Triumph of the Gujarati

Election 2019 reflects a victory of the Gujarat model. But not the model you are thinking of. Not even that other, more sinister model. It is something very fundamental, rooted deeply in economic ecologies.

Human beings are shaped fundamentally by the networks they find themselves embedded in. In India, these networks overwhelmingly take the shape of caste groups marked by an occupational role, social status and marital rules.

For the North Indian peasant, with an economy driven by land and service to an imperial power, caste identity emphasizes kinship and honor. Biradari literally means brotherhood, and membership is conditioned on izzat.

For the Gujarati merchant, in a dry region of relatively unproductive land, caste identity emphasizes pooled resources, adherence to fiscal norms and shared interests. Even for the peasant Patels, caste is today fundamentally an economic union, channelized into farming and dairy cooperatives.

2019 might well be the year that the North Indian peasant realizes the futility of imbibing a kinship and honor based caste identity. On the one hand, these networks simply do not provide the resources to grow and thrive in a post-agrarian world. And even if optimally politicized, the sheer number of caste groups makes the gains from achieving political power limited and concentrated.

The North Indian does realize the need for new kinds of networks. And Modi’s opening up of North India to the world, via a liberal visa policy, river transport from the Bay of Bengal all the way upto Noida and big ticket global engagement platforms like the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shinkansen would not have escaped the eye of the sharp Yadav and Jat, who realize that they will have to reach out to the world to grow.

After all, previous engagements with foreigners in the recent past have given Indians globally important automobile and IT industries.

India today is more open to the world than ever before. Everybody from Peru to Russia to Ghana to Indonesia can come in after submitting a simple electronic form. Less than 7 million people visited India in 2013, by 2016 that number more than doubled to 15 million. Modi’s Gujarati mind grasps the decisive role of networks in the growth of individual, and he might have well coaxed the North Indian to look beyond his caste tunnel.

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Was India ever really “secular”?

Anton Wessels, a Reformed Christian professor of “missiology”, wrote a book many years ago, Europe: Was It Ever Really Christian? The title reflects on the fact that a secular ‘post-Christian’ Europe may never have been very Christian at all, at least in Wessels’ telling.

Wessels writes from a Reformed Protestant perspective. This tradition has taken a very dim view historically of ‘popular folk religion’ during the medieval period in much of Northern Europe. Wessels’ catalog of non-Christian beliefs and practices before and during the Reformation emphasize that from the perspective of a confessing Reformed Protestant it may actually be a fact that most of the population never truly internalized in the gospel, even if they made outward show of affiliation with the Christian religion. Christendom was nominal, not substantive.

There are many arguments one can bring to bear to critique Wessels’ views. In particular, some historians of religion assert that in fact, late medieval piety resulted in the spread of genuine deeply held Christianity to the peasantry of much of Europe. The argument then is that this sincere Christianity is actually one reason that the Reformation occurred when it did. Additionally, even granting Wessels’ contention about the medieval period, the competition between Protestants and Catholics after 1500 guaranteed attention to popular beliefs and practices for several centuries before secularization. The suppression of pagan practices among Lithuanian peasants occurred during the period when Catholic clerics were fighting off the expansion of Protestants.

And yet I think we need to give the nod to some element of Wessels’ thesis: that popular Christianity was quite distinct and different from the faith promulgated from on high, and officially claimed as the ideological basis of Western societies. Perhaps the rise of modern secularism is in some ways the proletarianization of European culture?

What does this have to do with India? In the comments below, and in the media, some Indians are bemoaning the death of secular India. But was India ever secular truly? Nehru was an agnostic. His great-grandchildren now make a show of attending Hindu temples and asserting their Brahmin lineage.

I grew up in the United States of Ameria with the children of elite Indian Americans, who left in the 1960s and 1970s. These people were all urbane, and most of them were not particularly religious. But, like my own parents, they were all very self-conscious of their “communal” identity. These were people who grew up in a “secular India”, and moved through good universities. Because of the times, and when they left, many still retained socialist sympathies (as my own parents do). But, these were not liberal cosmopolitans. Most of their children were absorbed into American culture, but they were products of something very alien to liberal individualism.

The India that people are mourning was a weird chimera. Traditional, collectivist, and communal on the broad level. But ruled by a small English-speaking elite with cosmopolitan pretentions, Macaulay’s children. Generations of secularism and socialist rule did not erode the ancient foundations of Indian society, with caste and community reigning paramount.

What we are seeing is the death of the chimera and the revolt of the middle class. True change and secularization are going to occur only with broad-based prosperity and urbanization. Secular socialist India couldn’t bring that, and so nothing changed on the fundamental structural level. Its failure laid down the seed-bed for the emergence of the Hindu Right, which draws deeply at the well of communal sentiment which is stitched throughout the fabric of Indian society.

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Better in Wales than India

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"One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain. ⁣⁣ To understand how and why it took root and flourished in so distant a landscape, one need only visit Powis Castle (Photo 1)."⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Not many know that this castle located in Wales houses the largest private collection of Indian artefacts in the UK. It "is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company in the 18th century. There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi." The stolen riches include a pair of slippers belonging to Tipu that is made from red velvet and leather embroidered with gold thread, and large curved toes (photo 2) and Tipu’s magnificent state tent (photo 3)⁣⁣ ⁣ Source: The Guardian" The East India Company: The original corporate raiders" by William Dalrymple ⁣

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I’m in High Tory mode these days but I find it absurd to ask for the recovery of Mughal artifacts when both India & Pakistan disrespect that historical period.

When Pakistanis can speak decent Dari and Babri Masjid is rebuilt then we can discuss the colonial encounter and its aftermath. Until then there are much better things to complain about.

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Aladdin!

Disney’s Aladdin is likely to be a hit. And Naomi Scott is likely to be the break-out star. The half-English and half-Guju British chatterbox is also going to play Elena Houghlin in this fall’s reboot of Charlie’s Angels.

The casting of the mixed Scott, of white and Indian ancestry, as Jasmine created some silly backlash online. But one thing that strikes me about the Jasmine she depicts is that her sartorial style has a definite South Asian rather than Near Eastern tincture.

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Browncast Ep 40: Wael Taji on the Topology of Privilege

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…).

(as of this posting there are two postings on the patron page that probably won’t see the light of day until next month; one on Game of Throne and another a discussion with an Indian American on his impending arranged marriage)

On this episode, I talk to Wael Taji, a graduate student in behavioral economics and neuroscience at Peking University, in China. Wael is from an ethnically European background but converted to Islam at one point, before becoming a Coptic Christian (listen to the podcast for details!).

We talk about privilege, race relations, or lack thereof, in modern China. Wael has been living in China for two years, and first visited in 2013. He offered his own views on the changes in China’s view of the world and its place geopolitically.

Wael also offers a pessimistic take on Western academia (his undergraduate background was as a student at Cambridge University). His comparative assessment of intellectual prospects in China and the West were published in Palladium Magazine.

We would definitely appreciate more positive reviews. Many of you listen to us, but don’t leave any reviews!

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Back to Bangladesh after five years- Part 1

I went to visit Bangladesh from early April to mid-May after more than five years. For five years I have written about Bangladesh from secondary sources and secondary experiences. At long last I can write about my fist-hand experience.

I stayed most of the time in the capital city Dhaka. In recent years South Asian megalopolises like Dhaka, Delhi, Karachi, Mumbai have earned reputations as the cities with worst air pollutions in the world. Living in Dhaka’s unbearable pre-Monsoon heat, humidity, dust and particles thick air, I can well understand what do those pollution measures mean for the people. For the bulk of masses who are not fortunate to live in air-conditioned houses, work in air-conditioned offices and commute in air-conditioned cars, buses, Dhaka is truly an urban hell-scape. There is a popular saying among Dhaka’s suffering commuters stuck for hours in oven hot roads; citizens of Dhaka will be forgiven the dreaded ‘Adhab-al qabr’ or punishment of the grave that is supposed to be fate of all persons from death till Qyiamat, the day of judgement. Dhakaites suffer so much that the Adhab pales in comparison.

Although air pollution has become much worse, city roads and walkways have become cleaner and more well maintained. Parts of the massive revenue collection by both city corporation and government are really being used to maintain the infrastructure. Trash collection has become more organized . Piles of rotting garbage and constant stench are no longer ubiquitous.

Mercifully powercuts in electricity, so common in Bangladesh until 8-10 years ago, seem to be very rare now. Diesel generators reverberating throughout the city, a very common sight and sound of yesteryears, are rarely seen and heard now.  In fact, a recent news report said that Bangladesh installed so much power generation capacity in the recent years that capacity has outstripped demand substantially. Experts are recommending that no new power plants be initiated in the next few years. Uninterrupted power supply has made the industries, particularly Garments industries, very happy.

However, the top 10% Dhakaites are living very differently than the rest. Fantastic high-rise apartments and office buildings have sprouted all over the cities. Glass and steel clad apartments and offices remind people more of the spotless splendor of Singapore than traditional dirt of South Asia. New BMWs, Lexus, Toyota cars and SUVs clog the city streets. However, apart from home, office, cars and eateries, there is very little things to do socially in Dhaka for the upper class. That’s why they escape to foreign spots like Bangkok, Bali, Malayasia, Singapore, Dubai, Sri Lanka, India etc several times a year. Bangladesh is the supplier of highest number of tourists in India. Bangladeshi shoppers are significant boosters of Kolkata economy. Several Bangladeshi tourists were among the dead and wounded in the recent Sri Lanka terrorist attack.

The top businesspeople, professionals and government employees are doing great in Bangladesh. Their income has soared in the last decade. Signs of their affluence is everywhere in the cities. People working in banks and finance, telecommunication sectors are doing OK. The middle class is not doing so great. Shockingly, I found that private sector salaries have barely changed in the last ten years but house rent, essential prices have increased at least 100% in the last ten years. Economists say that a living wage in Dhaka, minimum wage for a two person family to keep their body and soul together under a roof, is 17000 Taka or about 200 dollars per month. Starting salaries for college, university graduates not working in choice sectors like banks or telecom are still below the living wage. Garments workers earn 80 to 150 dollars, from starting to experienced. It’s hard to imagine the life of the lower-middle and working class in Dhaka.

In the second part, I will discuss my very startling experience of change and prosperity in the rural areas. In the third part, I will talk about my impression of the state of economy and politics.

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By request — the ouroboros game

Callum Flack saw my recent post here and wanted to see examples of the Ouroboros board in use — so this post is for him, and Ali Minai too if self-reference interests him — I’m guessing it does, unless computer science has moved so far ahead since Hofstadter wrote Godel Escher Bach that it no longer applies..

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How to explain the ouroboros? It’s the ancient and ubiquitous symbol, found earliest, perhaps, in Pharaonic Egypt, of a serpent biting its own tail:

More recently, it’s a popular image in alchemy

Self bites itself. And that’s a pattern worth watching.

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Wikipedia tells us, quoting a Harvard study by Michael Witzel:

in the Aitareya Brahmana, a Vedic text of the early 1st millennium BCE, the nature of the Vedic rituals is compared to “a snake biting its own tail.”

Then there’s this example from a medieval Indian scripture, the Yoga-Kundalini Upanishad:

The divine power, Kundalini, shines like the stem of a young lotus; like a snake, coiled round upon herself she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep as the base of the body

That’s ouroboros.

There’s a marvelous moment in the film Silence of the Lambs when the young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, asks the psychiatrist and serial killed Hannibal Lecter:

You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? What about it? Why don’t you – why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you’re afraid to.

That’s ouroboros.

The paradox of Epimenideas, the Cretan philosopher who declared “all Cretans are always liars” which St Paul mentions in his Epistle to Titus, is ouroboric.

Artists, too, can take an interest in such things as hands that are drawing hands drawing hands — a double ouroboros (MC Escher)..

or pipes that are not pipes (Magritte):

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Anyway, here for any who are interested, are some instances of the one-move self-referential Ouroboros board in use:

I think you’ll see why this New Yorker title jumped out of the page at me:

Writers like ’em!

I really liked these two examples, carried by political activists — the first on a back-pack:

and the second on a placard — totally surreal, bearing no relation to the political event which was being protested:

That, too, is an ouroboros.

Nancy Pelosi used a weird ouroboros the other day, saying:

The logo of 8chan, home of the image-board where the extremists of the alt-right meet and plot away from prying eyes is another double ouroboros:

Here’s one from Hofstadter’s book, Godel Escher Bach:

And finally, here are five instances collected by the writer William Safire:

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I hope you like these, and find your own — here, again, is the empty Ouroboros game board in case you wish to drop your own examples into it!

Enjoy!

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