Remembering Peterloo and Jallianwala

I recently participated in an interaction on policy, democracy and reform movements in the light of a major event in British history – the Peterloo Massacre, 1819, in the Palace of Westminster, London, in the evening of 17th July 2019. The Massacre took place at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry mainly comprising of the 15th The King’s Hussars (who had been pivotal in the Napoleonic Wars, particularly the Battle of Waterloo) charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 who had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. They were led by the fiery radical reformer Henry Hunt. After the stunning barbarism on the part of the administration, 18 were reported died while hundreds were injured.


Following the Peterloo Massacre, the government of the United Kingdom acted to prevent any future disturbances by the introduction of new legislation, the so-called Six Acts aimed at suppressing any meetings for the purpose of radical reform. Even though the regressive Pittite Acts were struck down over two centuries (with the most recent repeal being as recently as 2008), what fascinates me is how the Rowlatt Act that led to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Punjab, India, a century later has resonances with the Six Acts.

Read more on this here:

A Struggle for True Liberation

India attained its independence from the British Raj on 15 August 1947. Curiously, within less than a decade, it was back in shackles. The white sahab was replaced by the brown babu. The Viceregal Palace was renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan. Names of a few cities were desi-fied. Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata and strangely Madras became Chennai! But certain structures of oppression and hierarchy in society still remained. Certain ideas of what it meant to be Indian remained. Ideas that created conceptual constructs that created philosophies and even politics. India was birthed in a chaotic backdrop, with Partition and its after-effects. Even as a fledgling country trying to make sense of itself, India never quite had a problem with the diversity of its constituents. Unity in diversity became a catchphrase and a cornerstone of what it meant to be Indian. Tolerance and pluralism came to India as easily as breathing was to man. Spontaneous. Simple. Founded on centuries, nay millennia, of assimilation and churning of cultures, philosophies, ideas and people.

And then the undercurrents of differences burst forth, breaking the dams of reason, tearing asunder the fabric of Indian society.

Read more about a Dharmic take on identity politics here: #Solidarity

I am Brown, so what?

It has been six months since I assumed office as the key student-facing sabbatical officer of the University of Cambridge Graduate Union, in my fourth stint as a student leader in the Cambridge University student unions. The role has involved campaigning on multiple fronts, including on rent, divestment, anti-racism and international student concerns, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. In this period, I have proposed policy motions on three areas of focus: housing and living expenses, fair pay and support for teaching (and research) opportunities for students, and departmental welfare. I have also reformed the GU executive committee with the introduction of working groups for each part-time officer and the establishment of an intersectionality forum. The other major part of my period here has been representing postgraduate students in University committees. Be it the Graduate Tutors’ Committee, Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee, Academic Standards and Enhancement Committee, University Research Ethics Committee, Societies Syndicate or even the Consultative Committee for Safety in the University of Cambridge, committees are where most of the administrative work of the University gets done with major stakeholders involved. They have had interesting topics discussed from apprenticeships for students to student finances and mental health in the various committees.

Important and interesting!

However, there are times when a certain other side comes through. A side so subtle that it may be missed in all the politeness and propriety that characterize certain formal and semi-formal interactions in the University. Notwithstanding that some of these meetings can be very technical, the committees address key points that require a student voice. That relate to the student experience. That need the perspective of those that consult and engage with students across the Collegiate University. In most meetings I have been quite active and vocal about concerns and points. People have been respectful and nice. Polite. Inclusive. Except when they have not. On paper and on the face of it, things have always been inclusive. The chairs have always given me a chance to speak. The members have listened. Yet, there have been times when in a room full of white people and myself being the only BAME person has struggled to feel included in the discussion, even if I had done as much work, if not more, and known as much about a certain topic. There have been times when I have felt the need to prove myself in the room when I needn’t have. There have been times when I have led a campaign for months and have a lot to share and build on, and a University official would look at my (white) colleagues and address them instead. Speaking on the points relevant to either what I was just saying or something related to a campaign I was helping build!

There are times when I have raised certain points, only for them to be side-lined and that too on flimsy reasons. There have been other times when the only time I was even addressed was when a very specific point was raised by me, after which the reference was taken for the same, and the discussion went right back to disregarding my presence. I could as well have worn an invisibility cloak, to come out for that point, and go right back into it, without anything or anyone being affected. There was a time when this reached a level where I left a semi-formal meeting simply because I could not bear it anymore. Not wanting to pin down any individual here, I felt like this is something that is important to share, important to talk about, important to stand up against. I would not go so far as to say that it is an entrenched racist bias in the system as much as there is still a need to have training on unconscious biases and cultural differences across the University. Last year when I saw and heard how racism even plays a role in student politics elections, on the campaign trail, and how it affected a certain election (a big part of that upset was blatant racism, that was not even subtle), I was disillusioned and yet hopeful. It seems the problem is deeper.

Racism on the surface is eradicated. Yet, there is unconscious bias at various places. Still at the very highest levels of the university, most positions are occupied by white men. I am sorry but I cannot mince any words here for political correctness. Recruitment of BAME academics, representation of BAME students and staff, and funding of BAME activities (slightly better with the University Diversity Fund) are still some of the places where a lot can be done. There are still instances when the cultural differences of BAME students are not appreciated to the level it could and should be, possibly because of lack of awareness of those differences. There is also a tendency to homogenize the needs, interests and views of the BAME community, both by those outside the community and even those who claim to represent the community. If one does not conform to some ideas and political ideologies to a certain extent (sorry but that has to be the hard Left in this case; I believe in socialism but not to the extent where anyone not conforming to my views is not allowed a chance to speak), one cannot be a `good BAME representative’. Apparently. The other-ing of people, even within the BAME community, is also a highly nuanced topic, best kept for another article. Even within campaigns such as the LGBTQ+ campaigns, the lack of BAME voices is troubling, as is the selective targeting of BAME members of campaigns (such as in the protests in the anti-Noah Carl campaign in St. Edmund’s College, when three BAME students were suspended even though they were a few of the many white and non-white participants), and that again is best left for another article. Prevent is a big issue still and a tool sometimes unfairly used.

Even among certain peers and colleagues, without disparaging or targeting anyone in particular, there are times when I have to work towards trying to be a part of the group or feel appreciated. Why should I? Why should I try to conform to archaic ideas of white-ness? Why should I stand on standards set by others? I am Indian and very proudly Indian. I am patriotic (and certain fairly white BAME individuals would have a problem with that too, tagging me as ‘ultranationalistic’) and proud of my heritage, culturally and socially. I have my set of ideas, ethics, values and views, and I would not on seven lives want to compromise on them to fit in. I do not want to fit in and do not need to fit in. And yet I am supposed to or there are those who would be all ears for my ‘concerns’ in the cold, impersonal way you would listen to a distant anecdote of Timbuktu. Why? I am not just a smiling face working away hours to please a person or to prove a point. Why should the abilities of a brown individual be questioned at every turn (even recently a member of the Cambridge University Hungarian Society asked me whether I was elected to my position!). I am as deserving as any other, if not more in some ways, to do what I currently do. And yet I am more than just my curriculum vitae, my credentials and my work. I am a human being with ideas, emotions, perspectives, and, most importantly, just my humanity. In today’s increasingly impersonal and capitalistic world, everyone is after something: proving a point, getting somewhere, achieving something. For what? We will all die and yet may not find either the theory of everything or become the richest person ever (for there can always be a beyond). And it is even worse when those standards of reaching somewhere are oriented around guidelines set by a certain community or people. I do not agree with that. I actively deny that and reject that. Period.

Even in the larger Cambridge town, there have been such disturbing cases. Only today, I was taking a knife for cutting bread to a garden party that the student unions were hosting and this van is passing by, and there is a man on the passenger seat who spits right in front of me (which I would like to believe he did, regardless of me) but his look and the way he kept looking back at me showed a certain paranoia, a certain suspicion that was baseless. I was reminded of the famous ‘I am Khan and I am not a terrorist’ line! Elsewhere, once while playing pool, I joined in with some guys at the WTS Sports club, and the club has a system of putting in coins for the light. Since I was just joining in and rather waiting for my real friend group to turn up, I did not contribute any cash. This white man who was also playing comes up to me and sarcastically asks whether I want to piggy-back on their money. As if! The gall! Such disrespect! It was not India that had piggy-backed on England for centuries but the other way around! Just putting that historical context in place. I moved away after saying that I have better things to do than that and later he seem to have mellowed down (and I could not care any less, for that).

We live in an age where colonialism is a distant memory and where the Enlightenment has hopefully made the rights and liberties of the individual a priority along with respecting the disparate identities and associated interests and concerns in society. If Cambridge must truly be inclusive and BAME friendly, we need to focus on these aspects. Not just have things on paper or in the front but back it up with training of students and staff, on cultural differences and sensitivity, and make the BAME members of the university feel more included, valued and respected.

Let us truly build an inclusive Cambridge (if we can)!

A Clarion Call for Change of Culture of Politics in West Bengal

Bengalis came together on 19th June 2019 in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square, in front of the British Parliament, even as it rained. They were joined by Indians from across the country. The reason? They were there to express their concerns and protest against the atrocities taking place in West Bengal. Several participants shared their views and the collective group urged the Central Govt to take cognisance of the brutalities inflicted upon common people, besides the political murders, kidnappings and ransacking of property in West Bengal. The atrocities have spread to different sections of the society like the students and more recently doctors!

Read more about this here!

Indian pluralism and a pluralistic India for a Brighter Future of Humanity

Recently, after my speech at the Leicester Vichar Manthan on how a truly Dharmic society promotes the idea of unity in diversity, a Bangladeshi friend was surprised when I said I have had a lot of close Muslim friends since my childhood. The latter was probably a direct questioning of the former (and of someone who could adhere to such an orientation) that may have had its doubters in the audience at Leicester as well. In an age of hard-Right ultra-nationalism in many parts of the world and the rise of certain radical elements from the fringe Right in India, it is understandable to disregard the fact that India has always been about a coming-together of disparate identities and ideas, not only post 1947 but for millennia. In this context, it was surprising when one middle-eastern friend went so far as to categorize the entire nation of India as `bigoted’ to my great dismay and protest. It is easy for people to homogenize a nation’s thoughts and orientations and, in doing so, being unfair to its people. For him and for various others, I am sure it is tough to understand how a modern `Hindu’ and an Indian could argue on the nuanced point that Indian pluralism is non-negotiable, given what they see as a recent surge of Hindu-identity politics in India. It is exactly because being Hindu and an Indian naturally makes you inclusive and pluralistic…if you are true to the foundational ideas of India and even what can be regarded as `Hinduism’, which I argue is a highly recent and amorphous term.

Before moving any further, I would just like to highlight some subtle differences in my usage of terms from what is regarded as conventional. When I just speak of Dharma, it is not in the religious context but rather as more – as the natural order and balance in society, sustained by values that uphold the multiplicity of voices and perspectives within it. When I speak of what we usually call Hinduism, I would rather call those sets of values and ideas broadly Vaidika Dharma or Sanatana Dharma, a way of life and not quite a modern religion even, since there was no one homogeneous religion called Hinduism before the eighteenth and nineteenth century and all there was were sects and schools of philosophy. If the Persians are to be believed, Hindus are those living to the east of the Indus river, and therefore as some would say, it almost signifies a cultural or even civilization connotation for the Indian subcontinent. But that debate is for later. In this article, I would rather not delve on that.

Having got that out of the way, let us look at the foundations of India.

Let us look at the idea of India. Continue reading Indian pluralism and a pluralistic India for a Brighter Future of Humanity

For a Dharmic Brexit and Unity in Diversity

(This reflection-piece was written for an event where I was called as a speaker by Vichaar Manthan – UK in Leicester on `The Role of Dharma in the Post-Brexit Indo-British Relationship’. It looks at the spirit of India, and how the idea of ‘unity in diversity’ has been ingrained in its core, and what UK could obtain from this understanding in a post-Brexit world)

Jaimini, the author of the celebrated Purvamimamsa and Uthara Mimamsa, explains ‘Dharma’ thus `Dharma is that which is indicated by the Vedas as conducive to the highest good’. Dharma comes from the word ‘Dhr’ and related to that which upholds equilibrium and balance in society and the Universe. Dharma is a term that appears in a very fluid manner in the ancient and medieval texts of Indi, particularly the itihas or epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Krishna and Rama, however, do share the commonality of not just the speaking of and on Dharma but living Dharma. And it is this that ancient Indian philosophy embodies. Not just saying or doing things, for these are but temporary flutterings on the cosmos, but rather orienting one’s existence so that that which balances, that which equilibriates and that which respects the inherent unity that the oriental traditions may see in the Brahman or Tao while the occidental, contemporary, scientific tradition may see as products of the singularity that exploded into form with the Big Bang.

So, in a world full of polarities, dualities, multiplicities and differences what can be regarded as the equilibrium, as the balance and the balanced, as Dharmic? When relativistic physics tells us that space (and its associated dimensions), along with time, is frame dependent and has no absolute aspect while quantum physics talks of an even more fuzzy reality, whose evolution depends on its observation, surely such a balance is tricky to demarcate or highlight. The Dharmic tradition therefore does a highly sensible thing in the process: it decentralizes the resolution of this dilemma. It makes Dharma the operational balance of elements in the Universe as determined by their innate tendencies and natures, or Swadharma. Gandhi may have called this Swaraj (or self-rule) as did Bal Gangadhar Tilak but the idea itself has its roots in the Vedas and Upanishads of India. This is turn neatly comes from the concept of Rta, the natural order of things in the Universe. Just like fire burns, water flows, snakes slither and so on. The more relative truths of these tendencies build up the relational reality of our universe. Currently I am studying the possibility of unifying physics as we know it using a relational reality as the basis. Regardless of the result of this research pursuit with Prof. Brian Josephson (Emeritus Professor, Cavendish Laboratory and Nobel Laureate 1973) at Cambridge, at a human level this presents a more accessible and equally universal gem of wisdom: unity in diversity.

Read more here:

Manifesto Musings

The Indian General Election season is here!

Will it be ‘Abki baar (phir) Modi sarkaar’ (‘this time (again) it is time for a Modi government’) or ‘Jaat par na pat par, mohar lagega haath par’ (‘neither based on caste nor on creed, my vote will be on the hand’; the hand is the symbol of the Indian National Congress)? Will India finally vote for a regime mainly on development issues or are we still some way off from such a scenario? How important will caste dynamics be? Will communal and sectarian politics play a role?

These are all questions that shall matter immensely as the country gears up for the General Elections 2019, beginning from 11 April 2019.

The manifestos for Indian General Elections 2019 of the major Indian national parties: Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress, have now been released. Both parties have looked into various aspects of life and society in their respective manifestos, right from the economy and jobs to foreign affairs and defense.  While one focuses on its leader (the BJP’s with the focus being on Narendra Modi), the other seems to focus on people, in general. One talks of resolutions (‘Sankalp‘) while the other talks of its ability to deliver (the Indian National Congress).

As the country gears up to vote, I would like to look at the key points that are covered (or not covered) in the manifestos, in a series of articles called #ManifestoMusings. As both parties pitch their manifestos for claiming power in 2019, let us see what the two parties have to say on this.

Brown Pundits