Browncast: Frank: a well informed Indian talks about India

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

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This episode is somewhat unique in that the guest is anonymous. “Frank” tweets on twitter as @Frankisalegend1 and has a background in business and finance. He is well informed and well read and we had an interesting chat about Indian politics, recent history and his fascination with Steve McQueen.

 

 

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Browncast: Chris Iwanek, India-analyst from Poland

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

Krzysztof IwanekIn this episode Mukuna and Omar talk to Krzysztof Iwanek (aka Chris), who heads the Asia Research Center in the War Studies University in Warsaw, Poland. Chris also writes regularly for “The Diplomat” and is writing a book about the Ram Rajya Parishad Party (a small traditional Hindu party in India). We talk about Indian politics, his research and whatever else comes up..

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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.  

Continue reading “The Parsis of Bombay”

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Farmers vs Government: The Benefits and Limits of Democratic Redistribution

In its period of rapid economic growth, Indian democracy was successful in redistributing gains from urban centered, globalization led growth to the rural agrarian economy. The redistribution of available economic and administrative resources among competing groups is a primary concern of democratic politics. The situation is very different in non-democratic polities. In the figure below, we see that during globalization led growth, the ratio of per worker agrarian income to overall per capita GDP drops to less than a half in China and Vietnam, while it remained above or close to one in India and Indonesia. In other words, agrarian workers in one-party China and Vietnam became relatively poorer while their country became richer, agrarian workers in India and Indonesia did not incur a relative disadvantage.

Ratio of agricultural income per worker to overall GDP per capita for four Asian countries. In democratic, farmer majority India, the rural populace could always command a major share of the state’s redistributive efforts. After an initial decline from 1.4 to 1.0, the ratio in India stabilizes. In one-party China and Vietnam, the emphasis is on efficient agricultural production, not producers, and resources are invested heavily in urban areas.

In India the vast rural population with more than a century long experience in political mobilization, has pushed governments to spend money in rural areas. Redistribution has occurred via irrigation projects, rural roads, NREGA, subsidies, loan waivers and recently, direct income transfers. Any negative externality arising from agrarian activity has been borne by urban residents (eg: Delhi smog) but farmers were not penalized. Aside from rural-urban dynamics, democratic redistribution has led to a spatial equalization of agricultural productivity across the country.

Left image is district wise agricultural productivity in 2005. Since then, as the right image shows, agricultural growth has been concentrated in the most backward areas (dark red on left). The primary drivers have been irrigation projects and rural roads.

Though the condition of Indian cities is depressing, the upshot of a democracy dominated by the rural majority is comfortable food security. In fact, even though India’s use of pesticide is quite low by global standards, and its agricultural yields, cold-chain infrastructure sub-par, it has become a major net agricultural exporter. This is in huge contrast to China which has become a massive net importer of food. This is an important strategic advantage for India.

Net agricultural trade balance for India and China since 1961. China reverts to a net import situation as soon as its economy starts booming in the 1990s. in contrast India’s exports zoom in its period of economic growth.

There are signs, though, that India’s redistribution toolkit might be reaching the limits of its efficiency. Concurrently, a more reformist Indian government, awash with surplus grain, wants to re-orient farmers towards higher return crops or even an exit from farming. An urbanising electorate may also not be as willing to redistribute their hard earned tax monies towards their rural co-citizens.

The reorientation of the Punjab-Haryana farmer away from rice and wheat will require tact and persuasion, not ordinance fiat. The set patterns are very comfortable from the economic (MSP + diaspora remittances + armed forces recruitment) and psychological (we feed and secure the nation) perspective. The simple promise of higher incomes might not convince historically agrarian communities who havent fully embraced the money economy.

The Prime Minister has proven to be a masterful communicator. We have not yet seen the same skill in his dealings with the farmers. The approach there has oscillated between genuflection and disregard. The potential is there for the 200000 sq. km tract of well irrigated, fertile land in India’s north west to become the new California Central Valley (47,000 sq km). India can then become the land that greatly increases global access to premium agro-products like fresh, dry fruits and vegetarian protein. The latter (beef-mukt world) will also resonate with many urban supporters of the government and even the farmers themselves.

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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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Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas

Annual Waari – Kalyani Bhogle

The pluralism in Hindu thought is often pegged back to the philosophically sophisticated एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति  from Rgveda – first mandala. While that message underlies a lot of Hindu thought as we know it, it’s often overstated as it sounds sophisticated to the scholars/amateurs studying it. On the other hand, some hymns from the family books, particularly the Rgvedic Hymns 7-82 to 7-89 give a fascinating peek into the mind of the Bharata purohit Vasishta after the Dasarajna Yuddha. The hymns which are very repetitive mostly praise Indra and Varuna for the help given to Sudas(Bharatas) and the Trstus in the Dasarajna where the enemies also worshiped Indra. The important point to glean here is the different functional roles for which these deities are evoked. Indra for war, Varuna for prosperity, Aditi for light, etc. Varuna who is often paired with Mitra or Aryaman, gets paired with Indra here – which scholars (RN Dandekar, Michael Witzel, etc) see as conciliatory.

According to Dandekar, it was out of this experience of bhakti that Vasistha became essential in the conciliation of the Indra- and Varuna-cults and especially in “averting a schism in the Vedic community” by demonstrating “that Varuna and Indra were not antagonistic to each other but… essentially
complementary. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules.”

It is fair to speculate that such a conciliatory approach would go on to shape interactions the mainstream Vedic thought would have with non-Vedic deities as these hymns are the victor’s recollection. This conciliation and integration (A) appear much more pragmatic and economic than abstract ideals (B) espoused by एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति or other sophisticated thought from Upanishads or Gita. For B to emerge and sustain, A appears essential. With A established, B in some form or other would follow as evidenced by other Eastern faith systems which also tend to be inclusive. It is fair to say a combination of A and B lays the foundation for the emergence of quintessential pluralism of Hinduism.

Let us segway into a short story: 

  • In a village in Vengurla (South Konkan), there was a local Saint/Warrior (non-Brahmin) who was extremely popular with the masses. 
  • He passed away and his devotees wanted to make a shrine/temple for him. A Kaashyap Brahmin who was a respected man in the village objected. His objection stemmed from the deification of a man (probably Shudra) and placing him on the same pedestal as the Devas. 
  • The Brahmin (who had quite a bit of clout in the village) opposed this Adharma with all his might but was almost overpowered by the “uncouth masses” in the story.
  • The landed or Kshatriya(ish) castes sided with the masses instead of the Brahmin and as a result, the Brahmin couldn’t prevent the deification.
  • Additionally, the humiliated Brahmin was expected to condone the practice and give the shrine his blessings.    
  • He couldn’t be part of this Adharma and hence left his lands, wealth, position, and went northeast and settled in Ichalkaranji near Kolhapur preferring his descendants living in abject poverty over condoning Adharma.
  • The replacement Gaargya Brahmin was happy to support the deification of the Saint. His descendants flourish economically in the village with large lands and respect but suffer spiritually.    
  • The shrine/temple remains popular to this day and most villagers have forgotten about this tale around the origin of that particular deity. 
  • The spiritual suffering of the current Brahmin was removed by the forgiveness of the descendent of the Kaashyap Brahmin some years ago.
Ravalnath

This is the fanciful tale of my great-great ancestor as told to me by my Chachera uncle (first cousin once removed). The Gotras are not important to this piece but the emphasis and obsession on Gotra is a salient feature of Brahmanism which deserves some attention. This tale is not very atypical. There have been other documented cases of such squabbles between village Hinduism and Brahmanism. This tale echoes many other tales from South Konkan – those of Ravalnath, Betal, etc. I am unsure if the deity in the tale of my ancestor is Ravalnath or Betal or something else entirely. But the contours of the tale are very similar. In both the cases of Ravalnath and Betal, there was initial resistance to these deities from local Brahmins in the medieval times – especially due to local traditions that involved blood sacrifices and other things frowned upon by Brahmins, but over time these deities got wider acceptance – even among local Brahmins. BetalWhile Ravalnath is a Kuladevata for most Goans (all castes), Betal is a Gramadevata of some local communities. Vithoba, the popular God of Pandharpur( the annual Waari) is a very important figure of the Bhakti movement. Religious scholar and Sahitya Akademi winner RC Dhere who extensively studied Vithoba also hypotheses pre Vedic origins of Vithoba. Khandoba is another deity whose origins are similarly muddy with a range of theories explaining him as the fusion of earlier deities including Kaal Bhairav. Interestingly in the Puranic tale of Kaal Bhairav “his struggle for the atonement of Brahmanhatya” is central. Khandhoba of Jejuri remains a deity for not only the Sudra castes, but Brahmins, Jains, Lingayats, and even some Muslims including the patronage of comparatively tolerant Bijapur Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah. While it would be tempting to dismiss this as some tenuous Donigerish take, the sheer numbers of such stories spread across the country strengthen the hypothesis.

Coming back to the descendants of the uncompromising Brahmin from Vengurla. Today my extended family proudly worships all the Gramadevatas from Ichalkaranji whose origins may be very similar to the one whose foundation my ancestor had objected to. Ironically most of my paternal family follow a plethora of local Saints (in addition to the popular Bhakti Saints), whose tales of the origin have occurred within living memory and hence are far easier to negate. I would not go into rants about these Saints (esp Gajanan Maharaj) whose followers number in millions. While some traditional elite Hindus (especially Urban) are known to have disparaging views of Saints & local deities, mostly these distinctions have weathered away. It is not unlikely to find Hindus who fast on Mondays for Shiva also fast on Thursdays for some local Saint (who mostly claim intellectual or avatarish descent from Dattatraya).  Despite some initial friction, the Brahmanical thought has made its peace with such traditions. Most scholarship refers to this as – the local traditions (non-Vedic) being co-opted by Brahmanism. IMO this is an incomplete way of looking at it as it conflates organic integration which typically occurs over generations with the realization of some highly foresighted plan. Typically humans are not foresighted enough to pull off multi-generational machinations. From a multi-generation evolutionary paradigm, these would make sense but not if you take a snapshot at any particular moment in history.

With this background, we go into realms of pure speculation and come to the Post Vedic deities in Hinduism. The origin of some of these deities is highly contested – especially that of Shiva. While the Rgvedic Rudra is often said to be the precursor of Shiva, the meaning of Shiva is certainly in contrast with Rudra. Whether the Pashupati seal from IVC or other Proto-Lingas are Proto-Shiva or not will likely not be resolved till we decipher the IVC script, but these speculations seem very plausible. Even Parpola doesn’t dismiss them in his Roots of Hinduism. In addition, Parpola makes a good argument in the IVC origins of Durga with seals of Tiger riding goddesses from Kalibangan. Similarly, we can say the Dravidian Murukan and the Vedic Skanda gave rise to the Karthikeya we know today. We still don’t have any intelligent speculation about the origins of Ganesha (other than some references to Gajapati), buts it fair to assume the elephant-headed god is a pretty late addition to the Hindu pantheon. The aim here is not to discuss and speculate the origins of these deities but to guess the mechanisms of integration of these deities and customs into Brahmanism. Brahmins had a huge ritualistic/moral capital, but given the tenuous or conflicting relations they had with the Kshatriyas and other dominant castes (as seen through numerous puranic stories especially those of Parshuram) it is fair to assume Brahmins would not often get their way with subtracting traditions they found Adharmic or uncouth, yet they could continue to shape these traditions from inside with participation. Pressure both from the masses and Brahmins would’ve actively shaped the integration of these traditions for centuries to the point where it’s often hazy where Brahmanism ends and where “Non-Brahmanical” traditions begin. (This probably happened with Sramana or Proto-Sramana traditions competing with Brahmanism but that is a different discussion)

IVC goddess riding Tiger

While it is generally said Brahmanical thought absorbed the local traditions, it is equally or more appropriate to say that the village Hinduism made space for Brahmanism & tamed it – into the diverse and plural fold and this process was not complete for the entire subcontinent when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Somnath. Scholars like to emphasize Adi-Shankara’s Advaita and Mutts, Upanishads, Rgvedic “एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” as it appears sophisticated and intellectual. However, the tendency of humans to pragmatically negotiate the boundaries of their traditions (in absence of exclusionary universalist ideas) when they already have multiple modes of worship tends to be underemphasized as it appears uncouth or folk. Roman religion easily absorbed Isis and Cybele into the Roman fold but couldn’t absorb the God of Abraham. In contrast, when Christianity conquered Europe it absorbed the old gods into the Christian fold as Saints but kept them subordinate to the one true god. However, Shiva and Ganesh did not bow done to Indra, and by the time of the Puranas, the mighty Vedic Indra was reduced to an insecure and somewhat petty King of Gods.

Maybe the Brahmin elites & Sanskrit managed to maintain a cohesive identity-based on sacred geography only because they themselves were tamed in similar mechanisms by the natives of the geography. If yes, then Hindu Pluralism and Syncretism is as much a legacy of numerous lost stories as it is of the philosophical moorings of the Vedas, Itihasas, and Upanishads. 

Postscript:

I had been thinking along these lines since my discussion with Mukunda and Omar on the Brown-cast about the roots of Indian pluralism. While commenting please stick to the topic and be civil & constructive. I will delete off comments for this piece.

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Rape Culture, Indian Edition

There is news about another rape case (alleged rape case?) making wavers in India and Twitter regular @conradkbarwa posted some excerpts from a book by poet and journalist Nirupama Dutta that you can see below:

 

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The anecdotes listed in these pages are obviously very disturbing and shocking, and I have no doubt that even if Nirupama moves in unusually nasty company, many such cases do occur across the Indian subcontinent and in most of them the police are yet another source of oppression (and sometimes even a second rape in the police station). The excerpts above are from East Punjab, so from a land that we are not entirely unfamiliar with (apart from whatever similarities exist across east and west Punjab, my in-laws are from villages near Ludhiana). It made me think about our own Punjab and the various anecdotes I have heard about rape of lower class women in villages as well as the use of sweepers and servants for sexual favors in urban areas. And of course, about the well publicized recent rape cases in Pakistani Punjab and about Razib Khan’s comment somewhere that “THIS is what a real rape culture looks like”. Which led to a tangential question in my mind: what are the similarities and differences between rape culture in Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab? 

  1. Differences in terms of actual prevalence and mechanics? Is such rape more common? less common? about the same? What figures do we have? How reliable are they? What is the trendline? How does this compare to other societies? 
  2. Differences in how it is framed: rapes in Pakistan tend to be framed as either class oppression (mostly by leftist/liberal commentators) or as “declining morals due to Indian movies, western influence, modernization, etc” (Islamist and/or traditional commentators). Rapes in India tend to be framed as class oppression too at times, but it seems that liberals and even traditional leftists in India (or about India, this is also true of most sympathetic Western commentators) seem very likely to blame “Brahminism” and the caste system as very specifically Indian forms of rape culture, not comparable to similar atrocities that happen to lower class populations in other countries (though I assume that population numbers being what they are, most actual rapists in East Punjab are  likely to be Jats or other local elites, Sikhs rather than Hindus, and rarely Brahmins). There is also a traditionalist view in India (that “lax morals, westernization, bollywood ” etc are to blame) and of course Hindutva types will add “love jihad” or “Muslim/Turkic colonization” to the list of putative causes. What are the most important causes in your view? 
  3. Which brings me to the real trigger for this post: Do you think the focus on caste in East Punjab (as in Nirupama Dutta’s book) and its relative absence in Western Punjab stories reflects a real difference in how easy it is to rape poor girls and get away with it? I know most Pakistanis will say this is exactly the case and that we are much better off since we are Muslims and any caste-ism that exists in us is a legacy of Hinduism, is less than it is in East Punjab, is fading fast and is the reason we have less rapes already, while Indian society will remain stuck in rape culture because of “Brahminism”.  Of course this is a question that in principle can be answered. What is the prevalence of the rape/sexual abuse of lower class women in Pakistani Punjab vs East Punjab? If it is really lower, then it needs an explanation. If it is not lower, then it may be that the focus on Brahminism is taking the public discussion (and possible solutions) into unhelpful areas? Or is it Pakistan that needs to talk more about caste rather than class to catch up to the reality? 
  4. I am not revealing any secrets by adding that this is connected to a personal feeling that left/liberal discourse is focused on political needs (defeating BJP/Hindu revivalism in this case)  and when you add that the usual human thing of finding a convenient narrative and beating it to death, it is possible that Pakistanis are actually a little better at analyzing their own society because they don’t have to carry this burden. But I am aware that this may be an extension of “grass is greener on the other side” on my part, and it is in fact the case that conversion to Islam (or “Indus man superiority”) has made Pakistanis less rapey than Indians. But if this is the case, why are Sikhs still rapey? does Brahminism work on them more than it does on Punjabi Muslims? (I am also aware that 6 out of ten readers will misunderstand what I am trying to ask here, but that is par for the course and I am more interested in the 4 who do get the question).

Fire away…

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Will the Sikhs Save India?

This topic came up a few days ago on Twitter because I happened to tweet:

 

The original tweet I was quoting is about the arrest of a Sikh leader who had gone to express solidarity (and serve tea) with the Shaheen Bagh protesters. I know nothing about him and have no idea if he is a Khalistani or a leftist or just a random guy who wanted to be nice to the protesters, so my tweet was not about him, but what was it about then? Several friends asked me this question (and others jumped in with their own theories, as expected on twitter), so i thought i would write a quick post to try and explain my quip.. Continue reading “Will the Sikhs Save India?”

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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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Moving out of India: The bigger picture

Economic growth in India has made the question of immigrating to the US vexing for a lot of young Indians. The old attraction of more material prosperity no longer holds, you can buy everything in India. The difference between siblings in the two countries is no longer the car, the modern electronics and superior amenities. In many ways, immigrating to the US has become a more ‘experiential’ move, with terms like ‘job satisfaction’, ‘latest technologies’ being used in addition to the touting of cleaner, safer and more hip environs.

So should you, as a young Indian teen or adult seek American shores? I was in the same situation nearly two decades ago, and took the plane to the US very unthinkingly, almost like an instinct. I always wished someone would have told me what the possible implications of such a big decision would be, the doors it would open as well as close. I seek to do so for any young person interested here. This post is not going to be about details of work and life in the US versus India, but rather the big picture.

Today, the cost of moving out of India is more than the loss of family and ‘culture’. India offers opportunities of its own. It is with this context that we move forwards with our analysis.

Career: Technological Leadership in Prescribed Areas vs Flexibility in a Growing Economic Power

US leadership on the technological front is significant and enduring. America attracts smart people not only from India, but from across the world, including other developed markets. Deliberately or unwittingly, America has been marketed to the world as the place a smart person needs to be in to maximize their potential. This is somewhat like the IPL being the cricket league where a cricketer can compete with the best in the world. There is a reason why America is the only country in the world that has a Google and an Apple.

Log plot of US patent applications by various countries.

However, the last two decades have seen a sea change in India’s economic growth, technological prowess and integration with the world. Consider the number of US patents filed from India. From being four orders of magnitude lower than the US, India is now less than two orders of magnitude lower, with continuing growth. Similar trends are seen in the number of scientific papers published in elite journals, where India has moved from 1/20th of US output in 2000 to 1/3rd of US output in 2018. India today offers more opportunities than ever before.

Add to this the fact that the American work visa is exactly that, a visa. The visa is designed to bring in workers in areas where there is a shortage of Americans, so the bulk of opportunities lie in the computer software/data management sector. The flexibility and freedom to explore different career and life paths is severely constrained. You cannot easily leave your software engineering job in a global mega corporation and join a business development role in a start up. You cannot take two months off and wander away to see the world. Your US work visa needs full time employment, every second of your life.

So the trade off here is the opportunity to get a narrow but a truly world class exposure versus exposing yourself to a spectrum of career and life possibilities in India.

Life: Systems vs Services

If there was a one line summary for the difference between life in the US and India, it would be in America you can rely on systems, in India you can get a lot of services.

In America, systems work. The courts, police, municipal authorities all do their job professionally. You will not see mounds of rubble by the roadside and trash everywhere. The air will be clean, government authorities will be professional and accessible. The contrast with India is stark.

When it comes to services, lets just say this, the middle class homes of my relatives in India are a procession of cooks, drivers, maids, gardeners, electricians etc. We have a huge population whom we can now feed very well and transport cheaply around the country to markets which need them. As an example, in India, the service and variety of food on offer in a 3-star hotel buffet for 5 dollars was impressive. On the other hand, there were no Mexican options and stepping out of the hotel, you could literally smell the chemicals in the air.

Spirit: Continuity vs Renewal

Humans are not merely the work they do and the goods and services they consume, transcending our finite selves is a big part of the human experience. This is where notions of family, ethnicity, religion and nationality come into the picture. The US and India offer you contrasting pathways in this regard as well.

Being in India offers continuity and context. You can remain soaked in the arts, sports and traditions you have been familiar with since you were a child, and there is no need to separately make an effort to ‘access India’. You are the market whom the creative and talented people in the economy seek to serve.

America offers the chance for renewal and rebirth. Indeed, for the majority of its existence as a nation, America has offered the tired and beaten people of this planet a chance at reinventing themselves and starting a ‘new life’. The children of those pushed out by their home countries have achieved miracles in the American meritocracy.

So there it is, you can think about these three trade offs while making your decision. Do you want to achieve the summit of computer technology ? Or do you want to explore the world of work before diving into a committed career path ? Do you get annoyed and distressed by the dysfunction of the Indian governments ? Or do you appreciate all the services available to make your life easier ? Finally, do you feel India imprisons you and you need fresh air ? Or can you not bear to sever yourself from your gods and greats ?

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