The Parsis of Bombay

I just finished reading Michael Axworthy’s Iran: Empire of the Mind, one of Razib Khan’s recommended reads on Iran. The book serves as a useful primer on Iranian history for novices (such as myself), covering over 3,000 years of history in less than 300 pages. It lacks the literary flair and flourish of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s magisterial Arabs. I found myself skimming through the latter parts of the book- the Pahlavi era and the subsequent Islamic Revolution- as I am broadly familiar with the events of the modern period.

 Pre-Islamic Persia was an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. Axworthy provides a good overview of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid periods of Iranian history. Ancient Iranians developed a complex and nuanced theology centred around the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of the Sassanid Empire, one of the superpowers of the pre-Islamic world. All of this was to change with the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. The armies of Islam burst out of the Arabian Peninsula like a supernova and reduced the Sassanid Empire to dust. The Zoroastrian religion was swept away in this upheaval.

 One group of Zoroastrians escaped and sought refuge in Gujarat in Western India. These Zoroastrians are commonly known as the Parsis (from Pars or Persia). The essay below is a personal account of the Parsis of Mumbai. I had written it a decade ago. Reading Axworthy’s book brought some of those sweet memories back.  

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Some notes on the accession of Junagadh vs. Kashmir

Whenever there is a debate on Kashmir, there is often a parallel drawn, particularly in Pakistan, between the accession of Junagadh to India, and the accession of Kashmir (also to India).

The narrative in Pakistan typically goes –

In the case of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state acceded to India, as its Maharaja was Hindu. While in Junagadh, India insisted on a plebiscite and eventual accession to India though its Muslim ruler had acceded to Pakistan. 

While this criticism may seem superficially sound, it is very specious and misleading as it ignores how different the case of Junagadh was from that of Kashmir. It is worthwhile to reflect on the circumstances surrounding the accession of the two states.

A few things –

1. Junagadh was not contiguous at all with Pakistan. In contrast J&K in its entirety was contiguous with India.  The Nawab’s accession to Pakistan was in violation of the contiguity principle. Here’s a map locating Junagadh in Southern Gujarat.

On the other hand, all of Jammu and Kashmir in its entirety was and is contiguous to the rest of India. So the “contiguity principle” was very much adhered to in the Maharaja’s accession to India

 

Image Source : wiki

2. Junagadh, with its population of 700K, was ~85% Hindu. The Nawab’s decision to accede to Pakistan was clearly in violation of the wishes of his subjects. In the plebiscite that succeeded the Nawab’s Pakistan accession, well over 95% of the voters chose to accede to India

In contrast, J&K was about 75% Muslim. Also unlike in Junagadh, where Hindus dominated the whole state, in J&K, the Muslim predominance was mainly in the Kashmir valley, while the Hindus were numerous in Jammu and Buddhists in Ladakh.

3. Junagadh’s Hindu population revolted strongly and vocally against the Muslim Nawab’s decision to accede to India. Close to 100K Hindus fled the state in the fall of 1947 as per VP Menon, leading to a near collapse of Kathiawar economy.

The plebiscite in Feb 1948 was prompted by this revolt against the Nawab’s decision. Which ofcourse settled the matter in favor of India. In contrast, in J&K, there was no major clamor among the Muslim population in favor of Pakistan. The major Muslim political body National Conference supported the Maharaja’s decision to accede to India notwithstanding its differences with the Hindu princely ruler. So it was a situation fundamentally different from that of Junagadh.

4. The Nawab of Junagadh unilaterally and hastily decided to join Pakistan, under the influence of his Dewan – Shahnawaz Bhutto (father of Pak PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) without even the common decency of letting the Indian govt know of the decision through proper channels.

In fact, Sardar Patel and VP Menon learnt about the decision through the media in late Aug 1947, and later got it confirmed by the Nawab. The Nawab had gone back on the word of his earlier Dewan Abdul Kadir, who had assured Gujarati press as late as April 1947, that the state won’t join Pakistan.

In sharp contrast to the indecent haste and reneging of promise by the Nawab, the Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, was deeply conscious of the fact that 70% of his subjects were Muslim. He did not accede to India in a hurry.

The accession happened only as late as 26 October 1947, following the invasion of Kashmir by “irregulars” and tribal militias sent from Pakistan. So Hari Singh’s sensitivity and judiciousness was tested to the limits and his hand was forced by Pakistan’s aggression.

5.  Next, let’s examine the attitude of India and Pakistan in either case – radically different approaches.

In Junagadh, Muslim league politicians tried to “force” the hand of the Nawab through Shahnawaz, though the Nawab ruled over a Hindu province with no borders with mainland Pakistan.

While in the case of Kashmir, Sardar Patel and VP Menon assured Hari Singh throughout 1947 that they would be okay if he chose to accede to Pakistan. So the Indian attitude was a cool-headed dispassionate one that acknowledged whatever decision Hari Singh would take.

Pakistan in contrast tried to force the issue militarily in Kashmir, not just using its Army and its “irregular” agents, but by cutting off supplies and transport to Jammu from Pakistan, in an attempt to intimidate the Maharaja into acceding to Pakistan.

So these are five major ways in which the case of Junagadh differed from that of Kashmir. Clearly there is no parallel.

There is no ideological contradiction in the way India handled both cases. The Indian reaction was pragmatic and philosophically consistent.

References for the thread :

  1. TCA Raghavan, The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan
  2.  On Kashmir Demographic history –http://cpsindia.org/dl/Blogs/Blog%2015%20J&K.pdf

Post-script : 

In the first draft of this piece, it was mentioned that Hindus were predominant in Jammu in 1947. I have corrected this to “Hindus were numerous in Jammu”, though maybe not in a majority. The census numbers of 1941 are unreliable on account of WW2, and also the Jammu specific numbers may have been impacted in the course of 1947 on account of both the riots against Muslims in Oct 1947 and against Hindus / Sikhs in Mirpur / Rajouri the following month.

Also the % share of Muslims in the state of J&K has been edited from ~70% to ~75%, as the latter number is a fairer estimate based on 1931 census, while the former number stems from the 1961 census

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Forgotten Masters: Indian artists during the Raj

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to e-attend (over Zoom) a lecture organised by London’s Royal School of Drawing on Indian artists during the Raj. Titled Reflections on Forgotten Masters, the talk by William Dalrymple (the famous Scottish historian) and Xavier Bray (the director of the Wallace Collection) followed the eponymous exhibition organised by the Wallace Collection and co-curated by William Dalrymple last year.

The Wallace Collection is not as well known as other London museums such as the British Museum or the Victoria & Albert Museum. Originally built around the private collections of the nineteenth century British aristocrat Sir Richard Wallace, they have a wide repertoire and organise a number of interesting exhibitions, including on themes related to the subcontinent. I had previously attended their exhibition on Indian medicine titled Ayurvedic Man, which was excellent. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown last year meant that I couldn’t physically visit the Reflection on Forgotten Masters exhibition, and had to view it online.

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The (Original Brown) Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game

Galwan Valley, Pangong Lake, Karakoram Pass, Doklam Plateau, Mishmi Hills. These obscure geographical features and landmarks in the high Himalayas separating India from China have suddenly made their way back into the public consciousness. The catalyst this time is the increased friction between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India. I use the phrases “way back” and “this time” deliberately. To scholars and enthusiasts of the Great Game, these names and the surrounding context are eerily familiar: shadow boxing between an ascendant, assertive superpower (Tsarist Russia) trying to throw its weight around in its immediate neighbourhood and an ostensibly weaker but rising middling power (British India) trying to protect its interest in its backyard.

The original Great Game, which played out over the course of the nineteenth century between the British Indian and Russian Empires in South and Central Asia, had all the characteristics of a bestselling novel, filled with action, adventure and intrigue. It also had its set of glamorous characters: Sir Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Burnes- the famous British spy with oodles of charm and dashing good looks to boot- was the James Bond of his era. He was matched on the Russian side by Captain Yan Vitkevich, the enigmatic Polish-Lithuanian orientalist and explorer. Mercifully, there was very little by way of direct bloodshed between the principal protagonists, although things did come close to getting out of hand on a few occasions. No wonder the Russians evocatively called the contest “The Tournament of Shadows”.  It was compelling drama and the public- in Britain, India, Russia and beyond- lapped it up. The romance and zeitgeist of the times was captured by the great Victorian author Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel, Kim.

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Some brief points on Gandhi

A brief summary of my views about Gandhi

  • I have seen the entire “Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy” play and read the entire speech by Nathuram Godse. Till my late teens, I was impressed by parts of Godse’s arguments but today I find them misguided and half baked and his actions hasty and counterproductive (From Hindutva POV). On further reading – especially Gandhi’s own writings and other commentaries my views have changed almost 180Degrees wrt Gandhi. A lot of hatred of Gandhi in MH brahmin circles is due to the 1948 Anti Brahmin riots.
  • He would be best classified as a Brave Pacifist Extremist. He combined both Tilak’s and Gokhale’s tactics. He was not a moderate like Gokhale, nor did he condone violence like Tilak – yet he tried to encapsulate both streams in Congress before him.
  • Prima facie a lot of his pacifism seems excessive and inefficient, but when you read Gandhi’s own writings on Violence as a tool against oppression the pragmatism of his position comes through.
  • Non-violence was the path of least resistance and hence extremely helpful in building national movement while instilling democratic values in the populous.
  • His pacifism was more rooted in Jain/Jesus’ influences on him than Hindu Ahimsa.
  • His Ahimsa probably won’t have worked against other colonial powers.
  • Gandhi deserves the most credit for increasing the involvement of the Indian populous into the freedom struggle.
  • He said and did a lot of stupid things that cannot be defended no matter what. His moral grandstanding can be seen as extremely patronizing.
  • His campaign against untouchability had a significantly more impact than he gets credit for.
  • His fasts which can be seen as moral blackmail did a lot of good for the country too. The 1932 Poona pact being a primary example. I also see his controversial 1948 fast for money transfer to Pakistan (for which he finally died) as not without merit.
  • His solution for most Hindu-Muslim conflicts was naive. He can be rightfully accused of being very soft on Muslim extremists. Khilafat movement was arguably a great blunder.
  • Blaming Gandhi for Partition is extremely unfair. If anything the blame must reside with Nehru/Patel for their greed for power.
  • His ideas about bottom-up Swarajya and sustainability appear naive and stupid in the 21st century.
  • Some moments in Gandhi’s life are extremely extraordinary – eg: His Satyagrahas, his reception by Manchester mill workers, his conflict resolution in Naokhali.
  • Why he favored Nehru (over Patel) who was very unlike Gandhi is a mystery to me. Guha and others have tried but I am not convinced.
  • He understood the country much more than his peers.
  • Influence Gandhi has had on foreign movements is extraordinary – MLK, Mandela. He is along with Yoga the two strongest candidates for Indian soft power.
  • Liberal criticism of Gandhi (South African racism, Casteism, Sexism) miss the point of Gandhi. Seldom have public figures changed their views on issues with changing times so drastically and so transparently. IMO that’s the quality that keeps Gandhi apart from other famous politicians.
  • I guess distant future history will remember Gandhi as a flawed yet great human being – in league with Jesus and Mohammad.
  • He is undoubtedly the most consequential (hence Greatest ?) Indian from the 20th century.
  • In the long run, as already seen by the RSS/BJP embrace of Gandhi, his legacy is safer than others (Like Nehru)
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Dammed it you dont: The hydraulic origins of the divergence between the Raj, India and Pakistan

Historians have put forth the the idea that complex political states originated as ‘hydraulic empires’, a need for ancient societies to manage vast water systems. Governments have evolved from their ancient origins to do a lot more beyond managing water. However, we shall see in this post that attitudes towards water can lead to important differences in the evolution of spatially and temporally adjacent political entities.

In terms of hydrology and geology, there are striking contrasts between the Indo-Gangetic plain and peninsular India. The Indo-Gangetic plain is drained by perennial rivers, fed by both Himalayan glaciers and monsoonal precipitation. Peninsular India, on the other hand, is drained only by monsoon-fed seasonal rivers. Geologically, the Indo-Gangetic plain is blessed with alluvial soil which is both fertile and holds groundwater. Peninsular India is composed of harder rocks, which leads to more runoff and less groundwater retention. Water has always been a much harder challenge in peninsular India than the Gangetic plain.

The British Raj and its successor state of India, had vastly different attitudes towards the hydro problems of peninsular India. However, the Raj’s successor state of Pakistan never had to deal with the water challenges of peninsular India. Pakistan remained agriculturally more productive per worker than India till 2017. India had to construct 5264 medium and large dams (compared to Pakistan’s 150) to overtake Pakistan on that count. A side effect was an advanced industrial and technical base.

We first discuss the dam policy of the British Raj, which is known for its investments in railways and canals. A striking rarity in the Raj’s impressive portfolio of grand infrastructure projects are mega dams. It is not that the British did not build significant water-works in India, but these were overwhelmingly barrages and canal irrigation projects. And the absence of large dams was not due to a lack of technical expertise, indeed, elsewhere in the empire, (notably Canada and Australia), British engineers pioneered the techniques that underlie the construction of modern, large scale dams.

So what explains the Raj’s dam reluctance in their richest canvas ? It is likely that the politics of British India underlies the inhibition towards dams. The centre of gravity of the British Indian empire was the Indo-Gangetic plain. It was the most populated region, the region which produced the most recruits for the British Indian army and the region they really needed to manage. And this region did not need dams. The large dams the British built were mainly in deep South India, the largest dam there was a project conceived by the king of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar.

The modern day Republic of India found itself in a very different political situation. The elites of peninsular India were organized and had the numbers to match their Gangetic counterparts. Prime minister Nehru, although Gangetic, was deeply influenced by the economic philosophy of the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviet Union was a master of building mega dams. A massive dam building project ensued, all across India. In the Gangetic plain, this meant increased agricultural yields, but in peninsular India, the dams were a game-changer. Vast tracts of land in Madhya Pradesh were brought under productive cultivation. Interior Maharastra developed a sugarcane belt. Gujarat has become a leader in cotton, tobacco and groundnuts.

Equally important, dams made large cities viable outside the Gangetic plain. Dams and their reservoirs are the only reason the nascent urban centres of peninsular India (Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Hyderabad) could become the dynamic mega-cities they are today. In contrast, Gangetic plain cities continue to get their water from the perennial rivers that they are set on (Delhi-Yamuna, Lucknow-Gomti, Patna-Ganges, Kolkata-Hooghly and so on).

It is conceivable that the extreme importance of large dams and water management structures pushed India’s post-independent elites to invest heavily into engineering education. The public and private enterprises in charge of dam construction, irrigation boards, and hydroelectric machinery provided employment for the labour produced by these elite institutes. These projects thus serviced the needs and aspirations of both urban elites and the vast rural voting masses.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s situation was quite different. With the exception of Islamabad, Pakistan’s cities get their water in the same way Gangetic Indian cities do, surface water and ground water. Developing state-of-the-art water management technology was never an imperative for the Pakistani elite.

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The Indo-Pakistan problem — To be or Not to be

Wagah Border

THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN IN 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the URI ATTACKS with the aim of bringing some nuance in the increasingly binary discussions of Pakistan. Looking back at it in 2020 there are a few points in the essay I mildly disagree with but on the whole, I stand by my arguments. 


For anyone willing to read a shorter -TL-DR version find the link HERE:

Note: This is not a scholarly analysis of Indo-Pak question but an essay ((*mildly subjective)) on the question with references being presented for most of the essay. 


Every well-read Indian who has thought enough about the India-Pakistan issue will have faced Hamlet’s dilemma — “To be or not to be”. It’s fair to assume that national patience, with everything related to Pakistan, is waning very fast nowadays aided by the explosion of social media. Simply put — most Indians have had enough of this shit for 69 + years (the Idea of Pakistan being older than Pakistan). The leftist solution to the Pakistan problem has always been the Aman ki Asha narrative. The reactionary position of some of the Right-wing is to totally boycott anything related to Pakistan every-time a terrorist attack takes place in India. This position though backed by popular opinion at times like this seems to be no closer to a permanent solution to the problem. To come up with potential solutions for this problem, we need to discuss both these approaches and we also need to dig deep into the Nation-state of Pakistan.

 

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The determinants of prosperity in South Asia

Do state capacity and policy really matter when it comes to wealth among regions in South Asia ? Or is prosperity today determined largely by a mixture of geographical and historical factors ? South Asia as a unit is a reasonable region to study because the introduction to modernity in this entire region was mediated by the British Empire.

Seen in the two figures below are GDP per capita ($ PPP) figures for smaller (< 20 million population) and larger (> 20 million population) regions. The entities include the nations of Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, states and union territories of India, and provinces of Pakistan. Some notes about the two figures:

  1. Green bars denote plains regions, red mountain regions and blue coastal regions.
  2. Bold x-axis labels indicate entities with major metro areas.
  3. Bold borders around bars indicate non-Indian entities.
GDP per capita ($ PPP) of smaller political entities (< 20 million) in South Asia. Indian states, Pakistani regions and nation of Bhutan. Bold x-axis label denotes presence of metro area. Bold border of bar indicates non-Indian entity.
GDP per capita ($ PPP) of larger political entities (> 20 million) in South Asia. Indian states, Pakistani provinces and nations of Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Bold x-axis label denotes presence of metro area. Bold border of bar indicates non-Indian entity.

There are roughly five bands of wealth we can identify:

  1. Rich smaller entities of India: Goa, Delhi, Sikkim and Chandigarh. These have GDPs of around $20-25000.
  2. Richer large entities consisting of Indian states and Sri Lanka. GDPs are around $10-12000, and these are predominantly coastal regions.
  3. Succesful agrarian states of India (Punjab and Andhra), mountainous states of India (HP, UT, MZ), Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and country of Bhutan. GDPs between $8-10000.
  4. Interior Indian states and Odisha, along with all Pakistani provinces. This is the South Asian mean performance of around 4-6000$.
  5. Poor regions: Indian states of UP, Bihar, countries of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan’s remote area of FATA and India’s remote state of Manipur.

Clearly being on the coast and having a major city help in a major way. In this context, there are three regions which are major disappointments, India’s West Bengal, Bangladesh and Pakistan’s Sindh. All three are on the coast, have major metropolitan areas and even have rich agricultural lands. But their economic performance is significantly below potential.

On the other hand, the economic star of the subcontinent is the Indian state of Haryana. It defies every convention, its not on the coast, lacks a huge metro region and lacks abundant rainfall. But it excels in every aspect of economic activity, its agricultural productivity is second only to Indian Punjab, its industries are varied and well developed and its service sector is a leader in India along with Karnataka. Gurugram hosts genuinely innovative startups, home to at least 7 of India’s 30 unicorns.

An interesting comparison is that between the state of Punjab and the Pakistani province of the same name. Indian Punjab is richer despite lacking a metro area. But there is a convergence in certain aspects. These are rich agricultural areas, with strong remittance networks but they both might lack industrial entrepreneurs.

Bihar, Nepal and Eastern UP together continue to be home to the largest concentration of poor people on planet Earth.  This is an isolated region, with no major cities, neglected by every Indian political entity for many centuries now. The Modi government’s national waterway one has already connected the region upto Varanasi to the ocean, upstream will be a technological challenge. Nepal, can look to Indian states like Uttarakand and Himachal for an effective growth strategy.

Although geography and history play a major role, the example of Haryana shows that those factors can be overcome. Market access, aggregation effects and the presence of mercantile communities are the key variables that determine economic performance.

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DoubleQuoting Myanmar and Assam..

It’s the first quote that carries the implication of genocide, but what of the rest?

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It’s not a joke, is it? Myanmar..

The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention warns of certain indicators that “provide an environment conducive to the commission of atrocity crimes,” including “increased politicization of identity” and discriminatory “measures or legislation” targeting protected groups. In addition to certain prohibited acts, such as killing members of a group, genocidal States often use legal and administrative tools to facilitate the destruction of a targeted group “in whole or in part.”

In Myanmar, successive governments have implemented measures and legislation to erase Rohingya Muslims’ identity and rights, creating an enabling environment for genocide.

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It’s not a joke, is it? Assam..

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi today expressed his concern over the publication of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that may put large numbers of people in India’s north-eastern state of Assam at risk of becoming stateless.

It is too early to say what the nationality status of those left off the National Register, some 1.9 million according to the authorities, may ultimately be. UNHCR is concerned, however, that many are at risk of statelessness if they do not possess another nationality.

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That’s a DoubleQuote — but it’s also pattern recognition, and the start of a possible concatenation of such quotes — a mala of urgencies.

BTW, it’s more than possible, as Myanmar >> Bangladesh migration illustrates, that mass migration across national borders may be a pragmatic alternative to genocide — but that threatens national sovereignty, doesn’t it?

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