What the Third Reich Can Teach Us

“I had no feelings in carrying out these things because I had received an order to kill the eighty inmates in the way I had already told you.

That, by the way, was the way I was trained.

– S. S. Captain Josef Kramer, about the gassing of eighty Jews at Auschwitz; as quoted in “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William L. Shirer

768px-Rows_of_bodies_of_dead_inmates_fill_the_yard_of_Lager_Nordhausen,_a_Gestapo_concentration_camp


A Muslim teenager was lynched on a train India on 23rd June.  Apparently, a group of people attacked four Muslims, accusing them of being beef eaters, and mercilessly beat them up.  Later on, sixteen-year-old Junaid died of his injuries.  News reports say that the amount of blood in the train shows the enormity of the gruesome violence.

While I was distressed by the news (my son sixteen, dammit!), I must sadly say that I was not surprised or shocked.  Gratuitous violence towards Muslims has become the new normal in India.  One glances at the headlines, registers the fact, and moves ahead – and another death becomes a statistic (except for the family of the person murdered, that is).

Why is it so?  How can people accept (if not condone) such atrocities as part of the daily grind?

Maybe, the answer can be found in Hitler’s short-lived Third Reich – its ‘philosophy’ and application.

Over a period of six months from December 2016 to May 2017, I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer’s definitive account of the Third Reich under the evil and mad genius, the warlord Hitler. Hitler expected that the Reich will last for a thousand years – in reality, it lasted just over 12 years. In those twelve, the Fuehrer managed to create hell on earth for the people whom he ruled over as well as in those areas which he conquered; the war he initiated managed to destroy 50 to 80 million people all over the world.

Nowadays we wonder – how did such a lunatic from the fringe enter mainstream politics, and even without any sort of a proper majority, manage to take over the country and win the support of the majority of the German populace for his unspeakably evil schemes?  Do we have to accept there is some basic flaw in the German character that makes them susceptible to this sort of brainwashing?  Or is it historic, something to do with the virulent anti-Semitism of the West?  Was it a unique phenomenon which, after having happened once in history, will never happen again?

To the first two questions, I would agree partially: to the last, however, I would have to say no to the last.  It can happen again, and in fact, is happening all over the world.

Humanity in general, and not only Germans, is always susceptible to projection. A race proud of its antecedents, lately fallen on bad times in their own estimation, looks for a scapegoat to apportion blame.  In Weimar Germany, the victim the inheritors of the mythical Aryan race found was, not unsurprisingly, the Jew: the killers of Christ, the legendary hawkish money-lender, Fagin who inducts young children into a life of crime…

If we study how anti-Semitism developed side-by-side along with the legend of the Aryan race who colonised and “civilised” the known world, we will definitely find the race superiority complex of the European masquerading as “philosophy” and “history”.  The Jew has been cast in the role of the villain who apparently spoilt the purity of the European race, descendants of the Aryans who had a pristinely pure monotheistic religion.  This theory, which gained traction during enlightenment, was further developed into the concept of the ubermensch by Nietzsche and later developed into Nazism (as explained by Dorothy M. Figueira in her fascinating book Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority Through Myths of Identity).

India, taking nourishment from the same mythical root, found a different enemy to blame for their fall from grace – the Muslim.  The myth of the Middle Eastern marauder, running amok over the temples and ashrams of India, killing Hindu priests and kidnapping and raping Hindu girls slowly became an accepted fact in the Hindu cultural milieu, half-truth though it was; the British who wanted to divide the country along religious lines also promoted this myth so that a permanent fault line (which created the partition in 1947) was created.  This fault line has been growing wider ever since, and now we are seeing a country on the verge of fracture.

As the resentment grows, so does the intolerance – and the indifference to violence against the minorities.  It does not happen on one fine day (as they are fond of saying, it did not start with the gas chambers). It requires years of patient propaganda, the feeding of the latent hatred by a dedicated ideological group.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_119-2406-01,_Berlin-Lustgarten,_Rede_Joseph_Goebbels

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 119-2406-01 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Shirer writes:

No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a cafe, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.

 

(Shirer is writing here about Nazi Germany – but as far as I can see in democratic India in the 21st Century, the same applies for any right-winger: and I suspect that it may be applicable globally. They have come to a stage where they cannot differentiate between fact and fantasy. They live in a fantasy world created in their minds, where facts are what they want them to be. So in a way, Kellyanne Conway is right; there are “alternative facts”, even though us ordinary mortals cannot see them.)

Thus, we move towards the practice of evil as a daily affair – an incredibly banal one, as Hannah Arendt would say.  Hence the quote at the beginning of this post – just a soldier doing his job.

I believe – in fact, I am terrified – that India has progressed on this path to fascism at a frightening speed in the past three years.  Modi and the BJP government are certainly to blame, but they are only the symptoms.  The cancer goes much deeper.  Sadly, we see the same happening in many democracies – USA, Turkey etc.  Unless we identify the root of the evil in our own mind and cast it out, we may end up with another Hitlerian era, which will be much more dangerous in the current world.

In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet.

Yes, indeed.

The Post-Truth World

post-truth

adjective

  • Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

The above is from the web version of the Oxford dictionary.

I was not very sure of what this meant until I had an argument with a young man in my office.  This guy, intelligent and balanced in all other respects, shocked me by turning out to be an ardent Trump fan.  On further discourse, however, I found that he hated Hillary with an unbelievable passion, which he claimed was due to her dishonesty: but I suspect that it arises from a strong misogynistic streak in him, something which is buried in the shadow side of his personality (to borrow from Jung).

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with civil rights leaders at the National Urban League in the Manhattan borough of New York

He kept on barraging me with the “evidence” of Hillary’s crookedness; but when I pointed out that most of these were of doubtful veracity, and a lot of similar allegations existed against Trump, he was at pains to point out to me that while most allegations against Hillary were “true”, those against Trump were “false”!  In short, he was doing exactly what the first example quoted in the above definition of ‘post-truth’ was trying to illustrate: cherry-picking data to come to one’s desired conclusion.

This brought up another unwelcome thought in my mind: aren’t I, a left-wing liberal, also guilty of the same thing?  We only have to look at Facebook to see that all and sundry keep on justifying their political stands on extremely shaky data.  It seems that if we look closely enough, we can always find something to “prove” just about anything.  So logic and reason have absolutely no say in human discourse any more – sadly, neither does truth.

***

This had me ruminating on the concept of “truth” itself.  I remember having this discussion on the Joseph Campbell fora (now sadly all but defunct): what, exactly, is “truth”?  Well, there are the indisputables: it is the truth that New Delhi is the capital of India, and that The Da Vinci Code was written by Dan Brown.  Only the severely delusional individual will dispute these, as we have concrete evidence to prove the same.  But what about, say, evolution?  The scientifically minded individual would say that it is the logical conclusion to draw from the evidence we have at hand, but it could hardly be called “the truth” as all said and done, it is a conclusion drawn by the mind.  So in our discussions, we decided to call the indisputable truths “facts”, and the proof for the same, “evidence”.  Truth was confined to the twilight zone where it was largely dependent on individual interpretation of evidence.

Things really became interesting in that particular conversation thread when someone said that the heliocentric universe was “only a theory”!  On the face of it, this claim was silly: but as the discussion went on, we found that this particular scientific “truth” was not as robust as those facts which I stated above.  I mean, we have ample evidence to show that the earth and other planets orbit the sun, but have any of us verified it first hand?  It could be that the whole scientific establishment is playing a massive fraud on us – in fact, this is what the Flat Earth Societies believe.

We have to accept that there are various shades to scientific truths also: while the heliocentric universe is on a relatively safe wicket, the theory of evolution is on more unsure ground.  And when we come to something economically and politically loaded like global warming – Al Gore aptly called it “An Inconvenient Truth”! – it seems that truth has become what we want to believe.  With science also influenced by politics nowadays, the fabled scientific method has become a tool for arriving at our desired conclusion.

***
Which brings us to politics, and how it permeates every thread in the fabric of human discourse in the current globally connected era.

Before TV became so popular, one had to take an effort to know the news – it was possible only through reading.  And it required some effort.  Reading the newspaper was almost and educational activity during my childhood; both our parents and teachers encouraged us to do it. I remember that in those days, news was more heavy on content and less on sensationalism – there were no colour pictures, no controversial statements which were highlighted in the headlines and much less of opinion pieces (if at all there were, they were clearly tagged as opinion).

The advent of television changed all that.  Now we had a movie screen in the house to watch the news as it happened, and it was much more exciting (also, it required much less cerebration).  I think none of us noticed how much it took away from the advantages of reading the newspaper.  Because as we read, our mind continually analyses the information and forms conclusions – when we watch it on the screen, the thinking mind is largely dormant and we react emotionally to the visuals.  We were getting dumbed down despite ourselves.  And when cable TV debuted, we had a multiple set of viewpoints barraging our audio and visual sensitivities.  News suddenly became big-time entertainment.th

But the most decisive factor in ushering in the post-truth era is, I feel, the internet.  Now information was available literally at the touch of a finger.  To “google” something became an accepted verb.  Students doing school projects, instead of poring over heavy tomes in the reference section of their libraries, just opened Wikipedia, downloaded the pictures, copied the text, and aced their grades.  Everyone became an expert on various subjects due to their web browsing skills alone.

facebook-logoWhile this interconnectivity had its positives, it has its negatives too: the most obvious one being the loss of veracity.  Anyone with a good vocabulary and a smattering of knowledge can put up articles which would have a sufficient veneer of truth to hoodwink the gullible.  And with social media now ruling the roost, truth has gone for a toss.  The same syndrome is affecting the so-called “debates” on TV, which are nothing but shouting matches, each participants brandishing “facts” to support his or her viewpoint.

***

Is man essentially rational or emotional?

I remember discussing the “Rational Man Hypothesis” with my brother-in-law, a psychiatrist, some years ago.  This postulates that man essentially acts rationally, weighing all information objectively before reaching a conclusion and takes action accordingly.  However, enticing as this view is, it is utter poppycock: other than the half-Vulcan Spock nobody behaves in this way.  Man is essentially an emotional and instinctive animal even after centuries of evolution.  Reason is slowly mounting an attack on emotion, and gaining ground inch by painful inch, but it is still an uphill battle.

What social media and reality TV has done in the recent past is to reinforce this emotional quotient to an unprecedented degree.  With a world which is teetering on a precipice both politically and environmentally, it seems that mankind has retreated into its pre-enlightenment mentality, at least partially.  In a dog-eat-dog scenario, it’s every man for himself – I think the rise of the radical right can also be partially linked to this turbulent emotional environment where fear is the predominant emotion.

***

Is there a way out?

I cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel in the immediate future.  However, recognising our basic irrationality might be a beginning.  Reading up on different viewpoints on the same issue, keeping one’s emotional reactions in check, is also a method of rationally approaching an issue.

The fact that “truth” is not one size fits all.  The concept of objective truth, borrowed from Western science, is essentially a chimera.  Truth may be different for different people – each of us has his or her own path.  According to the Isavasya Upanishad:

“hiranmayena pātrena satyasyāpihitam mukham

tat tvam pūsan āpāvrnu satyadharmāya drsṭaye”

(The face of truth is concealed with a golden vessel.  O sun, please open it so that I, who am truthful, may see)

The sun here, I feel, is the one that burns within the spirit.  One has to let it blaze forth so that the golden vessel of our prejudices may melt away… and we may see the truth finally in its entirety.

1

To a Bloodthirsty God

https://nandakishorevarma.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/3eea4-ak_47_assault_rifle.jpeg?w=342&h=224

On the first of July, terrorists took over a cafe in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and brutally hacked 20 hostages to death.  This has (understandably) shook the country and the world at large: especially since attacks against atheists, liberals and religious minorities are on the rise in the country since the past one year.  Predictably, posts lamenting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (from the non-Muslim Right) and those stressing that this has nothing to do with Islam (from religious apologists) have swamped the social media.

This particular incident, in a world which is growing more and more xenophobic and violent, has set me thinking deeply: for the perpetrators of this outrage were mostly educated youth with middle class backgrounds.  The standard arguments about terrorism among the youth repeated ad nauseum by liberals (including yours truly!) – that mainly impoverished youngsters get sucked into terrorist outfits because it provides them sustenance; that terrorism arises mainly as a reaction against Western imperialist intervention – fall by the wayside here.  This was terrorism in the name of religion, pure and simple: a personal religion based on the hatred of the “other”.  And before my Muslim friends begin to take umbrage, let me reiterate that this kind of interpretation is possible with any faith.

Why?  Why do young people choose this path of hatred?

I have a theory.

I am an atheist for all practical purposes – I consider the concept of a personal god, sitting up there in the cloud distributing blessings to his sycophants and raining down thunderbolts on sinners and non-believers indescribably silly.  So also are the concepts of Indian gods with a multitude of faces and arms and gods who combine traits of animals and humans.  Taken literally, that is.  Once we consider these as metaphors, however, religious myths have an exquisite beauty.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f9/Joseph_Campbell_circa_1982.jpgI discovered Joseph Campbell in my early twenties.  Sadly, I don’t think he is read much now in India.  Campbell allowed me to look at myths, and thereby religion, in a new light.  I could suddenly understand why mythical stories thrilled me even when my rational mind refused to accept them; why I felt rejuvenated when the temple opened the doors of its sanctum sanctorum for the twilight aarathi.  Campbell put me in touch with my inner godhead, where all the journeys lead to, whether they are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic or atheist.  This is the seat of the atman, the anatman, the immortal soul.  The various religions and their paraphernalia are all metaphors for the same inexpressible mystery of living – all different masks for the same God.

What we call spirituality is nothing but a name for this inner quest.  In Jungian terms, it is known as individuation; Campbell calls it the “Hero’s Journey”.  This spiritual side is essential to human beings, and in our current times when religion is no longer prominent in society, it is expressed through art and literature.

Bhudevi.jpghttps://i2.wp.com/www.kalibhakti.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Bhairav-Attributes-Kali.jpgBut the spiritual side is not all “good” – in fact, there is no good/ bad dichotomy there.  Everything is accepted.  One of the main aims of the spiritual quests is to go beyond good and evil.  This realm of the divine hosts both the ever-suffering Bhumi (The Earth Mother) as well as the bloodthirsty Kali.

One feature of our current society is the total abnegation of spirituality.  We have become a race of consumers, bent only on the satisfaction of sensual pleasures.  Success and failure are measured only on the basis of material gains: the growth of a country is evaluated solely on the basis of its GDP.  On the educational front, the humanities are frowned upon, seen as a refugee camp for those who cannot make it in the professions or hard science.

In this context, our thirsty spiritual side is desperately hunting for sustenance – and finding it in the call of a bloodthirsty god, worshipped by bigots of all colour.

CGJung.jpghttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Wotan_Abschied.jpgC. G. Jung famously wrote an essay on Wotan, the Norse god of war, which frighteningly foretold the rise of Nazism and its link with the warlike mythology of the Germanic races.  Hitler was but a natural outgrowth of a warrior god who took over the psyche of a disenchanted people – and we know what level of destruction was wreaked on the world.  We do not want such a thing to happen again.

 

But to prevent that, we must reconnect with Indra, Wotan, Zeus, Kali… not in the public sphere but in the realm of the collective unconscious, without the intervention of bigoted middlemen, the self-proclaimed “spokespersons for God”.  We must recognise these entities within ourselves and sublimate them into our psyches.  Otherwise, the bloodthirsty god will carry away his pound of flesh – and this time, humanity may not recover.

 

When Vengeance Walks the Town – A Review of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

Recently, a group of students allegedly shouted anti-India slogans at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, and the political and religious conservatives in India went virtually mad. Soon, any criticism of India was seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. The JNU, a leftist stronghold and a thorn in the flesh of the Hindu Right-Wing government at the centre, was termed a positive hotbed of crime and vice and a recruiting ground for terrorists. Many a Muslim, unless he wore his love of India on his sleeve for all to see, was branded a Pakistani agent – the refusal to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Victory to Mother India) resulted in intimidation and even physical abuse in many places.

What is interesting about this phenomena is that it is not only an orchestrated move from the right-wingers: many Indians are genuinely frightened that Pakistanis are in our midst, bent on destroying the country with the support of the leftists. There is a paranoia that is being exploited by the political vultures.

I am frightened by how much this resembles McCarthyism – the madness that gripped America from 1950 to 56 and destroyed many lives and careers. Wikipedia says

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.

It seems that human beings don’t learn anything from history, and therefore keep on repeating it.

But then, according to Arthur Miller, the Red Scare of the fifties was a repeat of a much darker event from the seventeenth century – the Salem Witch Trails. He wrote this play in 1953 to remind fellow citizens on how mass hysteria can engulf a society and demolish civilisation.

in 1692, a group of children in Salem were afflicted by diseases which showed classical symptoms of hysteria, but were soon diagnosed as demonic possession by the church authorities based partly on the children’s own confused utterings. Soon, people were being denounced left and right as witches and executed. Malicious people with revenge and other material interests (such as grabbing a condemned person’s property) seems to have contributed enthusiastically to the madness. As John Proctor, an accused, says in the play:

Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem – vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

These words are chillingly applicable to both McCarthyism and the events I quoted at the beginning: common vengeance is writing the law. Anybody can be accused – proof is not required, accusation is proof enough. Any kind of fair dealing and neutrality would be seen as potential collaboration, so the safest thing is to side with the accusers. Verily, the term “witch hunt” has entered the English language with strong credentials.

A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud – God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!

We will. We, the conformists who let the madness continue to save our own islands of comfort in this burning sea of paranoid anger.

———————————-

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

1 A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures

1.1 A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new

It is evident that Arthur Miller put a lot of thought into the naming of his play. He wanted to emphasise the heat and the fire, the hatred and the horror: at the same time, he also wanted to point out that after the melting process, a refined product would come out. Times of extreme tribulations in society are usually followed by a period of rejuvenation.

The playwright takes a lot of liberty with history to make his point. This is nothing new: Shakespeare regularly did this, it seems. So in the play, the historical 11-year-old Abigail Williams, the niece of the puritan minister Reverend Parris of Salem is transformed into an oversexed teen. She has seduced John Proctor in whose house she was working as a servant, and has apparently tried out some black magic to kill his wife. During such a magic session in the woods with Tituba and other kids, the Parris’s Caribbean servant, they are surprised by the minister. Betty, the minister’s young daughter, falls into a dead faint and cannot be cured by the doctor. Abigail immediately shouts witchcraft, and others join in; and soon the subterfuge becomes mass hysteria.

Miller has chosen John Proctor to be tragic hero of this play; haunted by guilt at his infidelity (even more so because his wife forgives it), he seeks punishment for himself, at least inside his soul. His torment is further compounded as his wife Elizabeth is denounced as a witch by Abigail. To make matters worse, there is the cunning Thomas Putnam, abetting the hysteria to settle scores against old opponents and grab their lands. As the roller-coaster of paranoia rolls on towards its destructive end, Proctor himself is sentenced to hang for witchcraft but Elizabeth ironically escapes as she is pregnant.

At the insistence of friends and a few sane people who want to stop the madness, John Proctor confesses at the last moment: however, he immediately sees the falsehood and cowardice in it and immediately withdraws it.

HALE: Man, you will hang! You cannot!

PROCTOR [his eyes full of tears]: I can. And there’s your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.

Yes indeed: the courage to stand up for what one thinks is right is ultimately the refined product that comes out of the crucible.

———————————-

The character who impressed me most in the story was Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man who refused to confess or refute when faced with charges of witchcraft. He was subjected to a horrendous form of torture called “pressing” (thankfully it occurs offstage in the play) where more and more rocks were piled on his chest in an effort to make him speak. Giles endured this for a whole two days before he died – his last words, reportedly, were “more weight”. There’s guts for you!

Antisocial Media

I am having a phase of withdrawal from Facebook, and social media in general.

While the main reason for this is that I want to avoid wasting time on pointless browsing and facile discussions, I think that there is also another, deeper motivation – the amount of hostility and verbal violence I see there disturbs me.  Each and every opinion running counter to one’s political philosophy is a reason for some people to simply attack the proponent of that opinion in the vilest terms (that this is done mostly by conservatives is no surprise).

Vigorous debates with people arguing on both sides of a question is the sign of a healthy democratic society, and is to be encouraged.  However, our so-called media debates focus entirely on personalities, and all arguments are ad hominem.  For example, when Kamal, a prominent leftist movie director from Kerala criticised the actor Suresh Gopi’s decision to join the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, he was immediately targeted as a Muslim on social media (his full name is Kamaluddin, which was used throughout the posts insulting him to pinpoint his religion).  In such a scenario, any healthy debate becomes impossible, and the core issue is bypassed.

Another worrying factor is the “information” shared by people on FB as though this were the gospel truth.  Half-truths, hearsay, urban legends and outright slander are posted by amateurs who want to play investigative journalist.  This is immediately shared enthusiastically by their friends and people of a similar political persuasion until they attain a certain veracity in the minds of the uninformed, who never bother to check the credentials of the original poster.  (On the converse side, experts who are quoted on FB are sometimes attacked – I saw a post in which the poster urged the eminent historian Dr. M. G. S. Narayanan to go and learn history!)

Social media can be a live force – in the recent Jisha murder case in Kerala, outrage on FB caused police to wake up and launch an investigation with vigour.  But more often than not, it degenerates into a town square where bullies slug it out.

My reason for withdrawal is not that I am afraid of the bullies.  I am afraid that, the more I interact, I will slowly turn into one of them.

 

Hindutva – Fascism, Indian Style

As a student, I was attracted towards the BJP: in an aggressively secular democracy which stressed non-religiosity of the government to the extent of purposefully rejecting the common Hindu culture, fearing that it might hurt the sentiments of the minority, perhaps it was only natural. At that time, I understood Hindutva to mean the common inclusive culture of India, which was rejected by many aggressive Muslim clerics. I was upset at this, and did not want the rich literature, art and culture of our country (which is Hindu in nature) to be abandoned to favour minority sentiments.

However, as the ruling centrist-right Indian National Congress weakened, the BJP grew in power: and its cries of Hindu pride grew shriller. Riots started happening sporadically across the country. In 1992, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a centuries-old Muslim Mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob, alleging that it was built by the Mughal emperor Babur on the site of a destroyed temple of the Hindu deity Rama. Atrocities against minorities increased in frequency and ultimately peaked in the mindless carnage of Gujarat in 2002. As I watched, I slowly moved away from the party which contained the Hindu fanatics responsible for this atrocities.

The writing was on the wall, however. The Indian National Congress, lacking any coherent political ideology or leadership was thrashed soundly in the recent parliamentary elections. The BJP swept to power under the man who was Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots. For all practical purposes, the ideology of Hindutva had triumphed.

In this context, I thought I should read the slim book which is the root of it all – Hindutva by V. D. Savarkar. Understanding a fascist philosophy is the first step in defending oneself against it.

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fascism3
For Savarkar, Indian civilisation starts with the arrival of the Aryans. In fact, he dismisses all those existing in the Indian subcontinent at the time of their arrival as “scattered tribes”, whose languages were the “Prakrits” (uncultured tongues) which evolved from the immigrants’ Sanskrit, which means “cultured”. He is also at pains to establish that these original inhabitants were also most probably known as Hindus because Hindu is derived from “Sindhu”, the river Indus. Thus, at the outset itself, he establishes Hindutva as tied inseparably to the land. He also makes the astonishing statement that it is certain to have predated Egypt and Babylonia!

 

 

Although it would be hazardous at the present stage of oriental research to state definitely the period when the foremost band of intrepid Aryans made it their home and lighted their first sacrificial fire on the banks of the Sindhu, the Indus, yet certain it is that long before the ancient Egyptians, and Babylonians, had built their magnificent celebration, the holy waters of the Indus were daily witnessing the lucid and curling columns of scented sacrificial smokes and the valleys resounding with the chants of Vedic hymns – the spiritual fervour that animated their souls.

 

 

Emphasis mine.

Savarkar conveniently forgets the Indus Valley civilisation which had a settled city life, apparently some kind of government, and complex art and religious belief; and which was born, thrived and perished much before the nomadic Aryans ever reached anywhere near India!

(Also, India had a rich collection of Dravidian languages which was in no way linked to Sanskrit. A language of Dravidian origin, Brahui, is still existing in modern-day Pakistan! So the claim that all the languages of India are uncultured versions of Sanskrit is offensive and silly.)
Mohenjodaro_Sindh
Thus at the outset itself, the intention is clear – the falsification of history to create a false identity for the “Hindu” – the purposeful rejection of pluralism in favour of an identification based on a fabricated story of a mythical “fatherland”. And Savarkar says that he is treading on the “solid ground of recorded facts”!

But it is when the author veers off into areas of conjecture that the whole thing becomes seriously eccentric. He first of all sets out to discredit the Maurya civilisation as the first great Indian civilisation: for him, a great Hindu civilisation as delineated in the Hindu myths preceded it. Recorded history means nothing to Savarkar: he considers it all misreadings (at best) or outright fabrications (at worst) by the West. Rather, he considers the Buddhist era a period of decadence (!) when Hindus were totally enervated by the concept of Ahimsa which left them easy fodder for the Muslim invaders.

(For his examination of the “history” of the Hindu people, Savarkar uses dubious sources like the “Bhavishya Purana”. It seems that he accepts any text which is supportive of Vedic Brahmanism as the gospel (!) truth. Whether this is due to genuine belief or political agenda, we can only conjecture.)

Now the author goes on to establish that, in spite of all the differences of caste, creed and colour, Indians are one people – which is true and what is beneficial for the country, anyway – but then, puts the final spin on the ball when his fundamentalist agenda suddenly comes out baring its claws and teeth, casting aside its mask of patriotism. Savarkar writes:

 

 

But can we, who here are concerned with investigating into facts as they are and not as they should be, recognise these Mohammedans as Hindus? Many a Mohammedan community in Kashmir and other parts of India as well as the Christians in South India observe our caste rules to such an extent as to marry within the pale of their castes alone; yet, it is clear that though their Hindu blood is thus almost unaffected by alien adulteration, yet they cannot be called Hindus in the sense in which that term is actually understood, because we Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood which courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections warm, but also by the tie of common homage we pay to our great civilisation – our Hindu culture, which could not be better rendered than by the word Sanskriti suggestive as it is of that language, Sanskrit, which has been the chosen means of expression and preservation of that culture, of all that was best and worth preserving in the history of our race.

 

 

In short – Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains are in: Christians and Muslims out. Why? Because they don’t consider India as their “Holy-land” (Punyabhumi) in addition to their fatherland: for them, the Holy Land is Jerusalem or Mecca. So, as long as they remain tied to their Abrahamic religion which traces their origin from the Levant, they cannot be accepted as Hindus.

(Interestingly, Savarkar leaves the Jews and Farsis out of it. Jews mostly, I think, because the RSS have been supporters of Zionism since day one, and vice versa: also because Jews and Farsis were not proselytising religions so he did not perceive them as threat.)

Now Savarkar launches into his real agenda. He says that he is not criticising or lamenting, but stating a simple fact. Christians and Muslims cannot be accepted as Hindus (according him, this means Indians) unless they accept India as their Holy Land, by forswearing their allegiance to their “foreign” origins – this effectively means abandoning their religion in the current format.


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Thus, the philosophy strikes at the roots of secularism. If India adopts “Hindutva” as its guiding principle and starts rewriting the constitution, Hinduism may not become its official religion: minorities may be allowed to practice their beliefs in private. But the nation will be governed by laws based on the principles set forth in this venomous tract . All people who do not toe the “Hindutva” line will have to live as second class citizens.

From that to the concentration camps is only a minor step.

Think I am overreacting? The events of the past two years should set every intelligent Indian thinking.

Fascism

Of late, I have been seriously disturbed by the authoritarian trends displayed by the Hindu Right in India.

Contrary to the perception of the West, Hinduism is not essentially a peaceful and philosophical religion – though definitely it has that facet. Hinduism is a fascinating mix beliefs and practices ranging from the lofty heights of Upanishadic philosophy to the dark depths of sorcery involving child sacrifice. It is not a monolithic religion, rather a pot-pourri of beliefs cobbled together into a heterogeneous mix. However, it has one thing to recommend it – pluralism. It is a religion which contains atheism even its fold of legitimate belief.

The current wave of attacks on secular writers and minority communities spread across the length and breadth of India, combined with efforts to impose Hindu beliefs on the population at large (i.e. the ban on beef) have, however, damaged that tolerant visage a bit. Even though the government and its supporters dismiss these as stray incidents blown out of proportion by a desperate opposition, there is a cause for concern as the strident voices on the extreme right have risen in pitch and aggression ever since Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister of India. It is as though they now feel that with “their” government in power, there can be no stopping of the Hindu juggernaut.

(The “stray incident” argument will no longer sustain.  With the current JNU imbroglio, the government has come out with its intention to impose its own brand of patriotism on the public.  This unquestioning allegiance to a mythical “motherland” is staple of all fascist ideologies.)

fascism3Ever since I read Hindutva by V.D. Savarkar – the book that is the cornerstone of the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the main Hindu Right Wing organisation in India – I have been struck by the similarity it bears to the Nazi philosophy. The basic premise is the identification of a people with a land, and making them the absolute custodians of the law pertaining to that land: then anybody who is deemed as a “foreigner” immediately becomes an enemy of the people. Coupled with this is the open admiration of Hitler espoused by many RSS members. Also, the takeover of cultural institutions with an aim to instil a fictitious “Hindu identity” on India also smacks of Nazi methodology.

So I decided it was time to understand fascism in general – to understand whether we are on the verge of repeating history we are too stupid to learn from.  And I found Fascism: a Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore a very clear and concise introduction to the subject.

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In the book , before defining fascism, Kevin Passmore makes it very clear that to do so is very difficult – for fascism is always ‘A and not A’, as Ortega y Gasset says. So after pages and pages of telling us what fascism is not, he gives the following definition:

Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community. Fascist nationalism is reactionary in that it entails implacable hostility to socialism and feminism, for they are seen as prioritizing class or gender rather than nation. This is why fascism is a movement of the extreme right. Fascism is also a movement of the radical right because the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilized nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader, and embodied in a mass, militarized party. Fascists are pushed towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism, but are prepared to override conservative interests – family, property, religion, the universities, the civil service – where the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by accepting specific demands of the labour and women’s movements, so long as these demands accord with the national priority. Fascists seek to ensure the harmonization of workers’ and women’s interests with those of the nation by mobilizing them within special sections of the party and/or within a corporate system. Access to these organizations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends on the individual’s national, political, and/or racial characteristics. All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultranationalism.

Quite a mouthful.

What Passmore is at pains do here, and throughout the rest of the book, is to distinguish fascism from other forms of authoritarian conservatisms. Authoritarian conservatives believed that the elites drove the society, and were supportive of traditional values like religion, family and civil society; and they left room for private enterprise. Fascists, in contrast, subjugated the individual totally to the nation, and worked for the total destruction off institutions other than the party. In this, they bear a lot of similarity towards authoritarian communism – only its concept of class struggle is discarded.
fascism4

About half of the book is about the history of fascism, about how it was spread across Europe but succeeded in coming to power in Italy and Germany, mainly due to post-war disillusionment. This was especially true of Germany where the people felt betrayed by the weak Weimar Republic. (To tell the truth, I found this part of the book rather weak – like a boring history lecture. However, it was necessary background for the analysis of the later chapters.)

After doing a whirlwind tour of fascism across Europe and America (it leaves out Asia, Africa and the Middle east – a serious lack, in my opinion), the author poses the pertinent question: Is fascism still alive among us? He begins with an intriguing quote from Umberto Eco:

Ur-Fascism [a term meaning ‘eternal fascism’] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us, if there appeared on the scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares’. Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and point the finger at any of its new instances – every day and in every part of the world.

Stirring words: but Passmore does not agree fully. In today’s extreme right, he sees a slightly different shade of authoritarianism.

Whereas fascism sees the destruction of democracy as a precondition for the triumph of ultranationalism, the contemporary extreme right attempts to ethnically homogenize democracy and reserve its advantages for the dominant nationality. Their imagined society is perhaps closer to the South African Apartheid state or to the ideals of white separatists in the United States. I prefer to use the term ‘national-populist’ to describe this form of movement.

I have to say I agree with him – his words seem chillingly applicable to the Right in India.

Even today, fascism remains a term of abuse. So the extreme right has cleverly redefined ultranationalism, by translating xenophobia and intolerance into liberal democratic language. The rights given to minorities are called ‘preferential treatment’ and the claim to ‘equal rights’ is used to discriminate against them. In order to preserve the alleged distinctiveness of a given nation, the rights of those who are said to ‘threaten the identity of the nation’ are to be restricted. We can see this tendency all over the world, from the Tea Party activists in the USA to the Hindu Mahasabha in India.

Fascism is racist. All inhabitants of a territory are not treated as its citizens.

Citizenship and its benefits are accorded or denied on the basis of conformity to, or possession of, characteristics alleged to be ‘national’, be they biological, cultural, religious, or political. Nationalism and racism pervade all aspects of fascist practice, from welfare provision and family policy to diplomacy. Those deemed to be outside the nation face an uncertain future – extermination in the worst case.

Individual identity, distinct from the national identity, is not allowed. In case the difference is religious or political, the ‘others’ can be assimilated (perhaps to live as second class citizens). In case it’s biological or racial, expulsion or extermination is the only fate awaiting the unfortunates not falling under the fold of nationalism.

Fascism is against all other isms which tend to group people across nations under one umbrella, such as feminism and socialism. Women are accepted only so far as they conform to the interests of the nation state (or race) – usually as child-producing machines. Similarly, though class is denounced, equality is obtained only by total surrender to the nation-state.

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Is fascism in the danger of making a comeback in the modern age? We may believe it is impossible in this age of enlightenment, when democratic values have seeped into the bottommost layers of society. Against this kind of optimism, Passmore has this to say:

It would be complacent to assume that democracy is now so deeply rooted as to make it impossible for the extreme right to win power, for democracy itself is not free from discriminatory tendencies. Democracy is deeply rooted, but it is not always connected to a belief that all human beings deserve equal treatment. For many, it means simply the right of the majority to do as it wishes, and national-populism has successfully exploited this conviction.

Seeing the direction democratic India is proceeding in nowadays, his words take on a frighteningly prophetic tone. As an ardent believer in a secular democracy, I sincerely hope I am mistaken.

The Other Side of Development

In 1991, a new government came to power in India under P. V. Narasimha Rao. Rao was not really a career politician: he was catapulted into the chair following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the PM-elect of the Congress party during campaigning. It was the first time that a non-member of the Nehru dynasty was heading the Congress and India; and Rao made the even more revolutionary step of appointing the internationally acclaimed economist, Dr. Manmohan Singh, as his finance minister.

Dr. Singh set about dismantling the economic framework of India in a revolutionary manner. The Nehruvian socialist framework, modelled loosely on Soviet Russia’s system (Nehru was a leftist and a fan of Stalin) was demolished and capitalism was ushered in on a red carpet. India’s ponderous bureaucracy withered away, the country took to privatisation in a big way, the foreign exchange started pouring in… and India was off, like a rocket. The country has not looked back, since then.

But there was a small minority who bemoaned the destruction of socialism and the rise of corpocracy. They provided dire predictions of economic collapse and subsequent World Bank intervention which would turn India into a vassal state. Manmohan Singh pooh-poohed such fears, saying famously that “there is no way to stop an idea whose time has come”. He also said that capitalism would now be different: this would be capitalism with a “human face”.

Well, it seemed that Dr. Singh had been proven right, the way India has surged ahead economically and politically. Not a single government since then had gone back on the reforms; the left has slowly eroded in India so that now, we are left with only two alternatives – the centre-right Congress or the far right BJP. It seems that India is indeed shining, and capitalism has finally overcome its traditional enemy socialism.

At least, that is what I thought until I read Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from the Poorest Districts of India by P. Sainath.

***

SainathSainath, as a reporter for The Times of India, toured ten of India’s poorest districts from May 1993 to June 1995. His aim was to cover poverty in terms of processes, i. e. how it comes into being; as opposed to the coverage of poverty as events, which is the usual style of the press, as disasters make good copy. He makes the point forcefully while covering drought in Nuapada, Orissa:

But at the best of times, the press has viewed drought and scarcity as events. And the belief that only events make news, not processes, distorts understanding. Some of the best reports on poverty suffer from trying to dramatise it as an event. The real drama is in the process. In the causes.

Deforestation has much to do with drought. But being a process, it becomes a ‘feature’. And then disappears into the newspaper ghetto called ‘ecology’—presumed to be of interest only to rabid ‘Greens’.

The reality? The combined investment in all development projects in Orissa since independence is eclipsed by the commercial value of renewable timber and forests lost in making way for them.

Sainath’s study of the processes has left me seriously shaken. India’s tremendous surge of the recent years has been at the cost of the continued (sometimes increased) misery of the masses at the bottom of the social pyramid – the multitude who have been deprived of even their base humanity since Vedic times.

***

Poor woman…every third human being in the world without safe and adequate water supply is an Indian. Every fourth child on the globe who dies of diarrhoea is an Indian. Every third person in the world with leprosy is an Indian. Every fourth being on the planet dying of water-borne or water-related diseases is an Indian. Of the over sixteen million tuberculosis cases that exist at any time world-wide, 12.7 million are in India. Tens of millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition. It lays their systems open to an array of fatal ailments. Yet, official expenditure on nutrition is less than one per cent of GNP.

Empty public health centres and tribals who still apply to the local witch doctor for curing their ills.

Empty schools and colleges (in one case inhabited by goats!).

People bonded for life to work for free for usurers.

Girls sold off to pay debts.

“Development” which displaces people on massive scales and permanently damages the environment.

I could go on and on. Sainath reports on such instances by the dozen, with passion and sincerity, and also with a certain sarcastic dry wit which would have made reading him a pleasure had not the subject been so disturbing.

Always, the affected people are one at the lowest rung of the social ladder: the Dalits and the Adivasis. These people are officially taken care of by the government: they have reservation quotas in educational institutions and government jobs: a multitude of rural welfare schemes are there for their benefit… but unless old power structures change, these benefits shall stay on paper. The upper classes in India still use the ignorance and lack of education of those at the bottom to hold on to their privileged position in society.

Denying the poor access to knowledge goes back a long way. The ancient Smriti political and legal system drew up vicious punishments for sudras seeking learning. (In those days, that meant learning the Vedas.) If a sudra listens to the Vedas, said one of these laws, ‘his ears are to be filled with molten tin or lac. If he dares to recite the Vedic texts, his body is to be split’. That was the fate of the ‘base-born’. The ancients restricted learning on the basis of birth.

In a modern polity, where the base-born have votes, the elite act differently. Say all the right things. But deny access. Sometimes, mass pressures force concessions. Bend a little. After a while, it’s back to business as usual. As one writer has put it: When the poor get literate and educated, the rich lose their palanquin bearers.

Yes, indeed.

childrenThe share of education in our five year plan outlays has been falling. Those who led the country to freedom had a different vision. They wanted that a free India spend no less than 10 per cent of plan outlay on education. Free India honoured that vision only in its breach.

The first five year plan gave education 7.86 per cent of its total outlay. The second plan lowered it to 5.83 per cent. By the fifth plan, education was making do with 3.27 per cent of the outlay. In the seventh plan, the figure was 3.5 per cent. As the problems of her children’s education grew more, India spent less and less on them.

As India pushes more and more towards consumer-oriented development, corporates start to rule the roost. The old feudal system where the landed gentry lorded it over the peasants is replaced by the corporate lackeys exploiting the workers. Only the hats have changed – the people underneath, and their roles, are the same.

Development is the strategy of evasion. When you can’t give people land reform, give them hybrid cows. When you can’t send the children to school, try non-formal education. When you can’t provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. Can’t give them jobs? Not to worry. Just redefine the words ‘employment opportunities’. Don’t want to do away with using children as a form of slave labour? Never mind. Talk of ‘improving the conditions of child labour’. It sounds good. You can even make money out of it.

This has been true of development, Indian style, for over four decades now.

Central to its philosophy is the idea that we can somehow avoid the big moves, the painful ones, the reforms that Indian society really needs. Is there some way we can improve people’s lives without getting into annoying things like land reform? There isn’t, but there are powerful people who’d like to believe there is.

The same illusion runs through what we call our ‘globalisation’. It has the Indian elite excited. ‘We must globalise. There is no choice. Everybody else is doing it. Look at Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea.’

Of course, ‘everyone’ who is doing it, did a lot of other things. All those countries—if you must take authoritarian states as a model—went through land reform. They gave their people literacy and education, as also some standards of health, shelter, nutrition. Point this out—and the Indian elite discover our ‘cultural uniqueness’. The same is true of child labour. Dozens of other societies got rid of it. But ‘India is different’. So India’s uniqueness does not stand in the way of globalisation. It stands in the way of land reform, education, health. It does not prevent external agencies making policies for India on a wide range of subjects. It does stand in the way of doing away with child labour.

The Indian development experience reeks of this sort of hypocrisy across its four and a half decades. Ignore the big issues long enough, and you can finally dismiss them as ‘outdated’. Nobody will really bother.

***
Drought

Why does everyone love a good drought?

Well, it brings in money from the government, so the local authorities benefit. The district gets its moment in the limelight; the locals get some goodies, which is like manna from heaven for these piss-poor people. The corrupt officials get money to siphon away, so they are happy. With money in the hands of people, the moneylenders get new victims. And the press positively drools with the possibility of all those photographs of emaciated children which they can splash across their front pages.

In the event, the reasons for the disaster often gets ignored.

I will let Sainath speak.

Drought is, beyond question, among the more serious problems this country faces. Drought relief, almost equally beyond question, is rural India’s biggest growth industry. Often, there is little relation between the two. Relief can go to regions that get lots of rainfall. Even where it goes to scarcity areas, those most in need seldom benefit from it. The poor in such regions understand this. That’s why some of them call drought relief teesra fasl (the third crop). Only, they are not the ones who harvest it…

…Simply put, we have several districts in India that have an abundance of rainfall—but where one section, the poor, can suffer acute drought. That happens when available water resources are colonised by the powerful. Further, the poor are never consulted or asked to participate in designing the ‘programmes’ the anti-drought funds bring…

…Conflicts arising from man-made drought are on the rise. Deforestation does enormous damage. Villagers are increasingly losing control over common water resources. The destruction of traditional irrigation systems is gaining speed. A process of privatisation of water resources is apparent in most of the real drought areas (take the water lords of Ramnad, for instance). There are now two kinds of drought: the real and the rigged. Both can be underway at the same time, in the same place…

…Things haven’t changed too much in some ways. Quite a few journals still freely interchange the words ‘drought’ and ‘famine’. Obviously, these two mean very different things. But the word ‘famine’ is more alarmist and makes better copy. In 1986, one editor argued that the difference between the two was merely ‘semantic’. Present-day efforts at covering poverty still insist on the events approach. Poverty gets covered in breathless tones of horror and shock that suggest something new has happened, even when it hasn’t.

Apparently, crisis merits attention only when it results in catastrophe, not earlier. It takes years for a food surplus district like Kalahandi to arrive at where it has. But that is a process. It does not make news. Maybe it is still worth writing about, though?…

In fact, in many places, drought is called teesra fasl – the “third crop”!

***

We have been brought up on the concept of the “Poverty Line” in India – below this line are the dismally poor who needs government support to survive; above it, they are still poor, but the conditions get better as people move away from it in the upward direction. The aim of our democracy is to bring all of its citizens above this line, then slowly refine its definition as the populace get more and more well-off.

A fine concept – but without a clear idea of how to draw this line, it moves into the realm of conjecture.

The poverty line provides the conceptual rationalisation for looking at the poor as a ‘category’ to be taken care of through targeted ameliorative programmes, ignoring structural inequalities and other factors which generate, sustain, and reproduce poverty.

It does not ‘take into account items of social consumption such as basic education and health, drinking water supply, sanitation, environmental standards, etc., in terms of normative requirements or effective access’.

The poverty line, quantified as a number, is reductionist. It does not capture important aspects of poverty—ill health, low educational attainments, geographical isolation, ineffective access to law, powerlessness in civil society, caste and/or gender based disadvantages.

The head-count ratio based on the poverty line ‘does not capture the severity of poverty in terms of the poverty deficit (total shortfall from the poverty line) or additionally the distribution of consumption expenditure among the poor’. In a country of India’s size and diversity, a poverty line based on aggregation at an all-India level ignores state-specific variations in consumption patterns and/or prices.

The notion of ‘absolute poverty’ is inadequate because ‘relative poverty’ is also an equally important aspect of poverty and is, in fact, a determinant of absolute poverty at a given level of national income. More generally, the concepts of inequality and poverty, although distinct, need to be constantly viewed together as closely associated concepts.

Plagued by so many inconsistencies, the Poverty Line becomes something for the politicians to play around with – to quote to their own advantage and to the detriment of opponents. Since the general public does not understand it, it has lost its meaning even as a metaphor.

***

This fantastic piece of journalism gives us a taste of the real India, the India of the villages extolled by the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. This India has been forgotten in the loud celebrations of a capitalist India, an India which is military power and a space research pioneer in South Asia. But it is good for us to remember our brothers out in the wilds, at least once in a while.

Who constitutes the nation? Only the elite? Or do the hundreds of millions of poor in India also make up the nation? Are their interests never identified with national interest?
Or is there more than one nation?

That is a question you often run up against in some of India’s poorest areas. Areas where extremely poor people go into destitution making way for firing ranges, jet fighter plants, coal mines, power projects, dams, sanctuaries, prawn and shrimp farms, even poultry farms. If the costs they bear are the ‘price’ of development, then the rest of the ‘nation’ is having one endless free lunch.

However, the destitute are fighting back. In the last part of the book, Sainath recounts some stories where people have banded together to resist the might of the authorities and the machinations of the moneyed. And they have scored small but significant victories.

Of the battles these stories record, some might end in failure. Mainly because of the lack of sustained and organised democratic politics in those areas. Yet, they also argue hope. People are not quite so passive. They revolt in many ways. And as long as that is the case, there is hope.

Yes, there is always hope in a democracy. Sainath has made a not insignificant contribution to this fight, through this book. And if I can persuade someone to read it – and think more about those at the bottom of the heap – through this blog post, I believe I too would have contributed my mite.

Selling a Myth

The “warrior hero” is a familiar figure in mythology across the world. He is the lone wolf, riding off into battle, killing without passion with the clear realisation that his ultimate destiny is a violent death. He has no personal stakes – he kills because it is his duty (or karma, as per the Bhagavad Gita). Joseph Campbell talks about a samurai who desisted from killing his opponent because he spat at him; because he had made him angry! Killing in anger, in the heat of the moment, is always decried.

This mythical figure is enduring. We see him/ her in science fiction, fantasy, historical romances and tales of the wild, wild west: and also in various bestselling books on “war heroes”, soldiers who showed extreme valour on the battlefield in the World Wars I & II and other sundry battles. Forget the fact that there is seldom anything glorious about war or the gunslinger of the Wild West was most probably a rapacious murderer: we, as a species, do not want historical facts. Mythical truth is more essential.

(Please note that I am not using the term “myth” to denote “falsehood”. In my opinion, myth is an unavoidable part of the human psyche.)

Clint Eastwood must be the one person who used the appeal of this myth to the maximum. His “Man with No Name” characters in the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone are unforgettable portrayals of the warrior hero: the lanky and laconic loner who rides off into the sunset chewing tobacco, smoke streaming from the barrel of his gun. When Eastwood became a director, this figure reappeared again and again, and in the process gained a more rounded and philosophical personality (Pale Rider, Unforgiven). Recently, he has moved away from the Wild West but the hero is still in evidence (Gran Torino).

Pale_RiderUnforgiven_2Gran_Torino_poster

So it was with mixed feelings that I watched American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history. On the one hand, I was confident that Clint would deliver a terrific movie: on the other hand, I was not very comfortable with the “heroism” attributed to Kyle, who had stated

I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.

This is hardly what you’d expect from a hero! However, the movie did not contain a single objectionable statement. Chris was shown as rather honourable, having pangs of conscience before he shoots down a woman and a child who are carrying lethal weapons. Also, there are plenty of “evil” Iraqis out there (guys like “The Butcher” who drill children to death), so we get a feeling that the director is trying to say: “Look, American intervention in Iraq was not so bad!” This disturbed me, and I decided to read Kyle’s autobiography.

A good thing I did. I could immediately understand what Clint was trying to do – and it was something pretty insidious.

***

Chris Kyle sees the world in black and white: American is good, Texan is excellent, non-American is not-so-good, and Arab is bad. He has no doubt why he is fighting the war in Iraq: it is not to help the Iraqis (as the US government would have us believe), it is to “stop this shit from reaching America”. He has no qualms about killing; rather, he is at pains to tell us, over and over, that he simply loves it. He is not killing because he is a soldier and it is his duty: he became a soldier to kill.

A sample of quotes from the book is given below.

My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day.

Our ROEs when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kil every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.

The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam’s army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren’t Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we’d just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did.

Man, this is going to be good, I thought. We are going to kill massive amounts of bad guys. And I’m going to be in the middle of it.

..I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that bulshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.

The portrait of an extremely juvenile character comes out from the book: a person whose ethical sense has been stunted in his pre-teens. The themes which are repeated again and again – his addiction to video games, the comic book heroes he tries to emulate, his simple pleasure at shooting a human being – presents the picture of a kid who have never really grown up. And he does not even bother to hide his racism; he says he would have shot any Arab carrying a Koran with pleasure, had the higher-ups allowed it.

It’s interesting to see how the tone changes when the Marines and SEALs are at the receiving end. Then people are not “killed” but “murdered”. Also, it’s interesting to hear him lamenting about the fact that the Arabs hate him just because he is a Christian, and that religion should be about tolerance – when he is ready to drop anybody with a Koran.

On top of all this bigoted racism, the book is badly written to boot. Of course, he is not a professional writer, but you would expect some coherence and sequence. The narrative comprises short staccato sentences, repetitive descriptions of Kyle’s kills interspersed with detailed discussions about arms and military vehicles.

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Clint Eastwood’s movie bears no relation to this narrative than the bare outline. By infusing a storyline into it, introducing murderous Iraqi characters and peppering it with philosophical dialogue, Eastwood has tried to present a sympathetic view of Chris Kyle. It’s rubbish.

But what he has accomplished is to make a movie which is astonishingly value neutral. You cannot pick a single incident from it to show its hidden bigotry: the script is expertly written. However, a right-winger can take what he wants from it – a celebration of “America”(see how the movie has been praised by hardliners in the US); a leftist or a liberal will be mildly disturbed, without being able to exactly put his finger on the source of the unease; and a middle-of-the-road person may think: “Well, maybe I’m misjudging those brave marines”.

This movie, declared as anti-war by Eastwood, is nothing of the sort. It is the selling of a myth, after subtly subverting to suit the aims of a murderous colonial power – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Clint Eastwood ensures commercial success along with the spreading of an obnoxious right-wing philosophy. Unless one catches the subtext, it is liable to percolate into the psyche.

In my opinion, herein lies the danger.

The Debt Trap

During the nineties, I procured my first credit card. Being a cautious socialist who distrusted private banks on principle, the card was from the State Bank of India. Initially I didn’t do much with it, but use it to shop at our local supermarket: the novelty was in taking it out and flashing it instead of a bunch of dirty notes. So things went on satisfactorily for a few months.

1-1204463487cJKyThen, the temptation of buying beyond my means was too much – I purchased something (I don’t exactly remember what) through my card which could not be paid off immediately. In addition to this, I took some cash advance on my card to take care of the expenses of my father’s sixtieth birthday celebrations.

Suddenly, the card had me by the throat. All that was left of my salary after monthly expenses was going towards the minimum payment on my card; however, the outstanding amount was decreasing only minimally. To put it simply, I was paying out interest while the principal remained largely untouched. Moreover, my card had become useless because the credit limit had been reached.

Well, I am glad to say that I caught on to the danger after only a few months, and took out a non-refundable loan from my provident fund to settle the amount on the card in full. After that incident, I started using a credit card only after I came to the Middle East in 2004 – and I am extremely careful settle the outstanding amount in full each month.

I had experienced the nightmare of the never-ending debt loop.

Usury

Matsys_the_moneylenderMoneylenders have always been a despised lot in history until modern times. Usury, the business of lending money at high interest rates so as to make a profit is condemned in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (though Jews are allowed to do so to non-Jews). Christ reportedly drove away usurers from the church with a whip: Islam even now practices a special type of banking without interest. Due to widespread anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, usury was the only profession allowed for Jews, thus giving rise to caricature of the covetous Jew a la Shylock: ironically, this became a vicious circle of hatred.

In India too, the moneylender (often caricatured in movies as a ‘Bania’ with his characteristic cap and strongbox, sitting cross-legged in his tiny office and fleecing villagers) was not a liked figure. Many people have been fleeced of their life savings and domicile by these rapacious characters. Debt bondage was also common in India, where people were forced work free of cost for generations in the service of the person who lent them money – the debt and interests keep on accumulating.Christ_drives_the_Usurers_out_of_the_Temple

It must have been with the rise of industry, banking and international finance that charging interest on loans lost its stigma as a malpractice. When the borrowed money is used to generate more money on its own, it seems only fair that the lender is compensated – after all, theoretically the profit would have been his, had he used it the way the borrower did. Anyway, except in the Islamic world, lending money on interest is no longer a shameful activity: rather, it is the backbone of the current market economy-driven world. If one is to listen to the bards who sing the praises of capitalism, this is the only sustainable model.

But is it? Since the recession of 2008, I have begun to have serious doubts.

Virtual Money

I am not an economist. In fact, even though I have taken a Post-Graduate Diploma in Financial Management, I am very weak in understanding the vagaries of international finance. Other than the basics of balance sheets, discounted cash flow and future value, I am lost.

However, there is one aspect of modern finance which I am sure is an ultimate recipe for disaster – virtual money, symbolised by the ubiquitous credit card.

Just think about how we do finance nowadays. Most of the money is just numbers on a computer system in a bank’s server. When you buy or sell something, the numbers are adjusted accordingly. And when you buy something on credit, the numbers readjust based on the assumption that you will be able to pay back. If you are not able to, the bank will come after you.

This system will work as long as the majority of the people play by the rules. But when the majority starts defaulting, that’s when things start to come unstuck.

Exploitation and the Myth of Infinite Consumption

“Exploitation” is the cornerstone of the capitalist world we live in today. Even communist ideology is dependent on the “exploitation” of natural resources. Now this is a key word: it creates the impression that exploiting anything and everything for one’s benefit is the natural way of things. This, coupled with the myth that there are infinite resources to go around, has created a covetous, rapacious, dog-eat-dog society where the aim is to get ahead, even by trampling down the one beneath you, paying scarce heed to the voices of reason saying that the current pace and direction of humanity is unsustainable. Social Darwinism, as promoted by Ayn Rand, has become the norm. Is somebody living a miserable life? Well, he deserves it for being too lazy to do better for himself! This is blaming the victim with a vengeance.

Socially conditioned rapacity coupled with the ability to consume beyond means – it was only a question when whole thing would collapse. Well, it has happened. Starting in 2008, we are seeing the beginning of modern society’s one-way roller-coaster ride to disaster.

Greece

Greek-Communist-Party-pro-005Greece is a fine example of what will happen when a government becomes beholden to moneylenders. When a country’s money is invested in “securities” provided by international financiers who know that they are based on subprime mortgages, and later, when these instruments fail and the money vanishes, the same financial vultures force the government to pay back huge amounts – this is nothing short of debt bondage. And the price to be paid? Austerity! Increased privatisation and reduction of government funding on public amenities. To quote a colourful metaphor from the website, http://www.filmsforaction.org:

If you are a fan of mafia movies, you know how the mafia would take over a popular restaurant. First, they would do something to disrupt the business – stage a murder at the restaurant or start a fire. When the business starts to suffer, the Godfather would generously offer some money as a token of friendship. In return, Greasy Thumb takes over the restaurant’s accounting, Big Joey is put in charge of procurement, and so on. Needless to say, it’s a journey down a spiral of misery for the owner who will soon be broke and, if lucky, alive.

(Read the full article, here.)

This is financial extortion on an international scale. Ironically, we find mainstream media blaming the Greek people for this catastrophe.

Even though Greece has voted emphatically against austerity, there is little hope that the vultures will leave off. The country will be squeezed and people pushed into unbelievable misery until these corporate bloodsuckers get their pound of flesh.

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Unfortunately, we are all cogs in the wheel, and cannot escape the mammoth capitalist behemoth which controls society nowadays. We cannot do away with investments and virtual money. This is why leftists like me are called hypocrites many a time by conservatives, and they are right. All of us are culpable.

But is there nothing we can do? I believe there is.

At this point, I would like to quote the story of the squirrel, from the Indian epic Ramayana.

Legend has it that Lord Rama built a causeway across the ocean to connect India to Sri Lanka, to go over there with his monkey army to fight the demon king Ravana and recover his wife Sita, whom Ravana had abducted. As the mighty monkeys were throwing rocks into the sea, Rama spotted a squirrel running into the water, running back to the beach and rolling in the sand, then running into the water again. When asked the reason for this strange behaviour, the squirrel replied: “I am participating in the building of the causeway. The few grains of sand which stick to my back will also contribute, no?” It is said that Rama became extremely happy and blessed the squirrel.

The moral of the story is simple – nothing is too little. We all can contribute our mite to bringing down this corrupt edifice. Blood-soaked revolutions are not required, nor are they essential.

The first step is control our appetites. It will not be easy – but we can do it. Start slowly and in a limited fashion. Do you need to buy all those consumer products advertised in the TV? Is it required to use your petrol –drinking monster of a car for going that one kilometre? Is air-conditioning absolutely necessary in all rooms of your house?

The second step is to see ways of becoming self-sufficient and promoting self-sufficiency. Do you need to visit that international retail chain for buying vegetables, when your neighbourhood grocer may be able to supply the same? Can you not try to cultivate at least some vegetables in your backyard, or terrace garden? When equivalent brands are available, can you not choose a local one over an international one?

The most important step, in my humble opinion, is to never borrow beyond one’s means.

These are all suggestions and not diktats. I am also a person who is struggling to find ways of escaping from the clutches of the faceless corporations who have no caste, creed, colour or nationality. If we do not, I am afraid that soon sovereign governments may become history, and the world would be divided up among the financial Leviathans.