Thuglaq turns 54 and The Forgotten art of Dialectic!

 

 

The late “Cho” Ramaswamy was a Indian actor, comedian, editor, political satirist, playwright, film director , Member of Parliament and lawyer . in 1970 he had an argument with his friends who dared him to start a magazine  and to win the bet , he launched a political magazine that turned 54 this year. The first issue had this iconic cartoon where one donkey says to the other ” Looks like this Cho fellow has launched a magazine” and the other replies “Great , we will have a feast then!”.  The cartoon donkeys make their appearance once in a few years while all of us readers have been reading Thuglaq for decades !

I happened to attend the 54th annual meet of Thuglaq, the one-of-a-kind event where the entire rank and file of the magazine meet with its readers, on Pongal day ,as it always happens. This unique practice was started by Cho and after his death in 2016, S. Gurumurthy, the Chartered Accountant, Journalist and RSS Idealogue has been successfully running the magazine while maintaining such traditions as well. Cho, while his sympathies for the right wing and Modi was always transparent , also was known for changing his views as the situation on the ground demanded and did not hesitate to critique even sharply the parties he supported. He was famously responsible for the TMC (Tamil Manila Congress – Moopanar and P.C Chidambaram led) formation and TMC – DMK alliance and helped in shaping the BJP-DMK Alliance during Vajpayee’s time as well when he went against his childhood friend Jayalalitha. Under Gurumurthy, while Thuglaq retains most of the founding tenets of the magazine, discussing mostly only politics and a sliver of spirituality, the irrepressible and at times irreverent humor of Cho is definitely missing. Gurumurthy seems to have almost made it a dry right leaning political magazine to the mild disappointment of long-time readers like me.

 

In spite of the strong shift to the right, Gurumurthy has retained and even strengthened some unique features of Thuglaq. One being inviting political leaders of all hues including the ones he opposes like DMK, Congress, Communists to share their experiences and points of view in the magazine. And to continue and strengthen this annual unique event on Pongal day when the Editor of the magazine and his entire staff meet and interact with all the readers and invite political leaders to address and interact with the audience as well. Who’s who of Indian politics have attended these meetings – Advani, Modi and most of the BJP Leaders, the erstwhile Janata leaders like VP Singh,  senior communist leaders and Tamil Nadu leaders across political parties.

 

For this year’s event, the two main guests were Shashi Tharoor from Congress and K Annamalai, the firebrand BJP Tamil Nadu Chief. Sadly, since Annamalai was coming in from a meeting at Delhi, his flight was delayed and by the time he entered the Music Academy Hall, Shashi had finished his speech and had left. The program began the way it always does, with the editor introducing the entire staff of the magazine on stage starting from the veteran reporters like Ramesh whom most of Tamil Nadu knows to the attenders.  This is again a unique gesture that surely must be appreciated. Then selected readers from the audience come to the stage and make their comments, queries and criticisms to which Gurumurthy replies. This year, apart from the  regular questions about state and national politics , there were a few questions and concerns regarding the Maldives standoff and Guru gave his opinion and also deferred to the veteran diplomat and politician and ex Minister that Shashi is and requested him to give his point of view when his turn came. The audience as expected was mostly sympathetic to BJP’s cause.

Shashi spoke well, noting down all the key concerns and objections raised by the audience against Congress and addressed them valiantly. He also accused Modi government of subsidizing North at the cost of the South, lamented the subjugation of federalism and also explained the Maldives situation in an objective way without blaming the BJP government but cautioning it to be careful not to push Maldives into the axis of China.   Ram temple issue being a topical one, he took it head on saying that he will visit the temple but not on the 22nd as he has in any case not been invited and would not want to go even if he were as he felt it was made into a political event. This caused some unrest in the audience as it did when he was overly critical of Modi. Overall, it was a measured speech, fully knowing it was a partisan audience who were against his world view, Shashi Tharoor, I felt stood his ground gracefully.  It was comforting to see Gurumurthy come up to the stage after and admonishing the audience for interrupting Tharoor’s speech, commenting that since Dr Shashi Tharoor maintained the decorum of the forum, it behooves the audience too to do the same even if they believe he is all wrong.

 

Then came the star of the show, Annamalai who has caught the imagination of the public in the state especially those who desire an alternative to the Dravidian parties. His was a systematic take down of the DMK, its history and all that he felt was wrongs done by them. He also attempted to answer all the criticisms laid by Dr Tharoor, replying to the preferential treatment to the North charge, gave a population-based defense of the budget allocations favoring the North. He explained the BJP’s plans for the south and Tamil Nadu in particular.  Gurumurthy too jumped on to the same North – South subject later and gave a historical perspective based on argument that the north suffered more from the partition which at least I could not buy fully.

 

A few broad inferences for me from the event

For Congress, it appears as though this boycotting of hostile TV Channels and media is a petulant and self-defeating act. I too cannot stand some of these loud TV Channels and can understand the reasoning but if one is running a political party, surely one needs a thicker skin and like Shashi Tharoor showed, one can hold their point of view even among a partisan hostile crowd and come out with head held high! I overheard a lot of the audience commenting that “Tharoor is a good leader but will he survive in the Congress”. It is up to the Congress to convince people of that and give such leaders more responsibilities and have them engage with people more.

 

For BJP, this preferential treatment of North over South and the damage to the federal structure narrative is hitting home to the audiences in this part of the world and even to those who are favorably disposed towards it. The narratives countering it, the ones I heard from Annamalai and Gurumurthy were not entirely convincing. There have been other arguments on this subject which have featured in BP Podcasts by folks like Maneesh about Freight Equalization policies and such which seems to have some merit in them but are seldom heard here. Are those too nuanced and complex arguments, am not sure but the ones that I listened to now still leave me with the feeling that we in the south have been hard done by both the Congress and more so by the BJP Government.

Interacting with the audience live, especially if it is a large one and answering them impromptu seems to be a rare occurrence and should be celebrated more. The audience too needs to learn to respect the speaker and not jeer if an opposing point is presented. The audience in this event have been that historically and when they went a bit haywire, they were immediately pulled up. Politicians, those who are well qualified (Please note I do not say educated!) and passionate about a subject can still convey their stances without resorting to name calling and hyperbole. Both Shashi Tharoor and Annamalai were strong but objective and respectful in their speeches.

The argumentative Indian can also be objective and respectful and can engage in constructive dialogue and achieve much more!

The YouTube Recording of the entire event.

On language diversity in India – North vs South

Language remains a bone of contention within Indian discourse, and much of it surrounds the North Indian insistence on Hindi (more specifically Khariboli, the high prestige dialect of Hindi spoken traditionally in the region around Delhi) versus the Southern insistence on lingual diversity and the immense pride in regional lingual traditions (be it Tamil, Kannada or Telugu)

But the fundamental divide is this –

Lingual diversity in North India is significantly lower than in the Deccan, which creates fundamental differences in the attitudes towards lingua franca like Khariboli

Roughly 450 million people from Bikaner to Jamshedpur speak similar tongues Yet the 60 million people in Karnataka can barely follow the 70 million people in TN

The reason Khariboli in my view established itself as the primary lingua franca of the North Indian plain is because the differences across the various languages spoken from Panipat to Gaya were not as massive to start with. Clearly smaller than the differences between say Telugu and Tamil.

But why is that? One obvious proximate reason –

South had regional polities unlike North where Empires spanned the whole Indo-Gangetic plain, driving greater homogeneity in the spoken Prakrits.

But what are the underlying reasons for the greater political unity of North India?

    • The Northern terrain is more uniform, unlike South which is a plateau. Also the nature of the terrain varies a lot down south. E.g. Tamil Nadu is clearly a plain, while neighboring Kerala is hill country and Karnataka is an elevated plateau. This perhaps limited social intercourse of people in ancient times.
    • In the North we have the great Ganges river. The Ganga-Jamuna river system unites the land, linking the whole expanse of land through maritime commerce.  South has no such single river system but separate provincial rivers like Krishna, Godavari in AP, Kaveri in Karnataka and TN.
    • North India was setted earlier by the Indo-Aryans. Its proto-historical period can be conservatively dated to 1500-1000 BCE. In contrast, Southern India emerges out of pre-history much later towards the beginning of the Common era. The earlier settlement meant that the Gangetic plain is significantly denser and also uniformly dense. E.g. UP’s density is over 800 per sq. km, while Bihar is at 1100. Whereas in the South, there is greater variation in population density. Tamil Nadu is at 550 per sq.km, Kerala is 800+, while Karnataka and Andhra are significantly less dense (around 300).. The higher and more uniform density up north perhaps contributed to a more homogeneous lingual culture.

But the last hypothesis is unsatisfactory. It leaves us with the question – Why didn’t the less dense and more isolated parts of North India (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh evolve distinct regional cultures? Having said that, it must be noted that the relatively denser parts of these two states – Malwa and Mewar are culturally closer to the Gangetic mainstream culture than other parts of these provinces where we do see greater variation in dialect (E.g. Marwar)

I feel the vastly different levels of lingual diversity between the Northern plains and Deccan impact how the discourse is conducted today on the issue of Hindi and Khariboli.

The “typical” North Indian argument underrates the diversity down south. And hence goes like this –

Hey. We are Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri speakers. We don’t mind our differences, and have chosen to embrace Khariboli as the “standard” tongue. Why can’t you southerners do so as well?

The “typical” South Indian argument overstates the lingual diversity up north.

Hey..why are you guys adopting Khariboli without resistance. Why have you guys given up on Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri? Get a spine!

Both sides in my view get it wrong. Northerners understate lingual diversity down south. Southerners overstate lingual diversity up north. This is at the root of most culture wars around language

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish

Why Hindutva Worries me: Annual Onam debates

This is first in the series of blogposts I plan to write about my worries with Hindutva.

Every year on Onam, social media witnesses flame wars between Hindutva and Anti Hindutva forces. The point of contention often is the Hindutva assertion that Onam is Vamana Jayanti and the counter to that is Onam is a secular harvest festival of Kerala. BJP handles have been tweeting their versions of Onam ever since they have been active on internet. The level to which both sides are unwilling to compromise on occasions of festivals – which ought to reflect human community celebrations, is petty. This year Arvind Kejriwal, flush with his success as modeling himself as a Hindu (or Soft Hindutva), took to twitter with this. It was met with a reply from Shashi Tharoor which in turn was countered by ever growing internet Hindutva – including the widely popular TrueIndology. One cant expect these flame wars to subside anytime soon, given the interest people have been taking in history & hindutva these days.

For decades, liberals have critiqued the Hindutva project as exclusionary. The Hindutva response is – wrt Abhrahamic faiths – if that only these people (religions) connected with the culture on ground and accepted native customs along with their own customs, we wouldn’t protest. For the Hindutvavadis, the said project was always Indianize (not Hinduize they claim) these monotheistic faiths, so that these faiths are more integrated in the larger Indian society. By that train of logic the Hindutvavadis should be happy if Keralites Christians & Muslims celebrate Onam as a Secular festival. Couldn’t this be held as a beacon of syncretic Keralite culture which the country should follow ? For most times, festivals evolve and change with times, their origins though not irrelevant, tend to become less salient as time goes on. The origins of Christmas are testament to the fluid nature of festivals. Onam in Kerala is a truly spectacular festival full of dances, food, music, boat racing and many things, not unlike Diwali. Across the world, harvest seasons have festivals and religious significance because of the underlying material importance. Do contested origins of festivals matter or the human community experience of festivals matters?  Nowruz (whether that is an Iranian mirror of Holi is something that interests me) celebrated by the broader Iranian people, after a millennium of Islam is a testament to the longevity festivals rooted in culture. The insistence of always getting sole ownership of the Onam story comes of as toxic chauvinism & deliberately exclusionary IMO. Yet every year, there are the same debates around Onam with Keralite Christians and Muslims abused for trying to own Onam in a way they have come to define it. (Ricebags and other demeaning words are often used). 

The apparently ironic way the Hindutva movement is becoming very much like its primary enemy is not really unprecedented. VD Savarkar, the foremost and most intellectual ideologue of Hindutva was critical of Muslims and Christians putting their religion above the country. Sadly during the negotiations of princely states, Savarkar himself campaigned for independent Hindu Travancore against the plans of Sardar Patel. It can be alleged he put Hindutva before the country at that moment – exactly what he accused Muslims of for all those years. Yet Hindutvavadis have no qualms putting Patel and Savarkar in the same tent – while claiming Patel and Nehru had irreconcilable differences.

These flames wars were merely part of twitter for a few years but now they’re penetrating larger audiences via whatsapp. While this may be a symptom of taking trivial social media more seriously than it deserves, the point I am arguing is beyond the flame wars of twitter. There is a deliberate and uncompromising framing of Hindutva underway – which covers a variety of tropes from calling Jains/Sikhs Hindus to soft diktats against celebrating Christman/Eid. I consider these manifestations of the nascent ideological moorings, troubling. In  a weird way at times, I hope Hindutva remains REACTIONARY and resists ideological framing, for I am more wary of deep ideological movements than mere reactionary ones.

While its not my argument that their might not be any deliberate maneuvering by the liberals in framing of the Onam as a secular festival – I dont know and I dont care enough to investigate. If the world Hindu is defined as broadly as some do, everything east of the Sindhu will be Hindu & most festivals will have some connection to traditional Hinduism/native religions. At end of the day what matters is Onam is a harvest festival for Keralites.

Post Script:

I personally have tried to indulge in the so-called Dharmic/Indic arguments for India (Harsh Madhusudan& Rajeev Mantri are publishing a book i am looking forward too), put they also indulge in unnecessary labeling IMO. I find the use of these labels – Dharmic/Indic – churlish at times.

As usual all comments short of abuse are welcome.

Browncast Episode 64. We Talk with Meru Media about India, Pakistan, Hinduism, TNT, Aryans..

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunesSpotify,  and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. I am toying with the idea of doing a patron Youtube Livestream chat, if people are interested, in the next few weeks.

Would appreciate more positive reviews!

In this episode we talk to Mukunda Raghavan, who runs Meru Media (“your home for all things Indic”). We talk about Hindu drinking culture, India, Pakistan, Tambrams, Aryan Invasion, all the fun stuff. Do check it out and leave comments.

 

No such thing as South India

The original article by Mahatma’s grandson is equally intriguing, People of the South constitute an equal and single community: Rajmohan Gandhi.I don’t have too many opinions on this (for a change) but my inclination is that caste (and then creed) have dramatically reduced regional identities in India.

The states that have been most problematic to the Indian Union (East Punjab, Srinagar area, 7 sisters) have more homogenised profiles (and incidentally happen to be on the periphery). Continue reading No such thing as South India

Brown Pundits