Tuesday, March 10, 2020


Q: What is this kid so angry about? At whom is he grimacing, hurling stones and abuses?
A: His favourite teacher, Don Gregorio.

In between this question and its unlikely answer lies a story that has been poignantly told in Spanish movie "La lengua de las mariposas". Directed by José Luis Cuerda this 1999 movie is about a shy, asthmatic child named Moncho, growing up in a Gallician town in the 1930s.

This is a little town like any other, closely knit and insular and yet full of people with divergent political opinions. Moncho's own family is represents these different views - his mother is deeply religious and conservative while the father, a tailor, has leftist leanings. In the normal course this would have been just fine but these are fraught times, Spain is in turmoil and the country is about to plunge into a bloody civil war.

Moncho hates going to school. He hates being taunted for his clunky breathing apparatus, he is unable to make friends and prefers being alone. On his first day at school he gets upset about being called a 'sparrow' by his teacher, Don Gergorio, and runs away to the woods.

Gradually he warms up to the elderly Don's gentle humorous ways, his love for nature and learning. Even as young Moncho is learning about far away places in Australia, and of butterflies extract nectar from flowers with their spring-like proboscis - the espiritrompa.  Political disagreements are turning into something nastier.

The Republicans are on the ascendant and they have decided to get rid of the Nationalists. People are being hauled out of homes in the middle of the night, and Moncho's mother have come to realise that the only way to survive and hold the family together is to put up a display of support for the Republicans, even if it means that they have to betray friends.

As things come to a head the whole town assembles to condemn the Nationalists as they are being arrested and taken away. Don Gregorio is among them. The mother joins the chorus of abusers and urges her husband and children too to join the mob. The last scene has Moncho running after the truck carrying the prisoners, hurling stones and expletives - "Traitors! Communists! Espiritrompa!"

This film makes you wonder how many times such dilemmas would have played out in history - in Catholic Europe, amongst Zoroastrians in Persia conquered by the Arabs, in Nazi Germany, behind the Iron Curtain, and in pre-partition India...


* Preview - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYNyrPVTbIk
* Wiki - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly%27s_Tongue

Monday, March 09, 2020

Plundering the Plunderers

How did Jammu & Kashmir end up with a Hindu ruler?

It is often said that the root of the so called Kashmir Problem lies in the fact that a muslim-majority state was ruled by a Hindu king - the Dogras - who decided to accede the state to India, instead of going to Pakistan.

If we set aside the ancient history of J&K, long list of ancient kings listed in the Rajatarangini, the Fourth Buddhist Council held in the valley, the life and times described in Kshemendra's amazing Samaya-Matrika,  and fast forward to the recent past when most of the population had already been forced to convert to Islam, we find a phase that has not received the attention it deserves. You could call this the Sikh phase of Indian history.

If there were a roll call of kingdoms in North India, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Punjab was perhaps be the last king standing when the British had, by hook or crook, by using the latest European weaponry available, colonised much of India. A recent book by Sarbpreet Singh titled, "The Caravan Merchant of Philadelphia" provides a wonderful glimpse in to the life and times of this amazing, one-eyed king.

Ranjit Singh owes his rise to a series of foreign invasions that followed the collapse of the Mughal empire. It started in 1731 when Nadir Shah of Persia began enlisting Abdali tribesmen from Herat into his army to take advantage of the chaos that was building up in Delhi. The Shah plundered so much wealth from India that he did not have to tax his countrymen for a few years that followed.

Following Nadir Shah's assassination in 1747, one of his Abdali protege's took over. Ahmad Shah Abdali was based out of Kandahar and during his rule (1747 to 1773), he crossed the Indus River more than eight times to invade and plunder North India. In 1756, during his fourth invasion he  took control of Delhi, deposed Alamgir-II, killed about 10,000 residents of Delhi in one single day, and headed back home with booty laden on 28,000 elephants, camels, bullocks and mules, followed by 8000 soldiers on horse and foot who carried their own spoils.

A few years later, in 1761, during his  fifth invasion, a decisive victory was won over the Marathas at the Third Battle of Panipat (1761).  By now he had also renamed himself  'Dur-i-Durran' or 'Pearl of the Pearls', and from then on the Abdalis became better known as the Durranis.

Each time time the Durrani's made his journey back to Khandahar with his caravans laden with loot, the Sikhs of Punjab made habit of plundering the plunderers. Hit-and-run tactics evolved into decisive battles after Rajit Singh took over leadership of the Sikh confederacy. In a few decades Ranjit Singh's empire stretched all the way from Kabul and Hazara to Kashmir. It is during this period that the Dogras became powerful in Ranjit Singh's court.

At the turn of the century, after the death of Ranjit Singh, the British started pushing further eastwards. Following the Battle of Sabraon (1846), the final battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War, the Treaty of Lahore ensured the end of the Sikh kingdom:

The Jalandhar Doab region was annexed and the Sikh Army was reduced to 20,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry...and a war indemnity of 15 million rupees was imposed and because of its inability to pay, the regions between the Beas and the Indus, including Kashmir and Hazara were seized. Most of the seized territory was sold to Raja Gulab Singh Dogra for 7.5 million rupees and he was declared the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
So, far from being the 'original' rulers of Jammu and Kashmir, the Dogras essentially purchased a kingdom for themselves, and remained at the mercy of the British until India was partitioned in 1947.


* Singh, Sarbpreet (2019): THE CAMEL MERCHANT OF PHILADELPHIA - Stories from the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Tranquebar / Westland Publications PL
* Review - https://caravanmagazine.in/bookshelf/camel-merchant-philadelphia

Friday, March 06, 2020

What Feeds Hindutva?

This may not be a great question to raise when Delhi is still recovering from its worst communal riots in 30 years, but it does not deserve to be ignored, or boxed into simple binaries.

Hindutva or "Hinduness" is described as the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India. If you try to look deeper, the narrative, particularly in the English speaking world, has been dominated by Marxist historians and commentators. Prominent among them is Prabhat Patnaik who calls Hindutva a movement "almost fascist in the classical sense", adhering to a disputed concept of homogenised majority and cultural hegemony. This is also the view promoted by the editors of Wikipedia.

Needless to say, this dim view is not widely shared. If it were so, the Hindutva political grouping (BJP, Shiv Sena, etc.) would have neither come to power, or increased its vote-share in the last general elections. The very notion of a homogenised majority or cultural hegemony makes no sense in a country as diverse as India.

Over the past few days, I have come across two possible leads to this conundrum. The first is an oped by Faizan Mustafa, the Vice Chancellor of NALSAR, and the second a talk by Prof. Arvind Sharma at the Cervantes Institute titled, "Religious Tolerance".

Last week Mustafa wrote an oped titled, "Dishonouring a Pledge". The pledge here refers to the constitutional rights provided by the Indian Constitution, to religious minorities in India, which enable them to propagate and practice their religion freely, and assures protection to their places of worship.

The article refers to the following parts of the Indian Constitution, and related laws -

  • Articles 25 to 30 - Right to Freedom of Religion
  • Article 27 - Freedom from payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion
  • Article 290A - Annual payment to certain Devaswom Funds
  • The Places of Worship Act 1991 

I have always thought of Mustafa as a very erudite, balanced scholar and practitioner of law. So it was surprising to note a tone of grievance against Indian institutions. Referring to the constitutional provisions, he says that despite its pledge to be secular, the state funds religious institutions, and cites Art. 290A under which funds go to the Dewaswom Boards.

This is a clear case of cherry picking, an argument that deliberately overlooks the fact that the Indian state takes much, much more from Hindu temples compared to what it returns for their upkeep. Over 90,000 Hindu temples are controlled by the state governments while the state does not interfere at all in the functioning of churches, mosques and gurdwaras. Ditto for Hindu educational institutions.

Just the four government-controlled Dewaswom Boards in Kerala earn over INR 1000 Crores annually (USD 135 million), while under Article 290A, the state is obliged to spend only INR 37,50,000 (USD 50,850) every year! Where does the government spend the rest of the money collected from Hindu temples?

Prof. Arvind Sharma takes this point head on. He is perhaps uniquely placed to present a counter-argument - a former civil servant who went to the Harvard School of Theology, he now teaches abroad. According to him, Hinduism is only beginning to recover from the trauma of ideologies, massacres and the wanton destruction of temples that overwhelmed the country over the past 1000 years, at the hands of Islamic armies, British Colonialism and Post-Independence "Secularism".

Unless this trauma is acknowledged, as in the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, the majority majority community will will only continue to increase its support to politicians who support Hindutva, which is seen as a bulwark against Indian Secularism in its present form, which is perceived to discriminate against Hindus.

Ironically Hinduism as a religion - if it can be called one - is not amenable to fundamentalism because it does not have a single set of fundamentals, based on one book or text. So far from being a fascist movement Hindutva is perhaps more of a collective pushback against sustained bullying, a reclaiming of its assimilative traditions.



* The Place of Worship Act, 1991 - http://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/The%20Places%20of%20Worship%20%28Special%20Provisions%29%20Act%2C%201991.pdf

* Managing Gods Wealth (ToI 2012) -- https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kochi/Managing-Gods-wealth-Keralas-four-Devaswoms-together-earn-Rs-1000-crore-annually/articleshow/16245083.cms

* Quora - Where does Dewaswom funds go? - https://www.quora.com/Is-it-true-that-the-Kerala-Devaswom-board-is-used-by-the-government-for-other-purposes
* Kerala's unique Treasury Savings Bank system - https://www.cppr.in/article/the-unique-case-of-keralas-treasury-system/