Book Review: Jugalbandi- The BJP Before Modi, by Vinay Sitapati

An oft mentioned take by the critics and opposition of the BJP and the ruling dispensation in India, on social media, reads- BJP and its supporters think that patriotism is a post 2014 phenomenon. A fair rejoinder to the take would be- opponents of the BJP and ruling dispensation think the fault lines in India and opportunist politicians aggravating these fault lines is a post 2014 phenomenon. The rejoinder got reinforced as I read Vinay Sitapati’s new book Jugalbandi- The BJP before Modi.

The book is on the careers and partnership of Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani across their stints with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Jan Sangh and with Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

The lives and careers of these two gentlemen coincide with the first six decades of the republic and in writing the story of their partnership, Sitapati gives us a ringside view of political developments that have shaped post-independence India.

Extensively researched, the book in part a biography of Vajpayee and Advani, commences with an introduction to their childhood and the early influences that shaped their lives- conservative Hindu and semi-urban mores for Vajpayee, growing up in the princely state of Gwalior, where the Maharashtrian rulers give RSS foothold and cosmopolitan, upper class mores that get overruled by the anxieties and aftermath of partition and nudge Karachi boy Advani towards the RSS.

As the duo evolve and grow in tandem with RSS and post-independence broader Hindu Nationalism, the book brings out the ideological pining, the organizational structure and years of grassroot work that paved the way for RSS, an organization banned in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, helping form the government at the Centre within thirty years of the ban.

Sitapati presents Hindu Nationalist ideology- spearheaded by the RSS as one convinced that Indian sub-continent is Hindu/Non-Abrahamic in nature, that lack of unity amongst the Hindus has caused hemorrhaging of territorial integrity and a fear of demographic change that will be disadvantageous to the Hindu majority. The purpose of the political arm of Hindu nationalism is to build a unified Hindu identity, overruling its various caste lines, that will help in maintaining the territorial sanctity and preserve Hindu cultural identity.

Sitapati alludes the success of RSS in becoming a major political force to its ability to work as a Unified entity, no individual is bigger than the organization and all disputes, owing to personality or ideological differences, are managed internally and away from the public eye. It’s ability to nurture and groom talent that helps communicate its point of view clearly to the world at large and talent that keeps the organization a well-oiled machinery and above all to an organizational design that fosters and forges a sense one family amongst its members.

Between the two of them Vajpayee and Advani help implement the RSS ideology, first with Jan Sangh and then later with BJP as they play the roles of the Orator- Vajpayee the supreme orator- within and outside the parliament and Organizer- Advani the quintessential party man and ace organization skills, with ear to the ground; Sitapati credits their Jugalabandi, fine-tuned with their long-standing personal friendship, that withstands the test of time, to the complementary skill sets that they brought to the partnership and their years spent as active workers of the RSS. A partnership that saw its high noon with Vajpayee serving as the Prime Minister and Advani as the deputy PM of the country.

In the book Vajpayee comes across as a wily politician, who seeks acceptance within and outside the parliament by sticking as close to the prevailing political consensus and what he feels is the popular mood. Advani comes across as an RSS man, who is happy to play second fiddle to Vajpayee till the late 1980s when he truly discovers himself as a political leader after the Rath Yatra. Sitapati contends they are both similar in their deference to the Nehruvian consensus- left of the centre on economy and extension of differential rights to religious minorities, till there is a ground up pushback to this consensus from populace at large.

It is in explaining the duos response to feedback from their voters that Sitapati presents an insight often overlooked by commentariat and ignored by polarized and angry participants on social media- politicians act in accordance with the wishes of their voters. They thrive and survive when they respond to what their voters wants.

Vajpayee and Advani, hard as it may be to believe, were laggards when it came to the Ayodhya movement, Indira and Rajeev Gandhi nurtured the movement before Vajpayee and Advani’s BJP took charge. The duos Jugalbandi that led to formation of an avowedly right-wing government, was the two of them letting go of their deference to Nehruvian consensus and whole heartedly aligning with mood of the nation. This submission leads to the question how much of present-day India is because of Modi or is Modi a product of present-day India.

The writing is lucid and the author sticks to the language akin to journalistic reportage. The expanse of the book- the collection of characters who make an appearance and events that unfold, are all written in the style of long form journalism, the book is unputdownable for new junkies and history buffs. The book however, does not help us understand what led to marginalization of Advani after 2004. What made the true organization man break the ideological connection- his statement calling Jinnah a secular leader on a trip to Pakistan in 2005? How much the disarray of BJP, between 2004–9, can be attributed to Advani? For the takeover of BJP by Modi and Shah is also one of the legacies of the Vajpayee Advani duo.

The big take away though is how political parties in a democracy respond to the public mood and the limited say they have in shaping the public opinion. Be it Indira Gandhi’s nationalization of banks, her polarizing the Hindu votes in elections in J&K or the support that Indira, Rajeev and the Congress party extended to the Ayodhya movement in its early years. V.P. Singh implementing recommendations of the Mandal commission report, Vajpayee accepting the indispensability of Modi to the BJP in Gujarat or Advani turbo-charging the Ayodhya movement. These are all instances of politicians responding to an incentive structure designed for catering to feedback from voters.

The ‘liberals’ and ‘resistance’ to current government in India perhaps need to relook at their methods of building a robust opposition. Op-eds in foreign publications, never ending columns on websites all written in a European language and tweets for an echo chamber can only go this far, opposition needs a political party that gets the pulse of the nation for there is no dearth of issues on which the Modi-Shah duo can be challenged.

P.S: Post reading the book I heard a podcast by Amit Varma where he talks to Vinay Sitapati about the book. The episode is available on Varma’s podcast channel The Seen and The Unseen, the episode is an excellent addition to understanding the Vajpayee Advani Jugalbandi.

 

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On Ahmadiyyas and Jains

One of my favourite examples to demonstrate why Hindus and Muslims are like chalk and cheese (or cheese and chalk- no value judgment implied by the metaphor!) is their respective treatment of Jains and Ahmadiyyas.

We all know about the plight of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a story in the media on Ahmadiyya persecution. To Indian eyes, this can be quite baffling. The Ahmadiyyas reserve a highly exalted position for Prophet Muhammad. By all socio-cultural markers: naming and dressing conventions, eating habits, praying patterns etc., they appear “Muslim”. Yet certain theological red lines are crossed- including the recognition of Indic icons such as Buddha and Krishna as prophets, but most importantly the perceived violation of the doctrine of Khatam-un-Nabiyeen: the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. A clear case of orthodoxy trumping orthopraxy. This hostility towards the Ahmadiyyas is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back to the views of the founding fathers of Pakistan, such as Allama Iqbal.

From a Hindu perspective, this can appear bizarre- ethnic Punjabi “Muslims” who share so much in common in both cultural and kinship terms are so hostile towards each other due to some theological disputes. There are more consequential theological disputes within sects of Hinduism. For example, within Vaishnavism, there is the Dvaita Vedanta school founded by the 13th century scholar-saint Madhavacharya which believes that the Divine (i.e. Vishnu or the supreme being) is distinct from the individual. The better known Advaita Vedanta school founded by Adi Shankaracharya is Monistic (i.e. believes in the essential unity of the Divine or Vishnu and the individual). From a theological perspective, these ruptures are perhaps as radical as those between Sunni Muslims and Ahmadiyyas. Yet, the average modern Hindu, even someone who self-identifies strongly as a Vaishnavite, would find the notion of being hostile to other Vaishnavites on the basis of doctrinal differences to be bizarre and laughable.

Continue reading “On Ahmadiyyas and Jains”

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The Self-Hating Prophecy of Indian Elites

 

What is the difference between introspection and self-hatred? Introspection brings reflection, intention, and evolution. Self-hatred brings rumination, doubt, and rot. One is essential, the other is extinction.

Engagement of either shift one’s fate. From the roots of mentality grow branches of thought, blooming into flowers of action and eventually the fruits of result. Nowhere is this more clear than the night and day of the Indian elite.

The ancient elites of India wrote eternal tomes of meditation that built the bedrock of a civilization that has seen the best and worst of humanity, outlasting every peer and power. Their art and literature emanated confidence, beauty, and advancement. While sure of themselves, they had no qualms integrating new ideas from abroad or from home. Diversity was strength, and challenge was opportunity.

Their descendants today are devolution incarnate – Kali Yuga realized. An unending anguish for the approval of outsiders, self-flagellating of even the most innocent of traditions, and an obsessive compulsion for mediocrity are the trickle-down that these elites have given Indians since independence.

While trivial bashing of them is enjoyable, I want to get to the meat of their minds as well as what these minds have yielded.

What causes the exceptional self-loathing of these elites? The mania of knee-bending and the need to constantly look outwards for validation? The ability to be stupendously arrogant towards their birthright to rule yet despise their roots? Continue reading “The Self-Hating Prophecy of Indian Elites”

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On identifying with the label “Liberal” over “Conservative”

This blog post was triggered by a Twitter exchange with Akshay Alladi where he questioned why I identify with the label liberal. A lot of people have – on this blog as well as on Twitter or in person have labeled me a Hindutva liberal or closet Sanghi (from the left) or a Hindutva rebel, yet I personally don’t feel comfortable with those labels. Maybe it is positive tribalism on the Saffron side or parochial wokism on the left.

Akshay also referred to me in his blogpost about Liberalism vs Conservatism and I promised I would also come up with an elucidation of my position. Before I go into attempts at formulating my position, a fair warning – I am not a particularly deep thinker on matters of philosophy and do not have an intellectual bent. I get bored with long essays and books about philosophy and religion, it’s the interactions of these abstract ideas with politics, people, and histories (as an art/science) that interests me than the ideas themselves.

It is fair to get some personal biases (which may appear contradictory) I hold out of the way

  • I am a staunch Republican and Secularist. In my early twenties years, I was more partial towards the Laicite as I grow old I become more partial towards the British or American style of secularism. (Though the recent events in France have made me reconsider my position).
  • I have had a very low opinion of Religions in the 21st century in general and Monotheisms in particular.
  • I have some sympathies with Savarkarite Hindutva (not RSS) and I have often been accused of being a closet Sanghi by leftists.
  • Though I think of myself as a patriot who is well aware of British exploitation of India, I am an Anglophile. I adore the Brits with their language, literature, culture, models of governance (Westminster model). I don’t have shame in saying “Anglo West is the best”.

I would like to explain my identification with liberalism in three progressive strains.

Roots and Personality:

The TED talk by Jonathan Heidt is also a good watch on this topic. The presentation points to a study about how liberals rate Harm/Fairness higher than Authority/In group loyalty/ Purity. In those 5 fields, I would firmly identify as a liberal. Yet I am partial to a moral relativistic framework for roots of human morality over morality which claims to be self-evident (Maybe with the exception of the Golden Rule).

I don’t hold purity and especially ritual purity as an important virtue. In general more accepting of things that make me uncomfortable. I am less certain and more flexible in my views and positions. Whether or not this is a liberal quality (or just an outcome of uncertainty and skepticism) is debatable, yet it makes me more open to the opinions I don’t hold or find unpalatable. Additionally Atheism, rejection of traditional wisdom when in the conflict in the Zeitgeist puts one on the liberal side in the liberal-conservative divide in many cases.

However, if it’s the uncertainty that makes me liberal, it’s the cynicism that pulls me slightly on the conservative side. I do not believe that the extremes to which liberal democracies have gone in Europe – wrt Capital punishment, Human rights are either pragmatic or even “humane”.

While the above argument is reasonable, I feel it misses the point that the context and the stage of society one find themselves in, as a determinant of one’s position on the Liberal v Conservative scale. Hence I would go supplement the above moorings with the following context.

Indian society:

Even before my engagement with Politics of Liberalism and Conservatism, I have always intuitively associated with liberalism than conservatism. Being a radical atheist, a guilt-ridden savarna and a wannabe feminist has meant that in my family and friend circle I was always the most “Progressive” voice – of course, this is in comparison to more conservative voices.

While there are many things in Indian society worth conserving, it’s the adverse effects of these very things that bother me. The idyllic Indian village is home to both the best and the worst that Indian culture has to offer. One of the good things being the social safety net offered by caste and kin connections and the worst being the rigid institution of caste and sexism which is rampant in such settings. For example – I would not wish to conserve the Indian Joint family – in my worldview that structure has more cons than pros in the 21st-century world we live in. And more importantly, these caste and kin networks are anathema to individual rights and freedoms. If the concepts of personal space and privacy are considered important, one of the ways to achieve this would be loosening the bonds of caste and kin networks.

As Indian society currently stands on balance I would want the society as a whole to progress even if it means sacrificing some things that are good on their own. The conservative position here would be to encourage focusing on conserving traditions while interacting with modernity. The debate between Tilak and Agarkar, Gandhi, and Ambedkar are wonderful examples of such strife in our history, and I would in both cases firmly identify with Agarkar/ Ambedkar’s position. (Though I admire Tilak and Gandhi).

As alluded to in my post on Brahmanical Patriarchy. I personally abhor the traditional treatment of women by religion. In the comment thread, Srikanta K noted the slippery slope that leads from critiques of Brahmanism from Women’s’ rights POV, could lead to the destruction of tradition or demonization of brahmins. My position is exactly the opposite, I focus on the same issue with a different slippery slope, the one which our societies have actually witnessed in history. I can jettison traditions when they conflict with my morality or worldview – even these very traditions may have a net positive impact on society.

However, this position depends vastly on the current state of Indian society I find myself in. From what I know of British and Western societies – I would be markedly less “liberal” if I were in those societies. In other words, I might want to conserve the society the west was a few years ago instead of wanting an identity-focused woke revolution.

Indian Politics and Personalities (Litmus tests):

Complimentary to this would be how one related to national politics, issues, and personalities. A year ago I read the Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India. It is not only a fascinating window into the extraordinary life of Hanuman Prasad Poddar but also a compilation of how Indian leaders responded to the writings, thoughts, and work of Gita Press and Poddar. Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, and even Lal Bahadur Shashtri (along with numerous others) are referenced in the book as having a positive outlook towards the Gita press initiative and reciprocally the Gita press was positive towards these individuals. Conspicuous by their absence are Nehru and Savarkar, while Ambedkar is given somewhat harsh treatment by Gita Press – especially the magazine Kalyan. Incidentally, the three Indian thinkers whose thoughts I relate to most are Nehru, Ambedkar, and Savarkar. While this is a weird group to look up to, but the modernist and rationalist (may I say Liberal ?) zeal in all these individuals that most appeals to me today. The fusion of these thinkers might create a good ideological role model in my thoughts. Personally, I would be most at home with a political outfit that takes Nehru’s liberalism with a pinch of Savarkar’s reformist and nationalist zeal while sticking to the constitutional democracy based on a hotch-potch of western models that Ambedkar held dear and all the while being particularly skeptical of Islam as a religion.

While I don’t deny that India is an ancient civilization (Dharmic for a lack of a better term), in its current Avatar, India is a nation-state of the Westphalian model, and though there may be flaws in this model IMO this model is vastly superior to all previous models known to this land or any land for that matter. Not to go all Niall Ferguson here, but I am partial to the view that the rise of the Western civilization is not just correlated with Western models of governance and economy (classical liberalism) but a consequence of it.

Another way to look at this question could be like a Y/N Test on current issues. Some current polarizing issues and my stance on them as follows:

  1. CAAI don’t support it in its current Avatar
  2. Sabrimala – I hope women enter the shrine and are accepted by society in my lifetime. I am skeptical of SC acting as it did in the issue but don’t empathize with the activism around Sabrimala. I can expect a fair flack on this issue – particularly on this blog – but it is as it is. Though I accept my position as a non-believer doesn’t carry as much weight.
  3. Jallikattu – I find the animal rights activism absurd and in unnecessary conflict with traditions and my position here could be classified as conservative.
  4. Cow slaughter – Would be partial to Cow smuggling being treated as an agricultural issue and not a religious one, even though it’s constitutional. Either way, I am not particularly vocal about it.
  5. 370 – Based on the knowledge I have I welcome the change.
  6. Free speech – Would love American-style free speech in India.
  7. Bhima Koregaon/ JNU Arrests  – Find them draconian.
  8. Stricter regulations of crackers – Would welcome.

On balance, based on the above issues, my position would be firmly liberal on the liberal vs conservative scale. This is not an accurate assessment in a broad sense, but a consolidation of the above thoughts in a much-needed context. Without context, these labels are mere abstractions, and hence not very useful and not necessarily transferable in a different context. In a state with a just and efficient rule of law, I would probably not identify with liberalism as much, for, in such a state, the tools and mechanisms for the needed change in society can be achieved more easily. But I am not living in such a state and hence would be firmly a Liberal.

Postscript :

I would not be very liberal with comments that arent constructive and civil.

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Putting the Arnab storm in perspective

Yesterday morning Republic TV Host – Arnab Goswami was arrested in the early hours of the morning for a two-year-old suicide case. The arrest and especially the nature of his arrest created a mini storm on Twitter, with Hindutva twitter making it a FOE issue and a reflection “fascist” nature of Maharashtra government and some sections of Liberals seeing this arrest as Karma.

I would highly recommend Shekhar Gupta’s Cut The Clutter on this topic

Some of the criticism of Karma on Arnab appears fair if you look at the way Rhea Chakravarty was hounded by Arnab and journalists on his side of the political spectrum with Arnab as the ringleader. But it’s the Optics of the arrest and high handedness of the Maharashtra government (using encounter specialists for the arrest) needs to be called out. This comes a week or two after the arrest of Sameer Thakkar for “objectionable” tweets about Uddhav Thackeray and his son. That issue created some outrage on social media but nothing compared to the Arnab issue. Personally, I find such arbitrary arrests (Sameer Thakkar) that have been known to happen in India very frequently, more troubling than the arrest of Arnab Goswami. The arrest of Arnab is surprising due to his stature and popularity and not due to the arbitrariness of his arrest (which is actually banal in India).

Within hours the BJP big guns jumped into the fray with condemnations from Smriti Irani to S Jaishankar. Even comparisons of Emergency were made by Devendra Fadanvis. However one must point out that Hindutva twitter was unhappy with BJP’s response. They wanted a more violent defense of Arnab by BJP (what that would entail is best left to the imagination). However, hypocritically though not surprisingly – the same establishment is silent on the arrests of journalists, which have happened regularly for actually doing their job (in all states including a lot of BJP governed states). Hathras was a prime example where some arrests were made by UP police (the exhaustive list would be too damning). Similarly, the famous arrests of so-called “Urban Naxals” – especially Sudha Bharadwaj, are followed by their detainment for over 2 years without any solid proof coming up in the due process comes to mind. Recently, Dhaval Patel from Gujarat was arrested because he wrote a piece alleging Gujarat CM being replaced because of poor handling of the Covid crisis. He was released on bail after an order from the court. I can go on and on and keep on pointing cases of significantly worse handling of journalists by all states under all governments in India. Uttar Pradesh under Yogi is particularly harsh when it comes to handling journalists but no state passes the basic smell test when it comes to protecting freedom of expression.

Taking it to a next level, there are routine deaths of journalists when they report lesser-known criminals and politicians. The Sand Mafia, the Mining Mafia, the other lesser and greater known criminals (and politicians) are famous for threatening, killing, and killing entire families of journalists. I would like some documentation with trends of murders and mysterious deaths of journalists in India over the last 70 years (couldn’t find any on a cursory search).

My aim here is to not indulge in whataboutery but to put the Arnab arrest in perspective. It’s not an extraordinary event in itself, just it grabs so much space (even in NYT) because it is Arnab – the TRP king and apparent favorite of the BJP Regime. Press freedom in India has a long long way to go, but using this particular case to make that point is not a great idea. Where this case may affect a change(or escalation) is the interplay of journalism (or media) and politics in the future. Politically this moment might turn out to be a significant yardstick for future abuse of state power for politics. Shekhar Gupta alludes to it in the video, this may be a slippery slope leading to an escalation in vendetta politics across the country. The central government under BJP has till now troubled NDTV (with Tax fraud etc), the Wire, and all the usual suspects for 6 years now. But in no case was the action OPTICALLY as drastic as the arrest of Arnab. Maybe such drastic optics are where we are leading, whenever someone raises the level it’s fair to expect others to follow. With more and more public figures getting partisan (Kangana Ranaut, Bajaj, etc) could one expect politicians to attack them too? As was the case with Kangana? Probably. But that doesn’t bode well for either the debate or the partisanship.

+4

Reflections on Nadir Shah’s exploits in India

Last year marked the 280th anniversary of Nadir Shah’s invasion of the city of Delhi – an event as catastrophic as the invasion of the city by Timur in 1398.

It is worth reflecting on this remarkable event in early 18th century – an episode that underscores the perils of a weak state.

Source : wiki images

State of the Empire in the 1730s

What’s remarkable about this invasion is that it happened barely 32 years after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 – a time when the Mughal Empire was still very formidable and pan Indian in extent (albeit a tad over-extended). By 1739, the decline of the empire was well underway. The Mughal emperor at the time of Nadir Shah’s assault was Muhammad Shah, Aurangzeb’s great grandson.

Now it is well known that Aurangzeb was just the 6th Mughal emperor, between 1526 and 1707. But Muhammad Shah who ascended the throne in 1719, was the 12th!

So you had six new emperors in the ten years following Aurangazeb’s death – as many emperors as the number between 1526 and 1707 – a commentary on the chaos at the head of the empire in the years succeeding Aurangzeb.

Now let us do a quick summary on the state of the region just before Nadir Shah’s assault –

  • Bengal was already semi-independent, with Murshid Quli Khan becoming the first Nawab of the region circa 1720.
  • Avadh was on its way to autonomy with Saadat Khan becoming its first Nawab in 1722.
  • The Marathas were clearly in the ascendant. By 1737, they had gained tax collection rights in Deccan, Gujarat, Bundelkhand. In 1737, two years before Nadir Shah’s raid, Baji Rao attacked Delhi and scored a remarkable victory – despite having an army half as large as the Mughals. Post the battle of Delhi, Malwa was ceded by the Mughals to Baji Rao’s Marathas. In 1738 on the eve of the Nadir Shah invasion, the Mughal crown was already weakened considerably.

The other point to note is that even after 2 full centuries of Mughal rule, the nobility of the land was largely foreign born. So power was wielded by men who felt no patriotism for India, and had no affinity to the traditions and culture of the land.  Let’s take some examples –

      • Nizam Ul Mulk, perhaps the most influential noble in early 1700s, was of Uzbek ancestry. His grandfather had migrated from Samarkhand
      • Saadat Khan, the Nawab Avadh, was a native of Nishapur (north eastern Iran), who had moved to India in early 1700s

This goes contrary to the perception pushed by many historians today that Mughals shouldn’t be regarded as foreigners as they were “thoroughly assimilated” and “rooted” in the Indian soil. Hardly the case.

The foreign origins of much of the creme-de-la-creme of the nobility meant a somewhat weak affinity to the land, and susceptibility to treason against the state. Saadat Khan in fact later advised Nadir Shah to assault Delhi, and ask for a large ransom.

Now let’s examine the situation in Persia in the decades leading up to Nadir Shah’s invasion of India.

The Safavid empire ended in 1722 following an Afghan rebellion. But this proved shortlived, with Nadir Shah defeating the Afghans and establishing his rule over Persia starting 1736.

With respect to Afghanistan – Mughals had lost Southern Afghanistan (including Qandahar) to Persia in the mid 1600s. However they retained control of Kabul / northern parts of the country.

Right from the start of his reign, Nadir evinced great interest in the Mughal Empire. He could see the waning power in Delhi as an opportunity. Also the Persian hold over Qandahar meant a strategic advantage for Persia, lost to the Mughals for nearly a century.

Failed Diplomatic efforts

What’s interesting though is that Nadir didn’t simply launch an assault on India with a savage horde. He engaged in extensive diplomacy, with multiple communications with Mughal crown!

E.g. in 1736, Nadir Shah sent an envoy to Delhi, informing of his intent to expel Afghan rebels from Qandahar, and requesting that the Mughal power in Kabul should obstruct these Afghans and not give them refuge. The Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah responded agreeably. But when the expulsion of Afghans happened from Qandahar in early 1737, the Afghan rebels did flee to Kabul. The Mughals breached on their promise!

When Nadir Shah sought an explanation for this breach through an envoy, Delhi gave him no reply. And on top of that detained the Persian envoy!

Even communication between Delhi and Kabul was terribly slothful! When the Mughal governor in Kabul sought funds for his troops, his repeated requests were turned down by Muhammad Shah the emperor. So clearly you had a situation when the frontier regions of Afghanistan and Punjab grew gradually defenceless through neglect, at a time when Persian power under Nadir Shah was on the rise.

This was an empire waiting to be assaulted.

The Battle at Karnal

Nadir conquered Northern Afghanistan in 1738. Peshawar and Lahore soon followed. Then the Shah marched to Karnal, where a decisive battle awaited him. In the great battle that ensued at Karnal (February 1739), the Persian army numbered at 55K cavalry. The Mughal army was likely larger, but heavily reliant on elephants – a ponderous and outmoded carrier.

What’s also remarkable is that the Mughal armies took for ever to assemble at Karnal! Saadat Khan, the noble from Awadh, took a whole month to arrive with his troops in Karnal.

It took him 3 days to travel from Delhi to Panipat – a mere distance of 55 miles! This is in sharp contrast to the blitzkrieg raids that Marathas were undertaking elsewhere in India at the same time. The Mughal army (in part perhaps because of its reliance on elephants) was not mobile enough. Not nimble enough.

The other major difference was in the familiarity and comfort with fire-arms. The Persian army revelled at fire-arms. The Mughal army still relied a great deal on swordsmanship and “felt a contempt for missile weapons” (to quote Jadunath Sarkar)

Here’s Sarkar elaborating on the Indian inefficiency at fire-arms

So the result at Karnal was a resounding victory for Nadir Shah. But what followed was not a raid on Delhi rightaway, but extensive negotiations for peace!  This included face-to-face conversations between Nadir Shah and the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah at the Persian camp near Karnal.

Negotiations post battle

Here’s an account from Sarkar drawing on the primary sources of Harcharan, Anandram et al on the first meeting between Nadir Shah and Muhammad Shah.

But the emperor reneged on his word and did not pay the requested ransom of Rs 20 crores! This angered Shah and eventually led to a second meeting with the emperor and the latter’s house-arrest

Raid on Delhi

What followed was the famous raid on Delhi, which lasted about 50 days. But a point to note is that the provocation for this trigger came from the Mughal side. Saadat Khan in particular – the Nawab of Oudh.  While Nadir originally had an indemnity of 50 lacs in mind, it was Saadat who told Nadir after the Karnal battle, that if he were to go to Delhi, he could get 20 crores! As opposed to 50 lacs.

Nadir’s raid on Delhi was focused mainly on collection of ransom. Not just from the treasury, but also from private mohallas, with the consent of the Mughal emperor. But he did not intend to engage in a massacre. What triggered the massacre was an uprising in Delhi against the stationed Persian soldiers. Some 3000 Persian soldiers were killed by Delhi-ites. Nadir had to retaliate with a massacre, which likely claimed some 20K Delhi civilian lives in a span of a few hours. This is a conservative estimate, with other estimates as high as 4 lacs.

Consequences and Takeaways

So that brings us to the end of this brief account of Nadir Shah’s raid of Delhi. What were its consequences?

First of all the raid did not trigger the empire’s decline per se. The Mughal empire’s decline had started long before Nadir Shah set foot.  But Nadir Shah’s invasion unlike Timur had some political consequences – it resulted in the loss of Afghanistan and the modern Frontier province to Persia. Eventually it led to the loss of Punjab to the Afghans (under Ahmed Shah Abdali) a few decades later. The Maratha raids on Bengal too ensued a few years after Nadir’s raid.

So it could be said that Nadir Shah’s invasion hastened the decline of the empire, though not necessarily the cause of it.

More importantly it has some lessons for our times. We tend to think of “invaders” as ravaging hordes lacking in civilization and human values. But Nadir was a shrewd diplomat. He engaged in multiple diplomatic overtures, though the Mughals bungled every one of them.  Even the ransom amount to him was suggested by a Mughal insider, Saadat Khan. So was the idea to raid Delhi. Even the massacre at Delhi that ensued was in large measure a retaliation of the massacre of his own soldiers by Delhi civilians

We live in an age of constitutional patriotism, where deference to the state has to transcend ethnic ties. But Nadir Shah’s episode has lessons for us in this respect.

The reason the invasion was facilitated was because of high treason, which in turn was caused by the fact that much of the Mughal nobility was of foreign origin, and felt little patriotism towards India.

Some 30 years ago, there was a debate in India around “Foreign origin” of Sonia Gandhi and whether this should bar her from public office and electoral politics. The debate settled in Sonia’s favor

But then when we reflect on episodes like these from the past (Saadat Khan’s treason for instance), you wonder if an ethnic connect to the land is a pre-requisite to expect a high degree of patriotism.

We will conclude on that note.

References: Jadunath Sarkar’s “Nadir Shah in India”.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish

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Looking back at 2019 Maharashtra election

It has been a year since the 2019 Maharashtra election & its consequences which fascinated the country. The drama of the election remains unforgettable, for anyone interested I would recommend the book 36 Days.

For anyone interested in some analysis I would recommend Shekhar Gupta’s Cut the Clutters on the topic: here; here; here and here.

However, here are a few salient points from the election and the Maharashtra government

  1. Imagery matters. This image of the 80-year-old cancer patient Sharad Pawar braving the rains in Satara had a huge impact on voting in western Maharashtra.
  2. If someone has to stop the Hindutva Ashwamedh, strong leaders are essential. No one can win elections on sloganeering without strong & visible leadership.
  3. Caste still plays an important role in even progressive states like Maharashtra. One of the reasons for the defeat of BJP was the anti-Brahmin sentiment evoked by NCP by indirectly attacking Fadanvis’s caste.
  4. Ideology is important for political parties, but not as important as survival. Shivsena’s shift out of the NDA was for its survival and not for any other nonsense we hear.
  5. The NDA was well and truly over in 2019, the Akali’s leaving the NDA was in someways foreshadowed by ShivSena’s exit. Bihar election result and Nitish/Paswan reaction to the result would be something to watch out for.
  6. Forming a coalition government is easy, running an effective administration with conflicting interests and multiple power centers are tough. It would be a surprise if the SS-NCP-INC government completes its full term.
  7. All governments abuse institutions when in power and to nearly the same extent, not just the BJP.
  8. Regionalism can be a bulwark against Central hegemony. The region can bind what ideologies divide.
  9. Confrontational governments will find it difficult to work with an all-powerful central government. Non-BJP state governments can either take the Maharashtra route or the Andhra route (of YSR Jagan Reddy)
  10. The respect of the position of the governor (which never had too much respect I guess) has taken a very bad hit after the Maharashtra example.
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Problems with the terms INDIC and DHARMIC

With the rise of Hindutva, certain terms are gaining traction in the intellectual spheres for denoting native Indian beliefs and philosophical systems. As the word Hindu which started as a geographical term has today come to mean a specific overarching faith and philosophical system among the Indian native systems, new words need to be found to encompass all the native systems under an umbrella term. As a term, the terms Dharmic and Indic have come up to encompass all the native Indian systems – like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. The need to have a separate word for these systems appears valid, but I often cringe at the use of words Dharmic & Indic (though I hypocritically use them). The primary urge to use these terms seems to be the desire to have a broad tent for native Indian faiths against/or in contrast to western philosophical and religious systems (especially Abrahamic and Enlightenment systems).

INDIC: 

The word Indic originally appears to be used for denoting Indo-Aryan languages in the literature. However, it is being used extensively by people from Left as well as Right to denote the native Indian faiths.

Merriam Webster dictionary defines Indic as:

  • of or relating to the subcontinent of IndiaINDIAN
  • of, relating to, or constituting the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages ( Urdu the national language of Pakistan is also an Indic language, so would Pakistan by extension be Indic? )

If we take the first meaning, it simply means Indian. Unless it metamorphs into the meaning the users of the term Indic want to be mean, this will continue to be confusing in the future as well. The urge to avoid using the term Indian which has a specific meaning in the world of nation-states is understandable but Indic doesn’t seem to go around the problem enough IMO.

Another problem with the term Indic is that the word itself has no history in any of the native systems. Though after the popularization of South West Asia (or South Asia), Indic seems not so bad.

DHARMIC:

The word Dharma is a better candidate as it is the concept of Dharma that loosely binds the native Indian systems more than the mere geographical accident of origin. The meaning of Dharma in all the native faiths is similar enough to make this framing faithful. But the word Dharma has a meaning that transcends the native Indian practices and seems to point towards some basal human morality. In a way, Dharma is universal and unconstrained by the geographical boundaries of the subcontinent. Consequently using Dharmic for specific systems just because they know “of Dharma” or are “in conversation about Dharma” is wanting. The word Dharma also carries a lot of moral baggage and it would be unwise to even indirectly imply that certain systems are Dharmic.

Additionally, if we use Dharmic to denote native Indian faiths, what would we call the non-native Indian faiths? Adharmic faiths or Non-Dharmic or Un-Dharmic? Adharma like Dharma cannot be used to denote whole faith and philosophical systems – unless you are in the supremacist bubble. Similarly, other negations – Non/Un when placed on a word of deep meaning like Dharma don’t lead to desirable labels.


NEOLOGISM: 

Compare both these to the word Hindutva. For anyone who has rudimentary exposure to any Indo-Aryan (Indic) languages, the word would instantly click. There is something organic and quintessential about the word itself which is certainly lacking in Indic/Dharmic.

Though the word Hindutva was not coined by Savarkar, it certainly was popularized by him. Savarkar himself is credited with over 100 new words in Marathi. Though the aim of Savarkar behind his neologisms is often chided by liberals as fanatical, no one can deny that the result is an enhanced Marathi vocabulary.

In closing, it wouldn’t be a very bad idea to coin a new word to denote the wide tent under which a variety of native Indian cultures have flourished for millennia. Linguists and geeks – get working.

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Jaswant Singh: The Last Liberal Conservative

Major Jaswant Singh (1938-2020), a former Indian army officer and distinguished parliamentarian and politician passed away recently. He served high office in the first BJP/NDA regime (1998-2004) and was, variously, the Defence, External Affairs and Finance Minister. Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his deft handling of India’s foreign policy in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Most famously, his dialogues with the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott helped cement Indo-US ties in the aftermath of the Cold War era.

There are some excellent obituaries- from allies, critics and rivals alike- which give us a good sense of the man and his persona. For me, the obituary that really struck a chord was the one by the senior Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta in his Cut the Clutter show.  It is worth quoting him verbatim:

Jaswant Singh was the last Indian liberal conservative… A conservative in the sense that he brought in a Hindu sensibility, a love for Indian culture. But liberal enough…to embrace everybody… and not interfere in anybody’s way of life and allow a healthy debate… he would have fitted the Swatantra Party very well and would have brought to it the one thing it seemed to lack in the 1950s and 60s: a strong appeal to nationalism”.  

With Singh’s passing, it does feel that the last vestiges of the Vajpayee era are fading away. In his obituary for Singh, the journalist Saeed Naqvi, by no means a cheerleader for the BJP says that “Vajpayee’s was a cabinet of women and gentlemen, a few rotten apples notwithstanding.” Old fashioned virtues of moderation, decency and honour were valued by Vajpayee, and there was no one who epitomised old school more than Jaswant Singh. Through his career as a soldier and public servant and his sense of noblesse oblige, this thoroughbred Rajput proved to be a worthy Kshatriya by virtue of his karma.  In that, he was not alone. Dr. Karan Singh of the Dogra dynasty of Jammu & Kashmir and Captain Amrinder Singh of the House of Patiala are others of his generation who come to mind, albeit with different political ideologies.

Jaswant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The last of the Liberal Conservatives. Source: Indiacontent.in

As a self-avowed liberal conservative, it is hard to not feel a tinge of sadness at this. One got the sense that men like Vajpayee and Singh were able to balance tradition and modernity: adept at blending the Burkean with the Vedantic, and equally well versed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Indian Constitution.

I could name half a dozen prominent BJP politicians in the Vajpayee years who could have identified as liberal conservatives. I struggle to name any noteworthy ones in the Modi-Shah BJP. The closest that comes to mind is the Odisha politician Baijayant Panda, but he is not prominent or important enough in the party. Others such as the former Maharastra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis or the current Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan had the potential to tailor their politics in this direction with the right backing and support. Unfortunately the signal from the leadership is that chest-thumping nationalism and ideological purity counts for more than moderation and compromise. Unlike a Jaswant Singh, these politicians do not have the intellectual courage or independence of spirt to breach the party line and chart their own path. It is a sad indictment on Indian politics, one that would have undoubtedly greatly depressed Jaswant Singh.

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On Indians in East Africa

The Indian diaspora is said to be over 30 million. While the popular tendency is usually to talk of the diaspora in the West (which is recent in formation), Indians have played a far more important role in East Africa if we take a long historical view of the past 150 years

Thomas Sowell’s very fine book “Migrations and Cultures” is an eye-opener in this respect as it sheds a great deal of light on the Indian engagement in Africa since the middle of 19th century. This short post dwells briefly on the Indian contributions in East Africa (particularly Uganda / Tanzania / Kenya) drawn mainly from Sowell’s work.

Let’s take the Tanzanian island outpost of Zanzibar off the African east coast. While the Indian presence in Zanzibar today is not much to write home about, this island was one of the first African territories to be settled by Indians. There was a phase in history when Zanzibar was practically run by Indians. In 1860, a report mentioned – “All the shopkeepers and artisans at Zanzibar are natives of India”!

The numbers of Indians in Zanzibar weren’t great. Only about 5000 in the 1860s. But nearly all foreign trade was conducted by them. As of 1872, an American trader owed Indian financiers in the Island $2MM and a French firm owed these financiers at least $4MM.

While in mid 19th century, Indian presence was largely in Zanzibar and some coastal areas of East Africa, the interior was opened up when the British constructed the great railroad that connected Mombasa port in Kenya to Lake Victoria in Uganda in late 19th century. 16000 laborers were involved in the construction of this great pioneer Railway project. Of which 15000 were Indians.

What’s interesting is that these coolies were pretty expensive compared to the indigenous African labor. Yet the expensive indentured Indian labor from thousands of miles away was preferred as they were more valuable and productive than locally available African labor. The railroad construction proved the trigger for much of the Indian migration to the African mainland – particularly Kenya and Uganda. Much of the migration was from Gujarat.

The Indian settlements in these parts were a momentous event in Africa’s long history. In Sowell’s words, the Indian shops in East Africa were the first commercial retail establishments ever encountered by these African villages in their entire history. The Indians in East Africa were the first to import / sell cereal. Sowell credits them for “transforming East Africa from a subsistence and barter economy into a money economy” in the late 19th / early 20th century.

As an example Taxes in Uganda until late 19th century were paid in kind. Starting in 20th century they were paid in money and the currency was rupees!

In 1905, a report in Kenya declared – “80% of the present capital and business energy in the country is Indian”. In 1948, Indians owned over 90% of all cotton gins in Uganda. In the 1960s, when the Indian population peaked in Uganda, their share of the population was about 1%. But as per some estimates the “Asian” contribution (mostly Indian) to the national GDP ranged from 35% to 50%.

In 1952, there were twice as many African traders as Indian traders in Uganda, but the Indian traders did 3 times as much business as the Africans! Despite Govt regulations which hampered Indians from setting up shops (again as per Sowell).

Resentment against Indian dominance eventually got a lease of life when most of the East African countries became independent in the 60s and 70s. The dictator Idi Amin’s expulsion of most Ugandan Indians in the early 70s was a notorious episode at the time when the Asian population in Uganda dropped from 96K in 1968 to ~1000 in 1972.

The case in Kenya was not very different from Uganda. Indians dominated the Kenyan economy. Yet post Kenyan Independence, the pressures to “africanize” meant that the Asian (mostly Indian) numbers in Kenya dropped from 176K in 1962 to 25K in 1975.

Today Indians play a more marginal role in the region than they once did. .While we tend to diss imperialism a lot, we sometimes forget that imperialism was also a driver of such unlikely inter-continental migrations which brought commercial culture to hitherto unexplored regions.

Political independence to the region did not work out very well for the enterprising Indian diaspora. The Indian businessman who had played a large role in building these economies was driven out of it, with little gratitude.

The story of Indians in East Africa is a much unheralded one, that ought to be celebrated more in India, and must be taught in Indian textbooks. This was not a political colonization driven by kings. This was a mission undertaken by hard working ordinary Indians who shone with their probity, enterprise and sweat.

All the more reason to celebrate and commemorate it.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish

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