character, our domestic despotism, our intolerance, which have assumed different forms of obscurantism, of narrow-mindedness, of superstitious bigotry” and warns that “our opportunities are great but... when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days”. Gopalkrishna Gandhi highlights the “penetrating vision” of the “father of the Indian Constitution”, Ambedkar, who, in his speech at the same midnight session, stated: “Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against.”

Speaking from Kolkata a day before this Constituent Assembly session, Mahatma Gandhi drew attention to “the perils of sectarian divisions” that confronted independent India and the “responsibility” that this brought upon the country. Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s letter to MPs quotes the father of the nation: “From tomorrow we shall be delivered from the bondage of British rule. But from midnight tonight India will be partitioned. While therefore tomorrow will be a day of rejoicing, it will be a day of sorrow as well. It will throw a heavy responsibility upon us. Let us pray to God that He may give us strength to bear it worthily....”

The letter adds that Jawaharlal Nehru’s emphasis too was on the responsibility that freedom and power brought. Addressing the nation from Parliament, Nehru stated: “Freedom and power bring responsibility. That responsibility rests upon this assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India.”

The four leaders represented different political and ideological shades and nuances within the national movement, but at the cusp of independence there was a convergence of sorts as to what should represent the core of the political processes in the country. Classified into broad categories, they emphasised freedom and power with responsibility, overcoming despotism, intolerance, obscurantism and bigotry, all along making sure that the nation was placed over any kind of creed.

Indeed, political, social and cultural tendencies that violated the fundamental tenets identified by these statesmen had come up in India during their lifetimes. In Gandhiji’s case it made a dastardly appearance in his death at the hands of the Hindutva communalist Nathuram Godse, who shot him in 1948, less than a year into independent India. Still, the principles identified by these leaders formed an important part of the overall political discourse during the early years of independent India.

S. Radhakrishnan was the last of the four leaders to pass away, in April 1975. The monumental and perilous fall of Indian democracy into the Emergency, imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was still two months away. The Emergency in June 1975 was unambiguously the most foreboding event in the 28-year-old history of Indian democracy. It was also the most momentous violation, until then, of the tenets laid out by the founding fathers, marked as it was by gross negation of democratic and citizens’ rights, including freedom of speech, expression and movement, as also the propagation of intolerance and bigotry under a despotic regime.

Over four decades from that abominable juncture in the history of the nation and in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Independence, the message that once again emanates from a number of major political developments centres around the blatant violations of the principles advanced by the founding fathers of the Constitution and governance systems.

Intolerance and arrogant patriotism

Instances of this nature have abounded in the past several months, but to list the prominent ones closest to the 70th anniversary, one needs to look at the happenings that have a connection of sorts to the new Vice President’s election. Specifically, this relates to the manner in which the outgoing Vice President, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, was treated by some of the leaders as well as the self-proclaimed “social media warriors” of the ruling party and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. In media interactions and public engagements towards the end of his tenure, Hamid Ansari had raised the plight of the marginalised sections of society in general and the perceptions of heightened threat and insecurity among some of these communities in recent times. He had pointed out that there were “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”.

He had also said that “the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism” and that “it promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism”. Ansari had termed this as hyper-nationalism, which entailed a closing of the mind that is also a manifestation of the insecurity about one’s place in the world. Quoting S. Radhakrishnan, Ansari had stated that “a democracy is distinguished by the protection it gives to minorities” and that it was “likely to degenerate into tyranny if it does not allow the opposition groups to criticise fairly, freely and frankly the policies of the government”.

The response to these observations from the Hindutva “social media warrior” groups was extremely spiteful and communally sectarian. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary Kailash Vijayavargiya said the outgoing Vice President’s remarks were an “insult to the country” and that it had “damaged the country’s image”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and M. Venkaiah Naidu became party to this vituperative exercise though without being directly abusive. Both Modi and Naidu addressed Ansari directly at his farewell function. Modi stated that “it is possible that there was some restlessness within you [Ansari] as well but from today you will not face that crisis”. This was widely perceived as Modi’s reference to Ansari’s “restlessness” under a BJP regime and the deliverance from the “crisis” of holding a constitutional office under this regime. Naidu sought to dismiss outright all the concerns flagged by his predecessor.

Responses from different segments of the polity, including the grass-roots, have sought to underscore the duplicity and deceit ingrained in the argumentations of the ruling dispensation as well as its political-organisational structure. Varanasi-based grass-roots social activist and political analyst, Kumar Mangalam Appu Singh, who focusses on empowerment issues of the marginalised communities in Uttar Pradesh, said the contentions of the BJP leaders did not stand up to scrutiny. “What they are trying to do is to camouflage and push things under the carpet. What Hamid Ansari has flagged are the right concerns agitating the grass-roots across the country, and particularly in north India. In fact, the very manner in which these people have responded to somebody like Ansari ji exposes the level of discrimination that exists in our polity and society,” he said.

Appu Singh also pointed out that reports from all parts of the country upheld Ansari’s point. Incidents from Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) to Una (Gujarat) to Ballabgarh (Haryana) have repeatedly underscored this. “But all that matters to Sangh Parivar apologists is the hegemony of Hindutva at the level of politics and society. And they are going all out to make this a unidimensional sociopolitical entity,” he said.

Evidently, the ruling forces have created a situation that Ambedkar saw as a grave danger to India’s existence and independence—a situation where creed is placed above country and one in which independence is put in jeopardy. Talking to Frontline, Gopalkrishna Gandhi said that he had referred, in his letter to MPs, to “a subtle fear pervading our politics today”, essentially on the basis of the imposition of the political practice of “creed over country”. Reiterating it, he said that this “converts a majority from an honest weightage of democratic opinion into majoritarianism, the very antithesis of democracy”.

The Emergency and after

Interestingly, the strengthening of the Hindutva Right, which has led to massive infringements on democratic rights, is also in some ways related to the struggle for democracy and against the Emergency in the 1975-77 period. The challenge then to democratic and citizens’ rights resulted in a broad unity among a large section of the people cutting across ideological, political, social and cultural divides. The left-of-centre socialists inspired by the ideas of Ram Manohar Lohia, the freedom fighter who worked closely with Gandhi and Nehru, the Marxist Left led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Hindutva Right guided and controlled by the RSS-led Sangh Parivar were all part of the struggle waged against the Congress party, which was led by Nehru’s daughter but had conspicuously moved away from the ideals delineated by the country’s first Prime Minister. Both this struggle and the success in defeating the forces of the Emergency one and a half years later, through the elections of 1977, marked the unleashing and strengthening of diverse social, cultural and political forces representing both progressive and regressive ideologies.

The Hindutva Right, the left-of-centre socialists and a section of the Congress that had revolted against Indira Gandhi’s leadership joined hands to form the Janata Party in the immediate aftermath of the 1977 electoral success. This new party formed the government at the Centre, but obvious ideological differences led to the breakdown of the political outfit and the government. But by then, the RSS had gained legitimacy in Indian polity, which it had never hoped to achieve earlier. The acceptance of the organisation by some leaders such as Jayprakash Narayan of the anti-Emergency struggle and the Janata Party contributed in a big way to this legitimisation.

The 1980s and 1990s, the two decades that followed the Emergency, marked the rise of identity politics of different characters and denominations. One of them was the Hindutva-oriented identity politics that sought to take the idea of pan-Hindu politics to new areas. Broadly following a paradigm etched out by Lohia, the marginalised Other Backward Classes (OBCs) advanced their own form of identity politics under the auspices of the erstwhile Socialist parties that had divided into several regional parties.

The stream of Ambedkarite ideas on empowerment of the most downtrodden Dalits also gathered new wind as a special stream of assertive politics through leaders like Kanshiram and Mayawati. The assertion of these diverse streams and the consequent carving out of electoral support bases led to a period of political instability signified by hung parliaments and coalition governments.

Parallel to this, the political economy of the 1990s witnessed the widespread implementation of neoliberal economic policies by the Congress and other governments. The Congress and the Hindutva Right were the prime movers of this political economy in practice, but the Left—particularly of the Lohiaite Socialist variety—was unable to evolve a cogent and concrete response to this both at the level of governance and as mass movements. Amidst this, the Hindutva Right moved on, pursuing communal pan-Hindu politics at one level and assimilating neoliberal economic policies at another.

There were visions of a brief course correction in terms of larger polity when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was dependent on the Left to sustain its government during the 2004-09 period. The collapse of that political understanding and the formation of a UPA government on its own in the 2009-14 period also strengthened the Hindutva Right, particularly on account of the many corruption scandals that came up against several Ministers of that period. In many ways, the UPA government of 2009-14 became the “Weimar Republic” foundation for the formation of the Modi-led NDA government in 2014.

Yet another development in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Independence is the fact that the present ruling dispensation and its political masters are bent on creating and enforcing this majoritarianism at whatever means and cost. This manifested itself in the manner in which the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat, the home State of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, was fought with the express objective of defeating the Congress bigwig Ahmed Patel. Implementing the so-called Indian system of power machinations involving saam, daan, bhed, dand (combination of peaceful, beneficial, discriminatory and forceful methods), Shah directly led this Rajya Sabha election campaign, wooing and terrorising members of the Legislative Assembly belonging to other parties, including the principal opposition Congress. At the end of it all, these ploys did not succeed, and Ahmed Patel won by a whisker.

But as the Lucknow-based political commentator Professor Sudhir Panwar pointed out, beyond the immediate result of the elections there was a larger objective, and an understanding of the intent of the BJP and the Modi regime was required to make sense of the state of politics 70 years after Independence. “This larger intent is to create a political state where there is no opposition, either at the level of realpolitik and in its electoral and legislative forums or at the ideological level in the form of propagation and expression of alternative views, concepts and ideas,” he said.

Panwar added that when one considered the happenings close to the 70th anniversary of Independence it was not just the manner in which the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections were fought that unravelled this. He said: “The manner in which the final struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was dealt with using blatant force against activists, including Medha Patkar, is the manifestation at the level of non-electoral opposition. But then, if you look around the country it is not one people’s movement on the Sardar Sarovar project that is being oppressed like this. Hundreds of other similar people’s movements are facing the same situation day in and day out. All this signifies a larger social and political context.” Panwar was of the view that even a person with basic political understanding would know that these dimensions fit in with the establishment of an authoritarian and fascist regime, whatever be its minute classifications and nuances.

Suppression of alternative thinking

The historian M.G.S. Narayanan also finds a growing tendency in the current ruling regime to control all facets of life, whether it is politics or social equations or culture or culinary habits. “Put simply, it is suppression of all forms of alternative thinking, not to speak of dissent,” he said. According to Narayanan, the political practice of all hues and colours that have held varying degrees of sway and influence over India’s polity have contributed to this state of affairs as we complete seven decades of independence as a nation.

He said: “The political and social positions adopted by the Congress since the early years of governance at the Centre have all been honed to extremities and converted to hugely politically rewarding platforms by the Sangh Parivar organisations. These include the pursuit of nationalism and religious symbolism of the Hindu variety. The politics of assertion followed by the self-professedly social justice-oriented parties of the Marxist and socialist variety have also been appropriated in varying degrees by the different Sangh Parivar outfits. As this process developed, these political forces contributed also to the whittling of government institutions.”

As repeatedly elucidated to this writer by the late Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans, a prominent leader of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation in the 1980s and 1990s, the Sangh Parivar is not pursuing politics for just governance or social and economic development but as an instrument to achieve the larger goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. Paramahans, who passed away in 2004, was of the view that social justice-oriented and caste-based assertions of OBCs and Dalits were the biggest challenge to Hindutva and that the Sangh Parivar had evolved concrete plans to stave their threat off by the late 1990s. Of course, it took another decade for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to get those “concrete plans” to work.

The tactics and strategy employed by the Sangh Parivar to advance its political project, its realpolitik and electoral manifestations fit in well with the history of fascist political and organisational practices as analysed by Dave Renton in his seminal work Fascism, Theory and Practice (Pluto Press, 1999). “Fascism thrives on bitterness and alienation, both of which capitalism nourishes with regular doses of unemployment and crisis. This fuels despair, which further stimulates fascism to grow. Fascism lives off racism, sexism and elitism, while capitalism promotes its own prejudices, guised as common-sense beliefs, which seem to fit people’s experiences, while effectively holding them back from challenging the system. Capitalism generates the myths of racism and elitism, which fascists use for themselves.” Citing the experiences of countries such as Italy, Renton says that by building itself as an independent force, fascism is capable of making the most revolutionary promises, including refuge for the politically homeless, for the socially uprooted, the destitute and the disillusioned.

However, Panwar points out that like all fascist establishments of the past and the present, these revolutionary promises remain on paper, as the primary economic facilitator and promoter of fascism is capitalism. “The world over, there are signs of a revival of nuanced fascism in diverse forms, and the new forms of capitalism, including crony capitalism, is facilitating these diverse forms. One could say that among the practitioners worldwide of this devious political practice, what we have in India is one of the most organised, well-entrenched and effective practices. It is corrupt and has a symbiotic relationship with capitalism, especially the agents of crony capitalism,” he said. Veteran Bihar politician and former Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwari is of the view that even in the midst of this association with crony capitalism, the BJP-Sangh Parivar establishment will continue to throw the history of the foibles of corruption at all political opponents and voices of resistance.

“So, the real resistance to this could be built up only by exposing the corruption of the BJP and Sangh Parivar leaderships as well as the governments and institutions run by them. But for that is required a resolute leadership that does not buckle under pressure or is not carried away by the lure of power,” he said. Tiwari is certain that only with the emergence of such a movement and leadership will the idea of India as envisioned by the founding fathers of the Constitution and democratic governance get revived in its true spirit.

Secularism

Inventing history to inculcate hatred

IRFAN HABIB cover-story

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When 70 years ago India obtained freedom it also got divided on religious grounds. It was a momentous decision on the part of the leadership of the major political party in India at that time—the Congress “High Command”—to keep the Indian Union free of any religious or sectarian colour. The phrase “democratic and secular” was commonly used for the state that was now envisaged. (I find it used, for example, in the Presidential Address at the Indian History Congress, Bombay, on December 26, 1947.) It is true that the word “secular” did not occur in connection with the nature of the prospective republic either in the Objectives Resolution passed by the Constituent Assembly in December 1946 or in the Constitution that came into effect on January 26, 1950. Yet, one finds Jawaharlal Nehru specifically saying in 1961 (and possibly also on earlier occasions) that “our Constitution lays down that we are a secular state”. It was, however, only in 1976 that the words “Socialist, Secular” were inserted in the Preamble to the Constitution so as to define India as a “Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic”. In formal terms, too, therefore, “secularism” obtained the status of a principle which should exercise a determining influence on interpretations of the detailed provisions of the Constitution.

Now, the word “secular” has a specific meaning, which needs to be carefully preserved. The word comes from the Late Latin word speculum, meaning “world”; and so “secular” literally means “worldly”, and, therefore, something that is non-spiritual or non-religious. Its more specific sense of a system of ethics is due to the ideas of J. Holyoake (1817-1906), who is supposed to have brought the word into the English language in 1851. In the words of the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, the word now referred to “the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life to the exclusion of all consideration drawn from belief in God or in a future state”, the words “future state” here doing duty for “afterlife”. The total exclusion of religion—no particular religion, but all religions—was emphasised by Holyoake himself when, in 1854, he said that he had chosen the word “secularism” as “expressing a certain positive and ethical element which the terms ‘Infidel’, ‘Sceptic’, ‘Atheist’ do not express”. When the term “secular” began to be applied also to the mode of education and then to a particular form of the state, it carried the same strict sense of totally excluding the influence of any religious belief or ritual in determining the content of a state’s laws or the nature of its executive action. It may here be mentioned that much before the term “secularism” came into use, the United States Constitution of 1787 and, particularly, the French Revolution of 1789-94, by barring religious influences from all conduct of state affairs, had already produced fair models of a secular state, the French being clearly the more radical one than the American.

Whenever the word “secular” is today used outside India in respect of the state it does not, therefore, mean just the pursuit of neutrality among religions, or dharm-nirpekshita as secularism is officially rendered in Hindi, but invokes a more positive notion of rational conduct, uninfluenced by the requirements of any religion or set of religions.

Yet, what is taken as the meaning of secularism worldwide was expressly rejected by Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher and India’s second President, in his book Recovery of Faith (1956), page 202, in a passage that is now apparently a standard quotation in Indian legal commentaries:

“When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an Unseen Spirit or the relevance of religion to life or that we exalt irreligion…. We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status or unique distinction.”

It is clear that Radhakrishnan here offers a definition of secularism which has no sanction and divests it of all significance. As we have seen, secularism all over the world is invoked to ensure that religious beliefs are excluded from affecting the policies and laws of the state, while Radhakrishnan insists that “religion” still remains a “relevant” source.

Supreme Court judgment on ‘religious instruction’

It is not the international sense of secularism but the one asserted by Radhakrishnan that has been accepted by the Indian judiciary to the extent that even explicit provisions of the Constitution have been set aside in its light, while his warning that not one religion should be given a unique position has been increasingly overlooked. This is illustrated by the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2003 in respect of the imparting of “religious instruction”, on which the Constitution in its Article 28 imposes clear restrictions. Educational institutions maintained by state funds are, by this article, absolutely barred from providing any “religious instruction” and even state-recognised or aided institutions cannot make such instruction compulsory for students. Yet, despite the clear language of the constitutional provisions, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 2003 claimed (quite unhistorically!) that most of our essential values have come from the mouths of “sanths and saints” and so held as if it was the duty of the state to provide “instruction in religion” in its schools. From the court’s own specific references it could be assumed that Hinduism was the main faith to turn to, with some space given half-heartedly to other religions. The judgment has sounded the death knell of secular education wherever the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come to hold the reins of power.

Radhakrishnan’s redefinition of “secularism” thus opened the way to its increasing subversion which has taken place with the growth in the power of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political front, the Jana Sangh, now renamed the BJP. From its foundation in 1925 until 1947, the RSS worked as a Hindu communal organisation with an openly fascist ideology, with no intention to take part in the national movement. Before and after Independence it conducted bitter propaganda against Muslims and against Gandhi ji, with its slogans of “Hindu Rashtra” and “Hindutva”, the latter term borrowed from V.D. Savarkar. Its hand in the communal massacres of 1947-48 was officially recognised as well as the fact that its members celebrated Gandhi ji’s murder on January 30, 1948. At the elections of 1952 and afterwards it bitterly opposed the proposal for the Hindu Code, which was finally legislated in 1955-56, giving women rights that had been denied to them for millennia. To this body Radhakrishnan’s definition of secularism is probably quite acceptable, and for the past 20 years, if not more, we have heard spokesmen of the RSS and the BJP loudly denouncing “pseudo-secularism” by which they obviously mean secularism in the proper sense of the word.

It will, however, be inaccurate to attribute the growth of communalism in India solely to the work of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. After Independence there was much bitterness within Congress ranks (which by 1947 had few Muslims left in them) over Partition and the subsequent treatment of Hindus in Pakistan (especially East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). Not only were riots frequent, but there was much official discrimination practised against Muslims in recruitment and promotions to official posts. Nehru himself in a letter to the United Provinces Chief Minister, Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, in April 1950 recognised the seriousness of the situation prevailing there, but his acute expression of distress had little immediate consequence. Credit should be given to the Communists, the main opposition party at the time, for their stout opposition to the communal forces. In actual fact, however, the bulk of the defenders, as well as opponents, of secularism were still to be found within the Congress itself.

Winds of change

It has been argued by Professor Bipan Chandra and his colleagues that it was the Jayaprakash Narayan-led mass movement of 1975, the subsequent Emergency (1975-77) and the opposition it aroused that made the RSS a respectable part of India’s political establishment. The Congress, however, recovered, though the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 in Delhi under its stewardship greatly tarnished its own anti-communal image. It is yet possible that the real change in the RSS’s favour came still later. We ought to remind ourselves of the transformation that took place all over the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Congress had, since its Avadi resolution of 1955, adopted “socialism” as its ultimate objective, and the construction of the public sector and, later, the nationalisation of a large part of the financial sector (banks, insurance) and coal mines under Indira Gandhi were seen as measures leading to socialism. As we have seen, words expressing the aspiration to make India a socialist republic were inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976. In 1980, even the new incarnation of the RSS-led Jana Sangh, the BJP, declared its adherence to the cause of “Gandhian socialism”. But the wind sharply changed direction in the closing years of the ensuing decade.

Around 1989-90, socialist regimes in Eastern Europe began to collapse, and in 1991 the Soviet Union itself was dissolved and the socialist system rapidly demolished there. The Indian economy received a great jolt through India’s loss of ties with the Soviet bloc, and there was therefore a total shift (“liberalisation”) in India’s economic policy. “Socialism”, of whatever kind, was now off the table for all parties, even those named “Samajvadi”, except for the two Communist parties. This sudden destruction of a widely held ideal provided rich ground for the spread of the RSS’s communal ideology posing as ultra-nationalism. The shift was marked by the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in December 1992, loudly proclaimed as a great national achievement. The synchronisation of this event with the worldwide shift to the Right is surely remarkable.

That event also established the sheer electoral value of communalism. Without any economic programme worth the name, except for the dismantling of the public sector and removal of constraints on Big Business, the BJP governed India from 1999 to 2004. The Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002 established Narendra Modi’s credentials as Chief Minister to govern Gujarat and then to become India’s Prime Minister 12 years later. Unburdened by the legacy of any ideological “socialist” baggage, the BJP can give all the possible concessions that Big Business may seek. The bland slogan “Make in India” is a happy replacement of the work of the Planning Commission whose demolition was one of the first acts of Modi’s government in 2014. In return, the BJP’s coffers, one supposes, are being duly filled. Devices such as “electoral bonds” are surely directed towards easing the process of corporate donations. The combination of communalism and collaboration from Big Business imparts to the present regime a seeming invincibility.

Elimination of reasoned thought in education

That invincibility is being further strengthened by the steady elimination of secular and reasoned thought in our educational system. The Prime Minister’s seat was once occupied by Jawaharlal Nehru, who argued constantly in favour of science and the scientific spirit and who laid the foundations of India’s large apparatus of scientific research. Modi, who has occupied Nehru’s seat fully 50 years after Nehru passed away, invokes the god Ganesha to sustain a claim of ancient Indians’ knowledge of plastic surgery and puts forth Karna as proof of Indians’ knowledge of genetic engineering in some distant age! To the shame of this country not a single eminent scientist in India took him to task for such claims, which may now well enter our textbooks in Central schools and the schools in most States. Already schemes are afoot to invent a new kind of mythical history to inculcate hatred of Muslims along with a virulent form of racial chauvinism.

Needless to say, India, except in some corners here and there, can now hardly be called a secular state. As I pick up the Sunday edition of a leading newspaper, I read in a piece by a supporter of the regime that there are leaders who look forward to the next lynching of Muslims after the hue and cry on the present one dies down. Perhaps, such acts will soon turn into cold statistics, so frequent that details would hardly bear reporting. All possible positions in governmental organisations and all the administrative and academic posts that the Central government can fill are being occupied by the RSS’s nominees, often with laughable qualifications. Even right-wing professionals and academics are not considered reliable enough (though an element of personal favouritism may also be involved here). By controlling grants and favours the BJP regime is manifestly enforcing silence and consent to a degree undreamt of under previous regimes, including even the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-I.

As secularism and reason are driven out, prejudice and ignorance extend their sway with disconcerting rapidity. At one level, we appear to be following in Pakistan’s footsteps, what we had refused to do in 1947. But we are not simply a country of four provinces like Pakistan, we are the second most populous country in the world. What happens here will be a disaster on a corresponding scale. One cannot help thinking of Germany, a country with such advanced culture, at the time the Nazis took possession of it 84 years ago. The same claims for the “Aryan” race, the same bitter prejudice against a minority (in Germany, the Jews), and the same collaboration with Big Business. The Nazis were successful not because they ever obtained support from the majority of the German people in elections, but because their opponents were divided, with some being won over by the Nazis, to be suppressed later. That process, too, we can now see coming to pass in India, the Bihar example being the latest instance, immediately celebrated by the beating up of three men because they were allegedly transporting meat: “We are in power now,” the mobsters are reported to have said.

A serious task awaits parties that are committed to a different future for the country, envisaging a truly secular democratic India, where reason and science might serve to sustain a welfare state. Perhaps the conflict over whether such a state would be socialist or a free market one can be postponed until the present crisis is over. Those in the Congress and other liberal parties may remember how Gandhi ji, a firm opponent of socialism, could combine with Nehru, an avowed socialist, to fight British imperialism. The Left parties may recall how Popular Fronts were formed in Europe in the mid-1930s to block the path of Fascism. Surely, anyone with any foresight can see that unless a broad unity of all secular forces is now forged in India, the country’s present slide into darkness will doubtless continue.

Education

Learning in a saffron-tinted market

MADHU PRASAD cover-story
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Anniversaries have a tendency to blur differences, to paint all strokes with the same brush. Seventy years of Indian independence makes one look over a historical and political landscape that appears in hindsight to have already contained the seeds of all that is happening today and hence conclude that nothing has actually changed; what had to happen has happened.

However, the truth is that history is made every day. Directions taken, as much as the failure to stay the course and choices made or not made, determine the present and the options that are open to us today. Equally, the choices now being made are not merely products of the past but are indications and auguries for the future. We ignore this at our own peril.

The privatisation and marketisation of education has been pursued since 1991 by all governments, whether they have been led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the United Front (UF) or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as it follows from the neoliberal conception of education as a “private good” and of knowledge as a tradable “commodity” or “service”. From the 1970s onwards, international finance capital has attempted to cope with recurring economic crises by “opening up” the entire range of human activities to penetration by private capital, diverting public funds and assets into private hands by launching public-private partnerships (PPP) in all areas.

Decline in funds for education

The present regime’s proposed National Policy of Education 2016 (NEP 2016), now appearing in a third avatar after the first two floundered, has already been preceded by executive decisions that indicate the direction in which it is headed.

First, government schools, colleges and universities are being starved of public funds in order to create space for private investment, national and foreign. The Central government’s spending on education as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) dipped from an already inadequate 0.69 per cent in Financial Year 2012 (from April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012) to 0.63 per cent by FY2014. After a plunge down to 0.55 per cent in FY2015, it further declined to 0.49 per cent in FY2016. The revised estimate for FY2017 was 0.48 per cent, while the Budget estimate at 0.47 per cent for FY2018 continues the downward trend (calculations of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and Mint). This is despite the fact that an Educational Cess of 3 per cent is imposed on everything that is purchased by any Indian citizen. Could State governments, many of which are struggling to implement the loan waivers promised to farmers after massive agitations on the one hand, and coming to terms with the GST (Goods and Services Tax) on the other, be expected to take up the financial responsibility for education? In a shocking indication to the contrary, the present Uttar Pradesh State government has cut budgetary funds this year by 42 per cent for secondary schools and by 90 per cent for colleges!

Secondly, the decision to scrap the no-detention policy and vocationalise the elementary curriculum for targeted regions and communities will drastically reduce the number of children from the deprived sections that will be able to access their fundamental right to education in any meaningful sense. The Minister of State of the Human Resource Development Ministry has clearly stated that the intention is not to detain students in order to improve their learning standards but to transfer them to skill-development programmes.

Damaging centralisation

Thirdly, centralisation in the form of single boards for all professional entrance examinations at State level and at an all-India level has unfortunately attracted media attention only as opening up huge avenues for corruption. Madhya Pradesh’s “Vyapam” admission and recruitment scam, involving politicians, senior officials and businessmen, is still to be adequately investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), although it involved the deaths of 49 people directly associated with it and reached up to the highest level of those in power. The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for entrance to professional higher education produced its own scandal involving leakage of question papers in at least six centres with the use of “share-in software”.

What has received little attention is that these tests are pedagogically damaging. They “standardise” merit according to the knowledge skills of a given elite section. This fails to reflect adequately the varied and unequal conditions of knowledge acquisition in India’s multi-track school system and jeopardises the interests, particularly of students from deprived sections and backward regions. Standardisation is a necessary demand of both the national and foreign investors who are being wooed to enter the higher education “market”. However, investment in state-funded education is needed to ensure access to all and, until that goal is achieved, to defend and extend social justice measures such as reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), minorities, girls, transgenders and the disabled, and provide necessary academic and infrastructural support such as adequate scholarships and hostels for students from these deprived sections.

Apart from this, centralisation has also facilitated the imposition of linguistic, regional and gender inequalities and other forms of social and personal oppression, including dress codes and extensive frisking for examinees.

The strategy of privatisation and marketisation of education has negatively impacted the most vulnerable sections of society. The fact of the impending exclusion of more than 80 per cent of the relevant age group from an education system that will increasingly cater only to those who can afford it is becoming evident to anyone who cares to face the facts and is now a major democratic concern. For, by the privatisation of a range of social necessities, these sections are being deprived of access not only to education but also to health, employment, food security, housing and public utilities.

A significant fallout of this process is that the democratic institutions which sustained the “welfare” states of the 20th century appear to be increasingly hollowed out as the state withdraws from the arena. With corporate interests taking over decision-making in the name of “efficiency” and “professional management”, not only does people’s control over their own lives shrink rapidly but the public space for resistance also tends to become delegitimised.

Students and teachers have already experienced this. The rising tide of protest actions in institutions and universities across the country against attacks on university autonomy, fee hikes, withdrawal and reduction of fellowships and arbitrary curriculum changes have been met with unconcealed attempts to muzzle dissent, disrupt student unity and derail protest movements by raising the bogey of “anti-national” forces.

Faced with this all-round assault, an All India Convention of Students’ Struggles held on August 5 and 6 in Bengaluru drew delegates from 59 national student organisations, organisations active at State or at institutional levels, and also from among activists of the upsurge of movements across the country. It was supported by teachers’ associations, including the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation (AIFUCTO) and the Federation of Central University Teachers Association (FEDCUTA). Academicians and public intellectuals attended in solidarity as observers.

The convention resolved to observe September 28, the birth anniversary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, as Save Democracy Day and demand an end to corporatisation of education. Representing the spirit of resistance evident among the youth, it resolved to collectively challenge the government’s privatisation policies, the Hindutva forces of the Sangh Parivar, and international forces driving India towards a global marketisation of education.

Intolerance of dissent

It is within the context of this struggle for democratic rights and the right to dissent that the present regime which has assumed office in 2014 requires to be assessed for the specific character that it has imparted to the neoliberal development policy. For, it has combined neoliberal policy with the Hindutva ideology of Hindu supremacy and a sociopolitical offensive in public life and within educational institutions in a form so virulent that it threatens the very conception and purpose of education, both for the individual and for society.

Rewriting history, bolstering and promoting dangerously prejudicial and retrogressive belief systems, reducing learning to the mere acquisition of skills geared to market needs, and maligning intellectual and sociopolitically sensitive critical inquiry as “extremist”, “anti-national” and a seditious threat to state security have become today’s common sense and are used as justification for current policy.

Free debate or discussion is neither encouraged nor tolerated; governmental dictates, frequently in violation of established statutes and norms of functioning in educational institutions, are routinely imposed.

The appointment primarily of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Sangh Parivar ideologues and sympathisers to top academic and administrative positions in all academic institutions and bodies threatens the credibility of research in the natural and social sciences and the future content and quality of investigative studies. The Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, an alumnus of Vadodara’s Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), succinctly expressed his concern when he urged the university administration to reconsider its promotion of sages from ancient India for their “contribution to science”. He found it “disappointing that the university chose to print an official diary that ascribes to figures from religious scriptures discoveries that belong to modern science, such as nuclear technology, airplanes and cosmetic surgery. The people who did this may think they are being patriotic, but in fact they are bringing disrepute to the university and to India generally.”

The necessary and vibrant exchange of ideas through campus interactions, seminars, conferences and publications is being severely restricted by vigilante censorship and policing of all such activities. The role of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, has been particularly disturbing. From physical assaults to prevent debates being held as at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, to the use of the organisation’s current political and administrative influence to deny permission for holding seminars and for suspending faculty members associated with organising them as at the Central University of Hyderabad and Rajasthan University, to threatening anyone it identifies as being “anti-national”, this organisation has been prominently involved in many campus “incidents”. The “disappearance” of Najeeb Ahmed, a research student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), apparently after an altercation and “scuffle” with ABVP supporters, adds a more sinister dimension, especially since this angle is not being pursued by the police.

And this is happening even as vigilante mobs inflict atrocities on Dalits and lynch Muslims in the name of “gau raksha”, a campaign of terror that has made a mockery of the rule of law in the country, generated revulsion among democratic sections and intensified the protests. Dadri, where Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched, sparking protests by writers and intellectuals; Una, where Dalit youths were flogged, leading to massive protests; Saharanpur, the site of a Thakur attack on Dalits where the Bhim Army emerged like a phoenix; and the public murder of 16-year-old Junaid Khan on a train from Delhi which led to thousands across several cities coming out in a spontaneous “Not in My Name” protest campaign. Not only students and activists but retired top-ranking veterans of the armed forces and bureaucrats joined the protest through open letters addressed to the Prime Minister himself. The armed forces veterans stated: “We can no longer look away. We would be doing a disservice to our country if we do not stand up and speak for the liberal and secular values that our Constitution espouses.”

Their resistance reflected anger at the fact that the administration appeared ineffective if not complicit, that police did not build credible cases against the culprits, and that the ruling Sangh Parivar/BJP either remained silent or vindicated these criminal actions and even “honoured” the perpetrators.

Economic interests

However, it is necessary to understand that there are serious economic interests behind the political backing that is so cynically being provided to these lynch mobs. The restrictions sought to be imposed by the Central government on the sale of cattle for slaughter is a severe attack on the economic interests and livelihood of dairy and other farmers and the tanning and leather industry. If enforced as law, the ban will devastate the rural economy and throw large sections of the population into joblessness and an uncertain future.

The truth is that the Central government has allowed 100 per cent foreign direct investment in March 2017 through automated route in e-commerce for food production and food-processing to encourage easy access of foreign corporates in agri- and horticultural production, in dairy farming, the meat exports sector, and in the tanning and leather manufacturing activity in India. Ruining Indian farmers, cattle breeders, producers and retailers of milk, meat and leather goods will go a long way to “opening up” a market for national and multinational corporate giants.

The RSS-BJP claim that the move is intended to protect indigenous cow breeds is an attempt to take cover under Directive Principle (Article 48) of the Constitution which recommends, but does not make justiciable, “organising agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall in particular take steps for preserving and improving breeds and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draft cattle”. Constitutionally, however, agriculture and preservation of livestock come under the exclusive purview of the State legislatures. Therefore, the Central government had to take recourse to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) because rules for this Act can be framed by an executive order. But this Act in no way prevents slaughter of any animal for food purposes or bans “sale for the purpose of slaughter” of selected animals.

The Constitution makes no mention of religious sentiments either in Article 48 or in the 1960 Act. Still less does it seek to impose dietary preferences of a section of the population on other communities or individuals. The Central government’s proposed rules violate the 1960 Act and, more dangerously, constitute a threat to the federal structure of the Constitution itself.

At the end of three years of the Modi government, when economic growth figures have slumped to 6 per cent, when jobs for the youth are nowhere to be found, when demonetisation has dealt a severe blow to the informal sector, which provides employment to over 80 per cent of the working population, the Central government is utilising community and caste prejudice to polarise the people.

In this polarised environment, the multi-pronged neoliberal, communal and caste-based assault on the education system as a whole has grown more swift and reckless.

Instilling the spirit of “nationalism” in students, not stimulating critical thought, has now become the prime purpose of education. To this end, the Prime Minister himself has advocated military discipline and proposed that all schools should be run like Sainik Schools in order to inculcate nationalism in students. The Vice Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, always one to be a step ahead even to the point of absurdity, organised a demonstration on the campus, complete with a couple of retired generals regularly seen in TV studios, to demand that a tank be ceremoniously placed in the university to remind students that the real patriots and their role models must be the armed forces!

The reduction of the nation to the state, its instruments of power, and existing governments is at variance with the experience and process of the freedom struggle which shaped the on-going project of evolving an independent modern nation based on democratic principles that recognise the rights of all citizens.

The proposed “disciplinary” ethos also runs counter to the tenets and principles that formally guided educational governance even up to the early 1980s. It is worth recalling the perceptive insight contained in the Report of the Education Commission (1964-66): “The character of a university as a society of teachers and students engaged in the pursuit of learning and discovery, distinguishes fundamentally the regulation of its affairs from, say, the profit-motivated management of commercial or industrial concerns or the administration of a government department or municipal corporation, or a unit of the armed forces . . . . Rules, regulations and techniques that hamper the real achievement of the real purposes of the university should be modified or scrapped—they should not be allowed to become a straitjacket into which all university activities must be fitted” (page 299).

Today we are witnessing the reverse process. Central and State governments, often utilising the University Grants Commission which has long ceased to function as a buffer between political leaderships, administrative bureaucracies and the academic community, have been taking steps to curb the intellectual and physical space available for students and faculty to question, dissent from and disturb existing power structures. Surveillance cameras across campuses pressurise the community to adopt forms of self-disciplining and pre-censorship. Circulars warn students against protests and signed bonds are demanded by institutions at the time of admission stating that students will not protest against the conduct and policies of the authorities. On top of all this is the constant threat of unrestrained police entry on campuses.

This condemnable treatment of students and faculty, as if they were criminals engaged in the now-illegitimate activity of dissent whenever they confront the anti-democratic actions of the government and educational authorities, has to be challenged so that dissent of all kinds is freely allowed inside university premises. For, universities not only set up a model for society but also interact through public spaces outside educational institutions as well. The critical and analytical voices from the country’s campuses are heard well beyond their boundaries.

Madhu Prasad is associated with the All India Forum for the Right to Education. She was formerly with the Department of Philosophy, Zakir Husain College, Delhi University.

India at 70

Freedoms won, freedoms being lost

cover-story

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“There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the crossroads of history and must choose which way to go.”

—Lal Bahadur Shastri

India was at a crossroads 70 years ago and it made choices that were enshrined in the Constitution it adopted a few years later. Now that it was free from alien rule it had to make choices in such a way that its workers and peasants were freed from class and caste oppression.

Early in the struggle for freedom, the Indian National Congress was adequately warned about remaining a party of “merchants and manufacturers”. At the Ahmedabad session of the Congress in 1921, M.N. Roy, the leader of the fledgling Left, said:

“The Congress must have the workers and peasants behind it, and it can win their lasting confidence only when it ceases to sacrifice them. Ostensibly for a higher cause, namely the so-called national interest, but really for the material prosperity of the merchants and manufacturers. If the Congress wants to have the nation behind it, let it not be blinded by the interests of a small class... let it not be guided by the invisible hand of the merchants and manufacturers.”

The Congress realised the truth of this warning. As Bipan Chandra says in his India’s Struggle for Independence, “the youth as also the workers and peasants were increasingly turning to the Left, and the national movement as a whole was getting radicalised in its economic and political programme and policies.” That explains the Karachi resolution of the Congress (1931) on Fundamental Rights and the National Economic Programme. It promised the fundamental rights of free speech and press, freedom to assemble and form associations, equal rights to all, adult franchise, compulsory primary education, protection of the cultural heritage of the minorities. On the economic front, it promised relief from agrarian indebtedness, reduction in land rent and revenue, better conditions for work, living wages, limited hours of work, right to form trade unions.

The Congress, which was prompt to incorporate fragments of the socialist vision of the Left into its agenda, was reluctant to accommodate the social justice vision of leaders like E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, who exposed the hollowness of the freedom that left untouched the oppression of the varnashrama dharma social order. In the face of the Congress’ new-found radicalism on the political and economic fronts, says Bipan Chandra: “The zamindars and landlords—the jagirdari elements—finding that open defence of landlords’ interest was no longer feasible, now, by and large, switched over to communalism for their class defence.”

The leaders of the communal projects sought to project Hindus and Muslims as homogeneous groups with common political and economic interests and permanently in conflict with each other throughout history. To them the major contradictions were not between colonialism and nationalism; between capitalists and workers; between landlords and peasants and agricultural labourers; between “upper castes” and those in the last rung of the social hierarchy and outside of it. It was a fight between Hindus and Muslims. However, the reality of secularism and class exploitation in everyday life and the sway of nationalism kept large sections of these religious communities from falling into the communal trap.

Pakistan is the “shining” example of the falsity of religion-based nationalism and a state founded on theocracy—one area where the Hindu right-wing emulates its sworn enemy. And India was sought to be converted into a theocratic state called Hindu Rashtra. Its guru, M.S. Golwalkar, who was in awe of Hitler’s Nazism, minced no words: “The non-Hindu peoples in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…. In one word, they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less no preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”

The first major victim of this narrow cultural nationalism of the Indian right-wing was the Father of the Nation. After being driven to the margins of Indian politics in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the right wing represented by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its latest political incarnation, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is at the helm of India.

Nehru had promises to keep. “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman,” he said at the midnight when India woke up to freedom.

The problem was that he tried to keep his promises within the essentially capitalist order and without dismantling the feudal system afflicted with the canker of casteism. The slide started post-Nehru and was complete in 1991, when the Congress went back on its promises and ushered in the neoliberal order. Now, with the BJP, unburdened by the legacy of any egalitarian struggle as Prof Irfan Habib puts it, in power, the “free” people of India are under the twin onslaught of neoliberalism and rabid communalism.

At peril are the gains and achievements made by the movements for national independence, socialism and social justice. India is once again at a crossroads where the choices it made 70 years ago are being undermined. This special issue of Frontline is an attempt to give a broad-brush view of what was won and achieved by India in the past seven decades of freedom and what is sought to be reversed now.

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor

Cinema

Harking back to a cherished culture

ZIYA US SALAM cover-story

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Hindi cinema, often accused, with some justification, of indulging in crass commercialism, has without doubt provided the Indian audience memorable emotions of friendship, courage and equanimity, especially when the nation was trying to overcome the wounds of Partition or was burdened by the challenges of social inequality and communalism. As the newly independent India struggled with issues of economic deprivation, famine, unemployment and a society that tended to live in watertight compartments of religion and caste, Hindi cinema created a feeling of social cohesion as in the 1957 song “Saathi haath badhana” ( Naya Daur) and looked at the pitfalls of early industrialisation in the eye. The idea was always to take everybody along; nobody should be left behind in the quest for progress. That all this came with dollops of entertainment helped take the message to the masses. Yes, Hindi cinema has often revelled in stereotypes. In the past, a Muslim character always had ready couplets and shayaris, a Christian character had a guitar and a drink, a Sikh was always ready to break into bhangra, and a south Indian invariably spoke terribly accented Hindi. Yet, these stereotypes bespoke comfortable familiarity. The heroes would wear a three-piece suit, the heroines would be clad in saris or other Indian dresses; villains and provocatively dressed vamps would smoke and drink. No caste or religious identity was attributed to them.

Hindi cinema, which was to be later denounced for lacking in attention to detail, started off on the right note. Directors such as Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif, Guru Dutt and V. Shantaram left no stone unturned in their quest for authenticity and perfection. For the premiere of K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, a story centred around the romance of Prince Salim with a courtesan, took 16 years to complete; the film’s print arrived on an elephant back at Novelty cinema in Delhi. This was Asif’s idea of giving cine-goers a genuinely royal romance. But truth be told, Mughal-e-Azam (1960) was a venture that almost did not happen. The film was launched in the mid-1940s, and its producer, Shiraz Ali Hakeem, migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. A Parsi businessman, Shapoorji Pallonji, with zero experience in film production, stepped in. In the middle of shooting, the film’s original hero, Chandramohan, passed away. Nargis, who was cast as the heroine, too, opted out, not happy to shoot opposite Dilip Kumar, who had stepped into Chandramohan’s shoes. Dilip Kumar had been rejected for the role earlier. Nargis’ role went to Madhubala, who had a tempestuous relationship with Dilip Kumar, having been forced to turn down director B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) because her brothers did not feel it appropriate for her to shoot for a couple of months with Dilip Kumar in Bhopal, away from their watchful eyes! Amidst all this, Asif with his perfectionist streak, wanted shoes of gold for the hero playing the Mughal prince and iron chains for the heroine (playing his love interest) to help them imbibe the spirit of their characters! Such craving for authenticity!

Mughal-e-Azam’s worth went beyond the cast. Though the film was largely in Persianised Urdu, it had some dialogue in chaste Hindi and Sanskrit as well. And the director was able to include in the film a thumri in praise of Krishna and a naat dedicated to the Prophet. That this happened a few years after Partition meant the film spoke for a pluralistic society, with the film-maker invoking a shared past to drive home a message for the future. Incidentally, some 50 years later, the film’s colour version was premiered in Lahore, across the border in Pakistan.

Although Mughal-e-Azam was the biggest slice, the early years after Independence were replete with films harking back to a cherished culture. This was the industry’s way of infusing a sense of pride in one’s culture, which had been hammered out of shape by the colonial rulers. Before Mughal-e-Azam, there were two other films with the Mughal setting, Nandilal Jaswantilal’s Anarkali (1953) and Baiju Bawra (1952) about Baiju, the dhrupad musician who defeated Tansen, one of the nine gems of Akbar’s court. Baiju Bawra had a bhajan that spoke of India’s pluralist society as distinct from the religion-based society in Pakistan. “Man Tarpat Hari Darshan ko Aaj” was composed by Naushad, sung by Mohammad Rafi, and written by Shakeel Badayuni. A better advertisement for secularism could not have come from another industry. For the song’s recording, the director and the music director had asked all the cast and crew to come to the studio after taking a bath so that no impurity would dilute the message of the bhajan.

India in the 1950s constantly sought to take pride in its past. Shantaram sought to portray this pride in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955) and Navrang (1959) by showcasing the song and dance rhythm of the nation. His Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957) talked of judicial reforms at a time when Indian society was just coming to terms with the idea of nationhood. Shantaram became the first Indian to win the Golden Globe; he was awarded the special Samuel Goldwyn Award in 1959 for Do Ankhen Barah Haath. In India, the film won the President’s Gold Medal in 1957. Jhanak Jhanak and Navrang along with the likes of Goonj Uthhi Shehnai proved that Hindi cinema, while being the common man’s preferred mode of entertainment, had scope for maestros such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. Such was the respect for classical artistes in cinema that popular music director Ravi, who gave us films such as Chaudhvin ka Chand, Humraaz and Nikaah, deleted “Shankar” from his name to avoid confusion with the sitar legend.

At peace with its past, proud of its cultural ethos, respectful of elders, Hindi cinema depicted all this and more in the first couple of decades after Independence. That was also the time when India, steeped in Nehruvian socialism, was grappling with the early days of industrialisation. The depiction of this made for some fetching work of neo-realism, notably from the likes of Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) was among the first films to talk of the rapacious zamindar and the evil moneylender. Later films like Devdas (1955) and Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam (1962) showed other hues of the decadent culture. The film was a comment on the inequities of development, on how a land-holder becomes a landless worker.

Roy was not behind Asif in seeking perfection. Although Do Bigha Zamin did not have the grandeur of Asif’s works or the melancholy of Dutt’s cinema, Roy was as painstaking as the other two directors. For Do Bigha Zamin, that borrowed its title from “Dui Bigha Jomi”, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, the entire cast wore used clothes as the director wanted the actual feel of paucity of resources. The film won awards at Cannes and Karlovy Vary. For Sujata (1959), a tale of a low-caste girl, Roy used freedom fighter Subodh Ghosh. He could give life and spirit to Sujata, a tale of caste prejudices. In a fine example of attention to detail, the film’s heroine was named Sujata, one of noble birth. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960. It provided another instance of symbolism in Hindi cinema. Here, Roy used both natural and historic motifs to let silence speak. The imagery of a drooping banana leaf and a stormy night to depict the state of mind of Sujata—pleased the discerning audience. For the less discerning, Roy happily used the sound of the koel for his heroine and that of a crow for the negative characters. His pursuit of perfection was legendary, like Asif’s. Here, he asked his sound recordists to record the birds’ sound at dawn. When Gulzar made his debut as a lyricist, he took five days to pen Mora gora ang lay le for Roy’s Bandini (1963).

A few years after Do Bigha Zamin, Hindi cinema produced Mother India (1957) under the baton of Mehboob Khan. Incidentally, Khan had earlier delivered Aan (1952), the first Indian film shot in 16 mm Gevacolour and then blown up in Technicolor. It was compared with The Red Shoes and had the distinction of being the first Hindi film to be dubbed into Tamil.

Mother India was in a different league. It was the biggest grosser then, a watershed in the annals of cinema. It came at a time when the Central government adopted the Five-Year Plans for development. The film exhibited a clear tilt towards socialism: the state is shown providing an irrigation canal and private enterprise is represented by a rapacious moneylender. For all its empathy for the poor, Mother India was shot on a gigantic canvas with hundreds of farmers on their fields and some 50-odd bullock carts.

Then came the triumvirate, Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand. Raj Kapoor was a rage in the Soviet Union and his “Awara hoon” song became a hit across the world. Dilip Kumar became so associated with tragic roles that doctors advised him to stay away from such roles for a while. Dev Anand was the ultimate charmer with a massive female following; he was later excelled by Rajesh Khanna.

If film-makers showed that their hearts were in the right place in the nation’s march towards progress, cinema halls were not lagging. One of the best examples came from Delhi’s Imperial cinema, almost next door to New Delhi Railway Station, and not far from Old Delhi station either. Until 1947, Imperial was known to screen Hollywood films and was patronised by the top echelons of society. Partition changed the demography of the city with refugees from Pakistan settling around it. Imperial showed not just good business acumen but also a sensitive heart: Out went Hollywood, in came Punjabi fare, as the area became home to those who had left Lahore, Peshawar and Rawalpindi behind. The Muslim socials that were a rage at most places until the mid-1970s became a no-no here. The cinema showed Hindu mythologicals. Many of the early films of Dara Singh, where he settled every issue with his fist, found an opening. Then came a film like Jahan Sati, Wahan Bhagwan. In the 1970s, Bhakti Mein Shakti raked it rich. Not to forget Shiv Baba Balaknath. The idea in showing these films was to provide a comfort factor to displaced audiences.

Talking of films based on religion, the biggest hit was Jai Santoshi Maa, released in 1975, the year often remembered for Sholay. The film was a non-star affair, and was initially released at naturally cooled cinemas. Naturally cooled was a euphemism for halls with no air-conditioning, no coolers, no fans. It went on to rewrite box office records, even forcing cinemas that played only English films to make an exception for it. Such was the craze for this mythological that the faithful arrived at the halls with a plate bearing all the material needed for worship. Many women insisted on doing a small aarti (waving of the lighted lamp) in front of the billboard of the film, and entering the auditorium bare foot, just as they would do in a temple. Interestingly, the film’s posters had its name in English, Hindi and Urdu. Quietly, it proved that Urdu had no religion then.

If Jai Santoshi Maa had scenes of impromptu pooja before its screening, Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) was released after a hawan was performed to placate the elements, as the word had spread that Raj Kapoor had portrayed Zeenat Aman as a Siva devotee to titillate the audience. It worked. The film, which failed to find halls in conservative colonies of many cities, completed a silver jubilee elsewhere.

Cinemas and their patrons

If Imperial catered to Hindi-speaking migrant workers with sensitivity, other halls exhibited a similar mindset towards their patrons. Ritz cinema, located near Inter-State Bus Terminus, used to unofficially reserve its box section for burqa-clad women of Old Delhi. These women could not watch a film near their house around Jama Masjid for fear of social opprobrium. So, they took a tonga ride to Ritz where the privacy of the box conferred anonymity. Similarly, Minerva cinema, not to be confused with the illustrious hall in Mumbai, close by, sneaked in some young maulanas for the night show through the back door, aware that if the young bearded men pursuing Koranic courses were to be seen by others, all hell would break loose. Talking of the back door, it played quite a role in Hindi cinemas.

All the big stars, like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, used to grace the cinema halls on their films’ release through the back door. Such was their star power that in 1969, Rajesh Khanna virtually compelled director Shakti Samanta to release his film Aradhana at New Delhi’s Rivoli cinema that was known for playing top-notch Hollywood flicks. It changed not a bit when the films of Amitabh Bachchan got the cinema of their choice, or later when a Shah Rukh Khan release usually meant other producers/exhibitors deferred the release of their films. Incidentally, with the arrival of Bachchan as the angry young man in the 1970s, Hindi cinema changed for ever. His Zanjeer, Sholay and Deewar rewrote box office records, with Sholay being ranked top in British Film Institute’s poll of top 10 Indian films ever.

Often playing a poor small-town boy stepping into a big city to eke out a living, Bachchan expressed the helplessness of the common man as India faced the colossal migration to cities due to lack of economic opportunities in villages. Bachchan became the poster boy of the new generation of internal migrants. His heady superstardom also meant his heroines were reduced to a prop with only the villain (although Pran and Amjad Khan held their own) having a role of substance in a film starring Bachchan. Amidst all this came Hindi cinema’s popular vehicle of pluralist living with Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). The film had a timeless sequence of a mother receiving blood simultaneously, and directly, from her three sons, Amar, Akbar and Anthony. It mocked at medicine, made a mockery of common sense. But the common man gleefully accepted it. The pursuit of perfection of a Roy or a Dutt was a speck in the distance in the march of time. Hindi cinema declined drastically in content and technique in the 1980s, easily its worst phase since Independence. Double entendres for dialogues, crass picturisation, gawdy costumes and a storyline that was often written on the sets meant that the more discerning viewers had to step back, wait for an Arth (1982) or Paar (1984). Incidentally, the parallel cinema movement that took shape under the likes of Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal found more adherents like Govind Nihalani, Goutam Ghose, Ketan Mehta and Saeed Mirza. While none of them came even close to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali they at least proved that there was an alternative Hindi cinema, away from the masala stuff dished out by popular film-makers. Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Ardh Satya (1983), Khandar (1984) and Mirch Masala (1987) were patronised on film festival circuits, but did not always draw crowds at the box office. The turnstiles attracted youngsters.

The film audience’s profile underwent a change, too, from family audiences to migrant workers to finally city slickers, whenever a Khan film opened in the 1990s. Salman Khan became the new poster boy with Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and Sanam Bewafa (1991). Shah Rukh Khan became a rage with Deewana (1992) and Darr (1993). Before them, Aamir Khan had marked his arrival as a chocolate boy with Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). Heady as their success was, Hindi cinema still dished out escapist fare: good guy, bad guy, songs, dances and action routine. Things improved slightly in the new millennium with Lagaan (2001), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006), Chak De (2007), Taare Zameen Par (2007) Peepli Live (2010) and even My Name is Khan (2010), asking pertinent questions about patriotism, nationalism, identity and social mores. There was also a rebirth of sorts for art house cinema with films made on a shoe-string budget sans any star power finding acceptance. The Lunchbox (2013) appealed to millions, Miss Lovely (2012) turned heads, and Aligarh (2015), dealing with the almost taboo subject of homosexuality, found acceptance; much like the much-in-the-news Lipstick Under My Burkha these days. Lipstick Under my Burka , exploring women’s quest to discover different shades of their personalities, was released in India after being initially denied a certificate, and soon found a ready audience.

Yet, not everything changed for the better. J.P. Dutta’s LoC (2003), a story on Kargil heroes, opened old wounds by excluding Muslim martyrs completely. If LoC was about exclusion of Muslims who sacrificed their lives for the country, Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) equated Muslims with Pakistan, much like some present-day politicians do. Cinema can be noxious and obnoxious at the same time, and dishonest, too, as proved by Ashutosh Gowariker’s MohenjoDaro (2016). With National film awards taking a saffron hue, Hindi cinema is in danger of being reduced to a handmaiden of the ruling dispensation. If in the years after Independence, it worked as a glue to unite the nation, today it is in danger of exacerbating the social divide. In the 1950s and 1960s, it asked uncomfortable questions in the common man’s grammar with Do Bigha Zamin, Naya Daur, Mother India and Leader (1964); today the medium is in danger of toeing the official line. No uncomfortable questions asked, no impolite answers expected. Cinema today is all about acquiescence and uncomplaining acceptance. Unless, of course, one takes into account a Shahid (2012) or a Lipstick Under my Burkha. Therein lies hope.

India at 70

From revolution to counter-revolution

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The late 19th and early 20th centuries in India had seen two historic movements, the anti-colonial struggle and the social emancipation movement associated with Jyotirao Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar. These two movements, often seen as standing in conflict, had actually reinforced each other at the grass-roots level and effected a general awakening among the people. This was reflected in the Karachi Congress Resolution of 1931 which presented a vision of free India as a fraternity of equal citizens, each enjoying certain fundamental rights and together electing, on the basis of universal adult franchise, the legislature, and indirectly the executive, of a state that had no religion of its own. The Constitution of independent India enshrined this vision.

In a society characterised by millennia of institutionalised inequality embodied in the caste system, this was a remarkable leap, a veritable social revolution. Today, as we celebrate seven decades of independence, we are alas in the midst of a veritable counter-revolution, where goons belonging to vigilante squads of the Hindutva brigade roam the streets with impunity to terrorise Dalits and religious minorities; where a shrill jingoism drowns out reason; where rational thought and academic institutions pursuing truth based on reason are under attack; where the political opposition is victimised in various ways; and where rapid strides are being made towards a corporate-backed Hindu Rashtra.

It is no accident that at the helm of this counter-revolution are the Hindutva forces, which had nothing to do with either of the two struggles mentioned above. None of their leaders had participated in the anti-colonial struggle, with the sole exception of V.D. Savarkar who too had later withdrawn from it. Indeed, on the contrary, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief M.S. Golwalkar had so little sympathy for the anti-colonial struggle that he thought that the British would have to be invited back shortly after Independence in order to govern India. Likewise, since the essence of orthodox Hinduism, as the historian Suvira Jaiswal has argued, consists of the caste system, the Hindutva elements who swear by it have always had a basic antipathy towards the social emancipation movement and its agenda, no matter how much they laud Ambedkar today for sheer opportunistic reasons. While Hindutva leading the counter-revolution is therefore to be expected (after all, it was one of its adherents who had killed the Mahatma), the real question that arises is: how do we explain this transition from revolution to counter-revolution?

Chain effects

In answering this question we must keep one important fact in mind. A thrust towards equality and democracy in one sphere of life tends to stimulate a similar thrust in other spheres. Likewise, a regression from egalitarianism in one sphere stimulates similar regression in other spheres. In fact Ambedkar himself had underscored this point about the complementarity between movements towards equality in different spheres in his concluding speech to the Constituent Assembly, arguing that the political equality guaranteed by the Constitution would get jeopardised if there was no corresponding movement towards social and economic equality.

The first setback to India’s democratic revolution had been the independent Indian state’s inability to carry out any significant land redistribution, which had also meant reneging on a promise made earlier, in the run-up to the elections of the late 1930s. To be sure, the land reforms enacted after Independence did force erstwhile landlords to shift to capitalist farming and did entail some loss of land for large feudal estates in favour of rich tenants (belonging to intermediate castes) so that a tendency towards an admixture of peasant and landlord capitalism in the countryside did get under way; but land concentration was not broken: the top 15 per cent of landowners, for instance, continued to hold the same percentage of land area as before, though the composition of this top 15 per cent underwent some change.

Fallout of persisting land concentration

The persistence of land concentration had an obvious economic implication. It kept the size of the domestic market, so crucial under the dirigiste (Nehruvian) economic strategy, restricted, as well as its rate of growth (owing to the constraint on the rate of growth of agriculture within an unreformed agrarian structure); it thereby contributed to the debility of this strategy.

In addition it had serious social implications. On the one hand the social power of the landlords who had presided over the old oppressive, hierarchical, and patriarchal “village community”, remained largely intact (with some intermediate castes moving up at the most to buttress the old structure). On the other hand, Dalits who constituted the core of the landless class and who had been denied the right to own land under the old system (to ensure that a sufficient number of labourers were always available within the village despite the existence of uncultivated land outside of it in pre-colonial times), continued to remain landless and therefore both socially and economically disempowered. A movement in the direction of social and economic equality was thus thwarted owing to the absence of land redistribution.

But foregoing land redistribution was closely linked to the pursuit of the capitalist trajectory of development, a consequence of the fact that the bourgeoisies in all countries coming late to capitalism avoid launching any serious attack on landed property lest it rebound into an attack on bourgeois property. And the pursuit of capitalist development itself was to unleash, in addition to what eschewing land redistribution had done, an immanently inequalising tendency of its own.

The political leadership of the time believed that it could check such inequality, that is, restrict the spontaneity of capitalism; that it could make use of the capitalist sector, even while controlling it through a system of licensing and through fiscal means, within an overall arrangement dominated by the public sector. But already by the end of the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru was worried enough about growing wealth and income inequality in the country to set up the Mahalanobis Committee to inquire into it.

The dirigiste regime had much to its credit, certainly a lot more for the common people than the later neoliberal one. This is a point worth emphasising at a time when that regime is being systematically debunked; and it can be established with just one telling statistic. The per capita annual foodgrain availability, which had been around 200 kilograms at the beginning of the 20th century in “British India” and declined to 148.5 kg during the quinquennium 1939-44 and even lower to 136.8 kg in 1945-46, was pushed up close to 180 kg in the Indian Union by the end of the 1980s; it has since declined, over the neoliberal period, reaching 163 kg for the triennium of calendar years 2012-14.

In addition, the dirigiste period diversified the production structure of the economy, established an industrial base, and built up the capacity for producing trained personnel. Its weakness lay in not doing enough in the spheres of literacy, elementary education and public health (spheres in which the neoliberal regime with its penchant for privatisation has done no better), and in the fact that economic inequality widened under it despite the network of controls it had established.

The spontaneity of capitalism, in short, was breaking the bounds set by state control under the dirigiste regime. And soon it was to jettison the dirigiste regime altogether and institute a regime of neoliberalism, under which the domestic corporate-financial oligarchy got closely integrated with globalised finance capital.

Transition to neoliberalism

It can be argued that an entity like international finance capital was powerful enough to break down all opposition to its global movement. It was perhaps powerful enough, in the post-Soviet era, to anyway undermine all dirigiste regimes, whose essential feature had been restrictions on trade and capital flows and the use of the state, apparently as a body standing above all classes, to acquire a degree of autonomy vis-a-vis metropolitan capital (through setting up, for instance, a public sector that strove for self-reliance by overcoming the technological monopoly of multinational corporations). But the economic travails of the dirigiste regime arising from the sluggish growth of the home market owing to growing economic inequality, its loss of social support among the people for the same reason, and the big bourgeoisie’s wish to break out of it (as it was no longer adequate for its ambitions), no doubt also contributed towards effecting a transition from dirigisme to neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism greatly accentuated the increase in economic inequality, though it also accelerated the growth rate of the economy, especially in the tertiary sector. The contradiction between growing inequality, which ceteris paribus constrains demand, and an acceleration in growth rate was resolved through larger exports of services (owing to the outsourcing of service activities from the metropolis), larger elite consumption through the removal of all restrictions on the production and consumption of luxury goods, and the effects of international and domestic asset price bubbles. The estimate that the top 1 per cent of households in India currently owns close to 60 per cent of the country’s total wealth puts India’s degree of asset inequality above that of the U.S. and places India among countries with the fastest increases in asset inequality.

Primitive accumulation

But the increase in asset inequality does not tell the whole story. At the core of neoliberalism is what Marx had called a process of “primitive accumulation” of capital whose effects are not adequately captured by the statistics on asset inequality. This process entails an expropriation by the capitalist sector of pre-capitalist producers, including the peasantry, both directly and through the instrumentality of the state. Primitive accumulation had also characterised dirigisme, but that was imposed within the agricultural sector, as part of the development of capitalism from within; and its scope had been relatively restricted. Under neoliberalism primitive accumulation is imposed by the outside capitalist sector upon peasant agriculture and the petty production sector.

This process of primitive accumulation has a “stock” aspect, namely, the taking over of peasants’ land “for a song” for corporate projects (a phenomenon likely to become even more acute with the launch of projects like “industrial corridors”); and a “flow” aspect, namely, a squeezing of the peasants through higher input prices (owing to the withdrawal of subsidies and the drying up of institutional credit) but not commensurably higher output prices. These output prices, moreover, especially of commercial crops, are allowed to fluctuate widely, owing to the removal of their insulation from world market prices and the abolition of the “procurement and marketing function” of Commodity Boards. Even apparently unrelated phenomena like demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax are also mechanisms for imposing primitive accumulation upon the petty production sector.

A tragic consequence of this primitive accumulation at the expense of peasant agriculture has been the suicides of over three lakh peasants over the last two decades. In addition, large numbers of peasants have also left agriculture and migrated to cities in search of jobs, which, however are not being created to an adequate extent despite the apparently high GDP growth. (Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the annual rate of growth of “usual status” employment, according to the National Sample Survey data, was a paltry 0.8 per cent, far less than even the natural increase in the workforce.) The net result has been an increase in the reserve army of labour, though it is no longer visible as a reserve army. This is because employment rationing in the neoliberal period takes the form not of a binary, the active army and the reserve army, but of a proliferation of casual employment, intermittent employment, part-time employment, and “disguised unemployment” (disguised as “petty entrepreneurship”).

Weakened trade unions

Both the growth in the reserve army of labour and the casualisation of employment have contributed to a weakening of trade unions, though there have also been powerful additional factors working in the same direction. One of these is the privatisation of public sector units. Since, all over the world, trade unions have been stronger in the public sector compared with the private, privatisation serves to reduce their strength. A second factor, quite obviously, is the phenomenon that while capital is international, workers are still organised along national lines, which makes such national unions rather ineffective.

The economic consequence of all this has been a reduction in the rate of growth of real wages in all four categories, regular urban, casual urban, regular rural and casual rural, in the period after 1993-94 compared, say, with the period from 1983 to 1993-94. Since casualisation has increased between the earlier and the later periods, the rate of growth in real wages has been even more paltry. But since the rate of growth of labour productivity has increased greatly between the earlier and the later periods, there has been a marked increase in the share of surplus in the later period compared to the earlier one, which explains the accelerated growth in economic inequality.

This weakening of trade unions has also had a social consequence, namely a weakening of the intervention capacity of the working class even on non-economic matters. Primitive accumulation against the peasants, in short, has also affected the bargaining strength and the social weight of the workers.

Alongside the growth in economic inequality there has been a growth in social inequality, both because of it, and also for a number of other reasons linked to neo-liberalism. First, the privatisation of public sector activities has eroded affirmative action in the form of reservations for Dalits, since there is no reservation in the private sector. Secondly, the privatisation of education has, in addition, put education beyond the reach of the socially and economically oppressed. Finally, there has been a more subtle reason as well, which is the following.

The middle-class segment that has done well out of globalisation, owing to the outsourcing of services from the metropolis, and owing to the rise in the share of surplus (which supports a range of activities from finance to advertising), has expectedly belonged to the upper castes which have been privileged enough to acquire the skills to make use of the opportunities that have been opening up. Since these beneficiaries however, not surprisingly, attribute their own success not to their privilege but to their talent (which conforms to the ideology of capitalism), the inevitable conclusion is drawn that those who are excluded from such jobs are untalented. An impression spreads that children from the oppressed castes do not “make it” because they lack talent, which boosts casteist prejudice.

Post-Independence development in India, in short, started on a wrong foot, by eschewing radical land redistribution; the pursuit of capitalist development with its immanently inequalising tendency further contributed to growing socio-economic inequality. Such a tendency got a free run under neoliberalism, which can be said to mark the beginning of a social counter-revolution. But with communal-fascists, the adherents of Hindutva, in power, this social counter-revolution is now being carried forward with a vengeance. To be sure, India is not a fascist state; but with the fascists leading the government, a transition to a fascist state is being attempted, which would mean, as Ambedkar had feared, growing socio-economic inequality destroying even the constitutional provision of political equality.

Fascist upsurge

The fascist upsurge that we see in India today is part of a worldwide phenomenon; witness the election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency, which had initially appeared unlikely, and the growing influence of fascist parties in Europe. It is closely linked to the world capitalist crisis that erupted in 2008 and shows no signs of abating. It is an expression of the complete dead end into which neoliberalism has run.

There is a belief that fascism arises when the system, besieged by crisis, is challenged by a threat from the revolutionary forces whom fascism is used for eliminating. Such a description, however, though true of death squads, murder squads, “Black Hundreds” and such like outfits mushrooming at the instance of big capitalists at such junctures to target the Left, is not true of fascism. The members of such outfits may have fascist views, but fascism is much more than merely such an outfit: it represents a movement. And such a movement thrives, as Walter Benjamin had noted, when the working class movement is weakened, not when it is strong enough to pose a threat.

Fascism grows when the system is at a dead end, manifested in a crisis that refuses to abate, when the liberal bourgeoisie has no solutions to it, and when the working-class movement is not in a position to mount a challenge. That is when large sections of the people, notably those belonging to the middle class, segments of the petty bourgeoisie, and even some groups of workers, flock to fascist movements, not because it provides a credible way out, but because it does not: it projects a messiah, it resorts to flamboyant but meaningless rhetoric, it appeals to unreason, and it holds not the system but the “other” (the Jews or the Muslims or whatever) as responsible for the travails of the people.

It may seem intriguing that when neoliberalism has reached a dead end, a Modi promises even greater neoliberal reforms while a Trump rails against neoliberalism. But this contrast between two current manifestations of fascism arises because neither has a coherent programme anyway for overcoming the crisis and the frustration gripping the people. Both are essentially purveyors of unreason for whom the economic agenda as a thought-out rational programme (as distinct from catchy slogans like “development” or “saving Western Civilisation”) is incidental.

Corporate capital and Hindutva

The corporate-financial oligarchy adopts the fascist movement, finances the fascist movement, and promotes the fascist movement, which exists independently of it, not so much because it is afraid of the power of the Left, but because it is afraid of “instability”, of “chaos”, of a threat to “order”, of a general and imprecisely perceived threat to its hegemony. Fascism provides “stability” and also an ideal ideological prop for neoliberal capitalism. Fascists in government represent, in the Indian context, an alliance between corporate capital and Hindutva.

There is however a difference between classical fascism and its current incarnation. Classical fascism in the 1930s, by adopting what one may in retrospect call “military Keynesianism”, had overcome the Great Depression in countries where it had power, before leading them to war and destruction. Contemporary fascism, however, lacks the ability to overcome the crisis, since even “military Keynesianism”, in order to boost demand, needs to be financed through either a fiscal deficit or a tax on capitalists (taxing workers to finance larger state expenditure does not boost overall demand since workers consume much of their income anyway); both these ways of financing however are strongly opposed by globalised finance capital. In other words, the fact that capital is globalised while the state remains a nation state entails that even a fascist nation state must abide by the wishes of globalised capital (to prevent capital flight); and this fact restricts its ability to overcome the crisis.

Scope for Left and democratic forces

But this is also what gives the Left and democratic forces the opportunity to roll back the counter-revolution. They can do so however only by having an alternative agenda that promotes equality, that strengthens democracy, and is willing to withdraw from the neoliberal regime to achieve this end. They should for instance have an agenda of introducing a set of universal, justiciable economic rights, to supplement the political rights that the Constitution guarantees.

Among these, one can immediately include the right to food, the right to employment, the right to publicly-funded free and universal quality health care, the right to publicly funded free and universal quality education up to a certain level, and a right to adequate old-age pension and disability benefits. The implementation of these rights together would cost less than 10 per cent of the GDP annually, which the country can easily afford.

The real point is to summon the political will to mobilise people for carrying forward the democratic revolution by widening the 1931 agenda of the Karachi Congress. As independent India completes seven decades of its existence in the midst of a serious threat from communal fascists, summoning this will becomes essential for saving our republic.

Planning

Abandoning the social compact

V. SRIDHAR cover-story

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INDIA’S first steps as an independent nation were dictated by the social compact that was the bedrock of the national movement that made it possible. The idea of planning economic and social development was dictated by the logic that a country whose development was predicated on the heft provided by a large public sector required a mechanism to orchestrate the diverse actors at play. Moreover, the objective of promoting social equity, a commitment enshrined in the implicit compact that guided the independence movement, and later enshrined in the Constitution, required the presence of a body that at least appeared to enjoy a semblance of autonomy from contending interests.

Indeed, this focus on equity was the glue that held the compact, reached among contending interests, together. For vast sections of the people who had literally put their lives on the line for national independence, it became necessary for the newly independent state to act as an unbiased arbiter of the social compact. It is this which gave rise to not only the new Constitution but to several other legislative measures such as the Industrial Disputes Act and the badly designed land reform measures after Independence. State-led planning was also a product of this new-found spirit.

The urgent recognition of these requirements was reflected in the fact that the Planning Commission, the agency entrusted with the task of conducting this orchestra, was constituted in March 1950, barely three years after Independence. The whittling down of this institution and its eventual disbandment by the current regime at the Centre is also the story of how India’s tryst with planning was usurped by the logic that demanded the abandonment of the social compact.

The gradual emasculation of the Planning Commission until its disbandment in 2015 and its replacement with a body that is a pale shadow of its promise is also the story of the unilateral abrogation of the social compact that was born in the crucible of the independence struggle. State-led planning was an obvious victim of this process of abrogation under the Congress, but it has taken a whole new dimension under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). After all, the Congress had much to claim as its own legacy of the freedom movement, unlike the BJP, whose ideological progenitors from that period left it free of such irksome encumbrances. One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first policy announcements, soon after his party’s resounding victory in 2014, was his decision to disband the Planning Commission, that apparently ugly vestige of “socialist” planning of the Nehruvian era. In his first Independence Day address, Modi announced that the 64-year-old Planning Commission would be abolished. In keeping with the bombast that has been his hallmark since then, Modi said the Planning Commission would be replaced by a new institution, which would have “a new design and structure, a new body, a new soul, a new thinking, and a new direction”. Modi kept his word. NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog was constituted on January 1, 2015, and the Planning Commission sent into oblivion.

Rationale of planning

The rationale of planning had many facets. It was recognised early on that the state would have to play a major role in industrialisation, especially because the colonial regime had used India primarily as a supplier of raw materials for its own industries and as a dumping ground for its own manufactured goods. In order to build an industrial base, literally from the ground, the promotion of heavy industry was a key prerequisite. For instance, steel was a special focus, but steel plants require large volumes of other raw materials such as iron ore, coal and power. It was obvious that this would require a significant extent of planning and coordination, especially because, barring the Tata’s own steel capacity in Jamshedpur, there was very little that the private sector could contribute. The investments in iron and steel, mines and power thus demanded careful planning, which is exactly what happened during the Second Five Year Plan, which, even bitter critics of the public sector accept, laid the foundation of Indian industrialisation. In fact, the spin-offs from this period flowed to many areas; the establishment of world-class educational and research institutions (in the physical as well as social sciences) such as the Indian Institutes of Technology arose from this approach.

Although this rationale for coordination in areas of industrial activity in which the public sector played a domineering role was recognised as vital, there was also the question of marshalling resources and directing them to areas designated according to a transparently recognised national priority; these were articulated in voluminous Plan documents, which even if not accessible to common citizens was open to scrutiny and discussion among academics not necessarily of the sarkari kind. In economic parlance, this meant the management of savings and investment and then directing them towards areas deemed important in terms of priority. This meant at least two things: first, a layer of economic expertise that could devise a coherent plan, and second, a body that maintained a semblance of distance from the claims of competing economic and social interests.

It was not without meaning that P.C. Mahalanobis, widely considered the doyen of Indian planning, was at the Planning Commission between 1955 and 1967, during which much of this industrial base was laid. The centrality of the Perspective Planning Division within the Planning Commission’s overall agenda was evident in the formulation of the strategy of industrialisation adopted by it in these years. The continuing pejorative designation of all planning of that era as “Soviet-style” displays an extraordinary extent of ignorance of history as well as a lack of economic sense. Although it was indeed true that Soviet assistance at that time was much more forthcoming, it was not as if Indian planning was at the mercy of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the description of a state-led “command economy” displays a duplicity that is stunning in its ignorance of what was happening across the world at that time. Countries as diverse and as far apart as Japan and Germany (West) were at that time embarking on a process of industrialisation that was heavily steered not only by their national states but also by the domineering presence of the United States in their economy. What else was the Marshall Plan, which poured resources into economies across Europe after the Second World War? In both Japan and in Germany, the state and its institutions, most notably their banks, played a powerful role in rapid industrialisation. Not only were resources made available, but they were deployed in areas that the state, not private capital, decided were critical.

Neoliberal impact

The logic of neoliberalism that the role of the Planning Commission is rendered redundant in a situation in which the private sector occupies the “commanding heights” that were initially the preserve of the public sector is fallacious for a number of reasons. For one, there still remains the question of coordination between the two realms of economic activity in order to achieve national targets or priorities defined and made transparent by the state. There can be meticulous planning in relation to the public sector but what is actually realised is left to the caprices of the private sector. This was demonstrated disastrously during the Eleventh Plan when the private sector, egged on by neoliberal policies in the power sector, simply failed to invest capital in power plants that it was supposed to. This left a yawning gap between the target and what was actually achieved during the Plan period. To blame planning for this failure is like blaming the victim of a crime for the crime.

Despite the rich legacy of planning, however, the counter-revolution was also in evidence. A structural flaw in the design of the Planning Commission was the fact that its role as an arbiter of Centre-State relations was never defined satisfactorily. Although its actions had a significant impact on States in terms of allocation of resources, the States themselves did not see it as belonging to them. Moreover, over time, as the importance of centrally sponsored schemes increased and as they acquired a significant proportion of resource transfers from the Centre to the States, the Planning Commission became the device for these arbitrarily determined transfers, which the States complained as being discriminatory. The fact that the Planning Commission’s role was not constitutionally defined ensured mounting discord over the manner in which its independence was seen as being suspect in the eyes of the States. Although the National Development Council (NDC) did provide a forum for States to articulate their concerns, their day-to-day concerns ought to have been better addressed in a forum such as the Planning Commission. Modi’s decision to disband the NDC points to a higher order of centralisation under the current regime.

Although the Congress may take credit for the initial success of planning and its character, its focus on liberalisation played a critical role in undermining the process of planning. This was achieved in two ways: one, by the induction of those with a neoliberal outlook, most notably by accommodating World Bank-returnees within the portals of the Planning Commission, and two, by the shift in the Commission’s agenda.

The shifting focus of the Planning Commission was particularly visible after the onset of aggressive economic liberalisation after 1991. Its acceptance of the logic of neoliberalism—without a hint of serious debate—is evident in the key aspects of economic policy since then. For instance, its acceptance of the suspect estimates of poverty in India, which when combined with its acceptance of the logic of targeting distribution of food grains (using the pernicious device of Aadhaar to implement it) has had disastrous consequences. The Planning Commission not only accepted the logic of privatisation of public enterprises but laid the conceptual foundation for Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), which are most opaque in character (“The Trojan Horse”, Frontline, February 5, 2016). In doing this, the Commission displayed an utter disregard for evidence of massive drain of public resources as a result of such exercises in countries around the world—no doubt goaded by the World Bank, which was its key evangelist. More critically, it damaged its integrity as an institution by failing to maintain a semblance of neutrality and objectivity, especially because such PPPs remain notoriously unavailable for public scrutiny. Even the single most shining example of success during the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, was engineered outside the portals of the Planning Commission, most notably because of the steady political pressure that came from outside the Congress party.

Centralised thinking

From what was happening to the Planning Commission, NITI Aayog was only a small step away. Its characterisation as a “think tank” says a lot about its role, especially in an atmosphere in which all thinking is centralised in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry, a process that was already under way during the previous UPA regime, especially during its second term. The constitution of the Aayog—in terms of both its key personnel and the shaping of its agenda—has signalled that even the pretence of arm’s-length from the government has been dispensed with. In NITI Aayog’s own words (from its website) it seeks to define its “core” roles as those of creating a Team India Hub and a Knowledge and Innovation Hub. While the first is a poor caricature of the NDA—a platform for substantive Centre-State dialogue, which the Modi government dismantled, the latter is an activity that is better left to one of the many private training institutions run by corporates.

But even more shocking has been the role of NITI Aayog with reference to major policy matters of the day. Its role in the aftermath of demonetisation—independent India’s single biggest economic adventure—was particularly striking. Instead of conducting a rigorous and impartial analysis of demonetisation, it embarked on a no-holds-barred eulogy of the wonders of the most dangerous experience with the national currency since 1947 (after all, more than 100 people lost their lives across the country). Moreover, its gleeful acceptance of the digital nirvana that the Modi government had offered, without an adequate appreciation of either the regulatory issues or the pitfalls that were quickly obvious to all, was certainly not in keeping with its status as a think tank. To cap it all, driven by its euphoric acceptance of the cashless revolution that was unfolding, it even conducted “lucky dips” as prizes for those using digital payment systems. It was almost as if the country’s premier think tank had converted itself into a lottery agent. Seen from this perspective, even the Planning Commission’s slide, especially in its last decade, appears almost benign.

The recent resignation of Arvind Panagariya from his position as Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog has fuelled speculation that even its docile conduct has been met with disapproval from within the Sangh Parivar, much like at the end of Raghuram Rajan’s tenure as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. In a recent interaction with a television channel, Dr Ashwini Mahajan, co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), said: “We have nothing to do with the resignation but we have been saying that any think tank in the government set-up should work in sync with the government’s agenda.” He alleged NITI Aayog was “not functioning as per its preamble, and was not in sync with Prime Minister’s wishes and his government’s policies”. What this reveals in all its depravity is that the rising intolerance is not confined to matters concerning what people eat, but go far beyond, into the realm of economic policy, where even marginal dissent will not be tolerated.

Incidentally, Panagariya’s replacement, Rajiv Kumar, a trained economist, mounted a spirited defence of Modi’s demonetisation exercise. His basic argument then (soon after demonetisation, in November 2016) rested on two points: one, the equation of all that is “black” with cash, and two, the notion that farmers, especially small and marginal ones, have ready access to credit from formal institutional sources. His naive assertion that digital would work like a magic wand in banishing the evil of cash was also a hallmark of his writing then, in defence of Modi.

One of the key aspects of planning as practised by the Planning Commission, especially in its initial years, was the respect for academic probity and for transparency. This meant that policy was crafted in a relatively open environment, critically open to scrutiny, dialogue and criticism. The neoliberal invasion, which has dismantled this structure, has destroyed the modicum of transparency that was available earlier. The aggressive pursuit of policies that blatantly favour a thinner and thinner sliver of Indian society thus requires much to hide; policy-crafting in such an environment necessarily requires it to be based on the whims of a few so that favours may be dispensed without being hampered by well-defined principles or a rationale that defines them as necessary for the greater public good.

One of the meanings of niti is “principle”. To name an organisation whose conduct has been anything but a shadow of the venerable institution it replaced at whim is ironic.

Public Health

Continuing tale of state neglect

AMIT SENGUPTA cover-story

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Health-care services in India at the time of Independence were a function of the socio-economic and political interests of the colonial rulers. The availability of health-care services in modern medicine was largely concentrated in big cities. Wide-ranging discussions took place in the 1940s about possible strategies directed at providing comprehensive health care and extending the infrastructure of health services in independent India.

In a report submitted in 1946, the Health Survey & Development Committee, known as the Bhore Committee, formulated a road map for strengthening health-care services across the country. Among its detailed recommendations were proposals to develop a nationwide network of health facilities. As a short-term measure it suggested the setting up of “one primary health centre for a population of 40,000, to be manned by two doctors, one nurse, four public health nurses, four midwives, four trained dais, two sanitary inspectors, two health assistants, one pharmacist and 15 other class IV employees”. The committee’s longer-term vision was even more ambitious: it proposed setting up primary health units with 75-bed hospitals for every population of 10,000 to 20,000, and secondary units with 650-bed hospitals networked around district hospitals with 2,500 beds each. It is interesting to note that the Bhore Committee’s recommendations were far ahead of the current norm for primary care, which is one primary health centre (PHC) with four to six beds catering to a population of 20,000-30,000.

Unfortunately, the Bhore Committee’s recommendations remained on paper. A critical gap that was never addressed was the extremely low allocation of public funding for the health sector. The first three Five-Year Plans in India after Independence allocated just Rs.140 crore, Rs.225 crore and Rs.342 crore respectively for health, including for water and sanitation, amounting to just 5.9 per cent, 5 per cent and 4.2 per cent of the total Plan outlay. Underfunding of health-care services has been the bane of public health in India, which continues to date. Consequently, virtually all the aspirations reflected in various reports and recommendations to the government have remained unfulfilled. The first Five-Year Plan period saw a mere 0.22 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) being allocated for health care. This rose very slowly to above 1 per cent of the GDP in the 1980s and has stagnated at that level for almost four decades. In the late 1950s, the high-powered Health Survey and Planning Committee, known as the Mudaliar Committee, was tasked with suggesting a fresh road map to strengthen health-care services. The committee’s report, submitted in 1961, pointed to the failure of the government in significantly enhancing public health spending. While again making useful recommendations to expand the public health infrastructure, the report also marked a new emphasis on population control. This was to become, in the next decades, one of the major planks of public health.

Since the Mudaliar Committee report, population control policies have been a major obsession among planners in India. While India has progressed to a phase where a demographic transition is under way in most parts of the country, leading to a slowing of population growth, population polices continue to target the poor and women. Population control strategies have tended to be paternalistic, prescriptive and coercive. They start from the belief that the poor breed prodigiously and that it is the nation’s duty to cap their unbridled fertility. Such programmes are inappropriate not only because they victimise women, especially poor women, but also because they do not work. They have undermined the efficacy of the general health-care infrastructure as well as women’s faith in this infrastructure to address their real concerns.

In the past couple of decades, driven by the growing consensus against coercive population control, the emphasis has shifted from population control to reproductive and child health. Unfortunately, the gaze of the programme is still firmly fixed on women as targets. Women need access to family planning services because of their own health needs. But such access has to ensure that women have a choice and that women are in a position to make decisions about their choice. In order for a policy to bring women’s concerns and needs to the centre stage, it should revolve around strategies that address women’s health in all its dimensions and not just their wombs.

Rise of private sector

Instead of securing access to comprehensive health-care services, public health in the post-Independence period came to mean disease control programmes (also called “vertical” programmes). They included the national programmes on tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy, immunisation, diarrheal diseases, blindness and family planning. With no integration at the delivery level, these programmes were insensitive to local conditions, unresponsive to local needs, highly bureaucratised and inefficient. They were accountable to officials situated in the national and State capitals and had little or no scope for flexibility based on local conditions. Local populations were indifferent and in some cases hostile to such programmes, resulting in fair measure to the very poor utilisation of government health facilities in many areas.

The government’s failure to provide access to health-care services to the entire population was commented upon in India’s first National Health Policy in 1983, which said that “the demographic and health picture of the country still constitutes a cause for serious and urgent concern”. Nearly 35 years later, the continuing crisis relating to public services was echoed by the Economic Survey of 2017, which noted that a “distinctive feature of the Indian economic model is the ‘weakness’ of state capacity, especially in delivering essential services such as health and education”.

In addition, an urban elitist bias in medical education as well as medical services impacted the state’s ability to provide health care to the poor as well as those living in rural areas. Continued emigration of doctors, a rush for superspecialities, development of corporate hospitals and polyclinics, and an extremely high and near-universal irrational use of drugs and technology emerged as clear trends within the first three decades after Independence. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the case of health care, the absence of public services was invariably accompanied by a growth of private services.

Investment in the private hospital sector was very low in the 1970s but it has grown at an exponential rate since then. This was fuelled simultaneously by poor investment by the state and offer of incentives to the private sector in the form of soft loans, subsidies and tax exemptions. New medical technologies further added to the impetus, with increasing corporate participation in health care. This, coupled with the entry of insurance multinationals, cleared the path for the “marketisation” of health care.

Impact of neoliberal reforms

The shift towards a market-oriented policy for health care received substantial support with the initiation of neoliberal economic reforms in the country in 1991. These reforms marked a major shift in the government’s policy towards social sectors such as health, and sought, by way of fiscal austerity measures, to cut government spending and subsidies in social sectors, reduce direct taxes, increase administered prices, liberalise trade by reducing tariff rates and providing other incentives for foreign investments, privatise public enterprises, deregulate the labour market, and so on. The policies were designed to clear the path for the state’s withdrawal from social sectors such as health, education and food security. The immediate impact on health was a cut in budgetary support to the health sector. The cuts were severe in the first two years of the reform process, followed by some restoration subsequently. Thus, the outlay for health fell from 1.9 per cent to 1.6 per cent in the first two years of the 1990s, and then increased marginally to 1.8 per cent in the 8th Plan outlay. Health care was a major casualty as the share of States constitutes a major portion of expenditure. As a result of the rollback on expenditure on health care, the expenditure by the government on health care fell from 1.4 per cent of the GDP in 1991 to 0.9 per cent in 2002.

The reforms of the 1990s proved catastrophic for public health services, and an already underfunded system was virtually brought to its knees. The very low level of public spending placed a huge financial burden on households. By 2004-05, per capita public spending on health was Rs.242, while private spending was almost four times at Rs.959. As a consequence, the number of people pushed below the poverty line because of catastrophic out-of-pocket expenses incurred on health care rose from about 26 million in 1993-94 to 39 million in 2004-05, and to an estimated 70-90 million in 2012-13.

In 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was voted to power, its Common Minimum Programme promised an expansion of health-care services. With this in view, the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) was launched in 2005. While the NRHM, or the NHM (National Health Mission) as it is now called, did lead to an expansion of public services, it failed to match expectations. Its ambition was curtailed over the years, as was its funding, when compared with the original design. The underfunding of the NHM should be seen in the light of a comment in the first draft of the new National Health Policy (available in 2015): “The budget received [for the NRHM] and the expenditure thereunder was only about 40 per cent of what was envisaged for a full revitalisation in the NRHM framework.”

India’s reforms in the health sector have been informed by the entire gamut of neoliberal prescriptions mentioned earlier. The direction of reforms has been uncannily similar to those pursued in a number of low- and middle-income countries, including the imposition of ceilings on public health expenditure, promotion of cost recovery (user fees) in public institutions, segmentation of the health-care system into “basic” care for the poor and private care for the rich and outsourcing of functions to the private sector.

Currently, India’s health-care system is one of the most privatised in the world and its public expenditure one of the lowest. Of the total expenditure on health care in India, only 32 per cent is public expenditure—the 16th lowest among 190 countries in the World Bank Database, keeping India in the august company of countries such as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Haiti and Guinea. It performs even worse for public spending on health care as a percentage of GDP. At 1.1 per cent, India stands 12th from the bottom, keeping company with Myanmar, Haiti, South Sudan, Timor-Leste and Pakistan.

In addition to the setting up of the NRHM, a new development since 2007 has been the introduction of public-funded health insurance schemes, at both the State and national levels, including the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana. These schemes follow the neoliberal prescriptions developed under the framework of universal health coverage and explicitly separate financing and provision of health care. They allow beneficiaries to access care in accredited facilities, which may be in the private or the public sector. In practice, an overwhelming majority of the accredited facilities are in the private sector. These insurance schemes serve to further strengthen the private sector by utilising public finances. They only cover for hospital care, while the bulk of private expenses are incurred by non-hospitalised patients. The problem lies not only with inadequate coverage of costs but also with the way the system is milked by unscrupulous private providers for financial gains. These schemes, largely implemented through partnerships with private providers, have been indicted in several States for defrauding the system of hundreds of crores of rupees by performing unnecessary surgical operations (for instance, a huge rise in unnecessary uterus removal operations) and for not contributing to better health outcomes.

The bogey of “fiscal discipline” is now repeatedly raised to restrict public financing of health care. The impact of these policies is clearly being felt. The NHM’s activities have faltered in many States and stuttered to a standstill in some others. The unstated strategy appears to be to cap public expenditure at a minimum level and at the same time, through public policy measures, encourage the growth of private providers. The government is also aggressively pushing for private health insurance; the 2015-16 Budget explicitly encouraged this by announcing tax relief to those who purchase private health insurance.

At the same time, several States such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are drawing up plans for leasing out existing rural public facilities to the private sector. More recently, NITI Aayog, the government policy think tank, unveiled a grand plan to lease out facilities in government-run district hospitals to private providers for a period of 30 years.

The current strategy of the government is a true reflection of the original neoliberal view of health sector reforms. This vision of health care has little role for public health services, which are to be increasingly outsourced to the private sector. Insurance mechanisms and not public provisioning is the linchpin of the so-called “health assurance” model.

We need to focus not on how public systems are to be privatised but on how public systems need to be made truly public. Reforms are necessary in public systems that free them from control by a self-seeking bureaucracy that is tied to neoliberal governments. Public systems need to be reclaimed by the public, shaped by the public and governed by the public. People have a stake and a definite role in reclaiming public systems and in transforming them.

Amit Sengupta is National Co-Convener, People’s Health Movement—India (Jan Swasthya Abhiyan)

Judiciary

The Supreme Court: A story of ups and downs

V. VENKATESAN cover-story
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THE INDIAN SUPREME COURT FIRST BEGAN functioning on January 28, 1950, at Parliament House, New Delhi, before shifting to its present building at Tilak Marg in 1958. The first Attorney General of India, M.C. Setalvad, in his address marking the court’s inauguration, observed that its jurisdiction and powers were wider than those exercised by the highest court of any country in the Commonwealth or by the Supreme Court of the United States. To Setalvad, its foremost task was to interpret the Constitution, which he said was a means of ordering the life of a progressive people. Citing the Federal Court, the precursor of the Supreme Court, he said that the Constitution was to be interpreted in no narrow spirit.

The Constitution envisaged the establishment of an independent judiciary with the Supreme Court at the apex. The Supreme Court is invested with the powers to issue writs to enforce the fundamental rights under Article 32 of the Constitution, described by B.R. Ambedkar as its soul. The court is also invested with the power to entertain appeals from High Courts and tribunals. All Supreme Court orders become enforceable throughout the territory of India, and all authorities, civil or judicial, are to act in its aid. While High Courts have powers of superintendence over their subordinate courts, the Supreme Court is not invested with any power of superintendence over High Courts. However, the Supreme Court has assumed to itself a virtual power of superintendence over High Courts, and they, in the words of the former Supreme Court judge Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy, seem to have accepted such a position with obeisance. “The stature of the High Courts has automatically reduced in the eyes of the public, which it should never be,” Justice Reddy says in his memoirs, The Court and the Constitution of India: Summits and Shallows.

Sir H.J. Kania, who became a Federal Court judge on June 20, 1946, became the first Indian Chief Justice of India (CJI) on August 14, 1947, by virtue of seniority following the resignation of the last British Chief Justice, Sir William Patrick Spens. Apart from the CJI, at that time there was just one more judge, Sir S. Fazl Ali.

Kania became the first CJI under the 1950 Constitution, and the five other Federal Court judges became judges of Supreme Court of India. Kania died in November 1951 with four years still to go before he would have completed his tenure at the age of 65. The sanctioned strength of the court at that time was eight, including the CJI. Two more judges, N. Chandrasekhara Aiyar and Vivian Bose, joined the court, in 1950 and 1951 respectively, to bring it to its full strength. The Supreme Court’s sanctioned strength has increased periodically since then and it is now 31, including the CJI. Kania had conceded that the Supreme Court was secondary to Parliament as the custodian of the Constitution and that the court was not an authority to supervise the wisdom and the propriety of the enactments of the legislature and the actions of the executive. His thinking influenced the way the Supreme Court decided cases in its early days.

Thus, in A.K. Gopalan vs State of Madras, a case decided in 1950, the court failed to rise to the occasion. Gopalan, a veteran communist leader from Kerala, was detained without trial under the Preventive Detention Act. He argued that provisions of Article 19 of the Constitution guaranteeing various personal freedoms should be read into Article 21 (the right to life and liberty) and Article 22, which enables the state to make laws providing for preventive detention. The Supreme Court held that the rights conferred by Article 19 were the rights of free men and both punitive and preventive detention were outside its range. This meant that a detenu could not claim procedural fairness as a fundamental right. The majority judges in this case were still under the influence of colonial jurisprudence and were oblivious to the fact that they were to expound the jurisprudence of a new Constitution for people who had just freed themselves from colonial rule. Thus, they held that the law prescribing preventive detention was not required to satisfy the requirements of reasonableness. Justice Fazl Ali dissented and said that the fundamental rights overlapped each other and that preventive detention under Article 22 also amounted to deprivation of personal liberty and of the right to the freedom of movement, dealt with in Article 19(1)(d).

In 1970, the minority view of Justice Fazl Ali was accepted by the majority of the 11-judge bench (10:1) in R.C. Cooper vs Union of India. In this case, the court rejected the argument that Article 31(2) (right to property) was a complete code in itself and not subject to any reasonable restrictions as contemplated by Article 19. Thus, the court quashed the nationalisation of banks on the ground that the compensation paid was unreasonable. In several subsequent cases, the Supreme Court held that even if only one of the several grounds of detention was bad for vagueness or another reason, the order of detention would be quashed. However, in 1976, during the Emergency, the Supreme Court reversed this great jurisprudence in the case A.D.M. Jabalpur vs Shivakant Shukla. The court held that life and liberty of a citizen were mere bounties of the state and could be withdrawn whenever it wanted. Justice H.R. Khanna dissented from the majority judges in this case and held that right to life and liberty existed before the Constitution and, therefore, could not be taken away by the state under any circumstances. The ruling in A.D.M. Jabalpur is no longer good law as subsequent legislation passed by the post-Emergency Parliament, in defence of the fundamental rights, reversed the “damage” the court caused.

Public interest litigation

In subsequent years, the Supreme Court itself began to make amends for its role during the Emergency. It encouraged epistolary jurisdiction, through which it converted ordinary letters written by people bringing issues of public importance to its notice to public interest litigation (PIL) petitions. Through this, the court dispensed with the need for locus standi and allowed petitioners who themselves might not have suffered any injury to represent others who were not in a position to approach the court for some reasons.

Among the judges who made effective use of PIL in the post-Emergency period were Justices P.N. Bhagwati, V.R. Krishna Iyer, Chinnappa Reddy and D.A. Desai. Justice Bhagwati’s creative and expansive interpretation of Article 21 gave people many new unenumerated rights. Justice Bhagwati, who passed away on June 15, was also at the centre of a controversy when he wrote an adulatory letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her return to power in 1980. Justice Krishna Iyer ruled that Indira Gandhi when she was disqualified for violating election law lost her status as a Member of Parliament but could retain her position as Prime Minister. His decision was one of the factors that led to the imposition of the Emergency. His experience as a prisoner, a legislator and a Minister in Kerala, before becoming a judge in the Supreme Court, made him champion the rights of the oppressed and the underprivileged, both as a judge and after his retirement.

However, in a recent scholarly work, Anuj Bhuwania has raised the concern that because a PIL petition does away with procedural requirements it could well be defeating its own objectives. As an example, he cites the 1989 Bhopal gas disaster claims settlement, which he says was judicial bad faith passing for panchayati justice. He recalls that the survivors of the gas leak tragedy were not even consulted before the court pronounced on their fate. They were considered “irresponsible and uninformed” and therefore given a fait accompli, he says. PIL has become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into victims, he further says in his recent book, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India. The book abounds with examples of PIL petitions that have gone wrong and resulted in further deprivation of the poor and the marginalised in the neoliberal era.

Freedom of expression

The Supreme Court has built up a robust jurisprudence in favour of freedom of expression, right from Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras, in 1950, when it struck down the notification the then Madras Government issued banning the entry into the State or the circulation, sale and distribution of CrossRoads, a journal published from Bombay, as offending the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution. In 1951, in State of Madras vs Champakam Dorairajan, the court struck down the community-wise distribution of admission to medical colleges as violative of Article 15, which guarantees non-discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. These two cases led to the First Amendment of the Constitution by the Provisional Parliament, which undid the judgments of the Supreme Court. Thus, reasonable restrictions on the fundamental rights were inserted under Article 19(2), and the state was enabled to make special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

During this period, the Supreme Court’s decisions seemed to uphold the challenges posed by the propertied class to the progressive legislation of the government. Yet, there was a general consensus in favour of Parliament’s right to determine policy in the economic realm. While the Supreme Court struck down egalitarian laws on the ground that they militated against the fundamental rights, there was a consensus that Parliament could amend the relevant provisions in a manner to render those laws constitutional. Thus, restrictions were added to each of the fundamental rights to allow for laws that aimed to fulfil the Directive Principles of State Policy.

This was followed by a period of confrontation between Parliament and the Supreme Court. In I.C. Golaknath and Others vs State of Punjab & Anrs (1968), the Supreme Court restricted Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution saying that the fundamental rights in Part III are unamendable. Then came the Supreme Court’s quashing of the Bank Nationalisation Act, 1969, in R.C.Cooper and the abolishment of the privy purses.

In 1973, the Supreme Court’s 13-judge Constitution Bench delivered the judgment in the Keshavananda Bharati case, enunciating the basic structure doctrine, by which certain basic features of the Constitution were declared unamendable by Parliament. In subsequent cases, the court held that the scope of giving effect to the goals set by Articles 39(b) and (c) to fulfil the Directive Principles of State Policy could not be restricted by the fundamental rights. The court reasoned that the Directive Principles must be read in harmony with the fundamental rights.

Death penalty

The Supreme Court’s judgment in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980), which declared the death penalty constitutional, was another landmark in its history. The court, however, held that it should be imposed only in the rarest of rare cases, when the alternative of a life sentence was unquestionably foreclosed. The Constitution Bench in this case also held that while sentencing a convict and taking into consideration the mitigating circumstances, the court should adopt a criminal-centric approach rather than be merely swayed by the enormity of the crime. It is, however, a matter of regret that subsequent benches of the Supreme Court did not fully appreciate the essence of Bachan Singh and mechanically confirmed death sentences in many cases, calling them the rarest of rare.

In recent years, however, the court appears to have applied some correctives and considered the alternative of life sentences without remission even in cases considered to be the rarest of rare, although the denial of remission even to reformed convicts means that some arbitrariness remains. The court has also made it mandatory for the review petitions of death row convicts to be heard in open court by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court to mitigate the chances of errors at the sentencing stage. The court has commuted the death sentences of several convicts to life imprisonment on the grounds of supervening factors, such as delay in disposal of mercy petitions, solitary confinement and mental illness, apart from introducing several safeguards to enable convicts to make use of legal remedies available to them effectively until they are hanged. The court, however, has erred in certain cases and deprived convicts of such remedies in cases where there was a societal and media outcry in favour of hanging the convicts.

Recent debate on privacy

The Supreme Court revisited many of these early debates when it recently heard arguments on the right to privacy in the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. On August 2, a nine-judge Constitution Bench concluded a seven-day hearing on the question whether the right to privacy was a fundamental right, and reserved its judgment. To many, it would appear paradoxical that the apex court should be examining this issue in this day and age when the right to privacy as a facet of liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, mentioned in the Preamble to the Constitution, has always been recognised implicitly, if not explicitly. The need to examine whether privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution arose because the Aadhaar scheme, which the state is pursuing with vigour and which involves sharing of the biometric data of individuals, was challenged on the ground that it violated privacy.

During the hearing of this case, it was pointed out to the Supreme Court that an eight-judge bench in M.P.Sharma vs Satish Chandra and Others (1954) and a six-judge bench in Kharak Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh and Others (1962) had held that privacy was not a fundamental right. It was also argued that all subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court holding that it was a fundamental right were delivered by benches whose strength was smaller than the ones that decided M.P.Sharma and Kharak Singh. Although it would appear a technical ground, the Supreme Court decided to examine the issue by making a reference to a nine-judge bench in order to give an authoritative ruling on the issue.

The petitioners pointed out during the hearing that the bench in M.P.Sharma made a casual observation that the right to privacy was not a fundamental right under Article 20(3) of the Constitution, which guarantees that no person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself. The bench had no occasion to examine whether the right to privacy could be read into other rights as at that time the Supreme Court, starting from the A.K. Gopalan case, believed that each individual right guaranteed under the Constitution dealt with a unique subject matter. Similarly, in Kharak Singh, it was held that there was no equivalent in India to the American right to privacy. The U.S, too, does not guarantee an explicit right to privacy but draws the right as a penumbral right, that is, a right that is necessary to make other rights, such as the right to freedom of speech and association, effective.

Gobind vs State of Madhya Pradesh and Anr (1975), decided by a three-judge bench, was the first case in which the Supreme Court stated that there was a fundamental right to privacy. The petitioners in the privacy case thus pointed out to the bench that Gobind did not conflict with M.P.Sharma because the Gobind bench considered Articles 19 (1)(a), 19(1)(d) and 21 as sources of the right to privacy, whereas the bench in M.P.Sharma did not have the occasion to examine this issue. It had confined itself to Article 20(3) and did not rule out that the right to privacy could be read into other articles of the Constitution.

Secondly, contrary to what the Central government had earlier claimed before the court, it was revealed that the eleven-judge bench in R.C.Cooper (1970) had overruled the decisions in Kharak Singh and A.K.Gopalan, which held that an impugned law could be analysed only under one constitutional provision and that the fundamental rights were mutually exclusive. In R.C.Cooper, the Supreme Court had struck down the nationalisation of banks because it impaired the right to compensation. Subsequently, in 1978, the decision in R.C.Cooper was endorsed in the landmark Maneka Gandhi case, in which a seven-judge Supreme Court bench held that Article 21 was to be read along with other fundamental rights and that the procedure established by law not only had to be just, fair and reasonable but also the law itself had to be reasonable as Articles 14 and 19 had now to be read into Article 21.

Subsequent judgments of the Supreme Court have only served to affirm the fact that the absence of a specific textual guarantee is no bar to a finding that a fundamental right to privacy exists under the Constitution.

The result of the privacy case could throw some light on whether the Supreme Court today is willing to adapt to the ethos of the changing times and defend the rights of individuals under the Constitution or whether it will get stuck in the outdated jurisprudence of the 1950s and the 1960s, as reflected by the judgments in M.P.Sharma and Kharak Singh. Some of the respondents, who saw nothing wrong in these early decisions, also pointed out the deliberate omission of the Constitution’s framers during the Constituent Assembly debates to make privacy a fundamental right.

The Supreme Court’s judgment on privacy is expected at a time when much of its jurisprudence has taken a conservative turn and shows a considerable degree of ambivalence on issues concerning institutional coherence and PIL. While the court, for instance, appeared to assert itself by striking down the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act in 2015 and reviving the collegium system of recruiting judges, its reluctance to go the whole hog in reforming the same system as it had promised to do exposed its own limits.

The Supreme Court set aside the Delhi High Court’s reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises consensual adult sex, because it involved the rights of a minuscule section of the population. The much-promised Constitution Bench to review this ruling by a two-judge bench is yet to materialise. Its latest judgment that directs the formation of committees with civil society participation and government funding in every district to decide prosecution of the accused in dowry-related cases involving allegations of cruelty to women is yet another step to reverse progressive jurisprudence of the early days.

The privacy and Aadhaar cases will be tests of the court’s ability to pursue its counter-majoritarian character with vigour and determination despite insurmountable challenges from the executive even as in coming weeks it is likely to decide key cases with a bearing on India’s secularism such as those relating to triple talaq and the Babri Masjid.

Social Issues

Dalits: In a state of unfreedom

GOPAL GURU cover-story

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In a socially plural society such as India, the idea of freedom tends to acquire internally differentiated meanings with varied emphasis. Hence, it becomes unavoidable for both analytical and political reasons to process this concept through the hierarchy of its significance. In the hierarchy of significance, one meaning of freedom becomes much more significant than another. Thus, during the anti-colonial struggle, Indian nationalists treated political freedom with topmost significance. In the post-Independence period, particularly in the dominant nationalist imagination, political freedom continues to be treated as top priority; this is evident in the language of nation-building and now in the rhetoric of the “Make in India” campaign. For hedonists, it is economic freedom or the freedom of consumption that acquires supreme significance. Most of those who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy would put social freedom or freedom from social bondage right on top of their priorities.

However, in the past 70 years of independent India, the idea of freedom in the public imagination has continued to be articulated with a skewed meaning and an uneven emphasis. This is evident in the case of social freedom or the freedom to appear in public without social stigma—a freedom that has not been able to enjoy stable public support. The recent “spectacle” of Dalits being beaten at Una in Gujarat is a case in point. The growing number of atrocities against Dalits thus is constitutive of unfreedom or denial of freedom to Dalits who constitute one-fifth of India’s population. In this context, it becomes necessary to decide which of the three kinds of freedom (political, hedonistic or social) provides a solid ground on which one can evaluate India’s 70 years of independence.

Let me argue that on moral grounds, it is the situation of the weaker sections, and now the minorities, that is a strong criterion to evaluate the performance of India’s independence. For such an assessment, it would be adequate to address the following questions that have a bearing on the tense relationship between the Dalit identity and the idea of freedom. To what extent has the Indian nation created conditions within which Dalits can enjoy social freedom? How does one assess the progress of the concept of freedom as perceived and received by Dalits?

Viewed from the standpoint of Dalits, the concept of freedom, which is on its way to becoming a reality for Dalits, tends to acquire a paradoxical, if not crooked, form. That is to say, in the past 70 years the concept of freedom has seen moments of progress and regress. Hence it is necessary to put the idea of freedom in a proper historical perspective.

Historicising freedom

In a historical sense, for Dalits, the idea of freedom in its liberal incarnation initially came as an opportunity to pursue their project of emancipation. In such a liberal conception, even for Dalits, freedom comes as a choice that arbitrates and decides between autonomy, agency and assertion on the one hand and spatial segregation, social servility and political subjugation on the other. It was natural for Dalits to make an individual choice for a clean job offered by the market over an unclean job imposed on them by the Jajmani or caste system. It was but natural for Dalits to be part of the radical rotation of job opportunities facilitated by universal criteria and not by the particular criterion of caste. It is in this sense that they had to rely on the state to put in motion a radical rotation of opportunity structures so as to enable them to exercise their freedom to choose jobs that were different from the defiling ones that existed during caste-based feudalism.

Arguably, the public sector, particularly in its heyday, did help Dalits enjoy their freedom to acquire clean jobs that were created and controlled by the Indian state. However, this state-mediated freedom of Dalits seems to have acquired rough edges to its inner dimension which is certainly benign. To put it differently, the very practice of freedom by Dalits and the consequences of such practice have made the very idea of freedom paradoxical.

Paradox of Dalit freedom

The long and continuous history of the oppressive caste system may provide Dalits a valid reason to develop a fascination for individual freedom that promises them a radical separation from servility and subjugation that continue to be the defining features of the caste system. In view of their almost total deprivation, they may find the intervention of the “democratic” state morally less problematic. Some of them even argue that for the sake of the Dalit community they would not mind curtailing their freedom of mindless consumption. They would not be too possessive about their individual freedom. For some Dalits, the moral commitment, such as “pay back to the community”, would appear to be quite revolutionary. It is for this reason that some sections of Dalits find it necessary to mediate this freedom through the intervention of the state and now the market.

But curtailing one’s own freedom for the cause of wider emancipation has two basic problems. First, it insulates one from critiquing one’s inability to separate the act of being politically correct from becoming politically conscious about the structures that determine the asymmetry between giving help and receiving help. Second, within the Dalit discourse of freedom, what dominates Dalits’ political sensibility is the language of obligation rather than the language of rights. It is the language of rights that provides the initial condition for not only making claims to freedom but also appreciating the limited role of “possessive individualism” that seeks to put on test Other Backward Classes’ (OBC) liberal capacity to tolerate Dalits’ right to possess certain individual property.

In the recent decades, it is but true that OBCs have become the custodians of caste ideology. This is borne out by the fact that it is the members of OBCs who are allegedly involved in committing atrocities against Dalits. In such growing violence against Dalits, usually the targets are the symbols of cultural modernity such as pucca houses, vehicles, electronic gadgets, fashionable attire and even modern hairstyles. To put it differently, atrocities against Dalits perform the regulatory function to decide who can exercise the freedom even to participate in the consumer market. It is in this sense that even conservative shades of freedom acquire a dynamic character over the freedom which is driven by morality of obligation.

The dynamism of Dalit freedom is the result of enduring tension between Dalits and OBCs. For Dalits, freedom suggests the following: What is lost in tradition is confidently gained in modernity. For OBCs, freedom means the inverse of that: what is lost in modernity is gained in tradition. OBCs in general and upper castes in particular tend to retain their domination in tradition only to make up for the losses they incur while accessing the shrinking opportunities that define Indian modernity.

The OBCs’ inability to accept Dalits’ claims of freedom is further evident in the civilisational violence that the former inflict on the latter. The social boycott imposed on Dalits amounts to civilisational violence that breaks the comprehensive frame of freedom—freedom to communicate, to carry on dialogue and associate themselves with the collective life of the village. Social boycott imposed on Dalits in many Indian villages gets intensified in the denial of certain natural rights such as water and access to physical spaces. Ironically, it is the stamina with which the labouring Dalits resist that deepens the normative meaning of the concept of freedom.

Normative meaning of Dalit freedom

The robust and transformative conception of freedom is linked with the moral stamina that the labouring Dalits demonstrate in terms of taking the risk of publicly articulating the emancipatory principles of equality, friendship and dignity as given by Babasaheb Ambedkar. These principles inspire the labouring Dalits to exercise their sociocultural and intellectual freedom. Such normative spheres of freedom articulated by common Dalits through their struggle for dignity do not exhaust the strength and validity of the principles given by Ambedkar. On the contrary, these principles get dissolved in the pragmatic motivation nurtured by most Dalit politicians and their cultivated supporters. In other words, these principles acquire enduring life with validity and strength only in Dalit oppositional imagination.

It is the labouring Dalits who show an extraordinary degree of freedom to retain through their struggle the strength and validity of Ambedkar’s principles. But such freedom to show a robust commitment to the principles is contingent upon the moral capacity to remain in opposition to the centres of temporal power or electoral power. Dalit freedom appears in the world whenever Ambedkar’s principles are actualised and asserted in the event of the negation of Ambedkar by his opponents both vocally, as in the case of Maharashtra, and not so vocally elsewhere in the country. As the experience of the past 70 years of independence shows, the response of untouchables to freedom does two things: it deepens the understanding of the complex layers that the concept of freedom has; and secondly, it seeks to expose the hollowness of this concept when it is accessed by the privileged lot of Indian society.Dalit freedom, without commitment to such principles, remains hollow and even false. This falseness is evident in their “presence” in the most obnoxious spheres of informal economy.

Conceits of freedom

Informal sectors such as ragpicking and garbage collection engage workers who are exclusively from the community of untouchables. In fact, a major chunk of those involved in such “self-employed” work are Dalit women. One may consider their work environment-friendly and hence a service to society and even to the nation. Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been projecting a positive image of the workforce engaged in the informal sector. It considers the contribution made by workers in the informal sector vital to the country’s economy.

Dalits have reached a stage where they do not have the opportunity to assert their freedom against the master. Because, in the informal sector they do not have to work under any feudal lord or any employer in modern times. They can say that they are self-employed in ragpicking, waste picking and garbage collection. The very obnoxious nature of this work denies them the advantage of feeling dignified.

Informalisation of the economy under the regime of neoliberalism has been responsible for creating a false sense of freedom among Dalits. The conceit of freedom resides in the incongruence between Dalits’ self-perception and their self-expression. In their perception they do not want to associate themselves with ragpacking or garbage collection, but in their self-expression they project that such jobs are worth doing. In Dalit estimation, which is driven by the force of necessity, ragpicking and scavenging and garbage collection may have some worth, but the same work appears as obnoxious in the moral estimation of both the state and civil society. The conceit of freedom would suggest that the Dalit women are self-employed and to that extent they enjoy freedom without the tangible, or visible, master who during feudal times pushed the Dalit into a state of servility and segregation. What is at the core of Dalit freedom is the moral essence linked to dignity. Secondly, the tag of self-employment seeks to re-feudalise social relations that have led to the degeneration of the quality of life of Dalits to a modern low.

In conclusion, one can say that the freedom to participate in a more creative, competitive and attractive sphere of decent opportunities is treated as the normal conception of freedom. In the past 70 years of Independence, Dalits are yet to enjoy such freedom. Most Dalits are subjected to unfreedom on account of their being continuously pushed into more obnoxious spheres of work. However, this is a weak evaluation of the concept of freedom. There is a strong evaluation of the concept of freedom, which resides in the assertion of Ambedkar’s principle of equality, friendship and dignity.

Gopal Guru is Professor, Faculty, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Economy

Growth without social justice

C.P. CHANDRASEKHAR cover-story

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The defining feature of the economic programme of independent India’s first government was accelerating the transition to a modern economy dominated by industry. Agriculture and related activities at that time accounted for around half of the gross domestic product (GDP) and modern industry in the form of factory establishments for just above 6 per cent. Thus, colonial rule had made India the victim of barriers to productivity increase that are typical of predominantly agrarian economies.

These circumstances influenced the Nehruvian vision that made rapid diversification in favour of manufacturing the principal economic objective. The “big planners” of that time did recognise that this would not deliver the jobs needed to absorb the country’s large underemployed and unemployed labour force and address the extreme poverty and deprivation that colonialism had left behind. But those challenges, it was argued, could be addressed separately so long as growth got going.

At first, it appeared that success was at hand. The years after 1951, and especially after 1956, did see large and rapidly rising investments in industry and infrastructure. But, it is clear, in hindsight, that the process lost momentum rather early. The share of manufacturing in GDP did rise from around 9 per cent in 1950-51 to 16 per cent in 1961. But it did not cross the 18 per cent mark for a little more than a decade after that, and touched 20 per cent at its peak only in 1996. This was well short of what had been achieved in many other comparable economies. In 1971, the share of manufacturing in GDP stood at 29 per cent in Brazil and 35 per cent in China. In 1996, the figure was 27 per cent in Korea, 28 per cent in Malaysia and 26 per cent in Thailand. The contribution of manufacturing to employment in India was, as expected, even more dismal.

There were two principal and proximate factors responsible for this shortfall, relative to targets in a country that showed much promise as a candidate for successful industrialisation. One was the failure to grow the mass market for manufactures through appropriate measures and especially through the implementation of land reforms that would have raised the incomes of the majority among the agriculture-dependent population. The other was the inability of the state to mobilise the resources to finance the expenditures needed to drive and facilitate the process of industrialisation.

Agrarian reform was needed to break down land monopoly, which, by facilitating rack-renting by absentee landlords, who also earned surpluses from usury and control over poorly paid, bonded labour, disincentivised productive investment in land on the part of semi-feudal and feudal landowners. It also deprived the tenants who cultivated the land of the means and the incentive to invest. Productivity-enhancing investments were thus limited. Further, land concentration meant that any increase in agricultural income that accrued was not distributed in a manner that encouraged the expansion of demand for manufactured mass consumption goods.

The expansion of domestic demand for the still-nascent factory sector came to depend on government expenditures, which, by financing direct purchases by the state, increasing demand mediated through employment in the state sector, and the multiplier effects of these, drove manufacturing growth. But the inability of the state to raise the resources needed to finance these expenditures through taxation, and the limits to other forms of potentially inflationary financing, like indirect taxation and borrowing, meant that growth remained at the disappointing pace at which it occurred.

Both these features of the development path—the failure of land reform and the fiscal crunch affecting the state—were, in turn, the result of an uneasy compromise between landlords in the rural areas and the business elite in the urban areas that had as its counterpart a compromise between the conservatives in the Congress, on the one hand, and Nehru and his supporters in Congress governments at the Centre and the States on the other. Land reforms, though flagged in many policy documents and in government statements of intent, remained largely unimplemented, and direct tax revenues were woefully inadequate to support the programme of state-led economic modernisation. Structurally, the economy remained the same, not merely in terms of the degree of diversification but also in terms of the structures of economic dominance, with traditional landlords and business groups concentrating economic power in their hands.

The dominance of a small industrial elite also meant that the government could not push it to produce for export to international markets, which would have helped earn scarce and precious foreign exchange and identified an alternative source of demand to supplement domestic demand. Indian capital preferred the comfort of the protected home market, which, though trapped in slow growth, was quite lucrative for those at the top of the wealth pyramid. The picture was one characterised by slow growth, a neglect of agriculture and balance of payments vulnerability reflected in periodic crises.

One reason why this vulnerability did not result in multiple crises as intense as the inflation-cum-balance of payments crisis that affected India in the mid-1960s—which led to the devaluation of the rupee and forced reliance on the Bretton Woods institutions for recovery—was the ability to use temporary measures of crisis prevention and even growth management. The most striking example of the latter was the adoption of the Green Revolution strategy in the late 1960s, riding on the productivity improvements that new high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds promised if properly exploited. Combining the delivery of HYV seeds, the fertilizers and pesticides needed to accompany them, and credit (including for investments that helped ensure more stable access to water), the government did manage to raise foodgrain production yields. This partly made up for the absence of land reforms since it encouraged resumption of direct cultivation by large landholders on the back of the promise of higher profits from investment. It also reached the benefits of the technology to farmers with medium-sized holdings. The gradual spread of Green Revolution “practices” across the country did help stave off the worst food crises. Combined with a public procurement and distribution system that was partly aimed at stabilising the prices received by farmers, it kept at bay the kind of famines that had historically plagued the country.

What went unnoticed was that the Green Revolution helped shift the issue of land reforms, and the embarrassment of not having implemented it, out of day-to-day policy discourse. The “success” of the Green Revolution also helped conceal the damage inflicted on the soil, on the water table and on the quality of water. The harmful effects of the Green Revolution are now being felt in the form of various threats to the sustainability and viability of farming.

A second temporary reprieve came in the 1980s in the form of access to borrowing from abroad. By the 1970s, the international financial system had changed hugely. Surpluses from oil exporters benefiting from the oil shocks and capital accumulated from the pension funds of the post-War generation were finding their way into financial markets in search of returns. Developing countries like India, which earlier did not have access to private financial capital, were now discovered as emerging markets and favoured with capital flows. To exploit this opportunity, India opened its doors to inflows of credit from the international commercial banking system and non-resident Indian financial investors. Access to this capital allowed the government to increase its own debt-financed expenditures, since the foreign capital could be used to finance imports that kept domestic inflation in control. Public debt rose, foreign debt increased, but public expenditure helped accelerate growth, and imports helped contain inflation.

This was the decade when India was seen to have escaped from the “Hindu rate of growth” in which it had ostensibly been trapped. But it came with a price: a rising import bill and a widening current account deficit, which soon generated fears among foreign lenders that India may not have the foreign exchange to meet its debt service commitments. Soon the credit flow from abroad dried up, reserves collapsed, and in July 1991, a balance of payments crisis forced India to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. To assuage foreign financiers and win the support of the IMF, the government used the crisis to launch a deep-seated programme of neoliberal reforms involving drastic liberalisation of trade and foreign investment and wide-ranging deregulation in the domestic sphere.

Since the reforms were also supposed to enforce fiscal discipline, which would have necessitated curtailing government expenditure, the expectation was that it would slow growth. But that was not to be. In fact, growth stayed at the 1980s level through the 1990s and then accelerated after 2003, taking India into an even higher growth trajectory. Though growth is off the peaks that it touched before the global financial crisis, official figures suggest that India is keeping pace with and often overtaking China as the world’s fastest growing economy.

But this, too, seems to have been because of rather unusual circumstances. When the balance of payments crisis happened in 1991, the fact that India had paved the way for the removal of most controls on the inflow of foreign capital, especially financial capital, into India’s ,equity and debt markets, provided the basis for a third reprieve. The effects of this reliance on foreign capital proved even stronger after 2003 because of a capital inflow surge and its domestic collateral effects.

The 1991 crisis did initially freeze flows from the international banking system to India. But flows from foreign institutional investors, who were now permitted entry into India’s equity and subsequently debt markets, made up for the loss. This allowed continuation of the 1980s-style growth strategy where the government pump-primed the system with deficit spending and kept inflation at bay with the help of foreign exchange. But reliance on foreign finance finally forced the state to implement fiscal reforms, by tying its hands with legislation in the form of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act. The FRBM Act at the Central level was passed in 2003, setting off a process that has brought the fiscal deficit to GDP ratio down to close to 3 per cent. This forecloses growth based on debt-financed government spending.

Despite this cutback in government spending, growth in India shifted onto a higher trajectory because of a spike in debt-financed private spending. The large liquidity infused into the system because of the post-2003 capital inflow surge triggered a boom in bank credit, focussed largely on retail lending such as loans for housing, automobile and durable purchases, and sundry personal expenditures, and on lending to investments in capital-intensive industry and infrastructure. While this spurred growth, it also increased the exposure of banks to areas and projects that were vulnerable and were soon defaulting. The net result is that a decade after the boom began, non-performing assets in the banking system have risen sharply and bank profitability and even solvency are under threat. As a result, banks have turned cautious and credit growth is shrinking, shaving off a few percentage points from the growth rate.

However, for India’s majority, the problem is not just sustained growth. The reliance on fortuitous, unsustainable and volatile stimuli to drive growth has created a pattern of growth that is least suited to employment generation, deepens inequalities and is largely incapable of addressing even the worst forms of social deprivation. Much has indeed changed as India floated across trajectories, driven by one fortuitous factor after another. Yet, little has changed when seen from the point of view of those whom development is supposed to ultimately serve.

DEMOCRACY

Enemies within the system

A.G. NOORANI cover-story

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The framers of the Constitution of India opted for the British parliamentary system, as a matter of course, at the very outset of their deliberations, at a joint meeting on June 5, 1947, of the Union Constitution Committee and the Initial Constitution Committee. Vallabhbhai Patel announced the decision in the Constituent Assembly on July 15, 1947: “Both these Committees met and they came to the conclusion that it would suit the conditions of this country better to adopt the Parliamentary system of Constitution, the British type of Constitution with which we are familiar” ( Constituent Assembly Debates, Volume IV, page 578). That was but natural. But were the leaders and the people qualified to run that model?

Ivor Jennings, one of the foremost authorities on the British Constitution, pointed out in his classic Cabinet Government: “Experience has taught the British people that ‘fair play’ is as necessary in public as in private life. It has taught parties that parliamentary intransigence and electoral dishonesty brings ultimate retribution at the polls. But the real reason is that the parties, like the people, accept the necessary conditions of democracy. They accept the principle, that is, that the majority may govern but may not oppress the minority. Government and Opposition alike assume the honesty of the other. The British Constitution, said Mr Gladstone, ‘presumes, more boldly than any other, the good faith of those who work it’. The ‘understandings and habits of mind’ by which the Constitution functions are ‘bound up with the growth of mutual confidence between the great parties in the State, transcending the political differences of the hour’. Democratic government has its Marquess of Queensberry rules, and public opinion is the referee” (emphasis added, throughout; third edition, page 16.)

He also added: “It is not untrue to say that the most important part of Parliament is the Opposition in the House of Commons. The function of Parliament is not to govern but to criticise. Its criticism, too, is directed not so much towards a fundamental modification of the Government’s policy as towards the education of public opinion. The Government’s majority exists to support the Government. The purpose of the Opposition is to secure a majority against the Government at the next general election and thus to replace the Government. This does not imply that a Government may not be defeated in the House of Commons. Nor does it imply that parliamentary criticism may not persuade the Government to modify, or even to withdraw, its proposals. These qualifications are important; but they do not destroy the truth of the principle that the Government governs and the Opposition criticises. Failure to understand this simple principle is one of the causes of the failure of so many of the progeny of the Mother of Parliaments and of the supersession of parliamentary government by dictatorships” ( ibid, page 172).

In such a system, “The most elementary qualification of a minister is honesty and incompatibility. It is, however, necessary not only that he should possess this qualification but also that he should appear to possess it” ( ibid; page 106). Note that he distinguished between public honesty and personal corruption.

The parliamentary system rests on a recognised set of conventions and tacit understandings. Even if the Constitution is written out, unlike the British Constitution, those conventions apply. The Supreme Court of India holds that constitutional conventions are as binding as the written text (S.C. Advocates on Record Assn vs Union of India [1993] 3 SCC page 656).

No Constitution can possibly provide for all situations. There must be play at the joints, and that play is governed by a culture to which all belong. Writing of the influence of British political culture, young John F. Kennedy, during his stay in the United Kingdom when his father, Joseph Kennedy, was Ambassador, summed up some of its elements—do not put your hand in the public till, nor make money out of politics; conduct party warfare fiercely, but stop at the point where the system itself is threatened; do not press a party advantage too far; the political system and its rules are more important than party gains or power. The system must be worked, not wrecked.

Walter Bagehot’s work The English Constitution is a classic. So is A.J. Balfour’s Introduction to its third edition, which the great jurist and Sanskrit scholar Justice M.M. Ismail quoted profusely in his study The President and the Governors in the Indian Constitution (Orient Longman, 1972; it deserves a reprint).

Balfour went to the very heart of the matter. “Constitutions are easily copied, temperaments are not; and if it should happen that the borrowed Constitution and the native temperament fail to correspond, the misfit may have serious results. It matters little what other gifts a people may possess if they are wanting in those which, from this point of view, are of most importance; if, for example, they have no capacity for grading their loyalties as well as for being moved by them; if they have no natural inclination to liberty and no natural respect for law; if they lack good humour and tolerate foul play; if they know not how to compromise or when; if they have not that distrust of extreme conclusions which is sometimes misdescribed as want of logic; if corruption does not repel them; and if their divisions tend to be either too numerous or too profound, the successful working of British institutions may be difficult or impossible. It may indeed be least possible where the arts of parliamentary persuasion and the dexterities of party management are brought to their highest perfections… Let the political parties be reduced to two (admittedly the most convenient number for Cabinet Government), but let the chasm dividing them be so profound that a change of administration would in fact be a revolution disguised under a constitutional procedure.”

To his niece, Blanche Dugdale, he was more forthright in a conversation on April 25, 1925: “I doubt if you would find it written in any book on the British Constitution that the whole essence of British parliamentary government lies in the intention to make the thing work. We take that for granted. We have spent hundreds of years in elaborating a system that rests on that alone. It is so deep in us that we have lost sight of it. But it is not so obvious to others. These peoples—Indians, Egyptians, and so on—study our learning. They read our history, our philosophy, and our politics. They learn about our parliamentary methods of obstruction, but nobody explains to them that when it comes to the point all our parliamentary parties are determined that the machinery shan’t stop. ‘The King’s government must go on,’ as the Duke of Wellington said. But their idea is that the function of opposition is to stop the machine” ( The World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, pages xxii – xxiii; and Blanche E.C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, Hutchison, page 364, respectively).

Take each qualification and ask ourselves—do we have it? Do Indians know how to grade their loyalties, putting, for instance, the Constitution above party or personal gain? Do we have respect for the law? Practise tolerance? Tolerate foul play? Seek compromises in the public interest? And, most importantly, does corruption, indeed, repel us?

Let me cite a telling case. William Jowitt, a successful barrister, was a member of the Liberal Party, on whose ticket he won a seat in the House of Commons in the general election on May 30, 1929. On June 4, he became Attorney-General in the Labour Government. Announcement of “the rapid conversions” became, as The Times (London) put it, “a topic of recrimination and ribaldry”. He stood again in a byelection on July 11 and won. He undertook also never again to stand from this safe Liberal constituency. Yet he received a stinging rebuke during a debate on the definition of “unemployed” in the Bill as “those genuinely seeking work”. Lloyd George said it applied to Jowitt.

By our standards, Jowitt was a saint. But the rapid conversion was not explained. “From time to time in later life Jowitt had to face remarks which showed that the events of 1929 had not been forgotten. Thus, on the day on which a general election was announced in February 1950, Jowitt entered the dining room at the House of Lords and took his seat at a table with some younger peers—Lords Mancroft, Tweedsmuir, and Fairfax of Cameron. Jowitt remarked that their future was brighter than his. Their political careers would not be seriously affected by the outcome of the election, whereas if Labour lost, he would lose his position and with it his flat in the Palace of Westminster and be obliged to find another residence. ‘I wonder whether there is any room in the vicarage at Bray,’ remarked Lord Mancroft to his neighbour in an audible aside. Jowitt did not pretend to be amused, and thereafter, whenever Lord Mancroft spoke, Jowitt left the Chamber” (R.F.V. Heuston, Lives of the Lord Chancellors 1940-1970, Oxford University Press, page 80).

In India, persons censured by commissions of inquiry or even courts of law do not incur such contempt. Attorneys General who manifestly lacked character remained in office. Two defectors who split their parties and conspired with the opposition became Prime Ministers—Charan Singh and Chandrasekhar. There was another candidate, too, one P.V. Narasimha Rao. The standard of British public life has declined steeply since Margaret Thatcher. It was intolerance of moral and financial corruption that had shaped politics for long, as the Jowitt incident shows.

At the root of the malfunctioning of its constitutional system is India’s utter and prolonged failure to evolve a viable, working political system in which political parties alternate at the seat of power. Ramshackle coalitions are a temporary palliative to counter a single party hegemon in power.

A strong opposition ensures that the conventions are obeyed. Before Independence we resented British criticisms on this score as excuses for not granting independence to India. The Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform (Sessions 1933-34) took a dim view of India’s ability to work “an unqualified system of parliamentary government”. It said: “Parliamentary government, as it is understood in the United Kingdom, works by the interaction of four essential factors: the principle of majority rule; the willingness of the minority for the time being to accept the decisions of the majority; the existence of great political parties divided by broad issues of policy, rather than by sectional interests; and finally the existence of a mobile body of public opinion, owing no permanent allegiance to any party and therefore able, by its instinctive reaction against extravagant movements on one side or the other, to keep the vessel on an even keel. In India none of these factors can be said to exist today. There are no parties, as we understand them, and there is no considered body of political opinion which can be described as mobile” (Volume 1 [Part I] Report, HMSO, London, 1934, HL 6 [Part 1], HCS [Part 1, ibid., page 11).

After Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964, people started saying that the Constitution was not suited to the Indian temperament and began clamouring for the presidential system. But with the conduct we have witnessed of that “temperament”, one wonders if it can sustain any other constitutional system, least of all the presidential one. The Aya Rams, Gaya Rams will, like Newt Gingrich, ensure deadlocks to exact their price and imperil democracy itself. There were and still are those who believe as Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru did in 1930: “I do not believe that we have yet got the necessary mentality for democratic forum of government.” On February 22, 1941, he wrote to the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Sir Maurice Gwyer: “I have never been so foolish as to imagine that in the best of circumstances we could reproduce in this country the conditions of British democracy” (Rima Hooja, Crusader for Self-Rule, Rawat Publications, Jaipur and New Delhi, pages 167 and 194).

Two decades earlier, a directly opposite view was expressed on August 13, 1919, before a Committee on Constitutional Reforms appointed by the British Government. It was by a member of the Congress and was based on personal experience. Lord Islington’s question and his reply are set out here. “What I want to get at is this: You would say that there are people in India who, though they be not literate, have a sufficient interest in the welfare of the country to entitle them to a vote? I think so, and I think they have a great deal of common sense.

“People who have that kind of common sense which would justify them having a vote? — Yes; I was astonished when I attended a meeting of mill hands in Bombay when I heard some of the speeches, and most of them were illiterates.” Another exchange is interesting. “You said you spoke from the point of view of India. You speak really as an Indian nationalist? — I do. Holding that view, do you contemplate the early disappearance of separate communal representation of the Mohammedan community? — I think so. That is to say, at the earliest possible moment you wish to do away in political life with any distinction between Mohammedans and Hindoos? — Yes. Nothing will please me more than when that day comes.

“You do not think it is true to say that the Mohammedans of India have many special political interests, not merely in India but outside India, which they are always particularly anxious to press as a distinct Mohammedan community? — There are two things. In India, the Mohammedans have very few things really which you can call matters of special interest for them — I mean secular things. I am only referring to them, of course? — And therefore that is why I really hope and expect that the day is not very far distant when these separate electorates will disappear.”

The witness was none other than M.A. Jinnah, which proves the utter falsity of Nehru’s charge that Jinnah was against mass politics. What went wrong then? It was Gandhi’s programme of civil disobedience and Nehru’s contempt for the British system and for the liberals who espoused it. They dominated the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. It was served by a Constitutional Adviser, Sir B.N. Rau, and elected a Drafting Committee with Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar as its head. Its members were lawyers of eminence like Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar and K.M. Munshi and men of wide experience in public affairs like Sir Gopalaswami Ayyangar, T.T. Krishnamachari, Sir Mohammed Saddulla of the Muslim League, and N. Madhava Rau.

Nehru’s discomfort

They had all drunk at the fount of the British constitutional system and parliamentary practice, some more deeply and admiringly than others. Jawaharlal Nehru savoured a different and far headier brew. His Autobiography poured scorn on Indian liberals of old, constitutionalists par excellence, for seeing things “through British spectacles of true-blue colour”. He was uncomfortable with the class composition of the Congress, no less. “Most of those who have shaped Congress policy during the last seventeen years have come from the middle classes. Liberal or Congressmen, they have come from the same class and have grown up in the same environment.… As the Congress became more and more representative of the rural masses, the gulf that separated it from the liberals widened, and it became almost impossible for the liberal to understand or appreciate the Congress view point. It is not easy for the upper-class drawing room to understand the humble cottage or the mud hut” ( Autobiography, page 416 and 420). Did Nehru?

The liberals believed that Indians should work the legislatures established by the Act of 1919 to gain experience in the parliamentary system. When, finally in 1937, the Congress accepted office under the Government of India Act, 1935, it was to use the provinces as another front in the freedom struggle. One episode illustrates that. Both Gandhi and Nehru were opposed to P.D. Tandon resigning from the Congress after his election as Speaker of the U.P. Assembly in accordance with British practice. This was the mindset. After Independence, the Speakers have always been the ruling party’s faithful.

Sources of corruption

Corruption reared its head even during the freedom movement, as Dr Tomlinson documented in his work The National Congress and the Raj, based on the archives. Subhas Chandra Bose was not above it. “This independence of outlook and action was the real source of Bose’s challenge to the established leaders. Even Bose’s financial resources were independent of those of the ‘Gandhians’. The main sources of funds open to the ‘right-wing’ leaders were donations from Indian businessmen negotiated by Patel, Desai, Bajaj and G.D. Birla. There was also the capital and interest on certain special appeal funds and the loans that could be raised on them. Nehru had no independent resources; he was completely dependent on the ‘Gandhians’ for money. Bose’s sources of income were smaller, but they were genuinely his own. He could rely on payments for favours shown to Bengali businessmen by the Bengal P.C.C. [Pradesh Congress Committee] and the Calcutta Corporation (as long as he controlled these bodies) and on ‘protection money’ from large industrial magnates in Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Orissa, given in return for good labour relations. He also had support from a group of non-Bengali businessmen, headed by the Delhi mill-owner Shankar Lal, and could use the funds of the Tropical Insurance Company (of which he and his brothers were directors and Shankar Lal Managing Director) to stabilise his finances. From these sources Bose managed to raise Rs.50,000 simply for the expenses of his delegates and canvassers at Tripuri” (pages 123-124). How much could the Rs.50,000 be worth now in 2017? Bad examples were set by the leaders during the freedom movement.

Gandhi’s movements were not free from use of violence by its participants. K.M. Munshi wrote of the Quit India Movement: “Truth to tell, what they did was anybody’s business. It was certainly not non-violent even at the start. Disruption of communications and destruction of public property provoked stern action by the Government, which in turn led to more reckless behaviour by the people—what Gandhiji later pithily described as ‘leonine violence’” ( Pilgrimage to Freedom, page 81).

The wise Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) predicted in an entry in his jail diary: “Elections and their corruption [ sic] injustice and life power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration.

“The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination. Hope lies only in universal education by which right conduct, fear of God and love will be developed among the citizens from childhood. It is only if we succeed in this that Swaraj will mean happiness. Otherwise it will mean grinding injustices and tyranny of wealth.”

Weak constitutional morality

As Dr Ambedkar warned the Constituent Assembly, on November 4, 1948, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only topdressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” ( CAD, Volume VII, page 38).

He was implying, no doubt, that things would improve under the Constitution and that it would help to instil and strengthen constitutional morality which is indispensable for its own survival. Now, decades later, one finds that constitutional morality in India is far weaker than it was when the Constitution was being drafted. There is no gainsaying the reality of the Indian achievement in working a parliamentary system despite grave handicaps. We have erected a democratic edifice on feudal ground. But this achievement is now at stake because we have failed to instil in our polity the values which alone can sustain the Constitution. In the main it is the leaders who are to blame.

As Walter Lippmann wrote: “There is no mechanical gadget by which the moral level of public life can be maintained. There is no spasm of popular righteousness which will raise it much for very long. … In the realm of morals, the example set by the prominent is decisive. It is far more important than the exposure of the wicked. In fact, the example of the prominent shows those who administer and enforce the laws what is expected of them.”

India did worse than fail to evolve a party system. It distorted its shape in a manner that no self-respecting democracy will accept. It reduced MPs and MLAs to bondsmen. This alone suffices to reduce democratic governance to a farce. In the U.K., for instance, the party ticket is awarded by the constituency party and the political parties are so organised. An MP owes no debt to the central leadership; he can defy it so long as his constituents stand by him. He can refuse to obey the party whip on a matter of conscience. The party in power rests on MPs with an independent political base. They have the capacity to rebel. The Indian system not only warps democracy but also freedom.

The Chief Minister owes his job to “the high command” and can only meekly assert his State’s rights vis-a-vis the Centre. He cannot select Cabinet Ministers, nor expand the Cabinet nor advise dissolution of the Assembly to enforce discipline. The Governor is the Centre’s man. In sum, parliamentary government at the State level exists only in form. At the Centre, deviations from the norm are common. The high command has a say on the composition of the Cabinet.

Which other democracy is plagued with defections and distorted by anti-defection laws? Confidence in the integrity and independence of the Speaker is indispensable to the working of the parliamentary system. In India this precondition is absent. Coalitions in Uttar Pradesh provide for change of Speakers when each party takes its turn to form a government. Kashmir has a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) man as Speaker.

The Supreme Court of 2017 is a pale and very disturbing shadow of the court we had and respected in its early years. The doctrine of a “committed judiciary” and the supersession of three of the most senior judges in 1973 robbed the judges of self-confidence and even self-esteem. A good few became populist, in judgments and on public platforms. On sensitive issues judges shirk their duty boldly to do justice even if it invites unpopularity. The right to free speech, minority rights, the right to individual liberty against a state which curtails it in the name of “terrorism” are some of the topics on which the court fails almost invariably. When it comes to Kashmir, the court beats a magnified retreat. One judge refused to touch Longowal’s habeas corpus case. He became the Chief Justice of India. If this be the surrender on Punjab, what do you expect on Kashmir?

It is not the Constitution which has failed the nation. It is the leaders who betrayed the trust which the framers of the Constitution reposed in them. Two pronouncements by Dr Ambedkar record that trust. One was on November 25, 1949: “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of the state such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of these organs of the state depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?” ( CAD, Volume XI, page 975). He added that it was futile to pass any judgment upon the Constitution without reference to the part which the people and their parties are likely to play.

The other pronouncement, on November 4, 1948, is more telling: “I feel that it [the Constitution] is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in war time. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was Vile” ( CAD, Volume VII, pages 43-44).

Space & nuclear power

Space flights, nuclear power and a missile shield

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

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IF India is one of the top players in the world in space, nuclear power and missiles despite embargoes and technology-denial regimes heaped on it, a large share of the credit should go to the founding fathers of these programmes, Vikram Sarabhai, Homi J. Bhabha and Air Vice Marshal V.S. Narayanan respectively. Those who came after them built on this foundation to make the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) institutions that earned the respect of the world.

Success upon success has visited ISRO in the past several years. It successfully put into orbit its spacecraft around Mars in its first attempt on September 24, 2014. The spacecraft completed 1,000 earth days in its orbit on June 19, 2017, well beyond its designated mission life of six months. Its mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, was the first to discover the presence of water molecules on the lunar surface soil and rocks.

On June 5, 2017, ISRO’s first developmental flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-MkIII D1), its heaviest vehicle yet at 640-tonne, successfully put a satellite, GSAT-19, weighing 3,136 kg into orbit, the heaviest to be put into orbit from India. Each of the launch vehicle’s three stages, including its indigenous cryogenic stage, is the heaviest ISRO has built so far.

This came on top of the four straight successful launches of the GSLV-MkII with an indigenous cryogenic engine and 39 successful flights in a row of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) since 1994, with the 38th launch, on February 15, putting a world record number of 104 satellites into orbit. In fact, the PSLVs have put into orbit 209 satellites from abroad, earning big money for Antrix, the commercial wing of the Department of Space.

Today ISRO has the capability to build any type of launch vehicle and any type of satellite that it can launch into any type of orbit. “We have achieved real self-reliance in all areas of launch vehicle technology,” says K. Sivan, Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram.

As for satellites, the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bengaluru has built a whole range of satellites, for communication, remote-sensing, prediction of weather, navigation, cartography, surveillance, ocean studies and education, besides science satellites Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter and Astrosat. Also on its list is an orbiter to Venus, which will have a balloon experiment to study Venus’ atmosphere. Beginning with Aryabhata in 1975, ISAC has so far rolled out 96 satellites.

ISRO’s sights are now set on the totally indigenous Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will involve getting a lander carrying a rover to softland on the lunar surface. The orbiter, the lander and the rover will together weigh 3,250 kg. M. Annadurai, Director, ISAC, said ISRO was aiming for a launch in the first quarter of 2018.

Aryabhata and the two earth observation satellites that followed, Bhaskara-1 and Bhaskara-2 were launched by Russian rockets, and they were followed by APPLE (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment), India’s first experimental communication satellite, launched by the Ariane rocket of the European Space Agency (ESA) from French Guiana. After Professor U.R. Rao became its Chairman in 1984, ISRO came into its own, building full-fledged remote-sensing satellites that are used in agriculture, fishing, and mapping of urban and rural areas.

Using information provided by India’s satellites in low-earth and geostationary orbits, information about the weather over the Indian subcontinent is provided to the India Meteorological Department (IMD) every 15 minutes now. This information is augmented by images coming from Oceansat-2 and SCATSAT-1. In fact, data from SCATSAT-1, which was put into orbit by PSLV-C35 on September 26, 2016, was used to monitor the flood situation in Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in July 2017.

ISRO also has in orbit a constellation of seven navigation satellites, which, according to Annadurai, “are among the fastest realised systems [in the world]”.

A key focus area of ISRO is building reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). In fact, the RLV programme crossed a milestone on May 23, 2016, with the launch and return of a winged RLV-TD in a scaled configuration that flew at a hypersonic speed. On August 28, 2016, ISRO took the next steps towards reducing the cost of access to space when a modified two-stage vehicle developed by the VSSC used air-breathing propulsion in its scramjet engine.

In five decades, ISRO’s has been a remarkable journey in space, which began in the 1960s with the launch of a ‘pencil-rocket’ that reached a height of a few kilometres with a couple of kilograms of propellants.

Nuclear power

The need for total self-sufficiency is what guides India’s three-stage nuclear power programme too. The DAE has achieved this while building Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), which forms the first stage, and is all set to usher in the second stage when the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, goes critical in December 2017. The PFBR, says Kallol Roy, CMD of Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI), is meant to be a techno-economic demonstration of large fast reactors to be built in series. It will be a big jump from the 13 MWe Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam. BHAVINI, the DAE’s public sector undertaking responsible for building breeder reactors, plans to build four more breeder reactors, including two at Kalpakkam. Once the PFBR becomes operational and delivers 500 MWe power to the grid, says Kallol Roy, it will “serve as a stepping stone towards long-term energy security for the country”.

Questions have been asked about why India is pressing ahead with breeders when advanced countries have given them a wide berth. But the French nuclear scientist George Vendryes has gone on record that India is on “the right path” and that he “admired India” for what it is doing ( Frontline, August 25, 2006).

While the PHWRs use natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as both coolant and moderator, the fast breeder reactors use plutonium-uranium mixed oxide as fuel. In the third stage, reactors using thorium as fuel will be built. The three stages are interlinked.

Today, India has 22 reactors with an installed capacity of 6,780 MWe. Of these, 18 are PHWRs. Four, two each at Tarapur and Kudankulam, are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) that use enriched uranium as fuel and light water as coolant. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), DAE’s flagship PSU, is building four indigenous 700 MWe PHWRs—two each at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan and Kakrapar in Gujarat—and they are in an advanced stage of construction.

On May 17, 2017, the Union Cabinet approved the construction of 10 more 700 MWe PHWRs. They are to come up at Gorakhpur in Haryana, Chutka in Madhya Pradesh, Kaiga in Karnataka, and Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan. “If the NPCIL was earlier building reactors in pairs, it will build the 10 new units in a fleet mode as a fully home-grown initiative,” says N. Nagaich, Director (HR), NPCIL. The 10 reactors are expected to generate manufacturing orders worth Rs.70,000 crore to Indian industry that can generate around 34,000 jobs in direct and indirect employment.

The two Russian PWR reactors of 1000 MWe each at Kudankulam are already generating electricity and construction work has begun on two more such reactors on June 29.

Having mastered the PHWR technology and all set to herald the breeder reactors’ era, the DAE has set its sights on building 900 MWe PWRs, which will use enriched uranium as fuel. The DAE gained enormous experience in this area when it developed the 80MWt PWR which powers India’s nuclear-powered submarine Arihant.

The 63-year old DAE is an empire that has 64 organisations under its belt, including PSUs, research centres, academic institutions and industrial organisations that are involved in the entire gamut of activities relating to nuclear electricity generation.

The nerve-centre of the DAE is the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay, Mumbai. It is perhaps the largest R & D facility in the world where the widest spectrum of activities in nuclear science and technology and many other areas are carried out. It has done remarkable work in radiation medicine, nuclear agriculture, irradiation of mangoes, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and spices to prevent their decay and sprouting, radio astronomy, lasers, accelerators, fusion, cryogenics, plasma and so on. Its scientists specialise in supercomputers, robotics, artificial intelligence, superconductivity and virtual reality.

K.N. Vyas, Director, BARC, calls it “a technology powerhouse” that has blended multi-disciplinary skills in basic sciences and engineering disciplines to address the technological challenges of atomic energy. Dhruva, a high-flux reactor at BARC, Trombay; notable capability in synthetic organic chemistry; and expertise in radiochemical processing have been instrumental in developing novel radiopharmaceuticals. After undergoing quality checks and trials in collaboration with Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, they have been released for cancer treatment, says Vyas. Radiopharmaceuticals have also been produced by a medical cyclotron available with BARC.

BARC’s contribution to cancer treatment includes the Bhabhatron, a cobalt teletherapy machine, whose capability has been enhanced to ensure that the radiation dose is delivered precisely to the tumour. It has also developed tiny iodine125-based brachytherapy sources, encased in thin titanium shells, for treating eye cancers.

Vyas says BARC has developed a sewage sludge hygienisation technology, wherein high energy gamma radiation from cobalt 60 source inactivates pathogens, kills weeds, degrades chemical contaminants and enables inoculation with useful bio-nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium bacteria, converting the waste sludge into manure. A dry sludge hygienisation plant, with a capacity of 100 tonnes a day, is being built for Ahmedabad municipal corporation.

Through genetic enhancement, BARC has developed and released, in collaboration with agriculture universities, more than 40 different crop varieties, among them groundnut, urad bean, channa, moong, black gram, pigeon pea, rice, mustard, jute and soya bean, that are high-yielding varieties and resistant to diseases and drought. A semi-dwarf aromatic mutant of Dubraj rice called Trombay Chattisgarh Dubraj Mutant-1, with an improved yield of 35 per cent and 15 days less of maturity period, will soon be released in collaboration with the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya, Raipur.

BARC has also developed a supercomputer called Anupam Agnaya with a capacity of 270 terraflops, spectroscopes for ISRO’s missions to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) and Mars, and lightweight bullet-proof jackets for armed forces’ personnel.

DRDO

In the field of defence research India has a massive empire in the form of the DRDO whose range of activities is staggering. Set up with 10 laboratories on January 1, 1958, it now boasts more than 52 big laboratories situated in different parts of the country. These laboratories can be categorised into seven clusters: aeronautics, missiles and strategic systems, electronics, computational systems, armaments and naval systems, strategic systems, and materials and life sciences. They develop everything that the armed forces need: missiles, main battle tanks, combat aircraft, infantry combat vehicles, bridge-laying tanks, underwater vehicles, radars, sonars, smart materials, stealth technologies, high explosives, torpedoes, parachutes, aerostats, lasers, nano-tubes, robots, desalination plants, assault rifles and so on.

Other products they have developed include foldable stretchers, self-heating socks and gloves for soldiers posted in the rarefied heights of Siachen, underground shelters for use in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, ready-to-eat chapatis, nutritional bars, protein-rich food and so on.

However, it is the portfolio of missiles DRDO has developed at its missile complex in Hyderabad that makes India proud. The complex has three facilities: Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), and the Research Centre, Imarat (RCI). In the portfolio are surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles (SAM), air-to-ground, air-to-air, anti-tank, underwater-launched and supersonic cruise missiles.

In the future, says G. Satheesh Reddy, Director-General (Missiles and Strategic Systems), DRDO, the thrust will be on high-energy propellants, high temperature materials and coatings, sensors and detectors, radomes and material technologies, and highly miniaturised, low-cost and accurate integrated avionics. DRDO will be looking to “establish focussed research centres in specific technologies in R and D centres and academic institutions” to achieve these objectives.

Among the missiles in India’s arsenal, the interceptors form the building blocks of its ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield. They can intercept an enemy missile in the exo-atmosphere (above an altitude of 80 km) or the endo-atmosphere (at an altitude of 15 km to 35 km) and pulverise them either in a “hit-to-kill”, which is a head-on collision, or in a “proximity kill”. The interceptor missions launched from Abdul Kalam Island (formerly Wheeler Island) off the Odisha coast have been spectacular successes, with most of them scoring direct hits on incoming “enemy” missiles simulating the trajectory of ballistic missiles with a range of about 2,000 km.

The exo-atmospheric interceptor is a completely indigenously developed missile with critical technologies such as infra-red seeker, and control and guidance and propulsion systems developed in-house and supported by Indian industry through an ecosystem that DRDO nurtured. The endo-atmospheric interceptor missile features a radio-frequency seeker and an advanced dynamic control system.

The BMD, in the first phase, has been conceived to take care of enemy missiles coming from a distance of 2,000 km. In the second phase it will take care of missiles with a range of 5,000 km. Its critical elements, dispersed across the country, include interceptor missiles, command, control, communication, computer and intelligence (C4I) systems, long-range radars and so on. Only the United States, Russia and Israel have BMD shields.

India’s fleet of surface-to-surface missiles is helmed by the Agni series, Agni-I, II, III, IV and V, which are all strategic missiles armed with nuclear warheads and the bulwark of India’s nuclear deterrence. The single-stage Agni-I has a range of about 750 km and the two-stage, 17-tonne Agni-II has a range of 2,000 km. Agni-III, weighing 50 tonnes, is a quantum jump and it can take out targets 3,000 km away. Agni-IV, with its motor casings made of composites, weighs only 17 tonnes and it can reach targets 4,000 km away. Agni-V, with a range of 5,000 km, is a “game changer”, says Avinash Chander, former Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and former DRDO Director General. The Army has deployed Agni-I, II, III and IV. Four consecutive flights of Agni-V have been successful, with the third and fourth launches taking place from canisters positioned on trucks.

The BMD and the strategic Agni series establish India as a formidable missile power in the world, says a DRDO missile technologist who did not want to be named.

In the SAM class, a success story is the development of the Akash missile. The Army and the Air Force possess it and both have placed production orders of more than Rs.20,000 crore for Akash, which can hit aircraft and helicopters flying 25 km away. “The maturity of private manufacturing agencies in key defence applications is highlighted by the fact that about 85 per cent of the Akash missile systems is supplied by them,” says Satheesh Reddy.

In 2016, DRDO began two new projects of Akash. The first one called Akash New Generation will feature solid propulsion, an electro-mechanical control system, an active radio-frequency seeker and a laser proximity fuse. The system can search, track and fire while engaging 10 targets that fly up to an altitude of 25 km. Akash New Generation has not been tested yet. The second, Akash-Mark 1S, will be tested in the technology demonstrator mode to upgrade the earlier version with an RF seeker.

A new indigenously developed Quick Reaction SAM (QRSAM) has been tested this year. It can search for targets on the move, track them on the move and fire at multiple targets that are flying 30 km away. According to DRDO sources, two advanced SAMs, one each for the Navy and the Air Force, will become operational soon. The Long Range SAMs (LRSAMS), with a range of 70 km, has been developed jointly by DRDO and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the Indian Navy. The three destroyers of the Navy will soon boast of LRSAMs, the flight trials of which were conducted in September 2016 and were aimed at proving three interception scenarios against manoeuvring targets. A medium-range SAM has been developed jointly by DRDO and the IAI for the Air Force, and the flight trials took place in June and July 2016.

Astra, the air-to-air missile, with a capability to destroy aircraft flying in a range of up to 60 km, has been inducted into the Air Force on the Sukhoi-30. This indigenous missile, with variants for extended range, will provide the Air Force the fire power to engage targets at various standoffs.

India’s underwater-launched K-15 missile has a range of 700 km, and flight trials of another underwater-launched missile, the K-4, with a range of 3,000 km, have taken place from submerged pontoons.

In the development of missiles, RCI, an avionics laboratory with a mandate to design and develop advanced avionics technologies, plays an important role. It has developed “systems and sub-systems in the critical areas of navigation, control actuation systems, power supplies, imaging seekers, RF seekers, onboard computers, radomes and antennae, and so on,” says Satheesh Reddy, who was formerly Director, RCI.

Indeed, with such an array of sophisticated laboratories, defence-related research looks set to conquer new frontiers that will help DRDO grow and expand its empire.

Politics

Creed above country: Rise of the Right

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Writing to Members of Parliament a few days before the vice-presidential election, held on August 5, 2017, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the joint candidate of 18 political parties belonging predominantly to the opposition, invoked the speeches and statements made by four legendary leaders of India at the cusp of Independence. His objective in citing Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, B.R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—in that order—was to highlight the idea of India that these freedom fighters had cherished when the nation was making a new beginning on August 14-15, 1947. The apprehensions too that each of them had even while hoping for an illustrious future for the country was ingrained in these articulations. Collectively, the hopes and apprehensions expressed in their comments underscored the vision and farsightedness of these statesmen. The act of highlighting them, Gopalkrishna Gandhi pointed out, was part of an attempt to look back at the past seven decades of independent India and evaluate how responsibly the aspirations and concerns had been addressed during this period. Interestingly, strains of their points of view would seem like commentaries on the state of affairs, 70 years later, in contemporary India.

For instance, in a speech made at the special midnight session of the Constituent Assembly on the night of August 14-15, 1947, S. Radhakrishnan, who later became India’s first Vice President, talks about “our national faults of character, our domestic despotism, our intolerance, which have assumed different forms of obscurantism, of narrow-mindedness, of superstitious bigotry” and warns that “our opportunities are great but... when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days”. Gopalkrishna Gandhi highlights the “penetrating vision” of the “father of the Indian Constitution”, Ambedkar, who, in his speech at the same midnight session, stated: “Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against.”

Speaking from Kolkata a day before this Constituent Assembly session, Mahatma Gandhi drew attention to “the perils of sectarian divisions” that confronted independent India and the “responsibility” that this brought upon the country. Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s letter to MPs quotes the father of the nation: “From tomorrow we shall be delivered from the bondage of British rule. But from midnight tonight India will be partitioned. While therefore tomorrow will be a day of rejoicing, it will be a day of sorrow as well. It will throw a heavy responsibility upon us. Let us pray to God that He may give us strength to bear it worthily....”

The letter adds that Jawaharlal Nehru’s emphasis too was on the responsibility that freedom and power brought. Addressing the nation from Parliament, Nehru stated: “Freedom and power bring responsibility. That responsibility rests upon this assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India.”

The four leaders represented different political and ideological shades and nuances within the national movement, but at the cusp of independence there was a convergence of sorts as to what should represent the core of the political processes in the country. Classified into broad categories, they emphasised freedom and power with responsibility, overcoming despotism, intolerance, obscurantism and bigotry, all along making sure that the nation was placed over any kind of creed.

Indeed, political, social and cultural tendencies that violated the fundamental tenets identified by these statesmen had come up in India during their lifetimes. In Gandhiji’s case it made a dastardly appearance in his death at the hands of the Hindutva communalist Nathuram Godse, who shot him in 1948, less than a year into independent India. Still, the principles identified by these leaders formed an important part of the overall political discourse during the early years of independent India.

S. Radhakrishnan was the last of the four leaders to pass away, in April 1975. The monumental and perilous fall of Indian democracy into the Emergency, imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was still two months away. The Emergency in June 1975 was unambiguously the most foreboding event in the 28-year-old history of Indian democracy. It was also the most momentous violation, until then, of the tenets laid out by the founding fathers, marked as it was by gross negation of democratic and citizens’ rights, including freedom of speech, expression and movement, as also the propagation of intolerance and bigotry under a despotic regime.

Over four decades from that abominable juncture in the history of the nation and in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Independence, the message that once again emanates from a number of major political developments centres around the blatant violations of the principles advanced by the founding fathers of the Constitution and governance systems.

Intolerance and arrogant patriotism

Instances of this nature have abounded in the past several months, but to list the prominent ones closest to the 70th anniversary, one needs to look at the happenings that have a connection of sorts to the new Vice President’s election. Specifically, this relates to the manner in which the outgoing Vice President, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, was treated by some of the leaders as well as the self-proclaimed “social media warriors” of the ruling party and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. In media interactions and public engagements towards the end of his tenure, Hamid Ansari had raised the plight of the marginalised sections of society in general and the perceptions of heightened threat and insecurity among some of these communities in recent times. He had pointed out that there were “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”.

He had also said that “the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism” and that “it promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism”. Ansari had termed this as hyper-nationalism, which entailed a closing of the mind that is also a manifestation of the insecurity about one’s place in the world. Quoting S. Radhakrishnan, Ansari had stated that “a democracy is distinguished by the protection it gives to minorities” and that it was “likely to degenerate into tyranny if it does not allow the opposition groups to criticise fairly, freely and frankly the policies of the government”.

The response to these observations from the Hindutva “social media warrior” groups was extremely spiteful and communally sectarian. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary Kailash Vijayavargiya said the outgoing Vice President’s remarks were an “insult to the country” and that it had “damaged the country’s image”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and M. Venkaiah Naidu became party to this vituperative exercise though without being directly abusive. Both Modi and Naidu addressed Ansari directly at his farewell function. Modi stated that “it is possible that there was some restlessness within you [Ansari] as well but from today you will not face that crisis”. This was widely perceived as Modi’s reference to Ansari’s “restlessness” under a BJP regime and the deliverance from the “crisis” of holding a constitutional office under this regime. Naidu sought to dismiss outright all the concerns flagged by his predecessor.

Responses from different segments of the polity, including the grass-roots, have sought to underscore the duplicity and deceit ingrained in the argumentations of the ruling dispensation as well as its political-organisational structure. Varanasi-based grass-roots social activist and political analyst, Kumar Mangalam Appu Singh, who focusses on empowerment issues of the marginalised communities in Uttar Pradesh, said the contentions of the BJP leaders did not stand up to scrutiny. “What they are trying to do is to camouflage and push things under the carpet. What Hamid Ansari has flagged are the right concerns agitating the grass-roots across the country, and particularly in north India. In fact, the very manner in which these people have responded to somebody like Ansari ji exposes the level of discrimination that exists in our polity and society,” he said.

Appu Singh also pointed out that reports from all parts of the country upheld Ansari’s point. Incidents from Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) to Una (Gujarat) to Ballabgarh (Haryana) have repeatedly underscored this. “But all that matters to Sangh Parivar apologists is the hegemony of Hindutva at the level of politics and society. And they are going all out to make this a unidimensional sociopolitical entity,” he said.

Evidently, the ruling forces have created a situation that Ambedkar saw as a grave danger to India’s existence and independence—a situation where creed is placed above country and one in which independence is put in jeopardy. Talking to Frontline, Gopalkrishna Gandhi said that he had referred, in his letter to MPs, to “a subtle fear pervading our politics today”, essentially on the basis of the imposition of the political practice of “creed over country”. Reiterating it, he said that this “converts a majority from an honest weightage of democratic opinion into majoritarianism, the very antithesis of democracy”.

The Emergency and after

Interestingly, the strengthening of the Hindutva Right, which has led to massive infringements on democratic rights, is also in some ways related to the struggle for democracy and against the Emergency in the 1975-77 period. The challenge then to democratic and citizens’ rights resulted in a broad unity among a large section of the people cutting across ideological, political, social and cultural divides. The left-of-centre socialists inspired by the ideas of Ram Manohar Lohia, the freedom fighter who worked closely with Gandhi and Nehru, the Marxist Left led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Hindutva Right guided and controlled by the RSS-led Sangh Parivar were all part of the struggle waged against the Congress party, which was led by Nehru’s daughter but had conspicuously moved away from the ideals delineated by the country’s first Prime Minister. Both this struggle and the success in defeating the forces of the Emergency one and a half years later, through the elections of 1977, marked the unleashing and strengthening of diverse social, cultural and political forces representing both progressive and regressive ideologies.

The Hindutva Right, the left-of-centre socialists and a section of the Congress that had revolted against Indira Gandhi’s leadership joined hands to form the Janata Party in the immediate aftermath of the 1977 electoral success. This new party formed the government at the Centre, but obvious ideological differences led to the breakdown of the political outfit and the government. But by then, the RSS had gained legitimacy in Indian polity, which it had never hoped to achieve earlier. The acceptance of the organisation by some leaders such as Jayprakash Narayan of the anti-Emergency struggle and the Janata Party contributed in a big way to this legitimisation.

The 1980s and 1990s, the two decades that followed the Emergency, marked the rise of identity politics of different characters and denominations. One of them was the Hindutva-oriented identity politics that sought to take the idea of pan-Hindu politics to new areas. Broadly following a paradigm etched out by Lohia, the marginalised Other Backward Classes (OBCs) advanced their own form of identity politics under the auspices of the erstwhile Socialist parties that had divided into several regional parties.

The stream of Ambedkarite ideas on empowerment of the most downtrodden Dalits also gathered new wind as a special stream of assertive politics through leaders like Kanshiram and Mayawati. The assertion of these diverse streams and the consequent carving out of electoral support bases led to a period of political instability signified by hung parliaments and coalition governments.

Parallel to this, the political economy of the 1990s witnessed the widespread implementation of neoliberal economic policies by the Congress and other governments. The Congress and the Hindutva Right were the prime movers of this political economy in practice, but the Left—particularly of the Lohiaite Socialist variety—was unable to evolve a cogent and concrete response to this both at the level of governance and as mass movements. Amidst this, the Hindutva Right moved on, pursuing communal pan-Hindu politics at one level and assimilating neoliberal economic policies at another.

There were visions of a brief course correction in terms of larger polity when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was dependent on the Left to sustain its government during the 2004-09 period. The collapse of that political understanding and the formation of a UPA government on its own in the 2009-14 period also strengthened the Hindutva Right, particularly on account of the many corruption scandals that came up against several Ministers of that period. In many ways, the UPA government of 2009-14 became the “Weimar Republic” foundation for the formation of the Modi-led NDA government in 2014.

Yet another development in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Independence is the fact that the present ruling dispensation and its political masters are bent on creating and enforcing this majoritarianism at whatever means and cost. This manifested itself in the manner in which the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat, the home State of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, was fought with the express objective of defeating the Congress bigwig Ahmed Patel. Implementing the so-called Indian system of power machinations involving saam, daan, bhed, dand (combination of peaceful, beneficial, discriminatory and forceful methods), Shah directly led this Rajya Sabha election campaign, wooing and terrorising members of the Legislative Assembly belonging to other parties, including the principal opposition Congress. At the end of it all, these ploys did not succeed, and Ahmed Patel won by a whisker.

But as the Lucknow-based political commentator Professor Sudhir Panwar pointed out, beyond the immediate result of the elections there was a larger objective, and an understanding of the intent of the BJP and the Modi regime was required to make sense of the state of politics 70 years after Independence. “This larger intent is to create a political state where there is no opposition, either at the level of realpolitik and in its electoral and legislative forums or at the ideological level in the form of propagation and expression of alternative views, concepts and ideas,” he said.

Panwar added that when one considered the happenings close to the 70th anniversary of Independence it was not just the manner in which the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections were fought that unravelled this. He said: “The manner in which the final struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was dealt with using blatant force against activists, including Medha Patkar, is the manifestation at the level of non-electoral opposition. But then, if you look around the country it is not one people’s movement on the Sardar Sarovar project that is being oppressed like this. Hundreds of other similar people’s movements are facing the same situation day in and day out. All this signifies a larger social and political context.” Panwar was of the view that even a person with basic political understanding would know that these dimensions fit in with the establishment of an authoritarian and fascist regime, whatever be its minute classifications and nuances.

Suppression of alternative thinking

The historian M.G.S. Narayanan also finds a growing tendency in the current ruling regime to control all facets of life, whether it is politics or social equations or culture or culinary habits. “Put simply, it is suppression of all forms of alternative thinking, not to speak of dissent,” he said. According to Narayanan, the political practice of all hues and colours that have held varying degrees of sway and influence over India’s polity have contributed to this state of affairs as we complete seven decades of independence as a nation.

He said: “The political and social positions adopted by the Congress since the early years of governance at the Centre have all been honed to extremities and converted to hugely politically rewarding platforms by the Sangh Parivar organisations. These include the pursuit of nationalism and religious symbolism of the Hindu variety. The politics of assertion followed by the self-professedly social justice-oriented parties of the Marxist and socialist variety have also been appropriated in varying degrees by the different Sangh Parivar outfits. As this process developed, these political forces contributed also to the whittling of government institutions.”

As repeatedly elucidated to this writer by the late Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans, a prominent leader of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation in the 1980s and 1990s, the Sangh Parivar is not pursuing politics for just governance or social and economic development but as an instrument to achieve the larger goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. Paramahans, who passed away in 2004, was of the view that social justice-oriented and caste-based assertions of OBCs and Dalits were the biggest challenge to Hindutva and that the Sangh Parivar had evolved concrete plans to stave their threat off by the late 1990s. Of course, it took another decade for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to get those “concrete plans” to work.

The tactics and strategy employed by the Sangh Parivar to advance its political project, its realpolitik and electoral manifestations fit in well with the history of fascist political and organisational practices as analysed by Dave Renton in his seminal work Fascism, Theory and Practice (Pluto Press, 1999). “Fascism thrives on bitterness and alienation, both of which capitalism nourishes with regular doses of unemployment and crisis. This fuels despair, which further stimulates fascism to grow. Fascism lives off racism, sexism and elitism, while capitalism promotes its own prejudices, guised as common-sense beliefs, which seem to fit people’s experiences, while effectively holding them back from challenging the system. Capitalism generates the myths of racism and elitism, which fascists use for themselves.” Citing the experiences of countries such as Italy, Renton says that by building itself as an independent force, fascism is capable of making the most revolutionary promises, including refuge for the politically homeless, for the socially uprooted, the destitute and the disillusioned.

However, Panwar points out that like all fascist establishments of the past and the present, these revolutionary promises remain on paper, as the primary economic facilitator and promoter of fascism is capitalism. “The world over, there are signs of a revival of nuanced fascism in diverse forms, and the new forms of capitalism, including crony capitalism, is facilitating these diverse forms. One could say that among the practitioners worldwide of this devious political practice, what we have in India is one of the most organised, well-entrenched and effective practices. It is corrupt and has a symbiotic relationship with capitalism, especially the agents of crony capitalism,” he said. Veteran Bihar politician and former Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwari is of the view that even in the midst of this association with crony capitalism, the BJP-Sangh Parivar establishment will continue to throw the history of the foibles of corruption at all political opponents and voices of resistance.

“So, the real resistance to this could be built up only by exposing the corruption of the BJP and Sangh Parivar leaderships as well as the governments and institutions run by them. But for that is required a resolute leadership that does not buckle under pressure or is not carried away by the lure of power,” he said. Tiwari is certain that only with the emergence of such a movement and leadership will the idea of India as envisioned by the founding fathers of the Constitution and democratic governance get revived in its true spirit.

Secularism

Inventing history to inculcate hatred

IRFAN HABIB cover-story

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When 70 years ago India obtained freedom it also got divided on religious grounds. It was a momentous decision on the part of the leadership of the major political party in India at that time—the Congress “High Command”—to keep the Indian Union free of any religious or sectarian colour. The phrase “democratic and secular” was commonly used for the state that was now envisaged. (I find it used, for example, in the Presidential Address at the Indian History Congress, Bombay, on December 26, 1947.) It is true that the word “secular” did not occur in connection with the nature of the prospective republic either in the Objectives Resolution passed by the Constituent Assembly in December 1946 or in the Constitution that came into effect on January 26, 1950. Yet, one finds Jawaharlal Nehru specifically saying in 1961 (and possibly also on earlier occasions) that “our Constitution lays down that we are a secular state”. It was, however, only in 1976 that the words “Socialist, Secular” were inserted in the Preamble to the Constitution so as to define India as a “Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic”. In formal terms, too, therefore, “secularism” obtained the status of a principle which should exercise a determining influence on interpretations of the detailed provisions of the Constitution.

Now, the word “secular” has a specific meaning, which needs to be carefully preserved. The word comes from the Late Latin word speculum, meaning “world”; and so “secular” literally means “worldly”, and, therefore, something that is non-spiritual or non-religious. Its more specific sense of a system of ethics is due to the ideas of J. Holyoake (1817-1906), who is supposed to have brought the word into the English language in 1851. In the words of the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, the word now referred to “the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life to the exclusion of all consideration drawn from belief in God or in a future state”, the words “future state” here doing duty for “afterlife”. The total exclusion of religion—no particular religion, but all religions—was emphasised by Holyoake himself when, in 1854, he said that he had chosen the word “secularism” as “expressing a certain positive and ethical element which the terms ‘Infidel’, ‘Sceptic’, ‘Atheist’ do not express”. When the term “secular” began to be applied also to the mode of education and then to a particular form of the state, it carried the same strict sense of totally excluding the influence of any religious belief or ritual in determining the content of a state’s laws or the nature of its executive action. It may here be mentioned that much before the term “secularism” came into use, the United States Constitution of 1787 and, particularly, the French Revolution of 1789-94, by barring religious influences from all conduct of state affairs, had already produced fair models of a secular state, the French being clearly the more radical one than the American.

Whenever the word “secular” is today used outside India in respect of the state it does not, therefore, mean just the pursuit of neutrality among religions, or dharm-nirpekshita as secularism is officially rendered in Hindi, but invokes a more positive notion of rational conduct, uninfluenced by the requirements of any religion or set of religions.

Yet, what is taken as the meaning of secularism worldwide was expressly rejected by Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher and India’s second President, in his book Recovery of Faith (1956), page 202, in a passage that is now apparently a standard quotation in Indian legal commentaries:

“When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an Unseen Spirit or the relevance of religion to life or that we exalt irreligion…. We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status or unique distinction.”

It is clear that Radhakrishnan here offers a definition of secularism which has no sanction and divests it of all significance. As we have seen, secularism all over the world is invoked to ensure that religious beliefs are excluded from affecting the policies and laws of the state, while Radhakrishnan insists that “religion” still remains a “relevant” source.

Supreme Court judgment on ‘religious instruction’

It is not the international sense of secularism but the one asserted by Radhakrishnan that has been accepted by the Indian judiciary to the extent that even explicit provisions of the Constitution have been set aside in its light, while his warning that not one religion should be given a unique position has been increasingly overlooked. This is illustrated by the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2003 in respect of the imparting of “religious instruction”, on which the Constitution in its Article 28 imposes clear restrictions. Educational institutions maintained by state funds are, by this article, absolutely barred from providing any “religious instruction” and even state-recognised or aided institutions cannot make such instruction compulsory for students. Yet, despite the clear language of the constitutional provisions, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 2003 claimed (quite unhistorically!) that most of our essential values have come from the mouths of “sanths and saints” and so held as if it was the duty of the state to provide “instruction in religion” in its schools. From the court’s own specific references it could be assumed that Hinduism was the main faith to turn to, with some space given half-heartedly to other religions. The judgment has sounded the death knell of secular education wherever the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come to hold the reins of power.

Radhakrishnan’s redefinition of “secularism” thus opened the way to its increasing subversion which has taken place with the growth in the power of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political front, the Jana Sangh, now renamed the BJP. From its foundation in 1925 until 1947, the RSS worked as a Hindu communal organisation with an openly fascist ideology, with no intention to take part in the national movement. Before and after Independence it conducted bitter propaganda against Muslims and against Gandhi ji, with its slogans of “Hindu Rashtra” and “Hindutva”, the latter term borrowed from V.D. Savarkar. Its hand in the communal massacres of 1947-48 was officially recognised as well as the fact that its members celebrated Gandhi ji’s murder on January 30, 1948. At the elections of 1952 and afterwards it bitterly opposed the proposal for the Hindu Code, which was finally legislated in 1955-56, giving women rights that had been denied to them for millennia. To this body Radhakrishnan’s definition of secularism is probably quite acceptable, and for the past 20 years, if not more, we have heard spokesmen of the RSS and the BJP loudly denouncing “pseudo-secularism” by which they obviously mean secularism in the proper sense of the word.

It will, however, be inaccurate to attribute the growth of communalism in India solely to the work of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. After Independence there was much bitterness within Congress ranks (which by 1947 had few Muslims left in them) over Partition and the subsequent treatment of Hindus in Pakistan (especially East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). Not only were riots frequent, but there was much official discrimination practised against Muslims in recruitment and promotions to official posts. Nehru himself in a letter to the United Provinces Chief Minister, Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, in April 1950 recognised the seriousness of the situation prevailing there, but his acute expression of distress had little immediate consequence. Credit should be given to the Communists, the main opposition party at the time, for their stout opposition to the communal forces. In actual fact, however, the bulk of the defenders, as well as opponents, of secularism were still to be found within the Congress itself.

Winds of change

It has been argued by Professor Bipan Chandra and his colleagues that it was the Jayaprakash Narayan-led mass movement of 1975, the subsequent Emergency (1975-77) and the opposition it aroused that made the RSS a respectable part of India’s political establishment. The Congress, however, recovered, though the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 in Delhi under its stewardship greatly tarnished its own anti-communal image. It is yet possible that the real change in the RSS’s favour came still later. We ought to remind ourselves of the transformation that took place all over the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Congress had, since its Avadi resolution of 1955, adopted “socialism” as its ultimate objective, and the construction of the public sector and, later, the nationalisation of a large part of the financial sector (banks, insurance) and coal mines under Indira Gandhi were seen as measures leading to socialism. As we have seen, words expressing the aspiration to make India a socialist republic were inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976. In 1980, even the new incarnation of the RSS-led Jana Sangh, the BJP, declared its adherence to the cause of “Gandhian socialism”. But the wind sharply changed direction in the closing years of the ensuing decade.

Around 1989-90, socialist regimes in Eastern Europe began to collapse, and in 1991 the Soviet Union itself was dissolved and the socialist system rapidly demolished there. The Indian economy received a great jolt through India’s loss of ties with the Soviet bloc, and there was therefore a total shift (“liberalisation”) in India’s economic policy. “Socialism”, of whatever kind, was now off the table for all parties, even those named “Samajvadi”, except for the two Communist parties. This sudden destruction of a widely held ideal provided rich ground for the spread of the RSS’s communal ideology posing as ultra-nationalism. The shift was marked by the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in December 1992, loudly proclaimed as a great national achievement. The synchronisation of this event with the worldwide shift to the Right is surely remarkable.

That event also established the sheer electoral value of communalism. Without any economic programme worth the name, except for the dismantling of the public sector and removal of constraints on Big Business, the BJP governed India from 1999 to 2004. The Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002 established Narendra Modi’s credentials as Chief Minister to govern Gujarat and then to become India’s Prime Minister 12 years later. Unburdened by the legacy of any ideological “socialist” baggage, the BJP can give all the possible concessions that Big Business may seek. The bland slogan “Make in India” is a happy replacement of the work of the Planning Commission whose demolition was one of the first acts of Modi’s government in 2014. In return, the BJP’s coffers, one supposes, are being duly filled. Devices such as “electoral bonds” are surely directed towards easing the process of corporate donations. The combination of communalism and collaboration from Big Business imparts to the present regime a seeming invincibility.

Elimination of reasoned thought in education

That invincibility is being further strengthened by the steady elimination of secular and reasoned thought in our educational system. The Prime Minister’s seat was once occupied by Jawaharlal Nehru, who argued constantly in favour of science and the scientific spirit and who laid the foundations of India’s large apparatus of scientific research. Modi, who has occupied Nehru’s seat fully 50 years after Nehru passed away, invokes the god Ganesha to sustain a claim of ancient Indians’ knowledge of plastic surgery and puts forth Karna as proof of Indians’ knowledge of genetic engineering in some distant age! To the shame of this country not a single eminent scientist in India took him to task for such claims, which may now well enter our textbooks in Central schools and the schools in most States. Already schemes are afoot to invent a new kind of mythical history to inculcate hatred of Muslims along with a virulent form of racial chauvinism.

Needless to say, India, except in some corners here and there, can now hardly be called a secular state. As I pick up the Sunday edition of a leading newspaper, I read in a piece by a supporter of the regime that there are leaders who look forward to the next lynching of Muslims after the hue and cry on the present one dies down. Perhaps, such acts will soon turn into cold statistics, so frequent that details would hardly bear reporting. All possible positions in governmental organisations and all the administrative and academic posts that the Central government can fill are being occupied by the RSS’s nominees, often with laughable qualifications. Even right-wing professionals and academics are not considered reliable enough (though an element of personal favouritism may also be involved here). By controlling grants and favours the BJP regime is manifestly enforcing silence and consent to a degree undreamt of under previous regimes, including even the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-I.

As secularism and reason are driven out, prejudice and ignorance extend their sway with disconcerting rapidity. At one level, we appear to be following in Pakistan’s footsteps, what we had refused to do in 1947. But we are not simply a country of four provinces like Pakistan, we are the second most populous country in the world. What happens here will be a disaster on a corresponding scale. One cannot help thinking of Germany, a country with such advanced culture, at the time the Nazis took possession of it 84 years ago. The same claims for the “Aryan” race, the same bitter prejudice against a minority (in Germany, the Jews), and the same collaboration with Big Business. The Nazis were successful not because they ever obtained support from the majority of the German people in elections, but because their opponents were divided, with some being won over by the Nazis, to be suppressed later. That process, too, we can now see coming to pass in India, the Bihar example being the latest instance, immediately celebrated by the beating up of three men because they were allegedly transporting meat: “We are in power now,” the mobsters are reported to have said.

A serious task awaits parties that are committed to a different future for the country, envisaging a truly secular democratic India, where reason and science might serve to sustain a welfare state. Perhaps the conflict over whether such a state would be socialist or a free market one can be postponed until the present crisis is over. Those in the Congress and other liberal parties may remember how Gandhi ji, a firm opponent of socialism, could combine with Nehru, an avowed socialist, to fight British imperialism. The Left parties may recall how Popular Fronts were formed in Europe in the mid-1930s to block the path of Fascism. Surely, anyone with any foresight can see that unless a broad unity of all secular forces is now forged in India, the country’s present slide into darkness will doubtless continue.

Education

Learning in a saffron-tinted market

MADHU PRASAD cover-story
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Anniversaries have a tendency to blur differences, to paint all strokes with the same brush. Seventy years of Indian independence makes one look over a historical and political landscape that appears in hindsight to have already contained the seeds of all that is happening today and hence conclude that nothing has actually changed; what had to happen has happened.

However, the truth is that history is made every day. Directions taken, as much as the failure to stay the course and choices made or not made, determine the present and the options that are open to us today. Equally, the choices now being made are not merely products of the past but are indications and auguries for the future. We ignore this at our own peril.

The privatisation and marketisation of education has been pursued since 1991 by all governments, whether they have been led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the United Front (UF) or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as it follows from the neoliberal conception of education as a “private good” and of knowledge as a tradable “commodity” or “service”. From the 1970s onwards, international finance capital has attempted to cope with recurring economic crises by “opening up” the entire range of human activities to penetration by private capital, diverting public funds and assets into private hands by launching public-private partnerships (PPP) in all areas.

Decline in funds for education

The present regime’s proposed National Policy of Education 2016 (NEP 2016), now appearing in a third avatar after the first two floundered, has already been preceded by executive decisions that indicate the direction in which it is headed.

First, government schools, colleges and universities are being starved of public funds in order to create space for private investment, national and foreign. The Central government’s spending on education as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) dipped from an already inadequate 0.69 per cent in Financial Year 2012 (from April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012) to 0.63 per cent by FY2014. After a plunge down to 0.55 per cent in FY2015, it further declined to 0.49 per cent in FY2016. The revised estimate for FY2017 was 0.48 per cent, while the Budget estimate at 0.47 per cent for FY2018 continues the downward trend (calculations of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and Mint). This is despite the fact that an Educational Cess of 3 per cent is imposed on everything that is purchased by any Indian citizen. Could State governments, many of which are struggling to implement the loan waivers promised to farmers after massive agitations on the one hand, and coming to terms with the GST (Goods and Services Tax) on the other, be expected to take up the financial responsibility for education? In a shocking indication to the contrary, the present Uttar Pradesh State government has cut budgetary funds this year by 42 per cent for secondary schools and by 90 per cent for colleges!

Secondly, the decision to scrap the no-detention policy and vocationalise the elementary curriculum for targeted regions and communities will drastically reduce the number of children from the deprived sections that will be able to access their fundamental right to education in any meaningful sense. The Minister of State of the Human Resource Development Ministry has clearly stated that the intention is not to detain students in order to improve their learning standards but to transfer them to skill-development programmes.

Damaging centralisation

Thirdly, centralisation in the form of single boards for all professional entrance examinations at State level and at an all-India level has unfortunately attracted media attention only as opening up huge avenues for corruption. Madhya Pradesh’s “Vyapam” admission and recruitment scam, involving politicians, senior officials and businessmen, is still to be adequately investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), although it involved the deaths of 49 people directly associated with it and reached up to the highest level of those in power. The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for entrance to professional higher education produced its own scandal involving leakage of question papers in at least six centres with the use of “share-in software”.

What has received little attention is that these tests are pedagogically damaging. They “standardise” merit according to the knowledge skills of a given elite section. This fails to reflect adequately the varied and unequal conditions of knowledge acquisition in India’s multi-track school system and jeopardises the interests, particularly of students from deprived sections and backward regions. Standardisation is a necessary demand of both the national and foreign investors who are being wooed to enter the higher education “market”. However, investment in state-funded education is needed to ensure access to all and, until that goal is achieved, to defend and extend social justice measures such as reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), minorities, girls, transgenders and the disabled, and provide necessary academic and infrastructural support such as adequate scholarships and hostels for students from these deprived sections.

Apart from this, centralisation has also facilitated the imposition of linguistic, regional and gender inequalities and other forms of social and personal oppression, including dress codes and extensive frisking for examinees.

The strategy of privatisation and marketisation of education has negatively impacted the most vulnerable sections of society. The fact of the impending exclusion of more than 80 per cent of the relevant age group from an education system that will increasingly cater only to those who can afford it is becoming evident to anyone who cares to face the facts and is now a major democratic concern. For, by the privatisation of a range of social necessities, these sections are being deprived of access not only to education but also to health, employment, food security, housing and public utilities.

A significant fallout of this process is that the democratic institutions which sustained the “welfare” states of the 20th century appear to be increasingly hollowed out as the state withdraws from the arena. With corporate interests taking over decision-making in the name of “efficiency” and “professional management”, not only does people’s control over their own lives shrink rapidly but the public space for resistance also tends to become delegitimised.

Students and teachers have already experienced this. The rising tide of protest actions in institutions and universities across the country against attacks on university autonomy, fee hikes, withdrawal and reduction of fellowships and arbitrary curriculum changes have been met with unconcealed attempts to muzzle dissent, disrupt student unity and derail protest movements by raising the bogey of “anti-national” forces.

Faced with this all-round assault, an All India Convention of Students’ Struggles held on August 5 and 6 in Bengaluru drew delegates from 59 national student organisations, organisations active at State or at institutional levels, and also from among activists of the upsurge of movements across the country. It was supported by teachers’ associations, including the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation (AIFUCTO) and the Federation of Central University Teachers Association (FEDCUTA). Academicians and public intellectuals attended in solidarity as observers.

The convention resolved to observe September 28, the birth anniversary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, as Save Democracy Day and demand an end to corporatisation of education. Representing the spirit of resistance evident among the youth, it resolved to collectively challenge the government’s privatisation policies, the Hindutva forces of the Sangh Parivar, and international forces driving India towards a global marketisation of education.

Intolerance of dissent

It is within the context of this struggle for democratic rights and the right to dissent that the present regime which has assumed office in 2014 requires to be assessed for the specific character that it has imparted to the neoliberal development policy. For, it has combined neoliberal policy with the Hindutva ideology of Hindu supremacy and a sociopolitical offensive in public life and within educational institutions in a form so virulent that it threatens the very conception and purpose of education, both for the individual and for society.

Rewriting history, bolstering and promoting dangerously prejudicial and retrogressive belief systems, reducing learning to the mere acquisition of skills geared to market needs, and maligning intellectual and sociopolitically sensitive critical inquiry as “extremist”, “anti-national” and a seditious threat to state security have become today’s common sense and are used as justification for current policy.

Free debate or discussion is neither encouraged nor tolerated; governmental dictates, frequently in violation of established statutes and norms of functioning in educational institutions, are routinely imposed.

The appointment primarily of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Sangh Parivar ideologues and sympathisers to top academic and administrative positions in all academic institutions and bodies threatens the credibility of research in the natural and social sciences and the future content and quality of investigative studies. The Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, an alumnus of Vadodara’s Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), succinctly expressed his concern when he urged the university administration to reconsider its promotion of sages from ancient India for their “contribution to science”. He found it “disappointing that the university chose to print an official diary that ascribes to figures from religious scriptures discoveries that belong to modern science, such as nuclear technology, airplanes and cosmetic surgery. The people who did this may think they are being patriotic, but in fact they are bringing disrepute to the university and to India generally.”

The necessary and vibrant exchange of ideas through campus interactions, seminars, conferences and publications is being severely restricted by vigilante censorship and policing of all such activities. The role of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, has been particularly disturbing. From physical assaults to prevent debates being held as at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, to the use of the organisation’s current political and administrative influence to deny permission for holding seminars and for suspending faculty members associated with organising them as at the Central University of Hyderabad and Rajasthan University, to threatening anyone it identifies as being “anti-national”, this organisation has been prominently involved in many campus “incidents”. The “disappearance” of Najeeb Ahmed, a research student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), apparently after an altercation and “scuffle” with ABVP supporters, adds a more sinister dimension, especially since this angle is not being pursued by the police.

And this is happening even as vigilante mobs inflict atrocities on Dalits and lynch Muslims in the name of “gau raksha”, a campaign of terror that has made a mockery of the rule of law in the country, generated revulsion among democratic sections and intensified the protests. Dadri, where Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched, sparking protests by writers and intellectuals; Una, where Dalit youths were flogged, leading to massive protests; Saharanpur, the site of a Thakur attack on Dalits where the Bhim Army emerged like a phoenix; and the public murder of 16-year-old Junaid Khan on a train from Delhi which led to thousands across several cities coming out in a spontaneous “Not in My Name” protest campaign. Not only students and activists but retired top-ranking veterans of the armed forces and bureaucrats joined the protest through open letters addressed to the Prime Minister himself. The armed forces veterans stated: “We can no longer look away. We would be doing a disservice to our country if we do not stand up and speak for the liberal and secular values that our Constitution espouses.”

Their resistance reflected anger at the fact that the administration appeared ineffective if not complicit, that police did not build credible cases against the culprits, and that the ruling Sangh Parivar/BJP either remained silent or vindicated these criminal actions and even “honoured” the perpetrators.

Economic interests

However, it is necessary to understand that there are serious economic interests behind the political backing that is so cynically being provided to these lynch mobs. The restrictions sought to be imposed by the Central government on the sale of cattle for slaughter is a severe attack on the economic interests and livelihood of dairy and other farmers and the tanning and leather industry. If enforced as law, the ban will devastate the rural economy and throw large sections of the population into joblessness and an uncertain future.

The truth is that the Central government has allowed 100 per cent foreign direct investment in March 2017 through automated route in e-commerce for food production and food-processing to encourage easy access of foreign corporates in agri- and horticultural production, in dairy farming, the meat exports sector, and in the tanning and leather manufacturing activity in India. Ruining Indian farmers, cattle breeders, producers and retailers of milk, meat and leather goods will go a long way to “opening up” a market for national and multinational corporate giants.

The RSS-BJP claim that the move is intended to protect indigenous cow breeds is an attempt to take cover under Directive Principle (Article 48) of the Constitution which recommends, but does not make justiciable, “organising agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall in particular take steps for preserving and improving breeds and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draft cattle”. Constitutionally, however, agriculture and preservation of livestock come under the exclusive purview of the State legislatures. Therefore, the Central government had to take recourse to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) because rules for this Act can be framed by an executive order. But this Act in no way prevents slaughter of any animal for food purposes or bans “sale for the purpose of slaughter” of selected animals.

The Constitution makes no mention of religious sentiments either in Article 48 or in the 1960 Act. Still less does it seek to impose dietary preferences of a section of the population on other communities or individuals. The Central government’s proposed rules violate the 1960 Act and, more dangerously, constitute a threat to the federal structure of the Constitution itself.

At the end of three years of the Modi government, when economic growth figures have slumped to 6 per cent, when jobs for the youth are nowhere to be found, when demonetisation has dealt a severe blow to the informal sector, which provides employment to over 80 per cent of the working population, the Central government is utilising community and caste prejudice to polarise the people.

In this polarised environment, the multi-pronged neoliberal, communal and caste-based assault on the education system as a whole has grown more swift and reckless.

Instilling the spirit of “nationalism” in students, not stimulating critical thought, has now become the prime purpose of education. To this end, the Prime Minister himself has advocated military discipline and proposed that all schools should be run like Sainik Schools in order to inculcate nationalism in students. The Vice Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, always one to be a step ahead even to the point of absurdity, organised a demonstration on the campus, complete with a couple of retired generals regularly seen in TV studios, to demand that a tank be ceremoniously placed in the university to remind students that the real patriots and their role models must be the armed forces!

The reduction of the nation to the state, its instruments of power, and existing governments is at variance with the experience and process of the freedom struggle which shaped the on-going project of evolving an independent modern nation based on democratic principles that recognise the rights of all citizens.

The proposed “disciplinary” ethos also runs counter to the tenets and principles that formally guided educational governance even up to the early 1980s. It is worth recalling the perceptive insight contained in the Report of the Education Commission (1964-66): “The character of a university as a society of teachers and students engaged in the pursuit of learning and discovery, distinguishes fundamentally the regulation of its affairs from, say, the profit-motivated management of commercial or industrial concerns or the administration of a government department or municipal corporation, or a unit of the armed forces . . . . Rules, regulations and techniques that hamper the real achievement of the real purposes of the university should be modified or scrapped—they should not be allowed to become a straitjacket into which all university activities must be fitted” (page 299).

Today we are witnessing the reverse process. Central and State governments, often utilising the University Grants Commission which has long ceased to function as a buffer between political leaderships, administrative bureaucracies and the academic community, have been taking steps to curb the intellectual and physical space available for students and faculty to question, dissent from and disturb existing power structures. Surveillance cameras across campuses pressurise the community to adopt forms of self-disciplining and pre-censorship. Circulars warn students against protests and signed bonds are demanded by institutions at the time of admission stating that students will not protest against the conduct and policies of the authorities. On top of all this is the constant threat of unrestrained police entry on campuses.

This condemnable treatment of students and faculty, as if they were criminals engaged in the now-illegitimate activity of dissent whenever they confront the anti-democratic actions of the government and educational authorities, has to be challenged so that dissent of all kinds is freely allowed inside university premises. For, universities not only set up a model for society but also interact through public spaces outside educational institutions as well. The critical and analytical voices from the country’s campuses are heard well beyond their boundaries.

Madhu Prasad is associated with the All India Forum for the Right to Education. She was formerly with the Department of Philosophy, Zakir Husain College, Delhi University.

India at 70

Freedoms won, freedoms being lost

cover-story

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“There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the crossroads of history and must choose which way to go.”

—Lal Bahadur Shastri

India was at a crossroads 70 years ago and it made choices that were enshrined in the Constitution it adopted a few years later. Now that it was free from alien rule it had to make choices in such a way that its workers and peasants were freed from class and caste oppression.

Early in the struggle for freedom, the Indian National Congress was adequately warned about remaining a party of “merchants and manufacturers”. At the Ahmedabad session of the Congress in 1921, M.N. Roy, the leader of the fledgling Left, said:

“The Congress must have the workers and peasants behind it, and it can win their lasting confidence only when it ceases to sacrifice them. Ostensibly for a higher cause, namely the so-called national interest, but really for the material prosperity of the merchants and manufacturers. If the Congress wants to have the nation behind it, let it not be blinded by the interests of a small class... let it not be guided by the invisible hand of the merchants and manufacturers.”

The Congress realised the truth of this warning. As Bipan Chandra says in his India’s Struggle for Independence, “the youth as also the workers and peasants were increasingly turning to the Left, and the national movement as a whole was getting radicalised in its economic and political programme and policies.” That explains the Karachi resolution of the Congress (1931) on Fundamental Rights and the National Economic Programme. It promised the fundamental rights of free speech and press, freedom to assemble and form associations, equal rights to all, adult franchise, compulsory primary education, protection of the cultural heritage of the minorities. On the economic front, it promised relief from agrarian indebtedness, reduction in land rent and revenue, better conditions for work, living wages, limited hours of work, right to form trade unions.

The Congress, which was prompt to incorporate fragments of the socialist vision of the Left into its agenda, was reluctant to accommodate the social justice vision of leaders like E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, who exposed the hollowness of the freedom that left untouched the oppression of the varnashrama dharma social order. In the face of the Congress’ new-found radicalism on the political and economic fronts, says Bipan Chandra: “The zamindars and landlords—the jagirdari elements—finding that open defence of landlords’ interest was no longer feasible, now, by and large, switched over to communalism for their class defence.”

The leaders of the communal projects sought to project Hindus and Muslims as homogeneous groups with common political and economic interests and permanently in conflict with each other throughout history. To them the major contradictions were not between colonialism and nationalism; between capitalists and workers; between landlords and peasants and agricultural labourers; between “upper castes” and those in the last rung of the social hierarchy and outside of it. It was a fight between Hindus and Muslims. However, the reality of secularism and class exploitation in everyday life and the sway of nationalism kept large sections of these religious communities from falling into the communal trap.

Pakistan is the “shining” example of the falsity of religion-based nationalism and a state founded on theocracy—one area where the Hindu right-wing emulates its sworn enemy. And India was sought to be converted into a theocratic state called Hindu Rashtra. Its guru, M.S. Golwalkar, who was in awe of Hitler’s Nazism, minced no words: “The non-Hindu peoples in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…. In one word, they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less no preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”

The first major victim of this narrow cultural nationalism of the Indian right-wing was the Father of the Nation. After being driven to the margins of Indian politics in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the right wing represented by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its latest political incarnation, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is at the helm of India.

Nehru had promises to keep. “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman,” he said at the midnight when India woke up to freedom.

The problem was that he tried to keep his promises within the essentially capitalist order and without dismantling the feudal system afflicted with the canker of casteism. The slide started post-Nehru and was complete in 1991, when the Congress went back on its promises and ushered in the neoliberal order. Now, with the BJP, unburdened by the legacy of any egalitarian struggle as Prof Irfan Habib puts it, in power, the “free” people of India are under the twin onslaught of neoliberalism and rabid communalism.

At peril are the gains and achievements made by the movements for national independence, socialism and social justice. India is once again at a crossroads where the choices it made 70 years ago are being undermined. This special issue of Frontline is an attempt to give a broad-brush view of what was won and achieved by India in the past seven decades of freedom and what is sought to be reversed now.

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor

Cinema

Harking back to a cherished culture

ZIYA US SALAM cover-story

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Hindi cinema, often accused, with some justification, of indulging in crass commercialism, has without doubt provided the Indian audience memorable emotions of friendship, courage and equanimity, especially when the nation was trying to overcome the wounds of Partition or was burdened by the challenges of social inequality and communalism. As the newly independent India struggled with issues of economic deprivation, famine, unemployment and a society that tended to live in watertight compartments of religion and caste, Hindi cinema created a feeling of social cohesion as in the 1957 song “Saathi haath badhana” ( Naya Daur) and looked at the pitfalls of early industrialisation in the eye. The idea was always to take everybody along; nobody should be left behind in the quest for progress. That all this came with dollops of entertainment helped take the message to the masses. Yes, Hindi cinema has often revelled in stereotypes. In the past, a Muslim character always had ready couplets and shayaris, a Christian character had a guitar and a drink, a Sikh was always ready to break into bhangra, and a south Indian invariably spoke terribly accented Hindi. Yet, these stereotypes bespoke comfortable familiarity. The heroes would wear a three-piece suit, the heroines would be clad in saris or other Indian dresses; villains and provocatively dressed vamps would smoke and drink. No caste or religious identity was attributed to them.

Hindi cinema, which was to be later denounced for lacking in attention to detail, started off on the right note. Directors such as Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif, Guru Dutt and V. Shantaram left no stone unturned in their quest for authenticity and perfection. For the premiere of K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, a story centred around the romance of Prince Salim with a courtesan, took 16 years to complete; the film’s print arrived on an elephant back at Novelty cinema in Delhi. This was Asif’s idea of giving cine-goers a genuinely royal romance. But truth be told, Mughal-e-Azam (1960) was a venture that almost did not happen. The film was launched in the mid-1940s, and its producer, Shiraz Ali Hakeem, migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. A Parsi businessman, Shapoorji Pallonji, with zero experience in film production, stepped in. In the middle of shooting, the film’s original hero, Chandramohan, passed away. Nargis, who was cast as the heroine, too, opted out, not happy to shoot opposite Dilip Kumar, who had stepped into Chandramohan’s shoes. Dilip Kumar had been rejected for the role earlier. Nargis’ role went to Madhubala, who had a tempestuous relationship with Dilip Kumar, having been forced to turn down director B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) because her brothers did not feel it appropriate for her to shoot for a couple of months with Dilip Kumar in Bhopal, away from their watchful eyes! Amidst all this, Asif with his perfectionist streak, wanted shoes of gold for the hero playing the Mughal prince and iron chains for the heroine (playing his love interest) to help them imbibe the spirit of their characters! Such craving for authenticity!

Mughal-e-Azam’s worth went beyond the cast. Though the film was largely in Persianised Urdu, it had some dialogue in chaste Hindi and Sanskrit as well. And the director was able to include in the film a thumri in praise of Krishna and a naat dedicated to the Prophet. That this happened a few years after Partition meant the film spoke for a pluralistic society, with the film-maker invoking a shared past to drive home a message for the future. Incidentally, some 50 years later, the film’s colour version was premiered in Lahore, across the border in Pakistan.

Although Mughal-e-Azam was the biggest slice, the early years after Independence were replete with films harking back to a cherished culture. This was the industry’s way of infusing a sense of pride in one’s culture, which had been hammered out of shape by the colonial rulers. Before Mughal-e-Azam, there were two other films with the Mughal setting, Nandilal Jaswantilal’s Anarkali (1953) and Baiju Bawra (1952) about Baiju, the dhrupad musician who defeated Tansen, one of the nine gems of Akbar’s court. Baiju Bawra had a bhajan that spoke of India’s pluralist society as distinct from the religion-based society in Pakistan. “Man Tarpat Hari Darshan ko Aaj” was composed by Naushad, sung by Mohammad Rafi, and written by Shakeel Badayuni. A better advertisement for secularism could not have come from another industry. For the song’s recording, the director and the music director had asked all the cast and crew to come to the studio after taking a bath so that no impurity would dilute the message of the bhajan.

India in the 1950s constantly sought to take pride in its past. Shantaram sought to portray this pride in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955) and Navrang (1959) by showcasing the song and dance rhythm of the nation. His Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957) talked of judicial reforms at a time when Indian society was just coming to terms with the idea of nationhood. Shantaram became the first Indian to win the Golden Globe; he was awarded the special Samuel Goldwyn Award in 1959 for Do Ankhen Barah Haath. In India, the film won the President’s Gold Medal in 1957. Jhanak Jhanak and Navrang along with the likes of Goonj Uthhi Shehnai proved that Hindi cinema, while being the common man’s preferred mode of entertainment, had scope for maestros such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. Such was the respect for classical artistes in cinema that popular music director Ravi, who gave us films such as Chaudhvin ka Chand, Humraaz and Nikaah, deleted “Shankar” from his name to avoid confusion with the sitar legend.

At peace with its past, proud of its cultural ethos, respectful of elders, Hindi cinema depicted all this and more in the first couple of decades after Independence. That was also the time when India, steeped in Nehruvian socialism, was grappling with the early days of industrialisation. The depiction of this made for some fetching work of neo-realism, notably from the likes of Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) was among the first films to talk of the rapacious zamindar and the evil moneylender. Later films like Devdas (1955) and Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam (1962) showed other hues of the decadent culture. The film was a comment on the inequities of development, on how a land-holder becomes a landless worker.

Roy was not behind Asif in seeking perfection. Although Do Bigha Zamin did not have the grandeur of Asif’s works or the melancholy of Dutt’s cinema, Roy was as painstaking as the other two directors. For Do Bigha Zamin, that borrowed its title from “Dui Bigha Jomi”, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, the entire cast wore used clothes as the director wanted the actual feel of paucity of resources. The film won awards at Cannes and Karlovy Vary. For Sujata (1959), a tale of a low-caste girl, Roy used freedom fighter Subodh Ghosh. He could give life and spirit to Sujata, a tale of caste prejudices. In a fine example of attention to detail, the film’s heroine was named Sujata, one of noble birth. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960. It provided another instance of symbolism in Hindi cinema. Here, Roy used both natural and historic motifs to let silence speak. The imagery of a drooping banana leaf and a stormy night to depict the state of mind of Sujata—pleased the discerning audience. For the less discerning, Roy happily used the sound of the koel for his heroine and that of a crow for the negative characters. His pursuit of perfection was legendary, like Asif’s. Here, he asked his sound recordists to record the birds’ sound at dawn. When Gulzar made his debut as a lyricist, he took five days to pen Mora gora ang lay le for Roy’s Bandini (1963).

A few years after Do Bigha Zamin, Hindi cinema produced Mother India (1957) under the baton of Mehboob Khan. Incidentally, Khan had earlier delivered Aan (1952), the first Indian film shot in 16 mm Gevacolour and then blown up in Technicolor. It was compared with The Red Shoes and had the distinction of being the first Hindi film to be dubbed into Tamil.

Mother India was in a different league. It was the biggest grosser then, a watershed in the annals of cinema. It came at a time when the Central government adopted the Five-Year Plans for development. The film exhibited a clear tilt towards socialism: the state is shown providing an irrigation canal and private enterprise is represented by a rapacious moneylender. For all its empathy for the poor, Mother India was shot on a gigantic canvas with hundreds of farmers on their fields and some 50-odd bullock carts.

Then came the triumvirate, Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand. Raj Kapoor was a rage in the Soviet Union and his “Awara hoon” song became a hit across the world. Dilip Kumar became so associated with tragic roles that doctors advised him to stay away from such roles for a while. Dev Anand was the ultimate charmer with a massive female following; he was later excelled by Rajesh Khanna.

If film-makers showed that their hearts were in the right place in the nation’s march towards progress, cinema halls were not lagging. One of the best examples came from Delhi’s Imperial cinema, almost next door to New Delhi Railway Station, and not far from Old Delhi station either. Until 1947, Imperial was known to screen Hollywood films and was patronised by the top echelons of society. Partition changed the demography of the city with refugees from Pakistan settling around it. Imperial showed not just good business acumen but also a sensitive heart: Out went Hollywood, in came Punjabi fare, as the area became home to those who had left Lahore, Peshawar and Rawalpindi behind. The Muslim socials that were a rage at most places until the mid-1970s became a no-no here. The cinema showed Hindu mythologicals. Many of the early films of Dara Singh, where he settled every issue with his fist, found an opening. Then came a film like Jahan Sati, Wahan Bhagwan. In the 1970s, Bhakti Mein Shakti raked it rich. Not to forget Shiv Baba Balaknath. The idea in showing these films was to provide a comfort factor to displaced audiences.

Talking of films based on religion, the biggest hit was Jai Santoshi Maa, released in 1975, the year often remembered for Sholay. The film was a non-star affair, and was initially released at naturally cooled cinemas. Naturally cooled was a euphemism for halls with no air-conditioning, no coolers, no fans. It went on to rewrite box office records, even forcing cinemas that played only English films to make an exception for it. Such was the craze for this mythological that the faithful arrived at the halls with a plate bearing all the material needed for worship. Many women insisted on doing a small aarti (waving of the lighted lamp) in front of the billboard of the film, and entering the auditorium bare foot, just as they would do in a temple. Interestingly, the film’s posters had its name in English, Hindi and Urdu. Quietly, it proved that Urdu had no religion then.

If Jai Santoshi Maa had scenes of impromptu pooja before its screening, Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) was released after a hawan was performed to placate the elements, as the word had spread that Raj Kapoor had portrayed Zeenat Aman as a Siva devotee to titillate the audience. It worked. The film, which failed to find halls in conservative colonies of many cities, completed a silver jubilee elsewhere.

Cinemas and their patrons

If Imperial catered to Hindi-speaking migrant workers with sensitivity, other halls exhibited a similar mindset towards their patrons. Ritz cinema, located near Inter-State Bus Terminus, used to unofficially reserve its box section for burqa-clad women of Old Delhi. These women could not watch a film near their house around Jama Masjid for fear of social opprobrium. So, they took a tonga ride to Ritz where the privacy of the box conferred anonymity. Similarly, Minerva cinema, not to be confused with the illustrious hall in Mumbai, close by, sneaked in some young maulanas for the night show through the back door, aware that if the young bearded men pursuing Koranic courses were to be seen by others, all hell would break loose. Talking of the back door, it played quite a role in Hindi cinemas.

All the big stars, like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, used to grace the cinema halls on their films’ release through the back door. Such was their star power that in 1969, Rajesh Khanna virtually compelled director Shakti Samanta to release his film Aradhana at New Delhi’s Rivoli cinema that was known for playing top-notch Hollywood flicks. It changed not a bit when the films of Amitabh Bachchan got the cinema of their choice, or later when a Shah Rukh Khan release usually meant other producers/exhibitors deferred the release of their films. Incidentally, with the arrival of Bachchan as the angry young man in the 1970s, Hindi cinema changed for ever. His Zanjeer, Sholay and Deewar rewrote box office records, with Sholay being ranked top in British Film Institute’s poll of top 10 Indian films ever.

Often playing a poor small-town boy stepping into a big city to eke out a living, Bachchan expressed the helplessness of the common man as India faced the colossal migration to cities due to lack of economic opportunities in villages. Bachchan became the poster boy of the new generation of internal migrants. His heady superstardom also meant his heroines were reduced to a prop with only the villain (although Pran and Amjad Khan held their own) having a role of substance in a film starring Bachchan. Amidst all this came Hindi cinema’s popular vehicle of pluralist living with Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). The film had a timeless sequence of a mother receiving blood simultaneously, and directly, from her three sons, Amar, Akbar and Anthony. It mocked at medicine, made a mockery of common sense. But the common man gleefully accepted it. The pursuit of perfection of a Roy or a Dutt was a speck in the distance in the march of time. Hindi cinema declined drastically in content and technique in the 1980s, easily its worst phase since Independence. Double entendres for dialogues, crass picturisation, gawdy costumes and a storyline that was often written on the sets meant that the more discerning viewers had to step back, wait for an Arth (1982) or Paar (1984). Incidentally, the parallel cinema movement that took shape under the likes of Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal found more adherents like Govind Nihalani, Goutam Ghose, Ketan Mehta and Saeed Mirza. While none of them came even close to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali they at least proved that there was an alternative Hindi cinema, away from the masala stuff dished out by popular film-makers. Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Ardh Satya (1983), Khandar (1984) and Mirch Masala (1987) were patronised on film festival circuits, but did not always draw crowds at the box office. The turnstiles attracted youngsters.

The film audience’s profile underwent a change, too, from family audiences to migrant workers to finally city slickers, whenever a Khan film opened in the 1990s. Salman Khan became the new poster boy with Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and Sanam Bewafa (1991). Shah Rukh Khan became a rage with Deewana (1992) and Darr (1993). Before them, Aamir Khan had marked his arrival as a chocolate boy with Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). Heady as their success was, Hindi cinema still dished out escapist fare: good guy, bad guy, songs, dances and action routine. Things improved slightly in the new millennium with Lagaan (2001), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006), Chak De (2007), Taare Zameen Par (2007) Peepli Live (2010) and even My Name is Khan (2010), asking pertinent questions about patriotism, nationalism, identity and social mores. There was also a rebirth of sorts for art house cinema with films made on a shoe-string budget sans any star power finding acceptance. The Lunchbox (2013) appealed to millions, Miss Lovely (2012) turned heads, and Aligarh (2015), dealing with the almost taboo subject of homosexuality, found acceptance; much like the much-in-the-news Lipstick Under My Burkha these days. Lipstick Under my Burka , exploring women’s quest to discover different shades of their personalities, was released in India after being initially denied a certificate, and soon found a ready audience.

Yet, not everything changed for the better. J.P. Dutta’s LoC (2003), a story on Kargil heroes, opened old wounds by excluding Muslim martyrs completely. If LoC was about exclusion of Muslims who sacrificed their lives for the country, Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) equated Muslims with Pakistan, much like some present-day politicians do. Cinema can be noxious and obnoxious at the same time, and dishonest, too, as proved by Ashutosh Gowariker’s MohenjoDaro (2016). With National film awards taking a saffron hue, Hindi cinema is in danger of being reduced to a handmaiden of the ruling dispensation. If in the years after Independence, it worked as a glue to unite the nation, today it is in danger of exacerbating the social divide. In the 1950s and 1960s, it asked uncomfortable questions in the common man’s grammar with Do Bigha Zamin, Naya Daur, Mother India and Leader (1964); today the medium is in danger of toeing the official line. No uncomfortable questions asked, no impolite answers expected. Cinema today is all about acquiescence and uncomplaining acceptance. Unless, of course, one takes into account a Shahid (2012) or a Lipstick Under my Burkha. Therein lies hope.

India at 70

From revolution to counter-revolution

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The late 19th and early 20th centuries in India had seen two historic movements, the anti-colonial struggle and the social emancipation movement associated with Jyotirao Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar. These two movements, often seen as standing in conflict, had actually reinforced each other at the grass-roots level and effected a general awakening among the people. This was reflected in the Karachi Congress Resolution of 1931 which presented a vision of free India as a fraternity of equal citizens, each enjoying certain fundamental rights and together electing, on the basis of universal adult franchise, the legislature, and indirectly the executive, of a state that had no religion of its own. The Constitution of independent India enshrined this vision.

In a society characterised by millennia of institutionalised inequality embodied in the caste system, this was a remarkable leap, a veritable social revolution. Today, as we celebrate seven decades of independence, we are alas in the midst of a veritable counter-revolution, where goons belonging to vigilante squads of the Hindutva brigade roam the streets with impunity to terrorise Dalits and religious minorities; where a shrill jingoism drowns out reason; where rational thought and academic institutions pursuing truth based on reason are under attack; where the political opposition is victimised in various ways; and where rapid strides are being made towards a corporate-backed Hindu Rashtra.

It is no accident that at the helm of this counter-revolution are the Hindutva forces, which had nothing to do with either of the two struggles mentioned above. None of their leaders had participated in the anti-colonial struggle, with the sole exception of V.D. Savarkar who too had later withdrawn from it. Indeed, on the contrary, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief M.S. Golwalkar had so little sympathy for the anti-colonial struggle that he thought that the British would have to be invited back shortly after Independence in order to govern India. Likewise, since the essence of orthodox Hinduism, as the historian Suvira Jaiswal has argued, consists of the caste system, the Hindutva elements who swear by it have always had a basic antipathy towards the social emancipation movement and its agenda, no matter how much they laud Ambedkar today for sheer opportunistic reasons. While Hindutva leading the counter-revolution is therefore to be expected (after all, it was one of its adherents who had killed the Mahatma), the real question that arises is: how do we explain this transition from revolution to counter-revolution?

Chain effects

In answering this question we must keep one important fact in mind. A thrust towards equality and democracy in one sphere of life tends to stimulate a similar thrust in other spheres. Likewise, a regression from egalitarianism in one sphere stimulates similar regression in other spheres. In fact Ambedkar himself had underscored this point about the complementarity between movements towards equality in different spheres in his concluding speech to the Constituent Assembly, arguing that the political equality guaranteed by the Constitution would get jeopardised if there was no corresponding movement towards social and economic equality.

The first setback to India’s democratic revolution had been the independent Indian state’s inability to carry out any significant land redistribution, which had also meant reneging on a promise made earlier, in the run-up to the elections of the late 1930s. To be sure, the land reforms enacted after Independence did force erstwhile landlords to shift to capitalist farming and did entail some loss of land for large feudal estates in favour of rich tenants (belonging to intermediate castes) so that a tendency towards an admixture of peasant and landlord capitalism in the countryside did get under way; but land concentration was not broken: the top 15 per cent of landowners, for instance, continued to hold the same percentage of land area as before, though the composition of this top 15 per cent underwent some change.

Fallout of persisting land concentration

The persistence of land concentration had an obvious economic implication. It kept the size of the domestic market, so crucial under the dirigiste (Nehruvian) economic strategy, restricted, as well as its rate of growth (owing to the constraint on the rate of growth of agriculture within an unreformed agrarian structure); it thereby contributed to the debility of this strategy.

In addition it had serious social implications. On the one hand the social power of the landlords who had presided over the old oppressive, hierarchical, and patriarchal “village community”, remained largely intact (with some intermediate castes moving up at the most to buttress the old structure). On the other hand, Dalits who constituted the core of the landless class and who had been denied the right to own land under the old system (to ensure that a sufficient number of labourers were always available within the village despite the existence of uncultivated land outside of it in pre-colonial times), continued to remain landless and therefore both socially and economically disempowered. A movement in the direction of social and economic equality was thus thwarted owing to the absence of land redistribution.

But foregoing land redistribution was closely linked to the pursuit of the capitalist trajectory of development, a consequence of the fact that the bourgeoisies in all countries coming late to capitalism avoid launching any serious attack on landed property lest it rebound into an attack on bourgeois property. And the pursuit of capitalist development itself was to unleash, in addition to what eschewing land redistribution had done, an immanently inequalising tendency of its own.

The political leadership of the time believed that it could check such inequality, that is, restrict the spontaneity of capitalism; that it could make use of the capitalist sector, even while controlling it through a system of licensing and through fiscal means, within an overall arrangement dominated by the public sector. But already by the end of the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru was worried enough about growing wealth and income inequality in the country to set up the Mahalanobis Committee to inquire into it.

The dirigiste regime had much to its credit, certainly a lot more for the common people than the later neoliberal one. This is a point worth emphasising at a time when that regime is being systematically debunked; and it can be established with just one telling statistic. The per capita annual foodgrain availability, which had been around 200 kilograms at the beginning of the 20th century in “British India” and declined to 148.5 kg during the quinquennium 1939-44 and even lower to 136.8 kg in 1945-46, was pushed up close to 180 kg in the Indian Union by the end of the 1980s; it has since declined, over the neoliberal period, reaching 163 kg for the triennium of calendar years 2012-14.

In addition, the dirigiste period diversified the production structure of the economy, established an industrial base, and built up the capacity for producing trained personnel. Its weakness lay in not doing enough in the spheres of literacy, elementary education and public health (spheres in which the neoliberal regime with its penchant for privatisation has done no better), and in the fact that economic inequality widened under it despite the network of controls it had established.

The spontaneity of capitalism, in short, was breaking the bounds set by state control under the dirigiste regime. And soon it was to jettison the dirigiste regime altogether and institute a regime of neoliberalism, under which the domestic corporate-financial oligarchy got closely integrated with globalised finance capital.

Transition to neoliberalism

It can be argued that an entity like international finance capital was powerful enough to break down all opposition to its global movement. It was perhaps powerful enough, in the post-Soviet era, to anyway undermine all dirigiste regimes, whose essential feature had been restrictions on trade and capital flows and the use of the state, apparently as a body standing above all classes, to acquire a degree of autonomy vis-a-vis metropolitan capital (through setting up, for instance, a public sector that strove for self-reliance by overcoming the technological monopoly of multinational corporations). But the economic travails of the dirigiste regime arising from the sluggish growth of the home market owing to growing economic inequality, its loss of social support among the people for the same reason, and the big bourgeoisie’s wish to break out of it (as it was no longer adequate for its ambitions), no doubt also contributed towards effecting a transition from dirigisme to neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism greatly accentuated the increase in economic inequality, though it also accelerated the growth rate of the economy, especially in the tertiary sector. The contradiction between growing inequality, which ceteris paribus constrains demand, and an acceleration in growth rate was resolved through larger exports of services (owing to the outsourcing of service activities from the metropolis), larger elite consumption through the removal of all restrictions on the production and consumption of luxury goods, and the effects of international and domestic asset price bubbles. The estimate that the top 1 per cent of households in India currently owns close to 60 per cent of the country’s total wealth puts India’s degree of asset inequality above that of the U.S. and places India among countries with the fastest increases in asset inequality.

Primitive accumulation

But the increase in asset inequality does not tell the whole story. At the core of neoliberalism is what Marx had called a process of “primitive accumulation” of capital whose effects are not adequately captured by the statistics on asset inequality. This process entails an expropriation by the capitalist sector of pre-capitalist producers, including the peasantry, both directly and through the instrumentality of the state. Primitive accumulation had also characterised dirigisme, but that was imposed within the agricultural sector, as part of the development of capitalism from within; and its scope had been relatively restricted. Under neoliberalism primitive accumulation is imposed by the outside capitalist sector upon peasant agriculture and the petty production sector.

This process of primitive accumulation has a “stock” aspect, namely, the taking over of peasants’ land “for a song” for corporate projects (a phenomenon likely to become even more acute with the launch of projects like “industrial corridors”); and a “flow” aspect, namely, a squeezing of the peasants through higher input prices (owing to the withdrawal of subsidies and the drying up of institutional credit) but not commensurably higher output prices. These output prices, moreover, especially of commercial crops, are allowed to fluctuate widely, owing to the removal of their insulation from world market prices and the abolition of the “procurement and marketing function” of Commodity Boards. Even apparently unrelated phenomena like demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax are also mechanisms for imposing primitive accumulation upon the petty production sector.

A tragic consequence of this primitive accumulation at the expense of peasant agriculture has been the suicides of over three lakh peasants over the last two decades. In addition, large numbers of peasants have also left agriculture and migrated to cities in search of jobs, which, however are not being created to an adequate extent despite the apparently high GDP growth. (Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the annual rate of growth of “usual status” employment, according to the National Sample Survey data, was a paltry 0.8 per cent, far less than even the natural increase in the workforce.) The net result has been an increase in the reserve army of labour, though it is no longer visible as a reserve army. This is because employment rationing in the neoliberal period takes the form not of a binary, the active army and the reserve army, but of a proliferation of casual employment, intermittent employment, part-time employment, and “disguised unemployment” (disguised as “petty entrepreneurship”).

Weakened trade unions

Both the growth in the reserve army of labour and the casualisation of employment have contributed to a weakening of trade unions, though there have also been powerful additional factors working in the same direction. One of these is the privatisation of public sector units. Since, all over the world, trade unions have been stronger in the public sector compared with the private, privatisation serves to reduce their strength. A second factor, quite obviously, is the phenomenon that while capital is international, workers are still organised along national lines, which makes such national unions rather ineffective.

The economic consequence of all this has been a reduction in the rate of growth of real wages in all four categories, regular urban, casual urban, regular rural and casual rural, in the period after 1993-94 compared, say, with the period from 1983 to 1993-94. Since casualisation has increased between the earlier and the later periods, the rate of growth in real wages has been even more paltry. But since the rate of growth of labour productivity has increased greatly between the earlier and the later periods, there has been a marked increase in the share of surplus in the later period compared to the earlier one, which explains the accelerated growth in economic inequality.

This weakening of trade unions has also had a social consequence, namely a weakening of the intervention capacity of the working class even on non-economic matters. Primitive accumulation against the peasants, in short, has also affected the bargaining strength and the social weight of the workers.

Alongside the growth in economic inequality there has been a growth in social inequality, both because of it, and also for a number of other reasons linked to neo-liberalism. First, the privatisation of public sector activities has eroded affirmative action in the form of reservations for Dalits, since there is no reservation in the private sector. Secondly, the privatisation of education has, in addition, put education beyond the reach of the socially and economically oppressed. Finally, there has been a more subtle reason as well, which is the following.

The middle-class segment that has done well out of globalisation, owing to the outsourcing of services from the metropolis, and owing to the rise in the share of surplus (which supports a range of activities from finance to advertising), has expectedly belonged to the upper castes which have been privileged enough to acquire the skills to make use of the opportunities that have been opening up. Since these beneficiaries however, not surprisingly, attribute their own success not to their privilege but to their talent (which conforms to the ideology of capitalism), the inevitable conclusion is drawn that those who are excluded from such jobs are untalented. An impression spreads that children from the oppressed castes do not “make it” because they lack talent, which boosts casteist prejudice.

Post-Independence development in India, in short, started on a wrong foot, by eschewing radical land redistribution; the pursuit of capitalist development with its immanently inequalising tendency further contributed to growing socio-economic inequality. Such a tendency got a free run under neoliberalism, which can be said to mark the beginning of a social counter-revolution. But with communal-fascists, the adherents of Hindutva, in power, this social counter-revolution is now being carried forward with a vengeance. To be sure, India is not a fascist state; but with the fascists leading the government, a transition to a fascist state is being attempted, which would mean, as Ambedkar had feared, growing socio-economic inequality destroying even the constitutional provision of political equality.

Fascist upsurge

The fascist upsurge that we see in India today is part of a worldwide phenomenon; witness the election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency, which had initially appeared unlikely, and the growing influence of fascist parties in Europe. It is closely linked to the world capitalist crisis that erupted in 2008 and shows no signs of abating. It is an expression of the complete dead end into which neoliberalism has run.

There is a belief that fascism arises when the system, besieged by crisis, is challenged by a threat from the revolutionary forces whom fascism is used for eliminating. Such a description, however, though true of death squads, murder squads, “Black Hundreds” and such like outfits mushrooming at the instance of big capitalists at such junctures to target the Left, is not true of fascism. The members of such outfits may have fascist views, but fascism is much more than merely such an outfit: it represents a movement. And such a movement thrives, as Walter Benjamin had noted, when the working class movement is weakened, not when it is strong enough to pose a threat.

Fascism grows when the system is at a dead end, manifested in a crisis that refuses to abate, when the liberal bourgeoisie has no solutions to it, and when the working-class movement is not in a position to mount a challenge. That is when large sections of the people, notably those belonging to the middle class, segments of the petty bourgeoisie, and even some groups of workers, flock to fascist movements, not because it provides a credible way out, but because it does not: it projects a messiah, it resorts to flamboyant but meaningless rhetoric, it appeals to unreason, and it holds not the system but the “other” (the Jews or the Muslims or whatever) as responsible for the travails of the people.

It may seem intriguing that when neoliberalism has reached a dead end, a Modi promises even greater neoliberal reforms while a Trump rails against neoliberalism. But this contrast between two current manifestations of fascism arises because neither has a coherent programme anyway for overcoming the crisis and the frustration gripping the people. Both are essentially purveyors of unreason for whom the economic agenda as a thought-out rational programme (as distinct from catchy slogans like “development” or “saving Western Civilisation”) is incidental.

Corporate capital and Hindutva

The corporate-financial oligarchy adopts the fascist movement, finances the fascist movement, and promotes the fascist movement, which exists independently of it, not so much because it is afraid of the power of the Left, but because it is afraid of “instability”, of “chaos”, of a threat to “order”, of a general and imprecisely perceived threat to its hegemony. Fascism provides “stability” and also an ideal ideological prop for neoliberal capitalism. Fascists in government represent, in the Indian context, an alliance between corporate capital and Hindutva.

There is however a difference between classical fascism and its current incarnation. Classical fascism in the 1930s, by adopting what one may in retrospect call “military Keynesianism”, had overcome the Great Depression in countries where it had power, before leading them to war and destruction. Contemporary fascism, however, lacks the ability to overcome the crisis, since even “military Keynesianism”, in order to boost demand, needs to be financed through either a fiscal deficit or a tax on capitalists (taxing workers to finance larger state expenditure does not boost overall demand since workers consume much of their income anyway); both these ways of financing however are strongly opposed by globalised finance capital. In other words, the fact that capital is globalised while the state remains a nation state entails that even a fascist nation state must abide by the wishes of globalised capital (to prevent capital flight); and this fact restricts its ability to overcome the crisis.

Scope for Left and democratic forces

But this is also what gives the Left and democratic forces the opportunity to roll back the counter-revolution. They can do so however only by having an alternative agenda that promotes equality, that strengthens democracy, and is willing to withdraw from the neoliberal regime to achieve this end. They should for instance have an agenda of introducing a set of universal, justiciable economic rights, to supplement the political rights that the Constitution guarantees.

Among these, one can immediately include the right to food, the right to employment, the right to publicly-funded free and universal quality health care, the right to publicly funded free and universal quality education up to a certain level, and a right to adequate old-age pension and disability benefits. The implementation of these rights together would cost less than 10 per cent of the GDP annually, which the country can easily afford.

The real point is to summon the political will to mobilise people for carrying forward the democratic revolution by widening the 1931 agenda of the Karachi Congress. As independent India completes seven decades of its existence in the midst of a serious threat from communal fascists, summoning this will becomes essential for saving our republic.

Planning

Abandoning the social compact

V. SRIDHAR cover-story

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INDIA’S first steps as an independent nation were dictated by the social compact that was the bedrock of the national movement that made it possible. The idea of planning economic and social development was dictated by the logic that a country whose development was predicated on the heft provided by a large public sector required a mechanism to orchestrate the diverse actors at play. Moreover, the objective of promoting social equity, a commitment enshrined in the implicit compact that guided the independence movement, and later enshrined in the Constitution, required the presence of a body that at least appeared to enjoy a semblance of autonomy from contending interests.

Indeed, this focus on equity was the glue that held the compact, reached among contending interests, together. For vast sections of the people who had literally put their lives on the line for national independence, it became necessary for the newly independent state to act as an unbiased arbiter of the social compact. It is this which gave rise to not only the new Constitution but to several other legislative measures such as the Industrial Disputes Act and the badly designed land reform measures after Independence. State-led planning was also a product of this new-found spirit.

The urgent recognition of these requirements was reflected in the fact that the Planning Commission, the agency entrusted with the task of conducting this orchestra, was constituted in March 1950, barely three years after Independence. The whittling down of this institution and its eventual disbandment by the current regime at the Centre is also the story of how India’s tryst with planning was usurped by the logic that demanded the abandonment of the social compact.

The gradual emasculation of the Planning Commission until its disbandment in 2015 and its replacement with a body that is a pale shadow of its promise is also the story of the unilateral abrogation of the social compact that was born in the crucible of the independence struggle. State-led planning was an obvious victim of this process of abrogation under the Congress, but it has taken a whole new dimension under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). After all, the Congress had much to claim as its own legacy of the freedom movement, unlike the BJP, whose ideological progenitors from that period left it free of such irksome encumbrances. One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first policy announcements, soon after his party’s resounding victory in 2014, was his decision to disband the Planning Commission, that apparently ugly vestige of “socialist” planning of the Nehruvian era. In his first Independence Day address, Modi announced that the 64-year-old Planning Commission would be abolished. In keeping with the bombast that has been his hallmark since then, Modi said the Planning Commission would be replaced by a new institution, which would have “a new design and structure, a new body, a new soul, a new thinking, and a new direction”. Modi kept his word. NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog was constituted on January 1, 2015, and the Planning Commission sent into oblivion.

Rationale of planning

The rationale of planning had many facets. It was recognised early on that the state would have to play a major role in industrialisation, especially because the colonial regime had used India primarily as a supplier of raw materials for its own industries and as a dumping ground for its own manufactured goods. In order to build an industrial base, literally from the ground, the promotion of heavy industry was a key prerequisite. For instance, steel was a special focus, but steel plants require large volumes of other raw materials such as iron ore, coal and power. It was obvious that this would require a significant extent of planning and coordination, especially because, barring the Tata’s own steel capacity in Jamshedpur, there was very little that the private sector could contribute. The investments in iron and steel, mines and power thus demanded careful planning, which is exactly what happened during the Second Five Year Plan, which, even bitter critics of the public sector accept, laid the foundation of Indian industrialisation. In fact, the spin-offs from this period flowed to many areas; the establishment of world-class educational and research institutions (in the physical as well as social sciences) such as the Indian Institutes of Technology arose from this approach.

Although this rationale for coordination in areas of industrial activity in which the public sector played a domineering role was recognised as vital, there was also the question of marshalling resources and directing them to areas designated according to a transparently recognised national priority; these were articulated in voluminous Plan documents, which even if not accessible to common citizens was open to scrutiny and discussion among academics not necessarily of the sarkari kind. In economic parlance, this meant the management of savings and investment and then directing them towards areas deemed important in terms of priority. This meant at least two things: first, a layer of economic expertise that could devise a coherent plan, and second, a body that maintained a semblance of distance from the claims of competing economic and social interests.

It was not without meaning that P.C. Mahalanobis, widely considered the doyen of Indian planning, was at the Planning Commission between 1955 and 1967, during which much of this industrial base was laid. The centrality of the Perspective Planning Division within the Planning Commission’s overall agenda was evident in the formulation of the strategy of industrialisation adopted by it in these years. The continuing pejorative designation of all planning of that era as “Soviet-style” displays an extraordinary extent of ignorance of history as well as a lack of economic sense. Although it was indeed true that Soviet assistance at that time was much more forthcoming, it was not as if Indian planning was at the mercy of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the description of a state-led “command economy” displays a duplicity that is stunning in its ignorance of what was happening across the world at that time. Countries as diverse and as far apart as Japan and Germany (West) were at that time embarking on a process of industrialisation that was heavily steered not only by their national states but also by the domineering presence of the United States in their economy. What else was the Marshall Plan, which poured resources into economies across Europe after the Second World War? In both Japan and in Germany, the state and its institutions, most notably their banks, played a powerful role in rapid industrialisation. Not only were resources made available, but they were deployed in areas that the state, not private capital, decided were critical.

Neoliberal impact

The logic of neoliberalism that the role of the Planning Commission is rendered redundant in a situation in which the private sector occupies the “commanding heights” that were initially the preserve of the public sector is fallacious for a number of reasons. For one, there still remains the question of coordination between the two realms of economic activity in order to achieve national targets or priorities defined and made transparent by the state. There can be meticulous planning in relation to the public sector but what is actually realised is left to the caprices of the private sector. This was demonstrated disastrously during the Eleventh Plan when the private sector, egged on by neoliberal policies in the power sector, simply failed to invest capital in power plants that it was supposed to. This left a yawning gap between the target and what was actually achieved during the Plan period. To blame planning for this failure is like blaming the victim of a crime for the crime.

Despite the rich legacy of planning, however, the counter-revolution was also in evidence. A structural flaw in the design of the Planning Commission was the fact that its role as an arbiter of Centre-State relations was never defined satisfactorily. Although its actions had a significant impact on States in terms of allocation of resources, the States themselves did not see it as belonging to them. Moreover, over time, as the importance of centrally sponsored schemes increased and as they acquired a significant proportion of resource transfers from the Centre to the States, the Planning Commission became the device for these arbitrarily determined transfers, which the States complained as being discriminatory. The fact that the Planning Commission’s role was not constitutionally defined ensured mounting discord over the manner in which its independence was seen as being suspect in the eyes of the States. Although the National Development Council (NDC) did provide a forum for States to articulate their concerns, their day-to-day concerns ought to have been better addressed in a forum such as the Planning Commission. Modi’s decision to disband the NDC points to a higher order of centralisation under the current regime.

Although the Congress may take credit for the initial success of planning and its character, its focus on liberalisation played a critical role in undermining the process of planning. This was achieved in two ways: one, by the induction of those with a neoliberal outlook, most notably by accommodating World Bank-returnees within the portals of the Planning Commission, and two, by the shift in the Commission’s agenda.

The shifting focus of the Planning Commission was particularly visible after the onset of aggressive economic liberalisation after 1991. Its acceptance of the logic of neoliberalism—without a hint of serious debate—is evident in the key aspects of economic policy since then. For instance, its acceptance of the suspect estimates of poverty in India, which when combined with its acceptance of the logic of targeting distribution of food grains (using the pernicious device of Aadhaar to implement it) has had disastrous consequences. The Planning Commission not only accepted the logic of privatisation of public enterprises but laid the conceptual foundation for Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), which are most opaque in character (“The Trojan Horse”, Frontline, February 5, 2016). In doing this, the Commission displayed an utter disregard for evidence of massive drain of public resources as a result of such exercises in countries around the world—no doubt goaded by the World Bank, which was its key evangelist. More critically, it damaged its integrity as an institution by failing to maintain a semblance of neutrality and objectivity, especially because such PPPs remain notoriously unavailable for public scrutiny. Even the single most shining example of success during the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, was engineered outside the portals of the Planning Commission, most notably because of the steady political pressure that came from outside the Congress party.

Centralised thinking

From what was happening to the Planning Commission, NITI Aayog was only a small step away. Its characterisation as a “think tank” says a lot about its role, especially in an atmosphere in which all thinking is centralised in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry, a process that was already under way during the previous UPA regime, especially during its second term. The constitution of the Aayog—in terms of both its key personnel and the shaping of its agenda—has signalled that even the pretence of arm’s-length from the government has been dispensed with. In NITI Aayog’s own words (from its website) it seeks to define its “core” roles as those of creating a Team India Hub and a Knowledge and Innovation Hub. While the first is a poor caricature of the NDA—a platform for substantive Centre-State dialogue, which the Modi government dismantled, the latter is an activity that is better left to one of the many private training institutions run by corporates.

But even more shocking has been the role of NITI Aayog with reference to major policy matters of the day. Its role in the aftermath of demonetisation—independent India’s single biggest economic adventure—was particularly striking. Instead of conducting a rigorous and impartial analysis of demonetisation, it embarked on a no-holds-barred eulogy of the wonders of the most dangerous experience with the national currency since 1947 (after all, more than 100 people lost their lives across the country). Moreover, its gleeful acceptance of the digital nirvana that the Modi government had offered, without an adequate appreciation of either the regulatory issues or the pitfalls that were quickly obvious to all, was certainly not in keeping with its status as a think tank. To cap it all, driven by its euphoric acceptance of the cashless revolution that was unfolding, it even conducted “lucky dips” as prizes for those using digital payment systems. It was almost as if the country’s premier think tank had converted itself into a lottery agent. Seen from this perspective, even the Planning Commission’s slide, especially in its last decade, appears almost benign.

The recent resignation of Arvind Panagariya from his position as Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog has fuelled speculation that even its docile conduct has been met with disapproval from within the Sangh Parivar, much like at the end of Raghuram Rajan’s tenure as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. In a recent interaction with a television channel, Dr Ashwini Mahajan, co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), said: “We have nothing to do with the resignation but we have been saying that any think tank in the government set-up should work in sync with the government’s agenda.” He alleged NITI Aayog was “not functioning as per its preamble, and was not in sync with Prime Minister’s wishes and his government’s policies”. What this reveals in all its depravity is that the rising intolerance is not confined to matters concerning what people eat, but go far beyond, into the realm of economic policy, where even marginal dissent will not be tolerated.

Incidentally, Panagariya’s replacement, Rajiv Kumar, a trained economist, mounted a spirited defence of Modi’s demonetisation exercise. His basic argument then (soon after demonetisation, in November 2016) rested on two points: one, the equation of all that is “black” with cash, and two, the notion that farmers, especially small and marginal ones, have ready access to credit from formal institutional sources. His naive assertion that digital would work like a magic wand in banishing the evil of cash was also a hallmark of his writing then, in defence of Modi.

One of the key aspects of planning as practised by the Planning Commission, especially in its initial years, was the respect for academic probity and for transparency. This meant that policy was crafted in a relatively open environment, critically open to scrutiny, dialogue and criticism. The neoliberal invasion, which has dismantled this structure, has destroyed the modicum of transparency that was available earlier. The aggressive pursuit of policies that blatantly favour a thinner and thinner sliver of Indian society thus requires much to hide; policy-crafting in such an environment necessarily requires it to be based on the whims of a few so that favours may be dispensed without being hampered by well-defined principles or a rationale that defines them as necessary for the greater public good.

One of the meanings of niti is “principle”. To name an organisation whose conduct has been anything but a shadow of the venerable institution it replaced at whim is ironic.

Public Health

Continuing tale of state neglect

AMIT SENGUPTA cover-story

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Health-care services in India at the time of Independence were a function of the socio-economic and political interests of the colonial rulers. The availability of health-care services in modern medicine was largely concentrated in big cities. Wide-ranging discussions took place in the 1940s about possible strategies directed at providing comprehensive health care and extending the infrastructure of health services in independent India.

In a report submitted in 1946, the Health Survey & Development Committee, known as the Bhore Committee, formulated a road map for strengthening health-care services across the country. Among its detailed recommendations were proposals to develop a nationwide network of health facilities. As a short-term measure it suggested the setting up of “one primary health centre for a population of 40,000, to be manned by two doctors, one nurse, four public health nurses, four midwives, four trained dais, two sanitary inspectors, two health assistants, one pharmacist and 15 other class IV employees”. The committee’s longer-term vision was even more ambitious: it proposed setting up primary health units with 75-bed hospitals for every population of 10,000 to 20,000, and secondary units with 650-bed hospitals networked around district hospitals with 2,500 beds each. It is interesting to note that the Bhore Committee’s recommendations were far ahead of the current norm for primary care, which is one primary health centre (PHC) with four to six beds catering to a population of 20,000-30,000.

Unfortunately, the Bhore Committee’s recommendations remained on paper. A critical gap that was never addressed was the extremely low allocation of public funding for the health sector. The first three Five-Year Plans in India after Independence allocated just Rs.140 crore, Rs.225 crore and Rs.342 crore respectively for health, including for water and sanitation, amounting to just 5.9 per cent, 5 per cent and 4.2 per cent of the total Plan outlay. Underfunding of health-care services has been the bane of public health in India, which continues to date. Consequently, virtually all the aspirations reflected in various reports and recommendations to the government have remained unfulfilled. The first Five-Year Plan period saw a mere 0.22 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) being allocated for health care. This rose very slowly to above 1 per cent of the GDP in the 1980s and has stagnated at that level for almost four decades. In the late 1950s, the high-powered Health Survey and Planning Committee, known as the Mudaliar Committee, was tasked with suggesting a fresh road map to strengthen health-care services. The committee’s report, submitted in 1961, pointed to the failure of the government in significantly enhancing public health spending. While again making useful recommendations to expand the public health infrastructure, the report also marked a new emphasis on population control. This was to become, in the next decades, one of the major planks of public health.

Since the Mudaliar Committee report, population control policies have been a major obsession among planners in India. While India has progressed to a phase where a demographic transition is under way in most parts of the country, leading to a slowing of population growth, population polices continue to target the poor and women. Population control strategies have tended to be paternalistic, prescriptive and coercive. They start from the belief that the poor breed prodigiously and that it is the nation’s duty to cap their unbridled fertility. Such programmes are inappropriate not only because they victimise women, especially poor women, but also because they do not work. They have undermined the efficacy of the general health-care infrastructure as well as women’s faith in this infrastructure to address their real concerns.

In the past couple of decades, driven by the growing consensus against coercive population control, the emphasis has shifted from population control to reproductive and child health. Unfortunately, the gaze of the programme is still firmly fixed on women as targets. Women need access to family planning services because of their own health needs. But such access has to ensure that women have a choice and that women are in a position to make decisions about their choice. In order for a policy to bring women’s concerns and needs to the centre stage, it should revolve around strategies that address women’s health in all its dimensions and not just their wombs.

Rise of private sector

Instead of securing access to comprehensive health-care services, public health in the post-Independence period came to mean disease control programmes (also called “vertical” programmes). They included the national programmes on tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy, immunisation, diarrheal diseases, blindness and family planning. With no integration at the delivery level, these programmes were insensitive to local conditions, unresponsive to local needs, highly bureaucratised and inefficient. They were accountable to officials situated in the national and State capitals and had little or no scope for flexibility based on local conditions. Local populations were indifferent and in some cases hostile to such programmes, resulting in fair measure to the very poor utilisation of government health facilities in many areas.

The government’s failure to provide access to health-care services to the entire population was commented upon in India’s first National Health Policy in 1983, which said that “the demographic and health picture of the country still constitutes a cause for serious and urgent concern”. Nearly 35 years later, the continuing crisis relating to public services was echoed by the Economic Survey of 2017, which noted that a “distinctive feature of the Indian economic model is the ‘weakness’ of state capacity, especially in delivering essential services such as health and education”.

In addition, an urban elitist bias in medical education as well as medical services impacted the state’s ability to provide health care to the poor as well as those living in rural areas. Continued emigration of doctors, a rush for superspecialities, development of corporate hospitals and polyclinics, and an extremely high and near-universal irrational use of drugs and technology emerged as clear trends within the first three decades after Independence. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the case of health care, the absence of public services was invariably accompanied by a growth of private services.

Investment in the private hospital sector was very low in the 1970s but it has grown at an exponential rate since then. This was fuelled simultaneously by poor investment by the state and offer of incentives to the private sector in the form of soft loans, subsidies and tax exemptions. New medical technologies further added to the impetus, with increasing corporate participation in health care. This, coupled with the entry of insurance multinationals, cleared the path for the “marketisation” of health care.

Impact of neoliberal reforms

The shift towards a market-oriented policy for health care received substantial support with the initiation of neoliberal economic reforms in the country in 1991. These reforms marked a major shift in the government’s policy towards social sectors such as health, and sought, by way of fiscal austerity measures, to cut government spending and subsidies in social sectors, reduce direct taxes, increase administered prices, liberalise trade by reducing tariff rates and providing other incentives for foreign investments, privatise public enterprises, deregulate the labour market, and so on. The policies were designed to clear the path for the state’s withdrawal from social sectors such as health, education and food security. The immediate impact on health was a cut in budgetary support to the health sector. The cuts were severe in the first two years of the reform process, followed by some restoration subsequently. Thus, the outlay for health fell from 1.9 per cent to 1.6 per cent in the first two years of the 1990s, and then increased marginally to 1.8 per cent in the 8th Plan outlay. Health care was a major casualty as the share of States constitutes a major portion of expenditure. As a result of the rollback on expenditure on health care, the expenditure by the government on health care fell from 1.4 per cent of the GDP in 1991 to 0.9 per cent in 2002.

The reforms of the 1990s proved catastrophic for public health services, and an already underfunded system was virtually brought to its knees. The very low level of public spending placed a huge financial burden on households. By 2004-05, per capita public spending on health was Rs.242, while private spending was almost four times at Rs.959. As a consequence, the number of people pushed below the poverty line because of catastrophic out-of-pocket expenses incurred on health care rose from about 26 million in 1993-94 to 39 million in 2004-05, and to an estimated 70-90 million in 2012-13.

In 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was voted to power, its Common Minimum Programme promised an expansion of health-care services. With this in view, the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) was launched in 2005. While the NRHM, or the NHM (National Health Mission) as it is now called, did lead to an expansion of public services, it failed to match expectations. Its ambition was curtailed over the years, as was its funding, when compared with the original design. The underfunding of the NHM should be seen in the light of a comment in the first draft of the new National Health Policy (available in 2015): “The budget received [for the NRHM] and the expenditure thereunder was only about 40 per cent of what was envisaged for a full revitalisation in the NRHM framework.”

India’s reforms in the health sector have been informed by the entire gamut of neoliberal prescriptions mentioned earlier. The direction of reforms has been uncannily similar to those pursued in a number of low- and middle-income countries, including the imposition of ceilings on public health expenditure, promotion of cost recovery (user fees) in public institutions, segmentation of the health-care system into “basic” care for the poor and private care for the rich and outsourcing of functions to the private sector.

Currently, India’s health-care system is one of the most privatised in the world and its public expenditure one of the lowest. Of the total expenditure on health care in India, only 32 per cent is public expenditure—the 16th lowest among 190 countries in the World Bank Database, keeping India in the august company of countries such as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Haiti and Guinea. It performs even worse for public spending on health care as a percentage of GDP. At 1.1 per cent, India stands 12th from the bottom, keeping company with Myanmar, Haiti, South Sudan, Timor-Leste and Pakistan.

In addition to the setting up of the NRHM, a new development since 2007 has been the introduction of public-funded health insurance schemes, at both the State and national levels, including the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana. These schemes follow the neoliberal prescriptions developed under the framework of universal health coverage and explicitly separate financing and provision of health care. They allow beneficiaries to access care in accredited facilities, which may be in the private or the public sector. In practice, an overwhelming majority of the accredited facilities are in the private sector. These insurance schemes serve to further strengthen the private sector by utilising public finances. They only cover for hospital care, while the bulk of private expenses are incurred by non-hospitalised patients. The problem lies not only with inadequate coverage of costs but also with the way the system is milked by unscrupulous private providers for financial gains. These schemes, largely implemented through partnerships with private providers, have been indicted in several States for defrauding the system of hundreds of crores of rupees by performing unnecessary surgical operations (for instance, a huge rise in unnecessary uterus removal operations) and for not contributing to better health outcomes.

The bogey of “fiscal discipline” is now repeatedly raised to restrict public financing of health care. The impact of these policies is clearly being felt. The NHM’s activities have faltered in many States and stuttered to a standstill in some others. The unstated strategy appears to be to cap public expenditure at a minimum level and at the same time, through public policy measures, encourage the growth of private providers. The government is also aggressively pushing for private health insurance; the 2015-16 Budget explicitly encouraged this by announcing tax relief to those who purchase private health insurance.

At the same time, several States such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are drawing up plans for leasing out existing rural public facilities to the private sector. More recently, NITI Aayog, the government policy think tank, unveiled a grand plan to lease out facilities in government-run district hospitals to private providers for a period of 30 years.

The current strategy of the government is a true reflection of the original neoliberal view of health sector reforms. This vision of health care has little role for public health services, which are to be increasingly outsourced to the private sector. Insurance mechanisms and not public provisioning is the linchpin of the so-called “health assurance” model.

We need to focus not on how public systems are to be privatised but on how public systems need to be made truly public. Reforms are necessary in public systems that free them from control by a self-seeking bureaucracy that is tied to neoliberal governments. Public systems need to be reclaimed by the public, shaped by the public and governed by the public. People have a stake and a definite role in reclaiming public systems and in transforming them.

Amit Sengupta is National Co-Convener, People’s Health Movement—India (Jan Swasthya Abhiyan)

Judiciary

The Supreme Court: A story of ups and downs

V. VENKATESAN cover-story
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THE INDIAN SUPREME COURT FIRST BEGAN functioning on January 28, 1950, at Parliament House, New Delhi, before shifting to its present building at Tilak Marg in 1958. The first Attorney General of India, M.C. Setalvad, in his address marking the court’s inauguration, observed that its jurisdiction and powers were wider than those exercised by the highest court of any country in the Commonwealth or by the Supreme Court of the United States. To Setalvad, its foremost task was to interpret the Constitution, which he said was a means of ordering the life of a progressive people. Citing the Federal Court, the precursor of the Supreme Court, he said that the Constitution was to be interpreted in no narrow spirit.

The Constitution envisaged the establishment of an independent judiciary with the Supreme Court at the apex. The Supreme Court is invested with the powers to issue writs to enforce the fundamental rights under Article 32 of the Constitution, described by B.R. Ambedkar as its soul. The court is also invested with the power to entertain appeals from High Courts and tribunals. All Supreme Court orders become enforceable throughout the territory of India, and all authorities, civil or judicial, are to act in its aid. While High Courts have powers of superintendence over their subordinate courts, the Supreme Court is not invested with any power of superintendence over High Courts. However, the Supreme Court has assumed to itself a virtual power of superintendence over High Courts, and they, in the words of the former Supreme Court judge Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy, seem to have accepted such a position with obeisance. “The stature of the High Courts has automatically reduced in the eyes of the public, which it should never be,” Justice Reddy says in his memoirs, The Court and the Constitution of India: Summits and Shallows.

Sir H.J. Kania, who became a Federal Court judge on June 20, 1946, became the first Indian Chief Justice of India (CJI) on August 14, 1947, by virtue of seniority following the resignation of the last British Chief Justice, Sir William Patrick Spens. Apart from the CJI, at that time there was just one more judge, Sir S. Fazl Ali.

Kania became the first CJI under the 1950 Constitution, and the five other Federal Court judges became judges of Supreme Court of India. Kania died in November 1951 with four years still to go before he would have completed his tenure at the age of 65. The sanctioned strength of the court at that time was eight, including the CJI. Two more judges, N. Chandrasekhara Aiyar and Vivian Bose, joined the court, in 1950 and 1951 respectively, to bring it to its full strength. The Supreme Court’s sanctioned strength has increased periodically since then and it is now 31, including the CJI. Kania had conceded that the Supreme Court was secondary to Parliament as the custodian of the Constitution and that the court was not an authority to supervise the wisdom and the propriety of the enactments of the legislature and the actions of the executive. His thinking influenced the way the Supreme Court decided cases in its early days.

Thus, in A.K. Gopalan vs State of Madras, a case decided in 1950, the court failed to rise to the occasion. Gopalan, a veteran communist leader from Kerala, was detained without trial under the Preventive Detention Act. He argued that provisions of Article 19 of the Constitution guaranteeing various personal freedoms should be read into Article 21 (the right to life and liberty) and Article 22, which enables the state to make laws providing for preventive detention. The Supreme Court held that the rights conferred by Article 19 were the rights of free men and both punitive and preventive detention were outside its range. This meant that a detenu could not claim procedural fairness as a fundamental right. The majority judges in this case were still under the influence of colonial jurisprudence and were oblivious to the fact that they were to expound the jurisprudence of a new Constitution for people who had just freed themselves from colonial rule. Thus, they held that the law prescribing preventive detention was not required to satisfy the requirements of reasonableness. Justice Fazl Ali dissented and said that the fundamental rights overlapped each other and that preventive detention under Article 22 also amounted to deprivation of personal liberty and of the right to the freedom of movement, dealt with in Article 19(1)(d).

In 1970, the minority view of Justice Fazl Ali was accepted by the majority of the 11-judge bench (10:1) in R.C. Cooper vs Union of India. In this case, the court rejected the argument that Article 31(2) (right to property) was a complete code in itself and not subject to any reasonable restrictions as contemplated by Article 19. Thus, the court quashed the nationalisation of banks on the ground that the compensation paid was unreasonable. In several subsequent cases, the Supreme Court held that even if only one of the several grounds of detention was bad for vagueness or another reason, the order of detention would be quashed. However, in 1976, during the Emergency, the Supreme Court reversed this great jurisprudence in the case A.D.M. Jabalpur vs Shivakant Shukla. The court held that life and liberty of a citizen were mere bounties of the state and could be withdrawn whenever it wanted. Justice H.R. Khanna dissented from the majority judges in this case and held that right to life and liberty existed before the Constitution and, therefore, could not be taken away by the state under any circumstances. The ruling in A.D.M. Jabalpur is no longer good law as subsequent legislation passed by the post-Emergency Parliament, in defence of the fundamental rights, reversed the “damage” the court caused.

Public interest litigation

In subsequent years, the Supreme Court itself began to make amends for its role during the Emergency. It encouraged epistolary jurisdiction, through which it converted ordinary letters written by people bringing issues of public importance to its notice to public interest litigation (PIL) petitions. Through this, the court dispensed with the need for locus standi and allowed petitioners who themselves might not have suffered any injury to represent others who were not in a position to approach the court for some reasons.

Among the judges who made effective use of PIL in the post-Emergency period were Justices P.N. Bhagwati, V.R. Krishna Iyer, Chinnappa Reddy and D.A. Desai. Justice Bhagwati’s creative and expansive interpretation of Article 21 gave people many new unenumerated rights. Justice Bhagwati, who passed away on June 15, was also at the centre of a controversy when he wrote an adulatory letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her return to power in 1980. Justice Krishna Iyer ruled that Indira Gandhi when she was disqualified for violating election law lost her status as a Member of Parliament but could retain her position as Prime Minister. His decision was one of the factors that led to the imposition of the Emergency. His experience as a prisoner, a legislator and a Minister in Kerala, before becoming a judge in the Supreme Court, made him champion the rights of the oppressed and the underprivileged, both as a judge and after his retirement.

However, in a recent scholarly work, Anuj Bhuwania has raised the concern that because a PIL petition does away with procedural requirements it could well be defeating its own objectives. As an example, he cites the 1989 Bhopal gas disaster claims settlement, which he says was judicial bad faith passing for panchayati justice. He recalls that the survivors of the gas leak tragedy were not even consulted before the court pronounced on their fate. They were considered “irresponsible and uninformed” and therefore given a fait accompli, he says. PIL has become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into victims, he further says in his recent book, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India. The book abounds with examples of PIL petitions that have gone wrong and resulted in further deprivation of the poor and the marginalised in the neoliberal era.

Freedom of expression

The Supreme Court has built up a robust jurisprudence in favour of freedom of expression, right from Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras, in 1950, when it struck down the notification the then Madras Government issued banning the entry into the State or the circulation, sale and distribution of CrossRoads, a journal published from Bombay, as offending the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution. In 1951, in State of Madras vs Champakam Dorairajan, the court struck down the community-wise distribution of admission to medical colleges as violative of Article 15, which guarantees non-discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. These two cases led to the First Amendment of the Constitution by the Provisional Parliament, which undid the judgments of the Supreme Court. Thus, reasonable restrictions on the fundamental rights were inserted under Article 19(2), and the state was enabled to make special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

During this period, the Supreme Court’s decisions seemed to uphold the challenges posed by the propertied class to the progressive legislation of the government. Yet, there was a general consensus in favour of Parliament’s right to determine policy in the economic realm. While the Supreme Court struck down egalitarian laws on the ground that they militated against the fundamental rights, there was a consensus that Parliament could amend the relevant provisions in a manner to render those laws constitutional. Thus, restrictions were added to each of the fundamental rights to allow for laws that aimed to fulfil the Directive Principles of State Policy.

This was followed by a period of confrontation between Parliament and the Supreme Court. In I.C. Golaknath and Others vs State of Punjab & Anrs (1968), the Supreme Court restricted Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution saying that the fundamental rights in Part III are unamendable. Then came the Supreme Court’s quashing of the Bank Nationalisation Act, 1969, in R.C.Cooper and the abolishment of the privy purses.

In 1973, the Supreme Court’s 13-judge Constitution Bench delivered the judgment in the Keshavananda Bharati case, enunciating the basic structure doctrine, by which certain basic features of the Constitution were declared unamendable by Parliament. In subsequent cases, the court held that the scope of giving effect to the goals set by Articles 39(b) and (c) to fulfil the Directive Principles of State Policy could not be restricted by the fundamental rights. The court reasoned that the Directive Principles must be read in harmony with the fundamental rights.

Death penalty

The Supreme Court’s judgment in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980), which declared the death penalty constitutional, was another landmark in its history. The court, however, held that it should be imposed only in the rarest of rare cases, when the alternative of a life sentence was unquestionably foreclosed. The Constitution Bench in this case also held that while sentencing a convict and taking into consideration the mitigating circumstances, the court should adopt a criminal-centric approach rather than be merely swayed by the enormity of the crime. It is, however, a matter of regret that subsequent benches of the Supreme Court did not fully appreciate the essence of Bachan Singh and mechanically confirmed death sentences in many cases, calling them the rarest of rare.

In recent years, however, the court appears to have applied some correctives and considered the alternative of life sentences without remission even in cases considered to be the rarest of rare, although the denial of remission even to reformed convicts means that some arbitrariness remains. The court has also made it mandatory for the review petitions of death row convicts to be heard in open court by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court to mitigate the chances of errors at the sentencing stage. The court has commuted the death sentences of several convicts to life imprisonment on the grounds of supervening factors, such as delay in disposal of mercy petitions, solitary confinement and mental illness, apart from introducing several safeguards to enable convicts to make use of legal remedies available to them effectively until they are hanged. The court, however, has erred in certain cases and deprived convicts of such remedies in cases where there was a societal and media outcry in favour of hanging the convicts.

Recent debate on privacy

The Supreme Court revisited many of these early debates when it recently heard arguments on the right to privacy in the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. On August 2, a nine-judge Constitution Bench concluded a seven-day hearing on the question whether the right to privacy was a fundamental right, and reserved its judgment. To many, it would appear paradoxical that the apex court should be examining this issue in this day and age when the right to privacy as a facet of liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, mentioned in the Preamble to the Constitution, has always been recognised implicitly, if not explicitly. The need to examine whether privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution arose because the Aadhaar scheme, which the state is pursuing with vigour and which involves sharing of the biometric data of individuals, was challenged on the ground that it violated privacy.

During the hearing of this case, it was pointed out to the Supreme Court that an eight-judge bench in M.P.Sharma vs Satish Chandra and Others (1954) and a six-judge bench in Kharak Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh and Others (1962) had held that privacy was not a fundamental right. It was also argued that all subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court holding that it was a fundamental right were delivered by benches whose strength was smaller than the ones that decided M.P.Sharma and Kharak Singh. Although it would appear a technical ground, the Supreme Court decided to examine the issue by making a reference to a nine-judge bench in order to give an authoritative ruling on the issue.

The petitioners pointed out during the hearing that the bench in M.P.Sharma made a casual observation that the right to privacy was not a fundamental right under Article 20(3) of the Constitution, which guarantees that no person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself. The bench had no occasion to examine whether the right to privacy could be read into other rights as at that time the Supreme Court, starting from the A.K. Gopalan case, believed that each individual right guaranteed under the Constitution dealt with a unique subject matter. Similarly, in Kharak Singh, it was held that there was no equivalent in India to the American right to privacy. The U.S, too, does not guarantee an explicit right to privacy but draws the right as a penumbral right, that is, a right that is necessary to make other rights, such as the right to freedom of speech and association, effective.

Gobind vs State of Madhya Pradesh and Anr (1975), decided by a three-judge bench, was the first case in which the Supreme Court stated that there was a fundamental right to privacy. The petitioners in the privacy case thus pointed out to the bench that Gobind did not conflict with M.P.Sharma because the Gobind bench considered Articles 19 (1)(a), 19(1)(d) and 21 as sources of the right to privacy, whereas the bench in M.P.Sharma did not have the occasion to examine this issue. It had confined itself to Article 20(3) and did not rule out that the right to privacy could be read into other articles of the Constitution.

Secondly, contrary to what the Central government had earlier claimed before the court, it was revealed that the eleven-judge bench in R.C.Cooper (1970) had overruled the decisions in Kharak Singh and A.K.Gopalan, which held that an impugned law could be analysed only under one constitutional provision and that the fundamental rights were mutually exclusive. In R.C.Cooper, the Supreme Court had struck down the nationalisation of banks because it impaired the right to compensation. Subsequently, in 1978, the decision in R.C.Cooper was endorsed in the landmark Maneka Gandhi case, in which a seven-judge Supreme Court bench held that Article 21 was to be read along with other fundamental rights and that the procedure established by law not only had to be just, fair and reasonable but also the law itself had to be reasonable as Articles 14 and 19 had now to be read into Article 21.

Subsequent judgments of the Supreme Court have only served to affirm the fact that the absence of a specific textual guarantee is no bar to a finding that a fundamental right to privacy exists under the Constitution.

The result of the privacy case could throw some light on whether the Supreme Court today is willing to adapt to the ethos of the changing times and defend the rights of individuals under the Constitution or whether it will get stuck in the outdated jurisprudence of the 1950s and the 1960s, as reflected by the judgments in M.P.Sharma and Kharak Singh. Some of the respondents, who saw nothing wrong in these early decisions, also pointed out the deliberate omission of the Constitution’s framers during the Constituent Assembly debates to make privacy a fundamental right.

The Supreme Court’s judgment on privacy is expected at a time when much of its jurisprudence has taken a conservative turn and shows a considerable degree of ambivalence on issues concerning institutional coherence and PIL. While the court, for instance, appeared to assert itself by striking down the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act in 2015 and reviving the collegium system of recruiting judges, its reluctance to go the whole hog in reforming the same system as it had promised to do exposed its own limits.

The Supreme Court set aside the Delhi High Court’s reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises consensual adult sex, because it involved the rights of a minuscule section of the population. The much-promised Constitution Bench to review this ruling by a two-judge bench is yet to materialise. Its latest judgment that directs the formation of committees with civil society participation and government funding in every district to decide prosecution of the accused in dowry-related cases involving allegations of cruelty to women is yet another step to reverse progressive jurisprudence of the early days.

The privacy and Aadhaar cases will be tests of the court’s ability to pursue its counter-majoritarian character with vigour and determination despite insurmountable challenges from the executive even as in coming weeks it is likely to decide key cases with a bearing on India’s secularism such as those relating to triple talaq and the Babri Masjid.

Media

Escape from freedom

SASHI KUMAR cover-story

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THE big news story of our times is one that will not be told by our big news media. Because, it is about themselves. It is about how, on a daily basis, they are disgracing themselves and the noble idea of an independent fourth estate. It is about how they have become, variously, town criers, cheer leaders, abettors, apologists, and an advance guard of news hounds clearing the way, preparing the ground for the totalising ideology and agenda of the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule. Such lemming-like collective self-debasement is at its starkest in the English TV news channels, which vie with one another to run down and ridicule any and every voice of opposition to the government. A good section of the Hindi and other Indian regional language channels is no different and perhaps worse. BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) spokespersons on these news programmes have become redundant or decor because the eager-beaver anchors do their job for them, nipping any dissent in the bud, swatting anything in the studio or on the show that looks like it might develop into a buzz. It is a washout and an insult to journalism.

The English language print media may, by and large, be subtler and less craven in its approach, but there is no mistaking the tamping down of the critical note when it comes to anything having to do with the RSS-BJP combine or the government it runs. Far from telling truth to power, which, if they are unable to distinguish the truth, should at least be telling it like it is, they soft-pedal and circumlocute and generally beat around the bush so that what comes across is not what those in power need to be told, but what they like to hear. Where it is inconvenient to tackle something, the media can always pretend they have not noticed it, meet it with silence. But, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko reminded us all those years back, “When truth is replaced by silence, that silence is a lie”. Diplomatic silence does not sit well with the idea of the free press and, indeed, becomes a convenient form of cowardice.

The current orchestration in the media of the alarm over political killings and the bogey of utter lawlessness in Kerala is ominously reminiscent of the agitation ratcheted up against the first elected Communist government in the State of 1957 by a political-religious-media axis (helpfully nudged along by the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA) leading to the dismissal of the E.M.S. Namboodiripad government in 1959. This time around, the TV news media have, anticipating the longing of their political masters, been whipping up the alarmist atmospherics appropriate to make it appear that the State deserves another spell of President’s Rule. If the BJP government at the Centre does not follow through and actually invoke Article 356, it will be for fear of the electoral reprisal that it would eventually have to face—although another way of looking at it is that there is nothing to lose for a party which has just one seat, for the first time and after all these years, in the State legislature.

This is not to gloss over the cycle of political murders in Kerala. It is shocking, and becomes especially jarring when set against the more enlightened and mature socio-political context and the enviable top-of-the-chart human development index enjoyed by the State. But law and order in the State is nowhere near as bad as in most other States, including and particularly those ruled by the BJP, where human life has been rendered ignobly cheap, where individual and mass caste killings, vendetta and corruption-related murders, systematic elimination of rights activists, killings by the summary and arbitrary fiat of khap panchayats, and lately, periodic organised slaughter of the minorities and serial lynchings in the name of the cow, have become almost routine. There is not even a squeak from the media about bringing these rampantly lawless States under Central rule, perhaps because nothing, least of all a direct spell under the President, can make any difference to the violence that is endemic in them.

It is in the nature of a highly news media penetrated, almost saturated, State like Kerala to be subject to scrutiny more rigorous and unrelenting than in large swathes of the country still relegated to the penumbra of feudal politics. Violence in society here rarely goes unspotted or unreported; crimes do not go unrecorded, and become an obsessive media preoccupation. One could almost speak in terms of a media morbidity peculiar to Kerala. There is, too, a class parity of the media and their constituency of viewers—an incestuous middle-class clannish affair—which make it possible to keep the discourse on political murders engaging on the front burner and on the boil, and therefore TRP-fetching for the TV channels. An interesting facet of the recent arrest of the film star Dileep in the case of the abduction and molestation of a female actor was that it saw the mass shift of viewership, for a good many days, from serials to the news on TV. There is a case for something like a Kerala exceptionalism in terms of the local news media projection and consumption behaviour. But to extrapolate this media peculiarity into an argument for subverting the legitimate political process and government in the State would be like making democracy a reality television show.

There was incidentally a telling, if weird, instance of such a reality television political moment when it was reported a while back that the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s decision on the surgical strike into Pakistan was prompted by a TV discussion in which the anchor apparently tauntingly asked the Defence Ministry whether it would have the courage to act militarily against Pakistan. It is not so farfetched, then, to imagine a media inspired or engineered takeover of a State by the Centre.

The media exceptionalism in Kerala conflates with another exceptionalism, that of the RSS in the State. The organisation has had, for some time now, more shakhas in this small State than in any other State in the country. One wonders what calculations went into this concentrated ideological investment in Kerala, given that until very recently neither the RSS nor the BJP had any electoral prospect there. Now the RSS is able to feed into the winner-will-take-all power politics of the BJP central leadership in a bid to throw the State into confusion and crisis.

What is brewing in Kerala is only the latest instance of how the press is a lever in the hand of the politician in power. Seventy years after Independence, the news media in India are at a piquant inflection point. What is happening to the news media, or what they are doing to themselves, here and now, is a throwback to the Emergency of the mid-1970s. The real difference seems, to parody the current debate on external versus self-regulation in the media, that the Emergency was one big external regulator in action, and what we see now is propitiatory self-regulation by the media. It is not love for the BJP, but fear of it, that elicits such collusive media behaviour across the board. The pattern of pressure, through veiled and open threats, through raids by the income tax authorities and the Enforcement Directorate, through calumny and vilification, is now familiar.

Although conventionally the press has evolved as more in opposition to, than in agreement with, the ruling dispensation, there have been phases when it has, happily it would seem, played second fiddle to the government of the day. The earliest example of a party in power creating its own press portfolio dates back to the early 1700s in England when the most important Tory Minister of the day, Robert Harley, or the Earl of Oxford, launched a series of newspapers catering to different constituencies to take on the Whig opposition, supplemented by other forms of direct persecution. Among his trenchant lead writers was Daniel Defoe ( Robinson Crusoe), and the chief propagandist was Jonathan Swift ( Gulliver’s Travels). Some of our media worthies who have blissfully practised paid news, or gallantly figured in the Radia tapes and emerged unscathed, or the big guns on camera who now forcefully prosecute all those opposed to the BJP as enemies of the state, no less, may draw solace or inspiration, as the case may be, from those early tall examples.

Sports

Rising confidence and promise of glory

SURESH MENON cover-story

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When I started my career, the highlights in Indian sports could have been accommodated on the back of a postage stamp. There was hockey and its eight Olympic gold medals, but already European countries and Australia were pulling ahead. Then there was Ramanathan Krishnan and his two semi-final appearances at Wimbledon, Milkha Singh’s near miss at the Rome Olympics in 1960, India’s two appearances in the final of the Davis Cup, Prakash Padukone’s brilliant win at the All-England Badminton Championship, the world titles of Wilson Jones and Michael Ferreira, Vijay Amritraj’s unfulfilled promises, and that was pretty much that. We paid tribute to our sole Olympic bronze once every four years. Newspapers wrote about “India’s Forgotten Hero”, as K.D. Jadhav, the wrestler who won bronze at the 1952 Olympics, receded further from memory. It was the same medal that his family is now trying to auction off to raise funds for a wrestling academy that was first promised by the Maharashtra government and then forgotten like the Olympian himself.

The 1980s were a good time to begin reporting on sports. There was promise in the air, although the Milkha-Vijay syndrome of the “nearly man” was ever present. Ferreira won two of his three World championships in billiards, the Indian cricket team won the World Cup. When Bangaloreans lined the streets to give a smiling Padukone a welcome after his triumph, I was in college and part of that crowd. It was exhilarating.

At the 1984 Olympics, P.T. Usha missed a medal by a hair’s breadth. It took the great hurdler Edwin Moses to tell us that she needed to reduce the number of strides between hurdles. Indian coaches tended to be emotional crutches and father figures, but lacked international experience. Talent exists, we told ourselves in consolation, but lack of funds, poor coaching and corrupt officials kept many from flowering. Talented sportsmen and corrupt officials continue to exist, but coaching and funds have vastly improved.

A few generations had to pass before the traditional excuses made way for some straight answers.

More significant than Usha’s near miss was the influence she would have on India’s women athletes. She became a national icon, celebrated in sport and attracting more women to it. To see a straight line between Mithali Raj’s World Cup cricket team and Usha might be a stretch at this distance, but sport as a career for women was first suggested by her brilliance on the Asian and world stage.

In 1982, India hosted the Asian Games for the second time and colour television made its debut. The next year India won the cricket World Cup, and we began to feel like we belonged. For 35 years following Independence, India were happy to merely follow the Olympic principle: "The most important thing is not to win but to take part.”

We participated, oh yes we participated: the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, World Cups, multi-nation tournaments. Our captains and managers arrived on foreign soil and said sweetly: “We have come to learn. To participate is a great honour. We may not win anything, but we will go back enriched by the experience.”

In the decade of Independence, Indian sport was often seen as an adjunct to nationalism. At the 1948 Olympics, when India beat Great Britain 4-0 in the hockey final, the symbolism was inescapable. India’s barefoot footballers impressed while losing 1-2 to France after missing two penalties. The same year, Lala Amarnath’s team of cricketers impressed Don Bradman’s eleven in Australia and nearly pulled off a series-equalling win at home against the West Indies.

The 1940s promised in the manner the 1980s was to do. But this was a false dawn, not the start of something new, but the end of something old. If the following generation was expected to build on the achievements of the 1940s sportsmen, it disappointed.

Although India finished fourth in football at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, causing us many decades later to speak of the “glory days of Indian football when we were among the best”, one of the members of that team, Bangalore’s Krishna “Kittu”, in one of his last interviews, admitted: “We were not very good.”

But they were good enough to become the first Asian team in an Olympic semifinal—Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick against Australia. Indian football never regained those heights. So excited was the government of India that it felicitated the players…53 years later! Eight of the 17 players had passed on by then.

The 1950s saw a setback in many ways, although New Delhi hosted the Asian Games successfully in 1951 without any direct financial contribution from the government. India won the football title, but it became increasingly evident that even as India struggled to maintain its standards in both team and individual sports, other countries were progressing at a spectacular rate. Pakistan was already India’s equal in hockey and would go on to beat it in an Olympic final in 1960.

At a sports symposium in the mid-1980s, an Indian official made a plea for streamlining sports participation. “We take part in too many events at the Olympics,” he said, “too many events where we stand no chance for a medal. We need to choose a few sports and throw all our energies [and money] into them.”

Another plea at the same symposium was to focus on the “mother sports” in schools, the sports that formed the basis for all sport: athletics, swimming, and gymnastics. “Our children do not have a grounding in sport, and by the time they become competitive they are already playing catch-up,” explained a participant.

Our sports theory was sound, but not so our sports participation. Or culture. But as the 21st century beckoned, Indian sport, far from restricting itself, actually began to expand. World-beating archers emerged, as did, some years later, Formula One drivers. It could be argued that the former was a traditional sport, but the latter was a key to the direction Indian sport was taking—becoming professional, seeking to be the best in the world and not just in a small well in South Asia, and, above all, in its ability to attract sponsorship and viewership.

In this century, all these elements came together: the sheer numbers, professional coaching, money and security. Despite remnants of the old problems, from officialdom to lethargy to an easily satisfied attitude, still existing, Indian sport advanced. In both domestic and international terms, Indian sport has made more progress in this brief century than it did in the whole of the previous one. But without those years of hit-and-miss, we would not have been in the current position. Those failures were stepping stones to these successes.

It began with Pullela Gopichand emulating Padukone by winning the All-England badminton title. Soon, a badminton culture was born. Saina Nehwal, the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics in 2012, was world number 1; four years later, P.V. Sindhu won a silver.

The Leander Paes generation gave tennis a similar thrust. Paes himself won a bronze at the 1996 Olympics, and with Mahesh Bhupathi won the doubles Grand Slam. Paes won Wimbledon titles in three different decades and is one of the most experienced Davis Cup players ever. Geet Sethi and Pankaj Advani took over as the kings of the baize game a generation apart, and won world titles as both amateurs and professionals. Rajyavardhan Rathore won a silver at the 2004 Olympics.

The Olympian of Olympians has to be Abhinav Bindra, who, in 2008, became India’s sole gold medal winner at the Beijing Games. Few Indian sportsmen have displayed Bindra’s obsessive, focused, committed approach to winning. “More than medals, this is the athlete’s gift to himself as he leaves his sport,” Bindra wrote after his final competition. “The truth of effort, the memory of deep commitment.” This has to be the Indian sportsman’s motto, effort and commitment.

The greatest?

Independent India’s greatest sportsperson ever? That title might, theoretically, have many aspirants. Yet there is only one greatest: Viswanathan Anand, India’s youngest grandmaster, world champion, world No. 1 in chess, a sport which probably originated in India. If a sportsman had to be given the Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest honour, he was the natural candidate (it was finally bestowed upon the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar).

Anand is special, combining an endearing Indianness with an other-worldly professionalism; a talent bordering on genius with the ability to calculate and identify patterns given only to a handful; the necessary “humility” that is looked for in Indian champions, and the flair to hold his own in any company; a remarkable world-awareness with knowledge in his field whose width is matched only by its depth.

Besides his own achievements, Anand was responsible for the boom in the sport in India. He became a grandmaster (GM) in his teens. Today, while he continues to play the circuit, there are nearly 50 GMs in India. Anand held the FIDE World Chess Championship from 2000 to 2002 and became the undisputed World Champion in 2007. Earlier, he became only the fourth player in history to pass the 2,800 Elo mark on the FIDE rating list, after Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov. He occupied the number one position for 21 months, the sixth longest on record.

In a recent book of his, Garry Kasparov, considered by many to be the greatest chess player ever, wrote: “I always felt I had the advantage in calculation over anyone else except the Indian star Viswanathan Anand, who was justly famous for his speedy tactical play.”

The greatest champion must have the record to show for it, longevity and consistency, should have an impact on his sport and influence the spread of the game. Anand ticks all the boxes. He is, besides, a gentleman in the finest sense of the word. Great sportsmen do not have to be wonderful gentlemen, but if they are, it honours both themselves and their sport.

By the nature of his sport, Anand cannot be the kind of popular star Tendulkar was in his prime. India’s obsession with cricket has confounded many. Other sports become popular when India wins, but cricket alone retains its hold, win or loss. And when India wins, as it did at the World Cup in 1983 and 2011 and the T20 World Cup in 2007, the whole nation rises to applaud.

Anand played an exhibition match at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But chess is still some way from becoming a part of the competition at the Olympics. It is not among the five new sports at the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo. A desperate president of the international body even suggested that chess pieces be made of ice so that chess could be included in the Winter Olympics. India’s hopes of Anand winning a gold have been taking a beating every four years.

Still, other sports at which India has done well in recent years, such as boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and shooting, have brought much glory. Dipa Karmakar became the first Indian woman gymnast to compete in the Olympics, and finished a heart-breaking fourth as a nation was glued to its television sets. She had won the bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She also made ‘Produnova’ the word of the Olympic year as she attempted that very difficult manoeuvre in Rio de Janeiro, 2016. Geeta Phogat, who won a wrestling gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, was paid the ultimate compliment when the Bollywood star Aamir Khan made a popular movie on her and her sisters. When even Bollywood sees possibilities in the stories of sporting icons, sections of the population begin to take sport seriously. The earlier film on Mary Kom, five-time world amateur boxing champion, might not have been as successful, but Mary Kom herself could stake a claim to being India’s greatest sportswoman. Her bronze at the 2012 Olympics, which might have been hailed even a generation earlier, came as a disappointment, thanks to rising expectations. It was a testimony to greater sporting self-confidence.

While much of the focus has remained on cricket, which Ashis Nandy characterised as an Indian sport accidentally invented by the English, international success shone the light briefly on other sports. In the 70 years since Independence, the question is no longer about India competing well but about India winning, and that is the most obvious sign of progress. Thanks to the phenomenally successful Twenty20 IPL cricket league, other sports have realised the importance of the short, well-marketed competition shown on live television. The popularity of the indigenous kabaddi is testimony to this line of thinking. The message has come through clearly: there is money in sport, besides the glamour and the honour.

In international competitions, athletes still finish at the back of the pack, national teams still embarrass fans, but the probability of victory has increased in recent decades, certainly since the start of this century. Which might make this the third important phase of sports development in India. If the 1940s and 1950s were about starting out and the 1980s about consolidation, then we are probably at the takeoff stage, making it yet another exciting period for sports in the country. Even individual champions, who evolved thanks mainly to their parents’ interest and despite the lackadaisical attitude of officialdom, now emerge from supervised systems, both private and governmental. A system is in place, and that is making a difference. Would our heroes of the past have made that final leap if they had today’s backing? Perhaps. But the heroes of the future certainly will.

With inputs from Ramesh Chakrapani, who also compiled the sidebars.

Science

Floundering about after promising start

R. RAMACHANDRAN cover-story

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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY (S&T) as the cornerstone of development was an important element in the Nehruvian vision of post-independent India. Even while being actively involved as one of the political leaders spearheading the freedom movement, Jawaharlal Nehru was among a select few who were thinking about developing an S&T base in the country after Independence. His linkages with the Indian scientific community predated Independence. The National Planning Committee of 1938, which he chaired, had five scientists: Meghnad Saha (who was instrumental in forming it), A.K. Saha, Nazir Ahmed, J.C. Ghosh and V.S. Dubey. The Congress party had given Nehru a great deal of latitude to plan for scientific and technological institutions of post-independent India in close consultation with scientists.

In a bid to develop the infrastructure necessary for scientific research and science education at the highest level, Nehru opted for a certain trajectory with a chain of national laboratories as part of nation building. In the process, in the 1940s, he became close to visionary scientific institution builders of the country such as Homi J. Bhabha, the architect of the Indian nuclear programme; Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, the “father of national research laboratories”, under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); and later Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, who founded the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta (now Kolkata), and whose statistics-based growth model became a key ingredient of the national planning process and guided sectoral investments under the Five Year Plans. Nehru’s interest in science and his conviction that it alone could deliver the promises of a newly independent country were so strong that in January 1947 he was made the president of the Indian Science Congress, the annual meeting of the Indian Science Congress Association, which was formed in 1914.

Besides the setting up of necessary infrastructure for the pursuit of science, the political commitment to science in post-independent India was given expression through the Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR) of 1958. It is a watershed document in the articulation of the government’s perspective on the development of S&T in the country. Nehru had personally tabled the resolution and read it out “because”, he said, “we consider this Resolution as an important one, defining our attitude to science and technology generally”. An expression of this kind demonstrating the government’s attitude towards S&T, through a resolution of Parliament, was, in fact, unprecedented in the world. In fact, the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C), comprising scientists and government functionaries, was constituted in 1956 itself. The SAC-C exists to this day, though there have been periods when it existed only on paper.

Articulation of government perspective

The government perspective on the development of S&T was articulated in Article 1 of the SPR. It says: “The key to national prosperity, apart from the spirit of the people, lies, in the modern age, in the effective combination of three factors, technology, raw materials and capital, of which the first is perhaps the most important, since the creation and adoption of new scientific techniques can, in fact, make up for a deficiency in natural resources, and reduce the demands on capital. But technology can only grow out of the study of science and its applications.” Article 7 says: “The Government of India have decided to pursue and accomplish these aims by offering good conditions of service to scientists and according them an honoured position….” These two statements together provide the reasons why the first post-Independence government accorded importance to education and research in basic sciences and to scientists.

Although the CSIR had been established with the specific mandate to develop technologies relevant to Indian industry even before the SPR was articulated, the SPR’s focus on the supply side alone, namely the creation of science in research laboratories, has sometimes been criticised. In the words of V. Siddhartha, a former scientist involved with policy issues at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the CSIR and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO): “The political cover and the needed protection provided to the supply-side institutions perhaps isolated Indian science from its intended beneficiaries and customers.” It has also been criticised for not emphasising the importance of social sciences and the role of social scientists in the development of S&T for the benefit of the people.

Indeed, in the otherwise excellently worded SPR, the importance given to technology development would seem only secondary. While the truth of the statement in the SPR that “...technology can only grow out of the study of science and its applications” cannot be denied, its focus was to foster and nurture science in the country. But it would be wrong to say that technology development was ignored. In fact, following the passage of the SPR, the government took up its implementation, including issues of technology development, through three national-level conferences of scientists, educationists and industrialists, in 1958, 1963 and 1970. In 1967, a round table of young scientists was organised to get their perspectives on important issues arising from the SPR. Nehru passed away in 1964, but Indira Gandhi, who became the Prime Minister in 1966, showed the same unwavering commitment to developing a strong S&T base in the country, self-reliance in particular, and support to the scientific community as her father and continued the task of evolving an action plan to implement the SPR.

Although the Indian programmes of technology development in atomic energy, defence and space—committed to achieving autonomous capacity and capability through indigenous development of necessary technologies right from the word go—began in 1954, 1958 and 1961 respectively (see articles by T.S. Subramanian in this issue), the 1962 war with China and the 1965 war with Pakistan demonstrated that India’s technological and industrial base was not capable of meeting the needs of the military, requiring as it did a diverse industrial base for indigenous development of critical technologies necessary for the country’s security. Also, in 1966-67, India was facing a food crisis and had to import food but not without strings attached. Some commentators and politicians were beginning to ask: “What has Indian science done for society?” Given this environment, Indira Gandhi specifically convened the 1970 conference on the implementation of the SPR.

The conference recommended, on the initiative of C. Subramaniam (former Agriculture Minister in the Indira Gandhi government who became the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in 1971), the setting up of a National Committee on S&T (NCST), and this was done in 1971. This was another milestone in the country’s policy-level initiatives for all-round S&T development in a systematic and planned manner. In 1971-74, the NCST discussed all the relevant issues concerning demand and supply elements—forward, backward and horizontal or inter-sectoral linkages, fiscal issues and funding patterns, industrial participation and R&D investment, identification of priority areas, etc.—to evolve a national S&T development strategy. As a result of these discussions, the NCST came out with a policy document called “An Approach to Science and Technology Plan”, which was intended to serve as the basis for technology development in the country. The “orange book”, as this classic document was popularly referred to, can still be useful (with some appropriate modifications in the changed context of today). Of course, today, 70 years after Independence, India has a government that has not only done away with the planning process in all sectors, not just S&T, but has never even articulated, as a political rhetoric at least, its commitment to S&T.

The 1973 approach document of the NCST contained the objectives of meeting minimum needs, achieving technological self-reliance, maximising the utilisation of available scientific and technological resources, developing human resource, and generating employment opportunities of matching supply and demand in the S&T sector. The details were spelt out in 24 sectoral volumes, which went into even micro level issues such as the possible participating institutions/industries in a given technology development project. This formed the basis for the formulation of the nation’s first S&T Plan by the NCST—a landmark development in S&T development in the country—in which about 2,000 scientists, technologists, social scientists and technical personnel belonging to various Ministries participated. The S&T Plan was linked to the Fifth Five Year Plan.

No mechanism to monitor implementation

However, the NCST approach had two major deficiencies. First, it did not have any mechanism to monitor the progress made in the implementation of the various decisions taken. In fact, most of the recommendations in the document, in terms of policy instruments, could not be implemented for various reasons, in particular because of the change of government. For example, the NCST recommended that investment in R&D should be 1 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). But to date, R&D investment has been below 1 per cent notwithstanding the oft-repeated statements of those in power about achieving 2 per cent, particularly at the annual forum of the Indian Science Congress and also in the S&T policy documents of 2003 and 2013 (Figure 1: data for R&D investment available only until 2011-12). At present, it remains at 0.88 per cent; it was at 0.9 per cent in 2008-09, while even among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, R&D spending by Brazil, Russia and China exceeds 1 per cent of the GDP. Developed economies spend well over 2 per cent; Israel spends more than 4 per cent, while Japan and South Korea spend above 3 per cent (Table 1).

Figure 1 also shows that this spending has not always been monotonously increasing. In fact, in the 1990s, there was a monotonous decrease from 0.74 per cent in 1990-91 to 0.67 per cent in 1995-96 (the economic liberalisation phase). The other phase when it dropped was between 2000-01 and 2003-04, when it dropped from 0.80 to 0.76 per cent. In the initial couple of years of the latter period, which was under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it increased to 0.80 and later dipped. However, we do not have the R&D investment figures for the second phase of NDA rule. During the intervening phase from 2004 to 2012, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance under Manmohan Singh was in power, R&D investment plateaued between 0.86 and 0.89 per cent.

The second shortcoming was that the NCST lacked any policy instrument to leverage the demand side. While new institutional and administrative structures were created on the supply side, there were no measures put in place to strengthen linkages between this and the demand side. There was no involvement, for example, of supply-side R&D institutions in the choice, terms and conditions of import and their further downstream development—adaptation, absorption and indigenisation of imported technologies—which resulted in a widening gap between R&D institutions and industry. Vested interests also were at work killing any initiatives to forge linkages between national laboratories and industry. After many efforts that were made from time to time to articulate a clear-cut policy on technology development, this happened only in 1983 with the release of a Technology Policy Statement (TPS) at the session of the Indian Science Congress in January of that year.

The thrust of TPS-1983 was “attainment of technological self-reliance”. It says: “Our directives must clearly define systems for the choice of technology, taking into account economic, social and cultural factors along with technical considerations; indigenous development and support to technology, and utilisation of such technology; acquisition of technology through import and its subsequent absorption, adaptation and upgradation; ensuring competitiveness at international levels in all necessary areas; and establishing links between various elements concerned with generation of technology, its transformation into economically usable form, the sector responsible for production (which is the user of such technology), financial institutions concerned with the resources needed for these activities, and the promotional and regulating arms of the government.”

On indigenous technology development, it specifically states: “Fullest support will be given to the development of indigenous technology to achieve technological self-reliance and reduce dependence on foreign inputs, particularly in critical and vulnerable areas and in high value added items in which the domestic base is strong. Strengthening and diversifying the domestic technology base are necessary to reduce imports and expand exports for which international competitiveness must be ensured.... Incentives will, therefore, be provided to users of indigenously developed technology and for products and processes resulting from such use.... A policy directed towards technological self-reliance does not imply technological self-sufficiency. The criterion must be national interest. Government policy will be directed towards reducing technological dependence in key areas.” But all these pious statements fell by the wayside long ago, particularly in the wake of liberalisation and globalisation, the seeds of which were already being sown during the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986. Questioning the need for the new S&T policy of 2003 when it was on the cards, the late space scientist Yash Pal, who was a champion of indigenous technology development and a great science populariser, told Frontline in 2002: “They [SPR and TPS] were beautifully worded documents. What we lacked was a strategy to implement them.”

Lack of leverage on demand side

The TPS had stipulated that the government would evolve instruments for the implementation of this policy and spelt out in detail guidelines for Ministries and agencies of the government and for industries and entrepreneurs. With a view to fulfilling this mandate, a high-level 12-member committee called the Technology Policy Implementation Committee (TPIC) was set up in 1983. It was headed by the Chairman, SAC-C, and the Member (Science), Planning Commission. However, the TPIC’s recommendations could never be implemented again because of lack of any leverage on the demand side. Also, the core elements of economic policies, fiscal, trade, industrial, etc., were at variance with the objectives of the TPS. The dismantling of regulatory barriers on imports, which had begun in the second half of the 1980s, made easy the entry of not only foreign products but also foreign companies. As a consequence, TPS-1983’s thrust of indigenous technology development and achieving self-reliance, particularly in the socio-economic sectors, could never be fulfilled. For example, the TPIC had recommended the creation of a technology development fund by levying an R&D cess of 1 per cent on the production turnover of industries. But this was not implemented. A variant of this was articulated only in 1986 in the R&D Cess Act in the form of a 5 per cent R&D cess on technology payments for import of technologies (following objections from industry to the earlier recommendation of turnover as the base). The cess began to be collected only in 1988-89. The feasibility of such a fund to foster indigenous R&D now stands demonstrated through the Technology Development Board, which was created in 1995 (well after the liberalisation process was on) to make use of the collected cess fund. But this amounts to a fraction of the total outgo towards the import of technologies in the post-liberalisation era.

The value of technology imports in 2015-16 was Rs.18,296 crore compared with Rs.3,000 crore for high-technology exports, which is only 8-9 per cent of India’s total export of manufactured goods. This means that the bulk of manufactured goods in India is still of low technology. India ranks 47th in the export of high-tech goods compared with China (25.37 per cent), South Korea (26.88 per cent), Vietnam (26.93 per cent), France (26.09 per cent), the United States (18.23 per cent), Germany (16 per cent) and Japan (16.69 per cent). Since the turn of the new millennium, imports have been increasing roughly at a rate of about 30 per cent.

But, given the prevalent technology denial regimes industrialised countries of the West have put in place in the strategic sectors of atomic energy, space and defence, this thrust of self-reliance had to be maintained at a high level, defence to a lesser extent than space and atomic energy. Perhaps, in the civilian sectors, self-reliance has completely been given up in recent years, and accordingly, perhaps, the key elements that need to be emphasised could be different. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the SPR, TPS-1983, and in the TPIC recommendations that cannot be implemented even in the present context.

One of the main reasons for India’s R&D investment not increasing to the desired levels of at least 1 per cent of the GDP (as recommended by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or UNESCO) is because of insufficient investment on the part of the industrial sector, both public and private. In industrialised countries, the larger share of R&D investment (nearly three-fourths) comes from industry. In India, it has been the opposite, with three-fourths coming from the government sector and less than a fourth from industry. The situation has improved marginally in recent years, and R&D expenditure by industry has gradually been increasing in absolute terms (with a growth rate of about 33 per cent), but its share to the total national R&D expenditure remains low. This is despite several fiscal incentives extended to the industry over the years, particularly after liberalisation.

Innovation not triggered

But the more appropriate measure for R&D spending in industry is firm-level R&D intensity, which is defined as the ratio of annual R&D expenditure to annual sales turnover. If easy access to global products and technology post-liberalisation was supposed to trigger innovation in domestic industry, this has not happened as can be seen from the figures for R&D intensity in Indian industry between 1995-96 and 2010-11 (Table 2). As Table 2 shows, for domestic industry as a whole, the average figure is extremely low (0.35) by global standards, and there has been only a marginal increase over the period considered. So, though technology imports did increase significantly following liberalisation, a corresponding increase in R&D intensity and the consequent increased manufacture and export of high-technology goods did not happen. Given all this, particularly the unwillingness of industry to pick up pilot-scale developments from supply-side R&D institutions, the gap between supply and the demand from the industrial sector has only widened greatly. If technology embargoes could spur sectors of the economy into achieving self-reliance, and that too in high-end technology areas of the strategic sectors, it is unfathomable why this should not be achievable in other sectors.

Barring cuts in the last couple of years—including the current government’s recent call to CSIR laboratories to earn at least 50 per cent of their budget from external sources, which, given the reasons outlined above, is an uphill task—funding for scientific research, or supply side in R&D institutions, has been reasonably adequate since the erstwhile NDA government’s enunciation of the Science Technology Policy of 2003 (STP-2003). The ostensible reason for formulating STP-2003 was to integrate policy instruments for S&T into a single document as against the two separate documents of SPR (1958) and TPS-1983. An important element in STP-2003 was debureaucratisation of the science administration in the country. In 2010, ostensibly new mechanisms of disbursing funds for research projects were evolved through the creation of the Science and Engineering Research Board by an Act of Parliament.

In the years after 2003, STP-2003 did result in increased funding for basic research as a result of increased budgetary allocations and extramural project funding. According to T. Ramasami, former Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), this has had the positive impact of increased research output from Indian institutions, particularly universities. There has been a spurt in publications in journals of high impact and citations as well, and this has led to India’s much improved ranking in its research share to the global output in recent years. However, India remains far behind China. This is evidence of the need for even higher investment in R&D by the government to increase the impact of Indian contributions in research and its global standing. With the general level of research performance across institutions showing an upward trend, peaks should show up in the years to come. At present, however, there are only small islands (in fact, individual institutions) of excellence, with the bulk of institutions having still a long way to go.

According to an internal report of the DST in 2015, while research in traditional areas such as chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics seems to have maintained a steady pace, output in areas such as engineering, medicine, computer science, pharmacology, energy fuels and telecommunications has registered impressive growth trends. “These are research areas with potential interest to industrial applications,” notes the report. However, it calls for attention to areas such as earth sciences and agriculture where outputs seem to be stifled.

According to the document, during 1966-75, six major research areas with scientific outputs as revealed by the Web of Science database are health sciences, chemistry, physics, S&T, engineering and agriculture. Data show that by 2006, several new research areas, including clinical research, computer sciences, pharmacology, biotechnology and environmental sciences, had emerged in the country and had gathered momentum in the following years (Table 3). These new areas would have direct relevance to national economy. “Ideally, research in those new areas would call for a seamless connectivity between public-funded research and applications of the R&D outputs in the industrial sector,” notes the document, but, again, this brings one back to the need for appropriate policy instruments in the demand side, which still seem to be absent. Therefore, in terms of ranking in innovation capacity, India ranks poorly compared with even some small nations.

On the higher science education front, the country seems to be heading towards a crisis of sorts. This situation can be traced back to the Nehruvian model of S&T development which accorded highly misplaced pre-eminence to national research laboratories and neglected universities, the fountainheads of knowledge producing a skilled workforce in the sciences, and this has continued all through the decades after Independence. In retrospect, this approach has proved highly detrimental to the entire Indian scientific enterprise today. Unfortunately, there was no mid-course correction attempted to bring back the pre-eminence of universities that would provide the necessary skill base for higher levels of research and technology development.

Social implications

As regards the social implications of India’s science policy statements, one of the important components of SPR-1958 was the inculcation of “scientific temper”, a notion Nehru did not define but whose import he articulated in his famous Discovery of India (1946). He says: “It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems....The scientific approach and temper are, or should be, a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellow men.... Science deals with the domain of positive knowledge but the temper which it should produce goes beyond that domain.”

The essence of scientific temper is to be found in Article 3 of the SPR, which says: “It is only through the scientific approach and method and the use of scientific knowledge that reasonable material and cultural amenities and services can be provided for every member of the community, and it is out of a recognition of this possibility that the idea of a welfare state has grown.” A remarkable statement indeed, encompassing within its import a socialist and egalitarian outlook for Indian society. Article 7 further notes: “The Government of India have decided to pursue and accomplish these aims… by associating scientists with the formulation of policies….” Thus, the SPR is actually also a resolution that the nation will follow a scientific approach in the framing and implementation of all national policies. That is, scientific inputs should inform all public policymaking in the country. Unfortunately, government after government has never utilised the inputs of the scientific community in public policymaking.

And as regards the inculcation of scientific temper in Indian society, a group of intellectuals and scientists met in Coonoor in 1981 and issued a joint statement voicing serious concerns about the increasing anti-scientism, religious bigotry and belief in superstitions. Today, with the tacit approval of the government in power, India is faced with a daily display of the worst demonstrations of superstitious and irrational beliefs, religious fanaticism, intolerance and hate towards fellow citizens. The notion of scientific temper stands deeply eroded and the country is in a dangerous and vulnerable situation. During the first NDA regime, one saw the introduction of astrology courses in Indian universities. Under the present, second phase of the NDA regime, one is witnessing yet another form of irrational initiative: a task force among the scientific departments is actually being constituted to conduct “scientific investigations on concoctions of cow excreta” even as major initiatives such as the India-based Neutrino Observatory project are getting stalled by activists on irrational grounds and do not find favourable response or support from the government. It is high time that the scientific community stood united against these growing irrational tendencies evident across the country. The “March for Science” by a large group of scientists on August 9 was indeed timely. Hopefully, it has the much-needed impact to make the government accord necessary importance to genuine S&T development and not to fringe science.

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Oct 9,2020