Indian “Secularism”

The BJP government has been in power at the federal level in India since 2014, and in various Indian states, e.g. Gujarat, for much longer. While BJP, like most national-level parties in India, is a broad church representing the entire spectrum of views from just Right-of-Centre to fringe Far Right bigotry, it seems (to me at least) that the Far Right has definitely been gaining ground. This is visible through a lot of what’s said explicitly or dog-whistled by various persons of consequence in the party. Besides, there’s an obvious attempt being made to influence ostensibly non-political institutions like the academia, cultural bodies, research funding agencies etc which directly/indirectly depend on the Government for funding and/or management.

The use of institutions for political gain is unfortunately not a new thing in India. This is an art perfected by the previous Congress governments, under whom, entire central university departments, the University Grants Commission (of which my Dad has many horror stories to recount!), historical and cultural research centres, scientific and industrial research centres, even the national archives were veritable arms of state propaganda and political power-play in true socialist fashion! Anyone can tell you that a country where even mathematics is politicized is fairly screwed up – yet that has been the condition of India for a very long time. And the rot really started setting in under the patron saint of Indian autocracy, Indira Gandhi, who subverted many institutions into instruments for projecting the ruling Government’s influence and narrative. Her rule was characterized by extreme nepotism – the main beneficiaries being the old and influential Kashmiri Pandit khandaan (families) of the erstwhile Moghal belt related to Nehrus, the Dhars, Haksars, Kaws, Razdans, Kauls and Katjus, who played a major part in running the country through the 70s and most of 80s.

The nepotism, corruption and utterly hollowed-out state of India’s public institutions headed by the ruling party’s yes-men contributed in many ways to the strong disestablishmentarian politics of the 70s and 80s in India – Janata Party & Jai Prakash Narayan‘s movement – in turn spawning off the modern day Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Prasad, Samajvadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its RSS affiliations. These parties rode on the popular mandates against the Congress and when in power at either state/central levels, used exactly the same sorts of networks Congress (I) had created precedents for to project their own influence and narrative. The current BJP-led dispensation is not doing anything new or radical on the Indian political scene that the “secular” Congressis did not do. They are replacing Congressi stooges by Hindutva ideologues, using the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to go after the sort the opposition had patronized and have subverted institutions in the same Indira-esque fashion but under the saffron banner this time. In fact, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy is quite brazen about this deliberate “correction” of institutions that he is executing for the BJP (including settling personal scores against the likes of Amartya Sen). This interview is a must see:

Of the many institutions/ideals of Western Enlightenment that animate the Indian Constitution, none has been so comprehensively dragged through mud by Indians as Secularism. From its lofty origins in the French Revolution, Indians have reduced it to mere euphemism for Muslim vote-bank politics and Mullah appeasement, one of the many cynical tools used by Indian politicians to keep hold of power. The infamous Shah Bano case under Rajiv Gandhi’s government is a watershed in the state’s use of “secularism” to further oppress the oppressed to get in the good books of a few regressive Mullahs (and hope they ask their congregations for votes).

The patronizing attitude of the Indian state towards Muslim citizens is a symptom of a wider malaise inherited from the British colonial state, of treating communities as the units of a nation state (and managing their conflicting interests as statecraft), rather than a model of governance based on rights and freedoms of citizens. So, for example, the manner in which the modern Indian state (or even Indian media) deals with the views of a woman who happens to be Muslim is to tag her as “Muslim” and then proceed to respond to her views by using received wisdom on how to deal with Muslims. It is akin to outsourcing all thinking to a colonial era manual on Muslim sensibilities and reducing every individual, suitably tagged, to that outmoded (and patronizing by design) community calculus. The fact that the citizen is a thinking individual with Constitutional freedoms and ideas of her own – which may be completely outside of the narrow confines of how the State thinks Muslims would/should react – is almost immaterial. That is the reason why a state which professes to be a modern Constitutional democracy, tolerated something as regressive as triple talaq for its citizens for as long as it did.

The manual has had a few updates courtesy Nehru since the original British blueprint, due to the creation of Pakistan and the predicament (N Indian) Muslims who stayed behind found themselves in. So, in the immediate aftermath of the Partition riots (more like genocide, actually!) of Muslims in North India, the Nehruvian Consensus took shape as an unwritten government policy to treat Muslims with kid gloves. This meant turning the gaze away from outdated social practices among Muslims, even while Hindu society was undergoing tremendous top-down social engineering (cf. Reservations). This was a well-intentioned, if doomed, policy by early Congress governments to nurture a Muslim middle-class to regain their importance in the politics of North India. However, its effect was exactly the reverse: it increased the importance of Muslim clergy (Deobandis, Jamiat Ulema-e Hind etc) who frequently assumed the role of interlocutors between Delhi and the vast Muslim population of the hinterland, and emboldened the Hindu Right who identified Secularism as partiality to and appeasement of (similarly demented) Islamic religious practices while their own Hindu version (caste-system, widow remarriage, cow fetishization etc) was being proscribed. The frustration of the Hindu Right with such policies led to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by an RSS ideologue, starting an ideological war that continues unabated to this day.

The virus of cultural relativism at work here is not just limited to Muslims alone and neither is the dismal state of Muslim society its worst manifestation. Indian government has condoned the practice of ritual murder of children by tribal populations in the name of preserving communities (as opposed to upholding human rights), with the head of an Indian Government organisation even referring to possible arrest of baby murderers as “mishandling”:

The pace of change worries specialists like S. A. Awaradi, the director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute, who describes the tribe as “our human heritage.”

“This has been a self-sufficient civilization for thousands of years,” Mr. Awaradi said. “By mishandling, you are creating a blunder of civilization.”

BJP’s founding animus for all things Islamic means that, at least on face-value, they are against the cynical use of “secularism” to shield Mullahs and other regressive religious bodies from 21st century moral scrutiny. However, that goodwill for the Muslim downtrodden is ill-motivated, as the Hindutva movement is essentially revanchist in nature. It is a sad denouement of Indian liberalism that they have ceded moral high ground to the Hindutvavadis, when it comes to rights of the weak or minorities within Muslims. Hindutva movement itself was borne out of a deep-seated insecurity about the medieval Muslim rule in India, and the desire to reestablish continuity of modern-day India to some (frequently imaginary) pre-Islamic India of milk and honey. As the famous Bollywood movie song (sung by the Punjabi King Puru, just before he had his arse handed to him by Alexander) goes:

jahaN Dal-Dal per soney ki chiRiyaN karteeN haiN basera, voh bharat desh hai mera, voh Bharat desh hai mera.

Trans: Where on every (tree) branch sparrows-of-gold nest, 
that Bharata nation is mine, that Bharata nation is mine.

To the Hindutva movement Indo-Islamic art, architecture, music, dress, names, even Arabic/Farsi/Turkic loanwords in Indian languages and, above all, the existence of hundreds of millions of Muslims in India are inconvenient reminders of India’s indelible Islamic past. These facts are hard to swallow for a dyed-in-the-wool Hindutva fanatic and a daily reminder of the centuries of perceived humiliation of Hindus and their culture at the hands of successful Muslim invaders. Therefore Hindu Right has a tendency to distort/efface history taught in schools, discriminate in research funding for the study of specific periods of Indian history or display outright unwillingness for upkeep, maintenance or promotion of historical sites that do not gel with the government’s idea of what ought to be preserved. While Central Board school history syllabus in India has been largely spared of the Hindutva bile at least for now, the project has been on-going in state-level school boards (school education in India is not a Central Government responsibility) for a while. E.g. Maharashtra school board textbooks focus on history of relatively insignificant early Maratha kings to the point that Moghals seem little more than an occasional irritant in local politics, as opposed to overlords of the whole of Deccan. The latest controversy on UP Government’s decision to not include Taj Mahal in its tourism sites booklet is another case in point, a high-water mark in the rising tide of Hindutva politics. In terms of ideological bent, therefore, Hindutva ideologues, both old (like V D Savarkar) and new, totally concur with the views of Muslim nationalists like Jinnah, articulated beautifully in his historic Lahore address to the Muslim League:

The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature[s]. They neither intermarry nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects [=perspectives?] on life, and of life, are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, their heroes are different, and different episode[s]. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other, and likewise their victories and defeats overlap. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent, and final. destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state.

While the pro-BJP swing seen in India since 2014 actually had as much to do with anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress as Modi’s personal charisma and good PR of selling vikas (economic development) to the masses, it has inevitably led to strengthening of the cultural Hindutva core of the BJP. So, besides economic experimentation (not bad or ill-motivated in itself; though consequences are arguable) we also have the rise of cow-protection politics – an old pet project of the Hindu Right. The best example of this is Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the BJP government has instituted a gauseva (lit. cow service) board, funded by taxpayers’ money of course. Besides the usual cow welfare monitoring, the board apparently issues advisory notices. The latest one is for women to switch to natural cow products for beauty treatment and claims gaumutra (lit. cow urine) can cure 108 (why not 110?) diseases including AIDS and cancer. Consider this gem, which is meant as advice to Gujarati women to turn them into “cleopatras”:

For healthy, glowing skin like Egyptian queen Cleopatra, use panchgavya, which is a concoction of cow urine, dung, milk, curd and clarified butter.

Gaumutra will remove dark circles, black spots and pimples. Use of panchgavya will give you long-lasting beauty.

We want women to understand the benefits of using cow milk, urine and dung to beautify themselves instead of damaging their skin by using chemicals.

While many may laugh off the above example as just a local idiosyncrasy, there is unfortunately a pattern to this growing government involvement with pseudo-Science that is deeply worrying and dangerous. Not to mention, cow fetishization has murderous social repercussions too: cow-protection vigilante violence, mob lynching, attacks on businesses etc.

But are these fears legitimate? As the argument goes, any Hindutva dream of converting India to a Hindu Shuddhsthan (land of the pure) modelled on Islamic Pakistan, only much larger and way more powerful, has to contend with the rough and tumble of Indian reality: the quotidian shoddiness of Indian bureaucracy, the general lack of civic duty within every mohalla (let alone pan-Indian paroxysms of patriotism which Hindu Right would like to engender), the deep-seated social cleavages of Hindu society, plurality of beliefs in the broad church of Hinduism, linguistic and racial divides (if caste weren’t enough already), the rise of an affluent and fairly Westernized middle-class that looks down on attitudes described above, and (most importantly of all) the Indian democratic setup.

Most of these frictions in India are rather obvious for a country of the size and population of India, yet they should not be taken for granted as a natural bulwark against authoritarian rule. Aggressive-nationalism is a very effective social meme (especially in combination with a pervasive victimhood complex) and its effect on human societies (esp. one as religious as India) must not be underestimated. In India, Hindutva ideology has also successfully managed to co-opt symbols of the Indian Republic, notably the flag and the Constitution as quasi-Hindu icons – the same symbols their ideological Jan Sangh forebears hated:

In an editorial published in the RSS mouthpiece, the Organiser, on the eve of India’s independence, the Sangh opposed the tricolour flag, declaring that “it never be respected and owned by the Hindus”. “The word three”, the editorial went on explain, “is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”


“But in our constitution, there is no mention of that unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat… To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

To be fair, India is not alone in this quasi-religious use of national symbols. American Right (e.g. Tea Party activists) also tend to apotheosize the Founding Fathers of the USA and the American Flag arouses similar devotional feeling. This is not entirely a negative thing (if kept in check) as patriotic idiocy is useful for the functioning of democracy and often such useful idiots make the best attack dogs protecting the same Constitutional values that obviate them. What keeps such people in check, however, is a solid institutional framework (judiciary, policing etc) that can enforce the rule of law and a social contract of abjuring the use of violence for political gain. These institutional and social checks are present in the United States but largely missing in India.

Therefore, I find the oft-touted Indian diversity argument to be quite parochial and really no match for genuine Hindu authoritarianism. Think about what the Pakistan movement could achieve by mobilizing opinion around religion with far fewer people and lesser resources. A politically unhindered Hindu Right is capable of just as much of a transformation within India – in spite of all the aforementioned social frictions. A rudderless opposition does not help matters either.

My own opinion on what can really save India from a terrible Hindu utopia is an unassuming, almost technical, feature of Indian electoral democracy: the first-past-the-post system that makes the fate of political leaders extremely sensitive to swings of public opinion. Note that the current BJP government only had 31% of the Indian voteshare, with Congress at 19.3%. This means just 5.9% swing of BJP voters to Congress would decimate BJP seats throughout the country’s constituencies. Obviously this mere technicality is contingent on a democratic culture, where the mandate is accepted by political parties and peaceful power transitions can occur. Obviously no body can predict the future, but if India’s post-Independence record is any indication whatsoever, I can safely wager Indians (for all their terrible shortcomings) manage that very well indeed!

Where no one has gone before

I have been watching the new Star Trek series, Discovery, on Netflix. It is canon, by which trekkies (a tribe I claim membership of) refer to the Star Trek stories that are consistent with the timeline and events of the Original Series by Gene Roddenberry. The consistency is not only narrative but also referential, i.e. characters and stories explicitly refer to, and sometimes presume knowledge of, previously shown stories.

For the uninitiated, Star Trek has had 5 television series so far: Original Series, Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and Enterprise, and Star Trek Discovery is the latest addition. The series started in the late 60s, which was a time of much cultural tumult in the West. The impact this TV series has had on human (esp. Western) culture for the last half a century has been nothing short of phenomenal and this is a topic for an entire book, probably several books, let alone a blog. So I’d rather not wax lyrical about this and just summarize my opinion of the series for this review.

The basic premise of the Star Trek universe is a post-need human society in the 23rd-24th centuries CE, when technological advances have completely eliminated base needs like hunger, clothing, housing etc. Humans have discovered warp-travel, basically a form of exotic inter-stellar transport that involves warping space-time and have made contact with similar warp-enabled (humanoid) species across the galaxy. In typical 60s fashion, human-alien contact isn’t merely limited to chit-chat .. if you catch my drift 😉

Other than inter-species dalliances, serious political connections have also been forged with ‘enlightened’ aliens to form the United Federation of Planets – essentially a futuristic EU head-quartered on Earth. The (galactic peace & love kumbaya) agenda of the Federation is driven by the Star Fleet, an exploration-cum-military organisation that seems to have diverse duties ranging from terra-forming planets, to humanitarian missions, forging diplomatic ententes, scientific experimentation, fighting wars and, of course, good old SETI. The military character of Star Fleet has been intentionally downplayed, and in quite a few cases, this downplaying has been written into the plot. Star Fleet’s best, a band of quirky but resourceful (and racially, specially and computationally diverse) guys, aboard various flagships with self-congratulatory names like Enterprise, Voyager and now Discovery form the core of the protagonists in various series.

Star Trek ostensibly tries to represent not just technological but moral advancement of the human race. A sensible assumption as one could argue that you cannot have the former without the latter. However, it fails in this goal somewhat. The primary moral of the Star Trek folk, as averred repeatedly in many episodes throughout the series, is the Prime Directive, i.e. the people of the Federation mustn’t interfere in the goings-on of technologically lesser species, even if that means letting entire species perish when you know you can bring superior knowledge/technology to bear to save them. This principle of non-interference (or neutrality) in the face of circumstance and natural evolution is explored in various episodes, sometimes challenged by members of the crew, sometimes bent to suit tactical needs but never explicitly broken. One can fathom and sympathise with the reason this Directive even entered the narrative of a US-based television series coincident with the fag-end of the Vietnam War, but to me this represents a real kink in an otherwise spectacular series.

Prime Directive is essentially moral relativism in disguise. It is about treating sentient beings and rational agents as being little more than apes or animals in reservations, who need to fight it out or do whatever lesser beings do without Federation intervening. The moral laws that animate the Federation do not apply to these lesser sentients, as they haven’t graduated to the technological level at which the Federation considers them worthy of evaluation against Federation’s own moral calculus. In some cases, the Federation even has anthropological outposts to study the culture of primitive natives, without letting the subjects know of course. Things obviously go south and we have the defenders of the Prime Directive saving the natives from themselves. Needless to add this is patronizing and deeply immoral, even though the tone of the series is to make a virtue out of it. Quite akin to the bigotry of low expectations prevalent in contemporary “liberal” elite in Western societies about immigrant communities in their midst, or to the Indian-flavour of “secularism” with its regressive personal laws.

ST series do not follow the chronological order in ST timeline, e.g. the last series Enterprise was also set in the earliest period of the ST universe and events in the currently airing Discovery are set 10 years before the Original Series. Each series is centred around a Starfleet flagship crew, except Deep Space 9, which is situated on a fixed space-station. But don’t let that fool you, as shit gets real with alarming regularity for DS9 folks too as their station is conveniently placed next to a worm-hole connected to a different part of the Galaxy, bringing the proverbial battle home.

Where there are ships and crews, there are captains and trekkies typically have their favourites – often points of deep contention. The original series had the typically swashbuckling do-gooder American hero, aptly named James Tiberius Kirk, given to occassional bouts of extreme risk-taking behaviour. Thankfully, however, his cool-as-cryogenically-treated-hydrogen Vulcan first officer, Spock, is usually at hand to temper the dude’s suicidal mania. Vulcan temperance notwithstanding Kirk manages to get away with a lot usually, including showing fancy alien women a good time, all the while saving the Universe with nothing more than a phaser and a philosophy lesson. And just when you think captains can’t get any better, we get Sir Patrick Stewart, as Jean-Luc Picard, The Next Generation Starfleet captain. Swashbuckling too but with the under-stated suaveness of an Englishman and the baritone of a Shakespearean thespian to boot. TNG is by far my favourite series, partly because I grew up watching it as a kid in the 90s, but also because it is terribly good sci fi. The focus on problem-solving and the exploration of many scientific, philosophical and moral conundrums makes TNG the best science fiction ever on TV in my opinion. Besides the characters always get time to get together for a philosophical brainstorming session over tea, even in the middle of a do-or-die battle with the Borg – cool arch-villains of Star Trek introduced in TNG. Borg are everything that humans are not. They are drone like automatons who love nothing better than assimilating species and make them part of their Borg collective. Inter-galactic commies, basically!

The current series of Star Trek is clearly a lot more visually appealing than the previous ones, as modern CGI tech has come a long way from the clunky, match-box starships of the 60s. The opening theme has been innovated too, but I do prefer the old version. Nostalgia, really! The storyline of Discovery is also a lot darker. None of the cheerful adventure or philosophizing over cups of earl-grey in this one. The episodes form a much tighter narrative arc, unlike the more episodic earlier versions and the perspective has shifted from the captain of the crew to a disgraced first-officer who mutinied against her captain in her previous post. Starfleet officers (including the new captain played by the English actor Jason Issacs, well known for his on-screen villainy) are no longer the do-gooders but morally ambiguous, even malicious, and the general feel is quite gritty as the Federation are drawn into a war of attrition with the Klingons (a formidable martial culture who are yet untamed by the Federation, given this series’ early timeline). I loved the fact that none of the Klingons actually speak English, like they did in earlier series, but tlhIngan hol – an artificial language with grammar & phonetics developed from linguistic first-principles. I don’t know about others, but its clipped nature reminds me of Japanese.

All in all, a good reboot of the classic series, and I eagerly await the remaining episodes. My judgement is clouded by a lifetime of trekkie bias to be too critical of Star Trek. All I can say is they had me at “these are the voyages”.

Indian Zero? Pakistani Zero?

Carbon-dating of a Sanskrit manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian library, originally excavated from the village of Bakhshali in British-India’s North-West frontier province (now renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhva in modern-day Pakistan), recently created a seismic shift in our understanding of the history of mathematics. It pushed the earliest recorded date of the use of zero as a placeholder in the cardinal number system, that used nine signs for counting and calculation, by half a millennium. The actual evidence for the use of zero as a full-fledged number (in the decimal system) comes from Brahmagupta Siddhanta, by the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta from Ujjain.

close-up image of folio 16v

The Bakhshali manuscript, as it has come to be known, is written in Sanskrit in the Sharada script (the liturgical script still used for Kashmiri, and the ancestor of Gurmukhi). All references to this news, including the few in Pakistani English press, referred to the document as Indian. Unsurprising in itself, as Pakistan treats everything with any relation to Sanskrit as Indian. I am not aware of much Sanskrit expertise in Pakistan’s universities [happy to be corrected, if this is inaccurate!] and conflation of Sanskrit with Hinduism (and Pakistan’s founding animus for it) may have something to do with this notion. E.g. here’s a piece on a rich collection of long neglected Sanskrit documents found at Punjab University Lahore:

A rich treasure of knowledge — an invaluable collection of 9,075 Sanskrit manuscripts on various branches and disciplines of Sanskrit literature — is lying unexplored in Punjab University (PU) library in Lahore since partition. Though they have been preserved properly for decades, hardly any effort was made in the past to study the contents of these manuscripts in detail. Insiders say this indifference was because that the state was least interested in seeking expertise of Sanskrit scholars in India and sharing even an iota of knowledge with them.


So far we have received high-tech cameras and equipment from Koreans to digitise all the contents of these manuscripts. To date, we have not handed them over any manuscript either in original form or in duplicate.” He says at a later stage — once the digitisation process is complete — Koreans can come here to teach Sanskrit to our people

The travesty is that Pakistanis are taught Sanskrit by Koreans. It’s as bad as Chinese giving Latin lessons to the French.

Back to the Bakhshali manuscript, however … I had the chance to see some Pakistanis on twitter express the notion that this manuscript should not be referred to as “Indian”. According to them, India (the state) is a modern state, day younger than Pakistan and cannot lay claim to a document composed anywhere between 224-383 CE (possibly coincident with the Gupta Empire across modern-day N India & Pakistan; 320 CE-550 CE) in a region that’s now Pakistani. So there’s more reason to call it a Pakistani manuscript and a testament to Pakistani creativity, or so the argument goes.

Image result for gupta empire

While many (probably most) Indians will automatically dismiss this claim as another “crazy Pakistani fantasy”, I think that is incorrect and this claim merits some serious thought.

The lowest hanging fruit is the claim that the modern political state (Union) of India was founded a day later than Pakistan. This actually is untrue, and the source is bigdaddy Jinnabhai himself in his “Message to the Nation”:

It is with feelings of greatest happiness and emotion that I send you my greetings. August 15 is the birthday of the independent and sovereign State of Pakistan. It marks the fulfillment of the destiny of the Muslim nation which made great sacrifices in the past few years to have its homeland.

But how about there being no state called “India” in the past and that India is really a modern nation state? I think this holds a lot more water than most people (Indians) realize. India is a modern nation-state, and its political culture differs from what came before in very important ways. E.g. there’s no denying the fact that India never had any culture of universal adult franchise before, or never before in India was an exercise in active, top-down social engineering been attempted (cf. caste reservations for the uninitiated), or women given legally equal status as men, or the existence of a single federal state unifying everything from the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to Ladakh etc. These laws and the culture that animates them are thoroughly unIndian in provenance. To a guy from, say, the Gupta Empire modern India would therefore be politically foreign, revolting and fascinating in equal measure.

India of today in my view is very much a freshly-minted country and so much the better for it. However, cultural continuities exist, just as they do for France from the early Frankish Carolingian kingdom to the ancien regime to the post-Revolution Fifth Republic. Clearly the region under Charlemagne (< Lt. Carolus Magnus) did not have the exact same territorial boundaries as modern France – it in fact included some territories of what’re now Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain. Politically too French Revolution mutated the very DNA of the French state. Yet, the Frankish Carolingians founded and unified France as a Catholic state. The emblematic French fleur de lis (lily flower) also owes its use to the Carolingian dynasty.

Seen in that light, India really is in some respects the successor state of the Mauryan Empire and India’s founding fathers knew this all too well (cf. Lion Capital of Sarnath). Much of India was divided and re-unified many times over from the first Mauryan unification of the Mahajanapadas, the last (partial) re-unification being under the Marathas until their confederacy fell to the British in 1818. Megasthenes, the Seleucid Greek ambassador in Chandragupta (Sandrokoptos to Greeks) Maurya’s court said this about the country he was the ambassador in:

India, which is in shape quadrilateral, has its eastern as well as its western side bounded by the great sea, but on the northern side it is divided by Mount Hemodos (Himalayas) from that part of Skythia which is inhabited by those Skythians who are called the Sakai, while the fourth or western side is bounded by the river called the Indus, which is perhaps the largest of all rivers in the world after the Nile. The extent of the whole country from east to west is said to be 28,000 stadia, and from north to south 32,000.

I think the description above doesn’t leave much to imagination about what India was in the minds of Classical writers. Modern-day India is not geographically completely identical to the above definition, but the description is well-nigh accurate. Barring the thin NW slice of Punjab and Sindh between Indian border and the Indus riparian, that now exists within Pakistan, and including regions of far NE, which were beyond the pale in the Mauryan period, India more-or-less is the same entity geographically.

Finally, does India have some/any cultural continuity from the Gupta period when the Bakhshali manuscript was written? This is a hard question as a lot of water has flown down the Indus and Ganges since. Nonetheless, some cultural motifs survive, including the most important of all – language. An Indian of the 21st century (like me) learns enough spoken Sanskrit in school to have a rudimentary dialogue with the authors of this manuscript. On the other hand, if the Bakhshali manuscript writers were to suddenly travel in time to modern Indian Punjab they will be able to read some Gurmukhi and recognize a few familiar words in it. They’ll see the people who look like them, have a similar accent in speech, relate to the same cultural reference points (say of the Indian Epics), keep long hair (another old Indian marker of piety) and every second person with “Inder” in their names. Basically enough indication that these modern Indian Punjabis (or Himachalis, Haryanvis, Dogras, Kashmiris etc) are of the same cultural strain.

The same can be said of the French v Latin, or Greeks v Classical (Homeric) Greek, though not of Iranians v Old Persian. A Sanskrit-knowing Pandit from Benaras can understand more of the inscriptions of Darius and Cyrus with some effort than your average Iranian – a testament to how cleanly Arabs wiped that slate. Indeed, Old Persian grammar was reconstructed by modern linguists by directly extrapolating from Sanskrit. An example of how similar the languages are:

  • \ adam \ Dârayavauš \ xšâyathiya \ vazraka \ xšâyathiya \ xšâyathiy
  • ânâm \ xšâyathiya \ Pârsaiy \ xšâyathiya \ dahyûnâm \ Višt
  • âspahyâ \ puça \ Aršâmahyâ napâ \ Haxâmanišiya \ thâtiy \
  • Dârayavauš \ xšâyathiya \ manâ \ pitâ \ Vištâspa \ Vištâspahyâ \ pitâ \ Arš
  • âma \ Aršâmahyâ \ pitâ \ Ariyâramna \

Sanskrit translation:

aham DharavAsu*, kshatriya vardhaka, kshatriya

kshatriyanam, kshatriya paraseya, kshatriya dasyunam

Vishtashvasya putra, Arshamasya napa, Sakhamanaseya. AH iti

DharavAsu kshatriyaH: mam pitA Vishtashva, Vishtashvasya pitA

Arshama, Arshamasya pitA Arya-ramana ..

[Note that “Darayavahus” (which is Darius in actual Old Persian) is the exact cognate of Sanskrit Dharavasu (lit. holder of good), but in Sanskrit this compound is formed as Vasudhara instead, a commonly attested name in India to date. Also the Persian title of kings, “shah” is simply a corruption of Old Persian “khshayathiya” cognate of Sanskrit “kshatriya”]

While classical history in Iran has essentially been lost, in Pakistan the slate is in the process of being wiped clean – as the Sanskrit document collection example indicates. Only time will tell how far this effacing process continues.

Why Brown Pundits? – II

My main reason for being on Brown Pundits is that fellow blogger Omar Ali, whose thoughts & views I much admire, asked me if I could contribute and I was happy to do so. I’d vaguely known about this blogging website, but never actively contributed before.

My main interest is actually in the linguistics of South Asia, and wider IE linguistics generally. Politically my interest in or knowledge of South Asia is no more than average, other than about the peculiar situation of Jammu & Kashmir, which I’ve studied about and discussed in a lot of detail due to my personal circumstances and upbringing. I’d like to think of BP as an opportunity to learn about the diversity of perspectives of India’s peripheral states: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal etc, from the people of these places.

I’m what one could call a Whiggish Enlightenment fundamentalist. I believe in the moral superiority of Western culture and values and I think Indians have a lot to learn from them. In fact, India is, in some respects, a Western state – though the last word on this has still not been said.

That said, I am also quite interested in Physics, Philosophy and Finance – with no specific South Asia/Indian relevance – and occassionally my blogs do and will reflect that interest.

Thank you for reading 🙂



Disaffection of Kashmiri Muslims

At the outset I must say that I am a Kashmiri Pandit, born in the 80s in Srinagar and my family (and I) were forced to migrate from the Valley in the early 90s. I have summarized my experience on brownpundits earlier. In this third of a series, I’d like to analyse the reason why Kashmiri Muslims were, and significant sections of Muslims still remain, disaffected with India. [Please note that what you’re going to read is my opinion, which may contain some bias in spite of my best efforts to correct it. Much as I try to remain objective about Kashmir’s politics generally, it is not humanly possible to isolate my thoughts from my experience.]

The short (but simplistic) reason behind the disaffection of Kashmiri Muslims from India is politicized religion, i.e. Islam. However, like all problems in the physical world, reducing explanations to simplistic binaries is never a very good idea. Therefore, some exploration of the context of Islam/Muslims in Kashmir is necessary. What people (especially Indians) should realize is that the group they refer to as “Kashmiri Muslims” is far from being a homogeneous group, and unsurprisingly like any human society not all of them think alike. Secondly, when we speak about “anti-India sentiments” amongst Kashmiri Muslims, one should try to form a nuanced understanding of what exactly is anti-India in those sentiments.

I’d like to begin by a disambiguation about Muslims of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, for the next few paragraphs, before delving into their disaffection (or lack thereof) with the Indian State. Here’s a detailed ethno-linguistic map of the (erstwhile) state of J&K:

The dark oval-shaped region that you see above is the Kashmir Valley, surrounded by the Pir Panjal (< Skt. pira panchala) range. As the figure shows, the dark Kashmiri-speaking region (entirely within Indian boundaries by the way) is circumscribed by the diagonal (descending) pattern which corresponds to Gojri in the legend. The sliver of land, immediately to the west of the Line of Control is patterned differently and is inhabited by Lehnda/Pothowari speakers. To the East of the Valley, we have the Shina and Ladakhi regions, occupying the lion’s share of the landmass of the state of J&K. To the South the pattern changes again as people speak Dogri (< Skt. dvigarta, dialects akin to Pothowari in Pakistan administered regions and to Himachal Pahari), and to the very sparsely populated North, Dardic (Shina, Burusho, Pashai etc) dialects dominate.

Clearly, Kashmiri Muslims form a subset, an important subset (but a subset nonetheless) of the undivided state of Jammu & Kashmir. Non-Kashmiri Muslims of J&K also include some prominent Dogra Muslims, e.g. ex-CM of J&K and a cabinet minister in many Congress/UPA governments, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Dogri singer Malika Pukhraj (who emigrated to Pakistan), tabla-nawaz Ostad Allah-rakha (Ostad Zakir Husain’s father) etc. This is what Dogri language sounds like (a rather famous Dogri folk piece sung by Malika Pukhraj ironically on PTV – all place names mentioned: Paprole, Lakesar, Nadaun etc are in Jammu & Himachal by the way):

The Gojri-speaking Gujjar-Bakerwals (one of India’s scheduled tribes) are semi-nomadic pastoralists who move from mountains to the Valley with seasons. The Gojri-speaking cattle-herders can be found from Kashmir to Northern Rajasthan (and parts of Indian and Pakistani Punjab in between) and, at least in India, Hindu and Muslim Gujjars self-identify as a single ethnic group. E.g. during the Gujjar-agitation by Rajasthani Gujjars to get Scheduled Tribe status (which implies positive discrimination in education and jobs), Muslim Gujjars of J&K joined the rioting. Gujjars of J&K have also been at the forefront of demands for raising a Gujjar Regiment of the Indian Army and Muslim Gujjars currently form the backbone of the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry. Unsurprisingly, the only BJP MLA from a Muslim majority border constituency in J&K is a Gujjar. The Indian SC/ST reservation system, pasture-land and grazing rights and support for Gojri language (part of the Western Rajasthani/Marwari dialect cluster) and culture by the Indian Government over the last 70 years has been a major factor in main-streaming of this community. Muslim Gujjars make up around 20-25% of J&K Muslim population and are a sizeable votebank. Furthermore, Gujjars were traditionally looked down upon by the settled Kashmiri population of the Valley and attitudes to them were no different to notions about, say, gypsies in Europe – an uncouth people who excel at thieving and petty crime. I’ve personally seen various instances of this discrimination first-hand, in one case against Gujjar children. All of these factors make Muslim Gujjars of J&K one of the most stoutly pro-India constituencies.

Furthermore, J&K has Shina and Ladakhi-speaking (predominantly Shi’a) Muslims in the Kargil region to the North of the Valley. They are racially, ethno-linguistically and due to their Shia-belief also in religion distinct from the majority Sunni Kashmiri Muslims of the Valley. Note that Kashmiri Muslims themselves have a Shia sub-group (around 20% of the Valley’s Muslim population and primarily resident in the North of the Valley). Some of the Shia families are actually of mixed Indo-Iranian descent and were instrumental in introducing Persian carpet-weaving skills to Kashmir. The Kashmiri rug trade is almost completely in the hands of the Shia, and all Kashmiri Shia traders plying their trade in rugs and shawls can be found in all corners of the country. Kashmiri Shia too have a strong pro-India bias, and Shia recruitment into the Indian army from North Kashmir villages is commonplace.

The Kashmiri-speaking Muslims (primarily Sunnis) are the predominant ethnic group of the Valley. They are almost completely descended from the Hindu population (of different castes) before Islam came to dominate the Valley from the 15th century onwards. In some cases, the caste-mandated occupational distinction called kram in Kashmiri (< Skt. karma; work, guild) still survives. E.g. Surnames like Wani (K. wonyh < Skt. vaNika; cf. Hindi baniya) is the class of tradespeople and shopkeepers, Batt (K. baTh < Skt. bhaTa;  lit. mercenary, soldier), Tantray (K. tantray < Skt. tantriNa; soldier – word attested only in the Rajatarangini for soldiers of Kashmir’s kings), Pandith (K. paendyith < Skt. panDitaH; scholar, teacher, brahmin), Dar (K. Daar < Skt. Damara; agriculturalist feudals of Kashmir Valley, analogous to Jatts of Punjab or the dehghan of Iran), Lone (K. loan < Skt. lavanya; a class of Kashmiri damaras, see below) are common amongst Kashmiri Muslims.

Lavanya/Damara, feudal farming community of Kashmir in the Rajatarangini

It has to be said that unlike many Muslim communities of the plains on both sides of the Indo-Pak border, Kashmiri Muslims almost never try to concoct any Middle-Eastern/Central-Asian descent, in spite of the fact that Kashmiri Muslims are much more recent converts than say Muslims of Sindh, Punjab or Gangetic belt. However there has been an urban legend about Kashmiri descent from Jewish tribes, which is easily dismissed given zero evidence in any pre-Islamic Sanskrit chronicles of Kashmir (which are numerous and detailed) and no tell-tale genetic imprint. In general, any Kashmiri Muslim will straight-up admit to their forefathers converting to Islam from Hinduism, and I have even known Muslim families (converted Pandits) to hang on to the yajnopavit threads of the paternal ancestors lest throwing them may bring ill will of the departed. Needless to add, Kashmiri Muslims are genetically indistinguishable from the Hindu Pandits.

Concurrent genetic markers of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims


Given the above background, when one thinks about the views of Muslims of Jammu & Kashmir on India, one needs to keep these important ethnic / religious distinctions in mind. The rest of this post is concerned with Kashmiri-speaking Muslims of the Valley of Kashmir, wherein the disaffection with India is the strongest.

Per se criticism of India is a national right and being anti-some-aspect-of-India is not just expected, but necessary in a functioning democracy. There can be no improvement in functioning of a society or government without voicing criticism and all such “anti-India” activities should be very welcome. Many of the anti-India sentiments expressed by the Muslims of the Valley are very genuine and a person like me would support these over knee-jerk patriotism any day. The vocal opposition to AFSPA, which a draconian law fit for totalitarian states rather than democracies, is a genuine “anti-India” sentiment. So, is the criticism of the Indian State for mass-disappearances of many locals, detentions without trial, encounter killings, torture of innocents and militants alike and other such terrible excesses and the demand for punitive justice in these cases are the duties of every Indian citizen. The rule and due process of the law are not things that a state can suspend at will or apply arbitrarily when it chooses it. Sticking to them, in face of the gravest of provocations, is absolutely necessary for the functioning of a state that would like to call itself civilized. In that respect, India falls way short of the mark.

In all of this, one should not lose sight of who/what is this “Indian State” that has been doing these terrible things. Unlike China, it is not an unelected party of individuals driven by some ideology. Nor is it a military-driven deep state like in Egypt or Pakistan, or a Majles of clerics like in Iran, or an absolute Monarchy like Saudi Arabia. The Indian State is its citizens, who vote for representatives to legislate and govern India. Whatever the state machinery does to citizens in a democracy is their collective responsibility and people can lobby against such policies and remove governments with such policies. The voting out of the Indira Gandhi led Congress government in the aftermath of the Emergency is a case in point. Therefore, nothing really stops the local representatives (elected Members of the Legislative Assembly, of whom, interestingly BJP represents the largest voteshare) from lobbying MPs or Ministers in the Parliament for change of laws.

While referendums are generally a terrible idea in any parliamentary democracy (esp. one as large and diverse and with so many social/ethnic/economic faultlines as India’s), I would not mind an independence referendum for Jammu & Kashmir on the same lines as the Scottish independence referendum either, in fact. The caveat, however, is that the means to achieve that (say via peaceful lobbying of Indian MPs and public opinion) ought to be as moral as the end. Ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri minorities doesn’t quite meet that standard.

In addition to these genuine criticisms, anti-India sentiments amongst Kashmiri Muslims also include a host of other uncharitable views against the Indian State that are genuinely indefensible. These include expressions of any intention of violence against Indian democracy, ethnic-cleansing of minority populations, of support for totalitarian / genocidal states like ISIS or calls for religious war / revolution. It is the expression of this latter category of sentiments that any citizen of India must oppose.

Reports and witnesses said that huge number of people turned up for the funeral of Najar, a resident of Batapora in Sopore, and it was held twice. The witnesses said that body of Qayoom Najar was wrapped in black flag of Al Qaeda and ISIS while slogans in favour of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind chief Zakir Musa were also shouted by mourners.

The evidence is fairly incontrovertible that the people who express anti-India sentiments of the second category are indeed Kashmiri Muslims. The question still remains, why are the second category of views (which are frankly despicable) expressed by some Kashmiri Muslims at all? While, I am no sociologist, and my understanding on this matter could well be mistaken, I think the reason has to do with the total hijacking of the old (and largely bi-partisan) movement of Kashmir’s political independence by right-wing Jamiat-e Eslami or Islamist sympathizing elements from the late 40s onwards.

Himalayan regions like Kashmir (or Nepal, Bhutan etc) have always been politically distinct from the Indo-Gangetic plains. This isn’t just true today but was true from the very early days of Kashmir’s self-image as a single political entity. Note, historical references to Kashmir only refer to the Valley of Kashmir. Unlike other parts of the Indian sub-continent, the medieval history of Kashmir has been very well documented, and ample evidence from the Rajataranginis indicates how Kashmiris then saw Kashmir as a politically distinct entity (more on this in my next post).

The same expression of political independence finds voice in pre-modern Kashmiri folklore as well and many Kashmiri intellectuals (both Hindu and Muslim) bemoaned the lack of independence of Kashmiris, first under the Moghals, then Afghans and finally the Sikhs/Dogras. The movement of political independence from the Dogra monarchy (Dogras being Pahari-speaking Hindu Rajputs of southern Pir Panjal, Jammu and modern-day Himachal) sowed the first seeds of the Azadi movement in the Valley, with both Pandit and Muslim ideologues in support. The largely secular / bi-partisan nature of this movement was solely to democratize the region, by overthrowing the monarchy – much like similar movements in Nepal against the Gorkha Shah/Rana dynasties or even the secular political movement against the Pahlavi Shahs of Iran.

This realization resulted in Nadim’s almost exclusive concentration on Kashmiri. He had written his first Kashmiri poem in 1942 on “Maej Kashir” (“Mother Kashmir”), an appropriate topic for a time when Kashmir was passing through a critical phase with the mass movement slogan “Quit Kashmir” challenging the established Dogra dynasty

However, the “secular” nature of this movement (like other such movements in Iran or West Asia) slowly evapourated as the Islamists hijacked the entire narrative – especially after the Partition and Pakistan’s active support of such “Jehadis”. The rise of Zia-ul Haq in Pakistan, which coincided with the Afghan Jehad and copious amounts of money (Saudi and American) being transferred to the radical Islamic seminaries in Northern Pakistan led to a tremendous shot-in-the-arm for Kashmiri Islamists. That is the time (late 80s) when we witnessed the rise of overtly Islamist tanzeems in Kashmir: Harkat-ul Mujahedeen, Allah Tigers, Lashkar-e Tayyaba, Jaish-e Mohamed etc, who now are inextricably tied to the modern global Jehadist narrative. The ethnic cleaning of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley was a logical implication of this Kashmiri Islamism and remains a bleeding sore.

Today, most of the “Azadi” speak of Kashmiri Muslims is a thinly veiled aspiration for an Islamo-fascist utopia, a kind of Lebensraum for Muslims. Obviously, we already have the first Lebensraum for Muslims of South Asia next-door in the shape of Pakistan, so the mutual camaraderie is rather de jure. This yearning for a Lebensraum also explains the rather recent trend of unfurling ISIS flags from mosques in Kashmir and overt support of Kashmiri militant leaders to the global Jehadist cause.


Indian kids are getting dumber at maths!

OK, that headline is a bit of a clickbait! They probably aren’t getting dumber, if anything it could be the opposite if the Flynn effect is really true. However, I specifically had the declining performance of Indian kids at the world’s foremost mathematics competition in mind, better known as the International Mathematics Olympiad or IMO, when I wrote that headline.

A bit of personal also-ran history is involved here as I did compete to join the Indian team at the turn of the millennium, but the competition was so fierce that I could not manage to get into the national-level top six that represent each country at the IMO. And that was just as well, as all the guys were clearly brighter and I did not deserve to be in that peer group. Nonetheless that teenage experience of competitive problem-solving (and failing to make the cut) informs my desire to keep a close watch on the Indian team’s performance at the IMO. I also occasionally try to solve IMO problems on boring London tube commutes, i.e. when I manage to get a damned seat, and share them with colleagues at work. Those interested can try them here.

The 2017 IMO recently concluded in late July, and the Indian team showed its worst performance this year since 1990 – the year it first started competing in this annual mathematical jousting event. Since this is brownpundits I tried to put the declining performance of Indians into context by comparing it, over the years, with our brown South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Throwing in Iran and United Kingdom as controls to add a bit of perspective. All the country-wise data can be accessed here.

Annual IMO Rank per country

The graphs are telling! India was up there with Iran and UK as its peers all through the 90s decade to the early 2000s. Indians were slightly worse-off than Iran, but by the turn of the millennium we were doing better. My own school-leaving cohort (and a couple of years around that) soundly beat both the Iranians and Brits. Yet 2005 marks a regime shift for the worse in average Indian performance at IMO and the data seem statistically significant.

I am at loss to explain this clearly worsening trend of performance by India’s brightest millennials. Did Indian parents really start begetting a dumber brood from the 90s onwards? I hope not! Good feeder schools and rigorous mathematical training play a big part in preparing high-school kids for such competitions and it is possible that some silly policy change (that I am unaware of) by the Indian government may have been a causal factor.

But there’s some hope in the same data for our Eastern cousins. Bangladeshi kids (and their mathematics training programme) seems to have shown phenomenal improvement(!) over the same period and now easily better India. India’s coincident decline does not help matters either. Bangladesh started competing at the IMO in the same year as Pakistan with similar laggardly results, but the subsequent improving trend in performance is clear as day. As for Pakistan, well, let’s just say that their national priorities leave a lot to be desired…

The Migration

This is second in the series of posts on Kashmir (on its language, people, politics and culture). This one is my perspective on the specific targetting and ethnic cleansing of autochthonous Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits) from the Valley, euphemistically referred to as the Migration within the community. I realize that the politics of Kashmir as a topic can be controversial, even incendiary sometimes. Any political take on the topic is bound to ruffle someone’s feathers, and I imagine this post may ruffle a few. But then, as the rhetorical Kashmiri proverb goes pazar daryi, apzis kaeThyh katyi? [truth will stand, (but) where are lie’s knees?]

Kashmiri society became increasingly politically Islamized in the late 80s. This was partly a result of the Afghan Jihad and the copious resources that the Americans (and Saudis) pumped into Pakistan, which was under (surprise, surprise!) military control at the time led by Zia al-Haq. A sizable fraction of the money was funnelled by Pakistani military junta to support Pakistan’s proxies in Kashmir. For more on Pakistani military junta’s dalliances with the US and Arabs see this and this.

Besides the Cold War, the larger geo-political situation in the 80s (in India and its near abroad) was nothing to write home about. An Islamic theocracy had recently taken control in Iran, ethno-religious (Sikh) insurgency was going strong in Indian Punjab (many Hindus were killed in Punjab, followed by mass rioting and killing of Sikhs and general lawlessness in the capital and across North India after Indira Gandhi’s assassination), while the statist-socialist License Raj economics bled India dry. To make matters worse in the latter half of the 80s, the Indian Army was also sucked into a pointless counter-insurgency offensive in Sri Lanka against the dreaded LTTE, whom ironically the Indians had trained only a few years earlier. Social fissures exposed by the politics of caste and reservations (cf. Mandal commission) were festering too. In short, in the run up to the 90s the Indian state was beset by deep crises: politically unstable, economically near-bankrupt and socially volatile.

This was the time when many of the training camps in Northern Punjab and so-called “Azad Kashmir” (in reality neither Azad nor Kashmir  – more on that in the next instalment) were being set-up and run by veterans of the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets. In that respect, the Pakistani Army was trying to do what it had always done – use the people (primarily tribals) of its peripheral hinterlands as cheap cannon-fodder to engage a larger enemy. The porous mountainous borders of the Line-of-Control made infiltration rather easy. Nor was cash a problem (fake Indian currency came later), as the entire Jihadist economy of Kashmir in the early 90s ran on the greenback. I have personally seen wads of US dollar bills (and an AK47 concealed under the phyeran) with a student of my dad’s, who (I now suspect) couldn’t help showing it off to me as I was just a kid.

The infiltration into the Valley and strengthening of the hardline Islamist extremist fringe (backed by Pakistan) within the Valley’s Muslims put the, small but influential, Kashmiri Pandit minority in an alarmingly difficult position. A short note on who Kashmiri Pandits are is probably necessary at this point.

vedaiH śaDaMgaiH pAdakramayutair vedAntasiddhAntakais
tarkavyAkaraNaiH purANapaThanair mantraiH AgamaiH ||
paurANaśrutitarkaśAstranicayaiH kim cAgnihotrAkitair
viprair dhyAnatapojapAdinirataiH snAnArcanAdyutsukaiH … kaśmIrabhūr uttamaH ||

[With the Vedas, the six appendices, with the Pada and Krama (texts), with Vedanta and Siddhanta, logic and grammar, Purana recitation, with Mantras and the traditional sects. With its masses of Puranic, Vedic (śruti) and logic disciplines (tarkaśAstra), and, moreover, marked by Agnihotrins (fire priests), with Brahmins (vipra) devoted to meditation, asceticism, recitation and so on, and zealously engaged with ablutions, worship, and the like ... the land of Kashmir is the best - Dvitiya Rajatarangini of Jonaraja composed during the reign of Zayn al-Abidin]

Kashmiri Pandits are the Brahmins of the Kashmir Valley, who largely survived numerous changes in the volatile political climate of Kashmir Valley until the present day as a single, cohesive community. However, Muslim rule in the Kashmir Valley since the 14th century, forced a sub-division within the Pandits into karkun and goaru/zutish classes, the former taking up employment of the state (as scribes, historians, administrators, tax collectors, civil servants etc) and the latter as the sub-priestly class exclusively performing the rites & ceremonies. This function continued as Kashmir passed from the hands of local Chak (cf. Skt. chakra) Sultans to the Moghals to Afghans to Sikhs to Dogras (under the British) and finally to the Indian Republic. Similar to other states and regions of India, the Pandits/Brahmins of Kashmir constituted 4-5% of the population of the Valley. However, owing to their traditional access to education, and other cultural attributes (honed over centuries of living under, what essentially was, foreign occupation), representation of Pandits in the cultural, educational and technical spheres, legal services and bureaucracy was an order-of-magnitude higher than their fraction in the general population. Under the Moghals, Sikhs and then the British, Kashmiri Pandit communities thrived in pre-Partition Lahore and Peshawar, and also in Delhi and Lucknow. Notable members include the Nehrus, descended from a scholar of Persian, Raj Kaul, a Moghal courtier under Farrokhsiyar. Dinanath Razdan was the Divan of the Sikh Empire in Lahore. Mohammed Iqbal Lahori descended from the Sapru family (one of whom, son of the Divan of Barakzai Pashtuns in Kashmir, married a Muslim lady and was excommunicated from the Kashmiri Pandit fold). Generations of Dhars, Kauls, Razdans, Saprus, Katjus, Duranis, Nehrus etc have provided numerous Indian civil servants, diplomats, scientists, professors, lawyers and judges, politicians and military chiefs since Independence.

The predicament Kashmiri Pandits found themselves in the early 90s was rather grave. Hit lists by the early Jihadi tanzeems featuring Kashmiri Pandit names were commonplace. I recall some names from my childhood as JKLF, Allah Tigers, Harkat al-Mujahideen whose hit-lists (i.e. lists of names pinned to electricity poles overnight in neighbourhoods across Srinagar) I have seen personally. Some of the Pandit names on these lists were related to Police or Defence Forces, but many were Judges, Doctors, Professors, Surgeons, Civil Servants etc (including few of my family’s acquaintances and relatives). Common Muslims, esp. in the rural hinterland, of the Valley did not bear grudges against the Pandits, and there are many stories of how close ties were between Pandit and Muslim families. However, a systemic anti-Pandit bias did exist amongst some elements of the more urban Muslim bourgeoisie: begrudging the economic and social status of Pandits coupled with the typical Islam-is-superior spiel. While such views can be common in a jostle of cultures and usually not dangerous, they are kept in check by a natural equilibrium (cross-cultural tolerance) that a settled society achieves after centuries of co-evolution. But this social equilibrium can be easily damaged if violent extremist voices are left unchecked, which is essentially what happened in Kashmir 80s onwards.

The type of people who joined the tanzeems in Kashmir in the late 80s and early 90s were the local thugs and ruffians, many engaged in petty crime (or with some sort of criminal record), largely unemployed and easy to sway into some grandiose-sounding religio-political rhetoric. Many of them found complete sanction of their narrow-minded views from the cash-rich Islamist ideologues (many backed by Pakistan). Funding of local Kashmiri mosques, which by the way look more like Buddhist pagodas or Hindu temples, by Saudi and Emirati governments also rose a lot in this period. In addition to the above, there were some genuine, hard-working middle class boys too, who joined the fray thinking of it as some sort of revolutionary duty. There were some I knew personally as they were my Dad’s students at Kashmir University. They were lovely guys who treated me like their own younger kid brother, taught me to ski and play cricket. The guy who showed me what US Dollars looked like was one of them. As I later got to know from my dad, he had joined the JKLF in spite of my dad’s cautious dissuasion, crossed the Line-of-Control to train in Pakistan, joined the Jihadist ranks as an area commander and died within weeks as the grenade he was to throw (presumably at a Central Reserve Police Force convoy) got entangled in his phyeran. Clearly, the Pakistani training had failed to take into account Kashmiri sartorial preferences. Horrible deaths (or torture of captured militants) at the hands of the J&K and Central Police forces were commonplace.

The society was so polarized that even my school-mates, 7 year old kids at my school, were affected by the propaganda. Obviously the kids didn’t quite realize what they were saying – nor did I grasp the full import of what was being said – but looking back I shudder at the rhetoric even little kids weren’t spared from at home, which they were inexorably parroting in the school. I was called an Indian dog in my school bus and asked to “go away, leave Kashmir”. My friends told me songs of the mujahideen who were going to come to Kashmir and sweep away the Indian Army. I was too little to know who the mujahideen were, but it clearly left an impression that something wasn’t right. Many kids played make-believe games, where they pretended to keep rifle magazines in their pockets. Older kids started threatening teachers to declare Friday (in addition to Saturday & Sunday) as a school holiday in accordance with Islamic laws. Muslim kids used to ask other Muslims not to clap when a non-Muslim got the school prize or stood first in class and mocked Hindu religious practice.

Many mosques became rallying points for local radicals and all kinds of political sloganeering from the loud-speakers was rife. The common refrain meant for the Pandit minority in those days was simply:

raelyiv, tsaelyiv ya gaelyiv

(convert, flee or die). 

And which ethnic-cleansing exercise worth its salt can be complete without references to rape of women?

assyi gatshi panu’nui Paekistan, batav rostuy, batnyav saan

(we’d like our own Pure-land, without the Pandit males but with the females).

The hindu temple in our locality and a school right next to it were torched by a crowd in front of my eyes. Pitched battles of stone-pelters with the Police was a common sight – the stone pelters didn’t even spare my school bus many times. We woke up every morning with tears running down our eyes as the air was so heavy with police tear gas shells used to disperse crowds the night before. Local youth would come knocking late at night asking for my Dad’s snow boots, warm sweaters etc with an implicit threaten of violence if he failed to comply – these were obviously needed to cross the LoC to Pakistani training camps. Killings and assassinations of Kashmiri Pandits, especially prominent ones, was rife. A university professor, a high court judge, an All India Radio employee and a surgeon were shot dead in quick succession in my neighbourhood alone – as the azadi activists ticked names off the hit lists. It was open season on Pandits and many killings had nothing to do with any Jihadi narrative either – Pandits with killed due to long-standing feuds, property deals, alleged RSS memberships and sometimes for the pure wanton pleasure of it, cf. Wandhom massacre, Nadimarg massacre etc.

It was in the early 1990 that things became so serious that some of my Dad’s students/acquaintances strongly advised him to leave – perhaps because his name was doing the rounds for the next hit hist. The growing incidents of violence against Kashmiri Pandit families coupled with the realization that this could happen to us at any time made the penny drop for him. My parents (and grandparents) decided to leave Kashmir almost overnight, with very little planning, and barely any foreknowledge of how permanent this was going to be.

The day I left Kashmir remains forever etched in my memory. It was the 4th of February, 1990. I saw a bomb blast right in front of my eyes – an entire bus was blown to smithereens near Lal Chowk – the centre of Srinagar city. Many Pandit families (including mine) were gathered there, all about to leave their homeland for similar reasons. Thankfully the bus, which was empty, took most of the impact of the blast and except an old Pandit woman (who died instantly) there were no further casualties. I do not know if the blast was meant to kill us (or merely scare us away), what I do know is that I could easily have been a blast victim that morning.


Around 150,000 Kashmiri Pandits were ethnically cleansed from the Valley. They all (including myself) remain card-carrying Internally Displaced People. Terms like genocide or holocaust are clearly exaggerated claims, yet the reality remains that the majority of the Kashmiri Muslim society remained mute spectators when the minorities were hounded out. There was no backlash by the Muslim civil society of Kashmir, no so-called Kashmiriyat on display as the debate became completely hijacked by the right-wing Islamist elements.

Conspiracy theories on what precipitated the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits abound in the Valley. Some may tell you that Kashmiri Pandits had it coming, that they were living cozy lives at the expense of poor Muslims of the Valley and like any (Brahminical) upper class were legitimately thrown out by the revolution for Azadi that continues to this day. Some others might spin it as a conspiracy by the Indian Government who delibrately wheel Hindu refugees out to delegitimize the rightful struggle for Azadi. Any policy mooted by the Indian Government for re-settlement and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley triggers a smorgasbord of reactions from plain reluctance to open hostility amongst the Muslim majority of Kashmir. Needless to add, this experience has caused deep resentment, anger and vindictiveness in a large section of Kashmiri Pandits, which are not going to go away any time soon.


Names have their own stories

It is unsurprising that the two main ideologues of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal Lahori and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were both from recently converted Hindu families. Iqbal’s grand father Rattan Lal Sapru was a Kashmiri Pandit who went rogue (i.e. married a Punjabi Muslim and converted), whereas Jinnah’s grand father Meghji Thakkar a Gujarati Lohana (Khatri/trader class of Saurashtra) converted, as far as we know, of his own volition.

I am told (by fellow blogger Omar Ali) that there seems to be some confusion around Jinnah’s name. I was not aware of this. However, hopefully this post would clarify any confusions that may exist and raise other interesting questions.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was born “Mahomed-ali Jinnahbhai” to one “Jinnahbhai Poonja”. Apparently the name change (dropping the -bhai) was deliberately done by Jinnah himself:

From BR Nanda’s “Road to Pakistan”, biography of Jinnah

Note that it is customary in the Indian regions of Gujarat and Maharashtra to use one’s father’s name as the middle name followed by a caste/occupation denoting surname. So, say, the Indian PM Narendra Modi’s full name is Narendra Damodardas Modi, where the middle name takes after his father’s first name: Damodardas Modi. The surname Modi is the Gujarati caste of shopkeepers/traders (common amongst Parsis too).

Furthermore, Gujarati language uses the suffix -bhai as an honorific. Its use in polite discourse is similar to Sindhi -saeeN or Japanese -san. So, Narendra Modi would be formally referred to as Narendra-bhai Modi in formal speech, say, when addressing the person on a letter. Even within close family, people can be referred to as “bhai” (or “behen”) when the addressee is not actually a brother (or sister) – leading to hilarious results in some situations.

Frequent formal usage of “bhai” (especially as a part of one’s registered name) is rather antiquated in urban areas and I’d be hard-pressed to find many such examples in city-dwelling Gujaratis of my generation. As is the norm for most social conventions in the Subcontinent, however, things take longer to change in the rural hinterland. My own anecdotal understanding is that the practice survives in mofussil towns and villages of Gujarat and nearby areas. The use of “bhai” in the Mumbai underworld (and now in the vernacular and popular culture) to refer to local crime lords also takes after the same custom due to the preponderance of Gujaratis in Mumbai.

So, it is rather obvious that the suffix -bhai in Jinnahbhai is a common Gujarati honorific. The same suffix can also be found in its Anglicized form -bhoy within Gujaratis (cf. Rai > Roy is an equivalent Anglicization in Bengali surnames). But what of the root morpheme “Jinnah”? The Gujarati context clarifies this too, as Jinna (pronounced jiNa, with a retroflex N) simply means “small” or “little” in Gujarati and is often used as a diminutive. So, the name “Jinnabhai” would really imply “little Sir” or “little mister” and is a well-attested name amongst Gujaratis. E.g. see this (excerpt below):

Jinabhai as a Gujarati first name

Finally, as far as I am aware, there is no native IA etymology of Gujarati jiNa. The apparent lack of a phonetic correlate in Sanskrit makes me conjecture that the word is actually a Dravidian lexical borrowing (maybe part of the Dravidian substrate). Sure enough Tamil (and sister Dravidian languages Telugu & Kannada) has the word chinna with an equivalent meaning and similar usage in nomenclature (e.g. chinnappa lit. “little father” or “little lord”, being a common South Indian name / surname). The word-initial /ch/ <> /j/ phonetic shift between affricatives is entirely plausible. However, we would need more examples to see if this is a systematic effect in Dravidian loanwords to IA (or vice versa).

Why Democracy?

The idea to write this blog post on Democracy arose out of the need to describe what it is in context of Brexit. For more on the Brexit referendum itself see this. In this post I am trying to distill my own understanding of Democracy and have included the results of a numerical experiment I ran to quantify some ideas around the concept.

Democracy is essentially an algorithm to correct political error. In that respect Democracy belongs to a special class of algorithms, with Darwinian evolution, scientific peer review or machine learning being other notable members of the same class. The kinship between these disparate and very fundamental processes is not coincidental. It is explained by Popperian epistemology, which makes the existence and mitigation of error central to the idea of any knowledge generation.

Any discussion of the process of knowledge creation may seem like a digression at this point. However, please persevere for the next three paragraphs as setting this context is important for the central thesis on Democracy. According to Popper, knowledge itself can be understood as explanations, i.e. guesses or conjectures with two major criteria for goodness: falsifiability and parsimony. Any knowledge creator (sentient or otherwise) must therefore create knowledge in exactly this manner: creatively produce guesses or conjectures (including even, what look like, wild ones) and criticise them to remove those that are erroneous. Two immediate corollaries of this theory arise: a) existence of error is a permanent feature of any form of knowledge. Claims of knowledge that are perfect (e.g. a manual revealed by so-called prophets) are therefore, for want of a better word, baloney. And b) boundless knowledge-generation must require the ability or enabling culture to air seemingly wild guesses and criticise even ostensibly unimpeachable maxims. Continue reading “Why Democracy?”

What’s the fuss about dog meat?

Fellow blogger Omar Ali’s recent post on the perils of Orientalism uses the example of an Orientalist’s apologia for the rather uncharitable views on dogs (as filthy animals etc) prevalent in Muslim societies. The Yale professor in question concludes thus:

Knowing this past not only gives us a fuller picture of the most ubiquitous nonhuman animal we welcome in our midst, but it also helps us to understand how our histories with other animals have shaped our current world.

which got me thinking about how parochial the world-view of some Westerners can be.

The lychee and dog-meat festival in the Southern Chinese city of Yulin went ahead as planned last month, in spite of all the brouhaha and rumours of a ban on social and news media both within and especially outside China. The sheer lack of compunction that characterises the Chinese regime is rather well known, so I am not surprised in the least. However, the unease of Western commentators at this Chinese practice is quite obvious and surprising coming from a culture that considers anything from sheep to horses rather kosher. Consider this piece in the latest Economist issue that I read just yesterday on my commute home, which ascribes the popularity of the event to criminality and treats trade in dog-meat at par with drug trafficking!

The “animal love” that is rather partial to the members of the Canis family is a deep-seated Western fad, rather akin to the cow-craze in India. I recall a conversation with a potential (elderly English) landlady many years ago in London, who asked me if I hated dogs. I said I didn’t and added that I’m indifferent to them. That was enough to visibly rile her up! She could fathom people disliking dogs (or liking them, as she obviously did) but an expression of indifference to such “ubiquitous nonhuman animal” was absolutely beyond her tolerance. I can only imagine how she’d have responded if a Chinese tenant in my place had innocently let slip that he found dogs tasty 🙂

I am not quite sure why the dog is such a holy cow for Western (or Westernized) animal lovers. Is it more of a mammal than a cow, or a goat, or a pig? I can understand Indian (including Hindu) aversion to the idea of eating dogs, which takes after the unclean status of dogs in the Islamic world. The same holds for Hindu aversion to pigs too – again an internalised Islamic fad – with a clear religious pathology behind it. But it is hard for me to comprehend how a Brit or an Italian could gobble up finely minced offal cuts of a pig (raised and slaughtered for its meat) packed in the entrails of that very animal for breakfast and yet find the idea of dog steak on a plate emetic.

A dog isn’t anymore angelic than a pig and, who knows, probably dogs taste better. I don’t think the Chinese (or indeed anyone else) should limit their gastronomic repertoire just because some Westerners find it off-putting. If the animal-lovers are doing it out of a genuine moral duty, isn’t saving the poor cows of this world from the abattoir an equally noble endeavour? If so, they ought to be supporting Indian beef-bans too (akin to the ban on commercial sale and consumption of dog meat in the US and various European countries), i.e. unless they do not mind being called specieists. Knee-jerk reactions on dog-meat are reminiscent of the loony Hindutva fringe, who are wont to get their knickers in a twist every time someone mentions the b-word. To their credit though, caninophiles haven’t lynched a Chinese person, at least not yet.

My advice to all the caninophiles of the world: like any other domesticated animal, your pet’s species is edible too .. get over it! Now how about some Dalmatian kebab with lychees?