The Idea of India – Learning the hard way

After the untimely death of Nehru in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri took over the reins as the prime minister of India. A Soft Spoken and mild mannered person, Shastri carried himself with a strong resolve. As the country teetered towards chaos at the death of Nehru, his leadership inspired a sense of calm. In his first broadcast to the country he implored the citizens to look forward and carry on the legacy of Nehru’s socialist reforms

There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the cross-roads of history and must choose which way to go. But for us, there need be no difficulty or hesitation, no looking to right or left. Our way is straight and clear—the building up of a socialist democracy at home with freedom and prosperity for all, and the maintenance of world peace and friendship with all nations.

Shastri refused to align with any major power bloc and looked to promote India’s agrarian reforms. He enabled the White Revolution and raised the slogan “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” (Translated to Long Live the Soldier, Long Live the Farmer). Shastri’s assurances that English would continue to be used as the official language as long the non-Hindi speaking states wanted helped quell the protests by the Southern States as the Government looked to set Hindi as the Official language of India. The biggest moment of Shastri’s tenure materialized when he had to take decisive action and mobilize the Indian Army to ward off Pakistan Insurgency in Kashmir in 1965. His quick actions neutralized Pakistan’s hand. The Soviet Union helped broker peace between the warring neighbours. Shastri and Pakistan PM Ayub Khan are invited to Tashkent to sign the peace treaty. Shastri mysteriously died in Tashkent a day after signing the treaty. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery and his close relatives suspect foul play. Though, not many details have been made public, several conspiracy theories have been around for a long time now. Shastri’s sudden death lead to Indira Gandhi assuming power as the Prime minister of India in 1967.

The Rise of Indira

Indira’s ascent to the top rung of Indian politics shattered several glass ceilings. She was the first and as of today the only Indian female prime minister. Indira’s presence in the Indian political spectrum was not new. She was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (Upper house) and was elected the president of the Indian national congress in 1959. It was generally believed that the congress party chose Indira over party hard liner Morarji Desai as they saw Indira as someone who would never do anything contrary to the party’s interests. The country was facing unprecedented levels of unemployment, religious communalism, and famine. She was forced to undervalue the Indian currency and borrow wheat from the Americans. The Congress party had lost its shine, and their leaders were seen as corrupt and as ones who no longer had interests of India in mind. Though the party managed to retain the majority in the central government their vote share had dropped considerably. Several regional parties won the state assembly elections and wrested control of the power at the state level. The Communist Party of India (CPI) made gains in Bengal and Kerala. The Dravidian Party (DMK) won Tamil Nadu and engaged in populist schemes and played to the local Tamil sentiment.

Indira’s rallying slogan was “Gharibi Hatao” (Translated to Eliminate Poverty) and unleashed a slew of socialist reforms looking to eliminate poverty across the country. The programs looked to gather support from the rural and the urban poor. The Bangladesh Liberation Effort and victory in the Indo Pak war deliver the next general and state elections to Indira. While Nehru’s policies were based on the four pillars of democracy, socialism, secularism and non alignment, Indira’s policy decisions seemed to be heavily influenced by her Socialist advisers. She nationalized banks, stopped the monetary payments that were being made to the erstwhile “royal families”. The agricultural reforms headed by Subramanian C start paying dividends as the yield of Mexican wheat grown in India doubled. For the first time in many years though the political landscape still seems shaky, the economical and social landscape seemed stable.

The Rule by Decree

Indira Gandhi looked to consolidate her power at the state and central levels, by choosing those loyal to her to lead various state governments. She nominated judges to the Supreme court who aligned with her visions, these actions all were seen by historians as being authoritarian. It is widely believed that the government led a mass sterilization program to limit population growth. In rural India many were unwittingly forced by government doctors who were assigned quotas to fulfill. The breaking point was when the Allahabad high court decided that Indira had misused Government funds on election rallies and declared Indira’s election to the lower house in 1971 invalid. Indira rejected the calls of resignation from the opposition party and vowed to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court. The 1972 war had taken a heavy toll on the supply chain and inflation was rearing again. George Fernandez (NDA Defense Minister) joins the fray and brings the western railways to a standstill further compounding the logistics issues. JP Narayan, the erstwhile congress leader and Nehru’s mentor led protests against the government in Bihar and Gujarat. As the protests against the government intensified, Indira decided to impose the Emergency Rule in India, jailed the opposition party leaders, and muzzled the independent press. Citizens were detained indefinitely and the state enforced curfews to keep the public in state. The president signed ordinances that allowed Indira to rule by Decree. These were truly the darkest days of Indian democracy. Two years later, in 1977 Indira called for fresh elections and released a few political prisoners. The Congress party was routed in the 1977 elections, and Indira and almost all of the congress leadership lost the election. For the first time since independence, the congress party would no longer be in power.

Return to Power and Assasination

The Janata government takes over the reins and Morarji Desai becomes the prime minister of India. The Jan Sangh Party provides support and its leaders assume various ministerial positions. If it took 30 years for the congress party to lose its way and succumb to the temptations of power, it hardly took 2 years for the Janata Party. Reports of government offices and bungalows being ransacked by those in power came to the fore front. The only positive thing to come have from the government is from the efforts of Law Minister Shanti Bhushan (who in later years joined Anna Hazare in the fight against corruption) who was instrumental in rewriting the laws that enabled Indira to wield authoritarian power. The laws were amended to seek majority parliamentary approval before their enactment. The government was unable to deliver on the pre election promises, and Indira drove the point home. She campaigned across the country, attempted to connect with the rural folk and established her credential as the only leader who could help India on her path to glory. The 1982 elections saw Indira ascend to power for the 3rd time.

In the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra film actors turned politicians like MGR, and NT Rama Rao connect with the people and storm their way to victory in the state elections. For the first time Indian Politics has paved way for non political players to reach the pinnacle of power. Their populist style regimes are still celebrated to this day. While the southern states, resorted to political battle to consolidate their power, the North Eastern State of Assam break into revolt against the influx of Bangladeshi Immigrants. In Punjab, fringe Sikh Extremists demand to establish the sovereign state of Khalistan as a homeland for the Sikhs. The protests in Assam to an extent and Punjab subsequently turn very violent.

As reports of Insurgency in Punjab rises, so does the tension between the Indian Government and the Punjab Akali Dal Party. It is widely believed that Pakistan Intelligence Wing ISI was responsible for providing the Khalistani supporters with weapons and instigating them to violence. The Punjabi Sikhs, who remained in India after partition felt that they were mistreated by the Hindu community and their identity was being diluted. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Akali Dal leader took refuge in Akal Takht and fortified the temple complex with his supporters. Similarly many khalistani supporters took refuge in the “Takhts” to evade arrest by the Indian authorities. Indira ordered the army to commence Operation Blue star to remove JSB and his armed militants from the complex, the operation resulted in the death of about 500 people. (78 Indian Commandos, and 400 odd militants). The Indian governments military action inside the Sikh temples were condemned by several Sikh religious bodies. Indira was assassinated by her own bodyguards in retaliation. Her death lead to massive public outcry and resulted in the Anti Sikh riots of 1984. The riots claimed many innocent Sikh lives (Official numbers indicate 3500).

Thus ends the legacy of one of India’s most charismatic personalities. Indira had shown the world India’s strength and resilience built on the pillars of democracy, secularism, socialisms and inadvertently by her own actions chose to threaten two of the four pillars. It remains to see if the country can survive the prolonged attack on these foundational pillars.

The Fear Factor

The last two books i read were This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, and Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re wrong about the World by Hans Rosling. While Naomi’s book takes a dire tone and focuses on the need for urgent actions to combat climate change, Hans’s book uses data to explain how the world is really better than it seems. Just to be clear, the books do not contradict each other on the subject of global warming or climate change. Hans does not use data to deny the threat of climate change. He instead wants the reader to understand facts, understand data and then separate hyperbole from reality. That said, the way i felt after reading the books could not have been any different. Naomi’s book put me on the edge. It was deflating to realize that the small actions we do are just not enough to address the problem of reducing emissions. It left me mentally drained. I started to be overwhelmed by the sense of uncertainty around what would happen to the world. I started to take an increasingly pessimistic outlook. Hans’s book on the other hand starts off with a different strategy. He tries to make you understand that the world view you are holding on to may not be as accurate as you think and then starts using numbers to hone in various points. As you realize how wrong you are about certain things, it makes you believe you could be wrong about many other things and gives you a glimmer of hope. Moreover Hans’s book also gives you a framework that helps you look at issues differently and shows you ways to find solutions. It was remarkable to note the change in my behavior once my mind was able to overcome the irrational thoughts. I was able to get a handle on my irrational thoughts and was able to better process information and move forward again. The shift in mindset made me a little bit more open, the focus on issues differently. It was as if i was not afraid anymore.

Reprocessing “This Changes Everything”

The threat of climate change is as real as it gets, and Naomi is very correct in saying that if we do not correct the course of the ship, we will soon be in rough waters. There are several chapters in the book where she shows how the economics of capitalism is a major threat to action against climate change. Hans makes us realize that almost 82% of the energy comes from oil and gas sources, making it one of the richest industry in the world. As these companies look to maximize their profits and expand their footprint, they try to influence the governments for tax breaks and seek lesser regulations. The companies have brought jobs, have helped people move across income levels and helped build the modern world as we see it. But the cost of the damage to the ecological systems and the companies responsibility towards higher emissions are definitely causes of concern.

While it is tempting to portray this as a David vs Goliath problem, it is important to understand the reality of the systems. It is important to address the side effects of the drastic action and then weigh in on solutions. I recently watched Pete Buttigieg talk about the Keystone Pipeline. He acknowledges that killing off the project would mean loss of jobs but he also talks about the the need to move the workers to projects that help sustainable development. If there is no alternative proposed to the workers, how would anyone knowingly commit to lose their livelihood? Demanding accountability from the elected representatives and ensuring the companies invest on newer tech to reduce their carbon footprint is definitely a step in the right direction. But i think it is important to understand the scale of the problem, and continue to do what you can to reduce your carbon footprint. Several Large Oil Companies are now acknowledging Climate change and are investing in renewable energy systems. Local and city governments are adapting renewable sources and are focusing their investments on improving infrastructure. While these may not be meeting the drastic demands (of a few to completely stop carbon extraction), we simply cannot ignore the positive signs and effort put together by people.

The Fear Factor

In the age of internet, where we have unlimited access to information and everyday our minds try to process a ton of data. Unfortunately the ones that seem to stick are the ones that are controversial, the ones that are negative and the ones that promote fear. I started picking problems from the news and started to juxtapose them into my lives. I was looking to solve problems that did not exist and became stressed and afraid when my mind could not come up with solutions. Fear is remarkable, once it sets logic and reason are out of the window. Actions based on fear are there to help in fight or flight scenarios, but it is important to note these scenarios don’t apply for every day life decisions. So instead of using fear to guide day to actions let us take a step back and look to calm down. The two biggest takeaways for me were that it is important to seek new perspectives, even from the ones that you do not necessarily agree with, and the second one was on the nature of expertise. I had to accept the fact that there were many things i did not know anything about. In my case a lot of my anxiety and fear was from generalizing and not testing my ideas or perspectives with others.

Independent Thought

As i was wrapping up the essay i realized that i was paraphrasing a lot of the authors i had read in the recent past Books such as Thinking Fast and Slow, Blink, Talking to Strangers focus on how our mind reacts to situations. Initial Impressions, Fast Thoughts and gut feel or Insight can make you take decisions without really thinking it through. It may look as if you have the all answers but on closer look you see the pitfalls to the approach. So if you think the people out there are wrong and you are right then test your ideas with an open mind, seek the experts out, do not limit the discussion of ideas to the ones that agree with you, use the general rules of factfulness to reorient yourself. That will help promote independent thought and stop unfounded beliefs. Crazy as it may sound i think if we all apply these simple rules on the controversial topics of today we may soon make the world a much better place.

P.S This Changes Everything is a fantastic read. Naomi Klein is a wonderful journalist who has done a fab job. When i read the book i was at an emotional low, so i was unable to process the information as she probably intended.

The Idea of India – Evolution

The next part of Guha’s book helps us understand the events post independence, gives us a glimpse on the pain that partition inflicted on the country. Guha also delves on the efforts taken by Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar to define a unified, secular and democratic country.

The Idea of India

The partition left the country divided on religious lines. Hindus from Pakistan were forced to relocate to India, and the Muslims from India prepared to relocate to Pakistan. The newly formed governments of both countries were ill equipped to handle the violence or handle the scale of migration. Punjab, Bengal, and Delhi were the states that were most affected by the violence. While the Hindus of Bengal took the West and the Muslims took the east (now Bangladesh), it was not straightforward in Punjab as the state had a strong Hindu, Muslim and Sikh population. The most violent clashes took place in Punjab. Gandhi believed that if he could help quell the unrest in Bengal, then he would be able to control the situation in Punjab. Nehru and Gandhi did more to quell the violence than the Pakistani governor. Nehru and Gandhi wanted the Sangh to not mirror Jinnah’s two nation theory and ideas that Hindus and Muslims could not coexist. The Sangh believed the Nehru and Gandhi had failed the Hindus and the country and believed that non Hindu people needed to adopt Hindu way or deserve no privileges.

In 1948 Mahatma Gandhi was shot fatally by Nathuram Godse a RSS fanatic, who blamed him for the partition. RSS was subsequently banned by the government of India. The ban on RSS was revoked by Patel later on when M.S. Gowalkar swore allegiance to the Indian flag. Nehru and Patel were both shaken by the loss of Gandhi. Gandhi’s ability to transcend violence and spread a message of harmony was the bedrock upon which the foundations of a secular country were built.

The government then focused on resettling the refugees. Activists and Administrators come up with innovative solutions to settle the displaced. Nehru’s progressive left style of politics made him a media favorite in the world. Nehru had travelled extensively and had an more outward look on life. Patel on the other hand believed that India would not benefit from the western outlook of life. Inspite of the differences Patel and Nehru worked on establishing a committee to draft the constitution of India. B.R Ambedkar was nominated as the chairman of the committee and public opinion is sought on several topics. The role of public in governance is a key reason i believe that democracy has sustained in the country for so long. Policies, laws were drawn up by the members after consulting the people of the country. Debates were conducted to test Ideas and Policies. Patel worked hard to drive compromises and ensured the constitution would not undermine critical points of governance. The constitution of India was drafted in 3 years and remains one of the finest achievements of the Indian government till date.

Nehru’s governance was focused on development and protecting minorities rights in the country. India was a predominantly an agrarian country. As the population boomed, so did the shortfall of grains. Nehru realized that in order to be self sufficient, the country had to invest and improve key areas like agriculture, communication and industrialization. Nehru wanted to take a leaf out of the Russian playbook and transform the country. Russia was seen as a poor agricultural country with peasants yet in a few years they transformed to an industrial country through their own means. The Congress party had set up a national planning commission in 1938 to define the economic policy of free India. The belief was that this was essential to provide for the people of the country. The commissions first plan focused on the idea that the State was essential to any large scale economic planning. The center was expected to do the groundwork and provide the required infrastructure to the states to help achieve the goals. the commission recommended 3 tiers and advocates that the most critical industries that help national security and growth like defense, air force, electricity remain with the state. The private sector could step in to various degrees for the remaining two tiers. The idea behind the thought was private sectors were driven by profit and this would not be necessarily good for the country.

Programs promoting agrarian uplift were put in place. Forests were cleared, use of Fertilizers was promoted to develop fields. The farmers did have concerns with the fertilizers as they believed that the crop though resistant to bugs, did not taste well and believed that the earth was being polluted. Several Gandhian followers were extremely concerned by the deforestation and large dams as they though that men were playing havoc with nature for their benefits.

India also set up National Institutes like ISI, NSS, CSO. The latter two were responsible for collecting reliable data on living standards. These organizations enabled India to have a top class set of statistics to support data driven policy enablement. Nehru wanted to develop a scientific temper across the country and believed industrialization was key for development. Hence the second planning commission had it’s goals set around industries, irrigation, transportation and social services. Homi Bhabha developed the atomic energy commission. IIT’s were built in several states to promote engineering as a field of study. The commission recognized that production of power and steel was critical to help meet development goals. India’s central forest belt had rich deposits of iron ore and several large rivers. India sought the help of Germany, Russia and England to help build steel plants. Large dams were constructed across major rivers to help with water storage, power generation and preventing floods. By 1960 India had refuted a belief that Indians were non productive and pre scientific and had established India as a strong player in the S&T field

The Evolution of the Political Parties

After the passing of Sardar Patel, Nehru became the defacto leader of the Congress Party and the government of India. His vision for a progressive, secular country ran into several challenges even amongst his Party members. The 1952 general elections would prove to be a test of strength of Nehru’s government. Nehru was initially skeptical of elections as he thought that illiteracy would make people vote for nationalist, insensitive politicians rather than leaders who would take the country forward, yet he campaigned whole heartedly and led the Congress party to an overwhelming victory against the Hindu MahaSabha, Communist Party and Socialist Party in the 1952 elections. The win was a major boost for Nehru who was jubilant that people had voted for progressive parties rather than choosing parties that promoted communalism or nationalism. Nehru kept the government in power for 2 more terms. The death of S.P Mookerjee had weakened the sangh, and the congress party had no major opposition at the central level.

The regional state parties forced Nehru to redraw the states along linguistic lines. This move strengthened the state parties and reduced the vote share of the congress party. In the 1957 elections DMK won the Tamil Nadu State assembly elections the leadership of Periyar and CPI won Kerala under the leadership of EMS. The case of CPI winning in Kerala was seen by many as a shock, however the EMS government turned out to pass Land and educational reforms. The Congress Party joined the religious state members like NSS, SNDP and Christian Missionaries to protest the reforms introduced by the CPI government. Nehru is surprised by the governance and despairs to take any action against the ruling group. However as pressure mounts from his party he invokes article 356 and removes the democratically elected government. Several communities felt the government had not done enough to protect their interests while the government focused on the industrialization of the country. The Adivasis, and the Naga tribes started demanding their own States. Nehru had to use the army to quell the Unrest in Nagaland. The reports of violence by the army on the Naga villagers are documented by only a few. Nehru was a moral leader and these missteps faded his aura a bit. The RSS and other opposition parties scrutinized every single move Nehru made and every case where he had to make a compromise was cited as his failure as the leader of the country. The border trouble with Pakistan and China eventually broke Nehru. His health deteriorated and his untimely death in 1964 caused a leadership vacuum in the congress party and gave a major boost to the opposition parties.

Whether you agree or disagree with their politics, the political parties of that time were primarily driven by a purpose and stood by their core ideals. The RSS and the Hindu Jan Sangh believed in their religious ideals and worked to build about a Hindu identity. The political leaders like EMS, JP Narayan, Kamaraj, Nehru, BR Ambedkar, Moraji Desai all had the interests of the common folk at heart and truly represented the ideas of the majority. I have not seen anything so far to suggest that the post independence India leaders did not have the best interests of the nation at heart and are the ones to be blamed for the current predicament we are in. It is a shame that the people’s trust on the political system has eroded considerably since then. In the next essay, I would like to cover ideas and incidents that lead to modern day politics in India.

The Idea of India – Origins

India celebrated its 74th independence day on the 15th of August 2020. We have come a long way since then. India is seen by the rest of the world, as a stable democracy, as a secular and a diverse country, and as a country with great human capital and market share that can reshape the global economy. This is exactly the kind of environment that can attract FDI, and can bring about good fortunes for the country and its people. Yet somehow we haven’t made quite made it yet. While shiny malls, large multiplexes, and urban parks light up the cities, there are several fundamental issues still to be addressed in the Country. Poverty is still rife, access to fundamental rights such as education, health still are limited to many. No one wants to be held responsible for the state of things, yet they have found a multitude of reasons to shift the blame to. Largely, the rhetoric seems to be one of the two things. It is Either that we have floundered the ways of Ancient India or that the the leaders of Post Independence India are responsible for not helping India reach her full potential.

There seem to be  many who want to hold on to an idea of India from the past. The Golden years they say, and remind us of our history, culture and civilization via social medial platforms at every single opportunity. India has been blessed with stellar mathematicians and scientists whose work in Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine has laid the foundational ground work for many to follow. There is no denying this.  But i do find it a bit farfetched when claims are made by prominent politicians that the Vedas and religious books hold explanation for every modern day scientific phenomenon. I always look to take these with a pinch of salt and ignore many of the outlandish claims. But it is discerning to note that many others seem to blindly believe these. The sheer number of fraudulent messages that are being generated by social media campaigns is mind numbing. Several “yogis and godmen” have created a thriving business model that convinces the masses of the pseudo sciences. I also have no intention of making this post a lengthy historical lesson or a discourse about Ancient India, all i want to do is to understand how history and experiences have shaped the Idea of India has evolved over time. In order to do so i had to rely on the work of a historian. I understand the nuances of being a historian, history like news needs to be reported as it happened. Any bias or modification in reporting would make it fiction, not fact. I chose Ramachandra Guha’s book “India after Gandhi” to help understand contemporary history and to see if there was any truth to the complaints about the Post Independence India leaders.

The Great Indian Mystery

When the Indian independence movement was reaching a climatic stage several prominent British personalities such as Churchill, Kipling doubted the Indian’s ability to govern and  feared that the country would erupt in Chaos. The East India company had thrived under the Divide and Conquer Policy and the British could not comprehend as how a government could unite the independent princely states that were divided along multiple axes such as language, caste, religion, etc.

Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab. – Sir John Strachey.

The Brexit of 1947: ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab’ (scroll.in)

Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister of Independent India and his government included a woman, and members from different parties. The governments first task was to get the 500 odd princely states united under a single Flag. Sardar Vallabhai Patel, along with K.M. Panikkar and V.P Menon coaxed and drafted policies to get the princely states to accede to the union of India. The constitution drafting committee was headed by  B.R Ambedkar and represented a diverse group of Individuals who worked on the constitution of India. Sukumar Sen, the election commissioner of India was responsible for conducting the elections across the country and is seen as the unsung hero of the Indian Democratic process. I couldn’t help wonder the sheer will and effort these leaders had to put in these fundamental guardrails to help govern a unified country for the past 73 years. In spite of early warnings and worries, the Indian democracy continues to be a model process for the rest of the world. 

The Great Divide

As Mohammed Jinnah pushed for a separate state for Muslims, he polarized the community and instigated riots in several parts of the country. Violence spilled over onto the streets of Punjab and Calcutta. Gandhi and Nehru’s voices of reason and pleas to unite the country fell on deaf years. The Britishers before leaving decided a two country solution was and decided to split Bengal, and Punjab between India and Pakistan. While the Hindus of Bengal took the West and the Muslims took the east (now Bangladesh), it was not straightforward in Punjab as the state had a strong Hindu, Muslim and Sikh population. As violence continued to increase the central government decided to agree to the Two State solution. The partition caused massive displacement and claimed millions of lives as violence escalated. M.S. Gowalkar and the R.S.S movement primarily hold Nehru, Gandhi and Patel responsible for the injustice to the Hindus of Punjab and Bengal. It is also interesting to observe that while M.S Gowalkar and the Sangh did not support the Quit India Movement founded by the Indian National Congress they were up in arms at the idea of partitioning India. Inspite of the bloodshed the division brought about to the country it is worthwhile to note that Gandhi and Nehru did more to quell the violence in the country than any other leader. The British ordered the Company army to stand down and protect the European citizens rather than quell the riots in the country. The partition forced Gandhi and Nehru to think about the safety of Muslims who chose to stay back in India and this thought did influence his politics and policies. This issue becomes a bone of contention between the Sangh and Nehru. The Sangh hated Nehru for giving in to the demands of Jinnah, and Nehru developed a distrust of the Sangh for instigating violence against Muslims in India.

India is divided she will be lost forever. Therefore . . . if India is to remain undivided, Hindus and Moslems must live together in brotherly love, not in hostile camps organized either for defensive action or retaliation. . . .

The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology, edited by Louis Fischer, 1962

India for Hindus was the rallying cry for the RSS. Nehru and Gandhi did not want India to be a religious state, like Pakistan. They understood that the strength of the country was in its diversity and did everything to ensure that the Muslim citizens of India were protected equally. Nehru did not want his ministers to partake in religious ceremonies or create an illusion of being pro Hindu. Nehru also had an modern outlook on life and wanted to push India to be Secular. Along with Ambedkar, het set about an agenda to impose religious reforms in the constitution of India. Nehru excluded the Muslims from the scope of his reforms and pushed forth reforms to serve rights for women (Choice of marriage and divorce), enforced monogamy for Hindus, made untouchability illegal and eliminated restrictions on caste based marriages etc. Though the reforms seem to be forward thinking, the right wing parties that their beliefs and rights were being infringed upon. The divide along Religion and Caste was too big a chasm to bridge in India for Nehru.

Inspite of the laws and reforms some of these practices seem to have persisted well into the 20th century. The Fact that India has enjoyed considerable democratic stability on account of its diverse and secular background does go on to prove Nehru right in this regard. Pakistan being a religious state has had to contend with a bumpy democratic process and has seen its share of authoritarian leaders.

As the various princely states started to accede to the union of India, Kashmir and Hyderabad held out and did not readily accede. Both states had a significant Muslim population and that fed into the Sangh theory that the Muslims could not be trusted. Both states eventually sided with the Indian republic. If the religious reforms were a thorn in Nehru’s flesh, then the Kashmir issue was a smoking gun. Kashmir is unique in the fact that the state was ruled over by a Hindu King, had a large Muslim population and bordered China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Jinnah wanted Kashmir to accede to Pakistan. Maharaja Hari Singh had to turn to Nehru for help when tribesmen attacked the state and committed atrocities against the general population. Nehru agreed to send the military on condition that the Maharaja accept the Indian government. Inspite of the king agreeing to do so Nehru did not force the matter and agreed when Sheik Abdullah pushed for a plebiscite to determine if Kashmir was to be part of India. The people of Kashmir voted to remain with India. Kashmir had secured considerable autonomy in governance as part of the demands while acceding to India. Sheik Abdullah (Omar Abdullah’s grand father) who took over from the raja as the interim PM of Kashmir had imposed land reforms that favored the Muslims over Hindus. This obviously did not sit well with the Hindu population in Jammu. S.P Mookerjee (founder of modern day B.J.P) and M.S Gowalkar thought Nehru was being weak and wanted Kashmir to Integrate completely with India. The status quo held until in 2019, HM Amit Shah passed the resolution in the cabinet that removed the protected status for the state of Kashmir and integrated the state completely under the Indian union. The fact that it took more than 70 years and a majority BJP central government to impose the change, highlights the delicate state of things in Kashmir. The Kashmir issue has continued to plague the Indian and Pakistan governments, wars have been fought on account of Kashmir and the issue remains to date a major source of disagreement, and distrust between the two countries. Of all issues plaguing the country, nothing can come close to splitting the country along the seam like religion.

It is to be noted that the indecisive nature of Maharaja Hari Singh, the stubbornness of Sheik and the pride of the governments all have lead to the unfortunate state of affairs in Kashmir.

P.S: I would like to tag a group of essays that sort of tie together in an elaborate manner to create a sense of how this notion of India has been instilled in out minds.

To Infinity and beyond

On May 31st 2020 Doug and Bob, two astronauts from NASA, set foot on the International Space station. They were welcomed by Chris Cassidy and his crew. What made this event truly special was that they made the journey in the Dragon space shuttle, designed by SpaceX a private firm. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX is considered by many to be the real life Tony Stark. What his firm has done is truly a remarkable feat of engineering. The Falcon-X rocket that powered the space capsule landed back on a drone ship named of course, i still love you. The sheer ingenuity of the team to pull this off deserves kudos. The fact that i was able to watch their journey (bits and pieces) live from the comfort of my living room made this a truly wonderful personal experience. The image below is a screenshot of the live-feed i was watching soon after the astronauts made it into the space station.

It was so exciting to watch the liftoff, and I was mind blown by the sheer precision and the maneuvers the NASA SpaceX team had to resort to put them safely on board the space station. I guess there is a space geek inside of me somewhere and i was just curios enough to think about the various things that helped cultivate this interest.

As a young kid, i was enamored by the tales of the Devas and the Gods in the sky. Nordic mythology has tales about “All Father Odin” and the Mjolnir wielding “Thor” protecting the realms above us. I have always had this weird tendency to look up at the sky for relief during testing times. There is a sense of comfort in the looking at the sheer vastness that lies up and have felt a weird kinship with other souls who have expressed this same thought. Anne Frank describes the exact same emotion in her diary.

Space seemingly holds the key in unlocking several mysteries. Religion has the concept of heaven and promises a better life to those who believe. Astro physicists, theoretical physicists and scientists look to the deep space to help understand the origins of the universe and life. Creative folks have spun several innovative tales that has intrigued us for the last several years through films and stories. Spiritual gurus look to the unknown and attempt to answer fundamental existential questions. A few hyper imaginative people also have attributed several things in our world to super intelligent alien life forms. I have been fascinated by all of the above said concepts and my beliefs have definitely wavered across all of these concepts over time.

Mythology does play a large role in setting up the premise for the “Heaven and Hell”. The stories we learn at a young age make us understand that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished by invoking natures most powerful forms. I developed a sense of awe and an understanding of how powerful nature is from these shows. The comic books and the cartoons of the 90s helped establish the basic premise of the possibility of life outside earth. Every kid who has read the Marvel and DC Comics will know about planets such as Krypton, Asgard and Titan. The creative liberties that these writers took have helped shape the fascination of many young minds. With the advent of technology, filmmakers were able to visualize the wonderful imagination of these writers. George Lucas’s Star Wars series continues to serve as an inspiration to numerous folks this day.

The fascination shifted from a mystical nature to an inquisitive nature over time. While A.W Tozer in Pursuit of God uses natural phenomenon to describe the almighty’s power, Thomas Paine in Age of Reason use these same phenomenon to help explain foundational scientific temper. We learn from history that the 16th century scientists faced the wrath of the church while pursuing their studies of science. The advent of the modern century has definitely helped alleviate some of the tension between Religion and science. Galileo, Bohr, Newton, Planck, Einstein have all undertaken remarkable studies that have pushed mankind’s knowledge level on the unknown several notches above. Some of their mathematical and scientific concepts still remain open problems that modern day scientists are attempting to solve. The books of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carlo Rovelli, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking all look to educate the average reader on the concepts of space and time. I do admit some of these books were very difficult to read and many concepts flew right out of the window as i read them. But i still think that attempting to understand the universe works around us will help build a solid scientific temper and will help eliminate the ignorance that plagues many these days. Guy Raz’s NPR TED Radio hour has several podcasts that seemingly break down many of these concepts for simple minds like mine. The one below is a personal favorite of mine as well.

Inevitably all this talk of science moves one towards the path of questions that attempt to explain “The Why”. I am no expert in any of the afore said subject and i have no intention of turning this into a spiritual discourse but it has made me realize as how inconsequential certain things seem when compared to the grand scheme of things.

It was a pleasant experience to relive how my interest has evolved over time and has enabled me to keep an open mind to the possibilities this world has to offer. I wish the national space agencies and the SpaceX team the very best and do hope their explorations will help unlock the mysteries of this world. To quote Buzz lightyear from the film Toy Story here is to “Infinity and beyond”.

Life in the times of COVID-19

In Jan 2020, when i first read a few reports on the COVID-19 Virus in Wuhan, I was not immediately concerned. I mean, this is the 21st century, surely the scientists of today can come up with something to counter the virus, right. Well, now i know how incorrect my original assessment was. The disease has spread across the globe and gone on to become one of the deadliest pandemics in the modern century. COVID-19 has reshaped the way the world lives, breathes and moves.

As the reports of the outbreak started to make news headlines in Feb, the general public mostly remained oblivious to the dangers of the virus. Most of us probably treated this as fiction. People shared snapshots of novels that seemingly had predicted this outbreak in 1980, people shared video clips that indicated that the virus was made in a lab and so forth. The Virus is believed to have originated from the live animal markets in Wuhan, China. As there were reports of increased infections and deaths, China forced the city of Wuhan into a lock-down, shut down its factories and implemented massive travel restrictions to help control the spread. Turns out the effort came in a little too late. Wuhan was a transport bub and millions of people who came in contact with the virus had already traveled to Europe, Asia and America. This NY Times article shows how the virus got out.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/22/world/coronavirus-spread.html

By early March, countries like Italy and Singapore started showing signs of becoming the hotspots. Many countries imposed travel restrictions to and from China. The fact that China was a global manufacturing hub and its economy had to take a hit meant that the global supply chain started showing signs of strain for the first time. All of us were shell shocked by the exponential increase in the number of infections and deaths across Europe and other Asian countries. As more countries started to impose lockdowns and restrictions, we started to notice weird behaviors in consumerism. Grocery stores started having massive lines. People started stocking up on Frozen food items, sanitizers, cleaning supplies and Toilet papers. Stores would empty out in a few hours after they opened. Houston showed no sign of slowing down, the Rodeo was on, the woodlands marathon was on. I ran the woodlands half, that too with a personal best time.

Soon after the first cases started to pop up in Houston, the city decided that it would advise all people to stay home as much as they can. There we no lockdown per say but the general guidance was to practice social distancing and stay at home as much as we could. The schools closed down and we were notified that the kids would have to adapt to an online curriculum. All malls, theaters and bars were closed. Though restaurants were open for take out, we decided not to venture out. I also decided that i would refrain from running outside. For the first few days, the whole stay at home concept had an interesting dynamic. The family enjoyed the company, I was still being productive at work, the kiddo started to adapt to home schooling and the wife started to experiment with food. I had to make a few adjustments and get the home work environment setup. But once done, the only thing i missed was the sit-stand desk from work. As the days stretched to weeks, the sheer repetitive nature of the days started to wear us down. We had massive newfound respect for what the teachers did. It is not easy to teach a kid. I can tell you that now.

The kiddo has stayed at home for all the while, and looks at us as playmates. As a young kid, i remember playing catch. I would imagine that i was a slip fielder (a fantastic one at that!), and then would throw a tennis ball against the wall and catch it. I literally used to do this for hours, yet i feel so bored when i do the same with kiddo. There are no games that i can play with the kiddo for long. I either get tired or frustrated. I had decided earlier that i would not go out to run and risk anything, but the sheer mundaneness forced me to throw caution to the wind and go out. Well, I was not exactly being reckless, the routes i take to run are pretty desolate and i rarely come in contact with anyone during the run. I also make sure that i wipe down any surface i touch with sanitizing wipes after i come back. Anyways adding this back to the life has helped me manage the stress a bit i would think. I also have started to take the kiddo out for a walk around the building in the evenings, so that she could get some exercise and fresh air. It is not really fun to answer questions though! Does it ever stop?

We have limited our grocery shopping to once a week. I go out, get the things in the list and get out. I don’t linger or even shop around. Our cost of living has fallen drastically, considering we don’t eat out, or shop casually anymore. The internet usage has shot way up, but the internet provider has been considerate enough to not track limits during this time. The two day delivery is no longer reliable, as Amazon has prioritized the supply chain, so we have drastically reduced our online shopping as well. The lockdown, definitely has resulted in fewer vehicles on the road. I am gladdened by the reports of reduction in the pollution levels across the world. I understand this is not enough to fight the ongoing battle against climate change. But these small victories are important right? I don’t know if it is the reduced traffic, or the fact that we spend a lot more time home, We have noticed that our apartment complex is a hub for a wide variety of birds. So, the kiddo and i have started to spot birds regularly. Our apartments are close to the River crest estates a multi millionaire neighborhood. The roads are well paved and and has fantastic tree cover. This also is a birding hotspot. We have identified 17 unique species in the last few days. The Audubon app is a great tool to identify boards and also track sightings. I decided to buy binoculars to help see the smaller birds clearly and thus made the first online purchase in a while. The sky genius is a fantastic one, the sheer clarity of the image and the build quality is astounding. The little moments we share doing things together as a family will hopefully stay in their minds forever. I definitely would cherish these memories for years to come.

We are two months into the lock down now, while i have been lucky enough to hunker down safely there are many others who have not been so lucky. The general slowdown in life has impacted the economy and the industries negatively. The tourism industry and the restaurant business have been hit the hardest. People have lost jobs, and are unable to pay their mortgages and rents. The uncertainty factor is at an all time high. At this time there are 307,486 deaths (on 5/15/2020) recorded across the globe. Doctors, nurses and grocery store workers are hailed as heroes. They are in the frontline taking care of the sick and reporting to work while we stay in the comforts of our home. While some politicians have stepped up and shown true leadership skills, many other have been exposed for what they truly are. Governments are scrambling to restore order but all operations so far have been chaotic. I read a quote in Twitter that i completely agreed to “The pandemic did not break the system, it just exposed a broken system”. Unfortunately, the under privileged seemed to have taken the brunt of the disease. The images of the daily wage labourers who are trying to walk hundreds of kilometers to reach their homes as they have no access to food or money is truly saddening. The sheer callousness of those in power to not care for the rights of people is unethical. The only thing i can do for now is to keep all in my prayers.

I do not know how long this is going to last, do not have any plans and can only thinking of facing one day at a time now. Stay Safe, Stay Healthy!

 

 

Understanding Privilege

I would like to believe that I am a self made man. Don’t get me wrong, I know very well that I have not rewritten history, I am not a influencer or a trend setter in any way. I work for a living, and absolutely will need to do so in order to build a stable environment for my family. But I would like to think that I have come a long way from growing up in Tamil Nadu to some guy in Houston, Texas. I want to be clear here. I am not implying that living in the USA is making me a better person than somebody who lives in India. I am talking about measure of progress in the journey of life. I do genuinely think that the effort I have put in to make myself better is the primary reason that I am what I am today.

I went to the school nearby home. I absolutely had no idea of what the world beyond school looked like. I was a studious kid and all, I played a few sports and hung out with other 15 year olds doing stuff that only 15 year olds can. Yet, when it mattered, I was able to pull away from the bad company, focus and do well enough in the exams to earn a shot at an engineering college. College was nothing like life portrayed in movies that I grew up watching. There were a ton of kids who had better grades, a lot of them played sports at a different level and honestly put me to shame with their sense of fashion and knowledge of the world. Their interests in books, music and cuisines were varied and I was amazed at the confidence with which they wooed the ladies. At first I struggled to adapt, but soon I was able to pick up the pieces and used the time to transform myself as a person. My grades improved, I got better at sports, I developed a taste for music, books, and I found love. A final year flourish ensured that I had a job before I left college, had a university rank and an opportunity to go further ahead. You might be thinking, wait none of this is special. What is he touting about. Fair point. But what you need to understand is I had made the transition from doubting myself to knowing that I belonged. That feeling made all the difference at work. I was able to quickly master new things. I set myself to pursue various interests and put in the time to make myself better at many tings.

So when some folks tell me that I was lucky enough to have these abilities I don’t take that statement very well. I think that I am being disrespected as my efforts were not being acknowledged. I tell them we are all created the same and the only thing that differentiates one from another is the effort. They do not seem to understand that at all. I am upset and I decide to go out for a walk. The rhythmic cadence helps me calm down. I get an overwhelming urge to write about the experience. As I relive my personal moments of success I notice that it is not always me on the podium. I am never alone. I am always surrounded by my friends, by family or well wishers. In the pictures, some are even more happier than I am at my success.

I put my thoughts on hold as I get ready to combat the daily routine of life. My kids school wants us to donate non-perishable foods to help homeless people. I had a hard time explaining what being homeless meant to my daughter. She was just not getting it. Where are their parents? What happened to their home? As I struggled to answer her questions, I couldn’t help think about the turns their lives must have taken. While there is a general sense of pity, that feeling disappears as you move on. It is said that you can have empathy only when you have experienced similar situations yourself. A person like me has not even entertained a thought about the same. So will I be in a position to really understand their plight?

I think, I have calmed down enough to realize two things. I always have had a stable support system and that definitely has enabled me to push myself a little more. I will be unable to understand completely the experiences of others, I can empathize but that does not mean that I understand their pain. Malcolm Gladwell in his book outliers looks to describe what makes special people special. It starts of being fun but then towards the end you see how generic factors such as birth month, neighborhood you grow in, and “being at the right place and the right time” can help shape a person’s career. He does not belittle their personal skills and drive, but just points out that these people had access to opportunities that others did not. The outliers just maximized their opportunities. I couldn’t help but draw parallels here. I guess everyone really is a product of their own environment.

Once you admit that base premise it is astounding to see how factors such as race, gender, religion, skin color can affect a person’s life. I mean going out for a run should not be special right, I don’t for a moment think of any bad outcomes before I go out. But now I can see that many folks cannot take that freedom for granted. I am not thinking about getting shot, not afraid of being harassed sexually and in fact I don’t even ask my wife if she had made any plans before I go out to run. You would have thought your country would welcome you with open arms considering your birth right and all, but to hear that my citizenship is assured in my country because of my religion is not essentially an argument that I am ready to bite.

I guess my social standing, educational qualifications and gender helps me navigate these constraints but can every single person in this planet be assured of the same sense of security i have. Chance or fate has landed me on a side where I did not have to be concerned with many things. Maybe that is what allowed me to pursue my own interests, and to build on my skills. Next time when someone tells me that I had lucky breaks I will still tell them that they were wrong. I was not lucky I was privileged.

The one about Identity

A few years ago, I had made note of an essay by Prof. Amartya Sen who talked about the need for humans to embrace broader identities. He thought that this would break barriers and promote the spirit of oneness around the world. The idea that I could shape my identity through my interests fascinated me. I have always felt a kinship with like minded people and was quite happy when I realized that these broader strokes could help me find my place in a global society. The internet and social media fueled my quest. Social media websites such as Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, Blogs, Podcasts made me see a side of things that I had never had the chance to experience before. My taste for global cuisines grew, I started reading a wide genre of books, I discovered music artists from around the globe.

While I don’t think that these experiments fundamentally changed me as person, it made me more aware of things that I had not really paid attention to before. And the more attention I paid, I started to become more biased to experiences that fascinated me. My online social media circle became limited to a carefully curated set of personalities that I found appealing . My  real world social interactions became increasingly limited to folks who subscribed to my view of ideals. On one hand, I wanted the people to see and hear about the things that I was discovering, and yet as I found out that many did not particularly care or had other interests that seemed unworthy to me I wanted to go be left alone. The struggle manifested itself as impatience,  frustration. There was no end to the list of things that could annoy me. I thought that I could control things by indulging in my own interests. The harder I tried, the less fascinating the experiences were. I started to feel like a disoriented cave diver in the dark waters. I had no sense of direction and I was swimming around in circles. I knew I had to reorient myself quickly. I have the privilege of having a very stable support system to get through some hard times. I knew I could rely on that to haul me out of my predicament.

One of the things that I had trouble agreeing to with many was the definition of Identity. What is one’s Identity? The answers that I could come were I am a father, a husband, a son, a brother, an immigrant, a programmer, a runner, a bibliophile, an Indian, a foodie. I could have gone on and added generic terms that described my nationality, my mother tongue, my sexuality but I am still not convinced that these helps define Me as a person. If you walk into a room full of people and call out people who match these identities I can assure you that there will be more than one who fits the bill. So how do these things uniquely identify me? Another thing that was bothering me was the obsession with “I”. Was I becoming a victim of my own ego?

The answers randomly seemed to come to me through the Principal Upanishads. The book talks about the importance of realizing the value of self. It seemed ironic at first that I would go back to the oldest known books to validate my thoughts. On the contrary this took me down a path of extreme learning and made me understand the nuances of Dharma (Righteousness), Artha (Wealth), Kama (Desire) and Moksha (Liberation). The key lessons were around the importance of senses and consciousness. The clarity of thought in these books amazed me. I learnt that while the senses helped focus on the outward aspects of life the consciousness allowed to focus on the inward aspects of life. When one questions oneself, then he invokes his consciousness and strives to balance the four phases. Ultimately, everyone pursues the four to varying degrees, and it is extremely important to understand that the others need not have the same spectrum of interests as you do. This was the ray of light I needed to reorient. While I still cannot answer the question as What am I, I am no longer weary and now I understand that to understand what I am I need to be what I am.

I come from the land of people where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high and where Knowledge is free. I do wish that others  wake up to such a heaven.