The White Tiger: An Incisive Social Commentary on Religion, Caste, Class and Democracy in India
Few films about India offer the kind of incisive social commentary that the recently released "The White Tiger" does. Based on a novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, it tells the story of a poor but ambitious young man from a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The film touches on religion, caste, class and democracy in India. It is directed by Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani and now available on Netflix.
|The White Tiger: Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao|
The movie opens with a scene showing Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) looking back at his life. It follows up with a series of long flashbacks to tell his story. Along the way, Balram sarcastically compares India's democracy with China's sanitation system. “If I were in charge of India, I’d get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy.” Numerous scenes in the film illustrate poor sanitation in India by showing Balram and others squatting and defecating in the open.
Raised in an Indian village, Balram is determined to rise above his "halwai" (confectioner) caste in India's rigidly defined caste system which makes any such escape extremely difficult. He persuades a corrupt landlord known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) to give him a job as a back-up driver. Ashok is married to Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), a chiropractor who grew up in the United States.
Balram soon replaces the primary driver (Girish Pal) by revealing his Muslim identity which he was hiding to work for the Islamophobic Stork. Balram spends most of his time working for Ashok. Ashok’s older brother, referred to as Mukesh Sir or the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), doesn't particularly like Balram. Unlike Ashok who has studied abroad, the Mongoose character accepts India’s culture of corruption and participates in it willingly. The Mongoose visits Delhi regularly to help Ashok distribute bags full of cash to politicians and bureaucrats. He also helps Ashok deal with his sadness when Pinky suddenly leaves him to return to the United States.
The White Tiger is a well-made film. I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the real life in India.
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“Democracy” is the one word that gets thrown around a lot when India and America talk about their relationship. Democracy forms the basis of the “shared values” and the “common bond” between the “natural partners”—all phrases that invariably pop up in the communiques of their engagement. The “world’s oldest democracy” and the “world’s largest democracy” won’t let the world forget why they’re in it together.
And, so it was when President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the phone Feb. 8 for the first time since the new U.S. Administration took power. Only, the new American President seemed to think that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to remind India of the two nations’ common bond, as well. “The President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the US-India relationship,” said a White House statement on the meeting.
The U.S. would like to see India as an ideological and strategic counter to China’s rise, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook India’s fast-declining democratic standards. The daily assaults on civil liberties and the threats to India’s Muslim minority under Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have noticeably increased since Modi’s re-election in 2019. Hate speech is rife, peaceful dissent is criminalized, freedom of expression and association faces new constraints, and the jails are filling up with political prisoners and peaceful dissenters as a servile judiciary looks away.
On Sunday, Disha Ravi, a 21-year-old climate activist, was arrested for the allegedly seditious act of sharing and editing a Google document for activists supporting the ongoing farmers’ protest. Warrants are out against more activists for the same “conspiracy.” Earlier this month, India slipped two more places to 53rd in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index—from 27th place in 2014. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute now lists India among the top 10 countries most quickly becoming autocracies, adding that it is “on the verge of losing its status as a democracy due to the severely shrinking of space for the media, civil society and the opposition.”
All the ecosystem members need to do is hit “Tweet” and, boom, Twitter spammed! If enough people spam it at the right time, the hashtag starts trending. Just scroll down this trend and you can spot the pattern easily.
If the ever-growing reality of Hindu Rashtra were one big Christmas, Kapil Mishra would be Santa Claus, and the members of his “Hindu Ecosystem” hardworking elves delivering the gift of religious hatred and bigotry, packaged in the seductive wrapping of Hindutva, to the masses, secretly but methodically.
On November 16 last year, Mishra, a former Aam Aadmi Party minister who is now with the BJP and has been accused of inciting the February 2020 Delhi carnage by the victims and activists, posted a tweet asking whoever was interested to fill in a form and join what he described as the “Hindu Ecosystem” team.
The form is straightforward – seeking such details as name, cellphone number, state and country of residence – but for one standout question. It asks the prospective footsoldier of the Hindu Ecosystem to state their “special area of interest” and, lest it wasn’t clear what that meant, gives a set of examples.
It also asks them to make a “declaration” about joining the group online and/or on the ground. Our curiosity was heightened and, of course, we had to join. We filled in the form and became members of the Telegram group. We were later added to other associated groups.
Thus we came to have a fly-on-the-wall view of how this ecosystem operates, how it creates propaganda material, how it comes up with toxic narratives, and how it manufactures trends across social media platforms to whip up communal hatred and bigotry, and, of course, support for Hindutva. Oh, they also share toolkits, like the one put out by the climate advocate Greta Thunberg to support the farmer protests over which the Delhi police have lodged an FIR, and arrested a young activist named Disha Ravi.
This is the sum of what we found: Kapil Mishra is leading a network of over 20,000 people who are working in an organised fashion to create and spread communal hatred.
Welcome to hate factory
On November 27, Misra posted a video for members of his network announcing that their first campaign would begin at 10 am that day, using the hashtag #JoinHinduEcosystem.
He said about 27,000 people had filled in the form and nearly 15,000 people had joined the Telegram group. Additionally, 5,000 people had signed up with the Hindu Ecosystem’s “Twitter team”. No points for guessing what social and gender groups the members came from: going by the usernames they were mostly upper caste Hindu men.
As of publishing this story, we have exited all the groups as our journalistic fly-on-the-wall purpose has been achieved.
If you don’t yet fully grasp the gravity of what’s being done through groups such as the Hindu Ecosystem, allow us to spell it out: they are fountains of misinformation, propaganda, directed hatred. They create and spread, in an organised way, Hindu supremacist and anti-minority bile, and incite communal hatred.
We joined Kapil Mishra’s group without expectation, only to witness a factory of hate and propaganda operating in real time. Over 20,000 people are working in a coordinated way to incite communal hatred; it doesn’t matter what event pops up on their radar they quickly give it a hateful spin and turn it into a conspiracy theory, complete with readily shareable images, videos, and forwards to tap into the hate-network effect.
As we were about to exit the group, we saw the hate factory begin circulating a video that purportedly shows a mob attacking a house as the Delhi police stand by.
Please read this: http://www.riazhaq.com/2019/11/upward-income-mobility-in-pakistan.html
Realistic, yes. Social commentary- yes.
But did not like the conclusion. It killed any admiration. Nothing redeeming.
At the end he turned out to be just like the rest of them.
It's a story of the dog-eat-dog world...everyone for himself or herself!
When Nitesh (name changed on request) immigrated to Michigan to work for a Fortune 500 company, he was unaware that caste prejudices would follow him from his hometown in southern India.
The 44-year-old ended up working as a tech specialist at a company employing many high-caste Indians. Nitesh is a Dalit, a member of India’s lowest caste, once referred to as “Untouchables.” He enjoyed his job and got along well with his colleagues until one of them found out about his background.
“I was slowly pushed out of the Indian social circle among my colleagues, and then my errors were magnified by a Brahmin boss who made it difficult to keep working there,” he said. I hung on long enough to get a green card and moved to the Silicon Valley, but many companies there were headed by casteist Indians, who had a problem with working with a Dalit: I stopped hiding my caste.”
Most senior executives in the U.S. of Indian origin come from privileged high-caste backgrounds, with less than 2 percent of Indian immigrants belonging to lower castes. Nitesh and others interviewed by The Vertical say caste-based discrimination is rampant around the country.
According to study conducted by U.S. non-profit Equity Labs, two out of three Dalits reported unfair treatment in the workplace, and 60 percent of Dalits reported caste-based derogatory jokes or comments.
Last July, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a suit in a federal court against Cisco Systems for allegedly failing to prevent discrimination and harassment against a Dalit engineer.
“I walked out on this kind of behavior, but with the queue for green cards getting longer each year, those on H-1B visas deal with discrimination,” Nitesh says. “I started a marketing technology company in North Carolina and there’s been no looking back for me.”
Nitesh employs 30 people from several backgrounds. “Getting away from the Indian community was a blessing for me,” he adds. “Americans do not ask you your last name to deduce your caste and place you in a hierarchy.”
Nitesh says he hasn’t faced discrimination from white Americans or any minority group in the U.S.
Entrepreneurship as a tool of empowerment
Maya (name changed) came to the U.S. in 2008 on a T visa, which allows some human trafficking victims to remain in the country for up to 4 years, provided they help law enforcement investigate and prosecute their traffickers. She has since managed to acquire permanent resident status and now runs an Indian food catering business in New York City.
“We have a wide range of clients and I provide traditional food from Gujarat, but the dishes are modified for non-Indian clients to suit their palate,” she said. “Although the pandemic affected my business, we have managed to stay afloat.” Maya learned English after moving to the U.S. and employs 10 people.
“I find having my own business both liberating and empowering,” Maya adds. “Being a woman and a Dalit made it far worse for me in India, but here it is easier to blend into a wider multicultural society.”
In India, women from the lowest caste are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and sexual violence. On average, ten Dalit women are raped in the country every day by higher-caste men. Most of the offenders get away with their crimes.
Not all the Dalits that this publication spoke to wanted to hide their identities. Vijay Shanker, who is originally from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, moved to the U.S. as a professional in 2000 and became an entrepreneur six years later. He founded h3 Technologies, an information technology solutions company that focuses on consulting, product development, and staffing.
There was a major issue with one of our friends. He was President of an engineering firm with 300+ engineers. One of the Brahmin employees would refuse to sit and eat at the same table with a lower cast engineer for lunch meetings.
Finally my friend told the Brahmin guy through HR to get his act together or leave the company.
Hard to believe they are bringing their baggage and dirt to this land also.
Quaid-e-Azam tera ehsaan...
Orherwise we would have been on the receiving end of these hate mongering bigots also.
I have many Sardar friends who say that you were lucky to have a man like Jinnah. They feel they are unsafe in their own country. Thank God they have kept Saffron Brigade out of Punjab because in the end Saffron Brigade are too coward to face Sardars.
The Hindu hierarchy is said to have evolved from different parts of the body of Brahma—the creator of the universe. Thus, the Brahmans, who originated from the mouth, are engaged in the most prestigious priestly and teaching occupations. The Kshatriyas, made from from the arms, are the rulers and warriors; the Vaishyas, from the thighs, are traders and merchants. The Shudras, from the feet, are manual workers and servants of other castes. Below the Shudras and outside the caste system, lowest in the order, the Dalits engage in the most demeaning and stigmatized occupations like scavenging, for instance, and dealing with bodily waste.
Women get the worst of both worlds under the system of Caste Apartheid. Women in India face discrimination and sexual intimidation, however the “human rights of Dalit women are violated in peculiar and extreme forms. Stripping, naked parading, caste abuses, pulling out nails and hair, sexual slavery and bondage are a few forms peculiar to Dalit women.” These women are living under a form of apartheid: discrimination and social exclusion is a major factor, denying access ”to common property resources like land, water and livelihood sources, [causing] exclusion from schools, places of worship, common dining, inter-caste marriages”, according to the UN Human Rights body.
But the dearth of working women in India is not simply a reflection of cultural preferences. Many women on the sidelines of the economy are not there by choice. They say they would like to work if they could. Were they all to get their wish, it would add over 100m women to the workforce, by one calculation. That is more than the total number of workers, male and female, in France, Germany and Italy combined.
Moreover, Indians are not as hostile to women in work as the employment numbers suggest. Their answers to questions like “Should men have more right to a job than women?” are more egalitarian than poll responses in Indonesia, where fully 53% of women pursue work outside the home. Despite that, the share of Indian women who actually find a perch in the workforce is a shade lower than in Saudi Arabia, where 22% do. And in so far as social attitudes do hold women back, they are not immutable. Indeed, employing women is often a catalyst for social enlightenment, rather than a consequence of it.
India will soon end China’s long run as the world’s most populous country. But by some projections its workforce will not exceed China’s until mid-century, even though Indians are much younger. One reason is that so few women in India are in paid work (see article). The International Labour Organisation says that only a fifth of adult women had a job or sought one in 2019, compared with three-fifths in China. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a local research firm, put the share of urban women in or looking for work at just 7% in November.During the pandemic, women have typically been the first in India to lose their jobs and the last to regain them. School shutdowns have forced some to drop out of the labour force to look after children who would normally be in class. Young women who have been unable to study, train or work during the pandemic are being married off instead. That is a worrying development. Whereas women in other countries often withdraw from the workforce when burdened with a child, women in India drop out when burdened with a husband.Some would say that nothing should, or can, be done about this. If Indian women choose not to work outside the home, the argument runs, that is their business. Dropping out of the labour force is a status symbol for upwardly mobile households, showing they are able to get by on the husband’s earnings alone.
A rooster fitted with a knife for an illegal cockfight in southern India has killed its owner, sparking a manhunt for the organisers of the event, police said.
The bird had a knife attached to its leg ready to take on an opponent when it inflicted serious injuries to the man’s groin as it tried to escape, officers said. The man died from loss of blood before he could reach a hospital in the Karimnagar district of Telangana state earlier this week, local police officer B Jeevan told AFP.
The man was among 16 people organising the cockfight in the village of Lothunur when the freak accident took place, Jeevan said. The rooster was briefly held at the local police station before it was sent to a poultry farm.
“We are searching for the other 15 people involved in organising the illegal fight,” Jeevan said. They could face charges of manslaughter, illegal betting and hosting a cockfight.
Cockfights are banned but still common in rural areas of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha states – particularly around the Hindu festival of Sankranti. Specially bred roosters have 7.5cm (3in) knives or blades tethered to their legs and punters bet on who will win the gruesome fight. Thousands of roosters die each year in the battles which, despite the efforts of animal rights groups, attract large crowds.
The comparisons highlight that Scandinavia and Western Europe are rated most highly in overall levels of electoral integrity, not surprisingly given the long history of democracy in the region. The rankings in PEI worldwide are led by Scandinavian states -- Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden –which also do well in most standard indices of the quality of democratic governance. At the same time, however, contrasts are observed in PEI-4.0 scores even among similar European Union member states and post-industrial societies; Mediterranean Europe usually performs less well than Northern Europe. The UK also scores exceptionally poorly compared with other European societies, with a PEI Index around 20 points less than the top ranking Scandinavian states.
In the Americas, even wider disparities can be seen, contrasting the cases of Costa Rica, Uruguay and Canada, all well rated by experts, compared with the low ratings for Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras and particularly Haiti. Overall the United States ranks 47 worldwide out of all 139 nations under comparison, based on the 2012 presidential and 2014 Congressional elections, even before the bitterly divided 2016 campaign, the lowest score for any long-established democracy.
In post-Communist Europe, the power-sharing democracies, smaller welfare states, and mid-level income economies in the Baltics and Central Europe often do well in the quality of their elections today, including Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovenia, all scoring higher in the PEI Index than long-established majoritarian democracies such as India, the US, and UK. At the same time, Central Eurasia remains the home of several unreconstructed authoritarian states, which hold multi-party elections to legitimate ruling parties but with limited human rights, exemplified by the poor PEI scores observed in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Belarus.
Asia-Pacific sees similar wide disparities, with the affluent post-industrial societies of Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan heading the ratings, as well as Mongolia, which has made rapid progress in abandoning its Soviet past. Yet other countries in the region perform far worse in the PEI Index, notably Cambodia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
by Ejaz Haider
Years ago, I had coopted Dr Ilhan Niaz for a report on civil-military relations. After we had finalised the report, he sent me an email with some very interesting points. Here’s a gist: There are three types of states. The first are civilian states. The military is either no longer or never was integral to the political order of the state in the domestic sphere. Ilhan’s point was that many of the theorists I had cited in the report belonged to such states and regarded “their exceptional circumstances as normal and desirable.” His second type was civilian-led states. In such states “the military remains an integral component of the political order of the state, a major aspect of the ability of such states to maintain their coherence, and a guarantor of the ultimate state writ and sovereignty.” He cited the example of the French Fifth Republic, Russia, constitutional-democratic India, and market-socialist China as politically-diverse examples of this second type. One can say that many of the Latin American and South East Asian states would also fall into this category.
The prompt for these thoughts is the news I read a few days ago about Quaid-i-Azam University’s land issue. I first became aware of it in 2013. But after the Supreme Court of Pakistan took sou motu notice of the situation in 2017, I lost track of the issue thinking, it now seems naively, that after the SC intervention the issue must have been resolved. Until now, that is.
Back in 2017, the SC became seized of the matter after the QAU Vice Chancellor Dr Javed Ashraf sent a letter to the SC Registrar. In the letter the QAU VC alleged that the university’s land was “facing liquidation at the hands of land-grabbers, some of whom are so politically influential that the ICT administration and the Capital Development Authority (CDA) are unable to move effectively to even demarcate the university’s boundaries”
As one QAU source said to me, a slow process of re-demarcation did unfold after the SC took notice of it. Regrettably, by the time the process was completed CJP Saqib Nisar had retired and VC Javed Ashraf’s tenure had ended. Result: after a desultory anti-encroachment campaign in January 2019, the matter went into deep freeze.
But this is not all. The issue has been agitated by the university at all fora, including taking the matter to the offices of the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan. Nothing has moved. The only person whom the QAU has not appealed to is the Chief of Army Staff which, as the democracy argument goes, has no business arbitrating a civilian matter. It would be perfect if the government(s) could actually govern.
Pretending not to be a Dalit took a heavy toll on the young Yashica Dutt.
Her mother, Shashi, was so determined to protect her three children from the discrimination of the Hindu caste system that relegates Dalits to the periphery of society that she pretended the family were Brahmin.
Shashi worked hard to find the money throw birthday parties, have curtains on the windows, and to follow traditional rituals correctly. But for the children it meant that one wrong word or gesture while playing with friends or buying sweets from a shopkeeper could expose the lie.
It was only after she had grown up, that Dutt, a writer and journalist, began to understand the trauma of her childhood. When she began therapy in Delhi six years ago, she simply asked her analyst: “Help me to live.”
“I was always second-guessing myself, wondering if I had said the right thing, asking myself ‘would upper caste people with happier childhoods have said it better or done it differently?’ I had so much doubt from feeling like an imposter,” she says.
Dutt recounts the story in her book, Coming Out as Dalit. It tells of her mother’s ambition to overcome poverty and give her children an education, without support and with an alcoholic husband. Dutt went to boarding school and then studied at St Stephen’s, perhaps the most prestigious university in India. She worked as a journalist in Delhi and pursued a master’s at Columbia University in New York, where she now lives and works for an advertising agency.
In the US Dutt, 34, discovered a parallel with her own experience. She heard some lighter-skinned African Americans talk of how they used to “pass” as white, assuming certain habits, tastes, language and mannerisms, just as her mother had mimicked those of upper caste Hindus.
As part of her book tour, Dutt was back in India appearing at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month; when the Guardian met her in a Delhi cafe, she cut a striking figure with her wav
The state of Karnataka, located in southwest India, is known for its silk. Mulberry trees grow in abundance, feeding silkworms and a centuries-old textile industry. But while silkworms prosper here, many people in the industry do not.
In India, the average silk worker is paid less than $3 a day -- small compensation for an industry estimated to be valued at over $14 billion globally. Part of the workforce is trapped in bonded labor, a form of modern-day slavery in which people work in often terrible conditions to pay off debt.
Bonded labor was made illegal in India in 1976, but it never went away. A 2018 report estimated around 8 million people in India were unpaid workers or held in debt bondage, though some campaigners believe the true figure is much higher. Exactly how many are involved in the silk industry is unknown.
In January 2020, the CNN Freedom Project visited Sidlaghatta, a silk hub some 65 kilometers northeast of Bangalore, Karnataka, and met Hadia and Naseeba. This mother and daughter were forced by their "master" to work 11 hours a day, for which they earned just 200 rupees (about $2.75) to repay a 100,000-rupee (about $1,370) loan that had since doubled in size.
Naseeba had been working for three years in a silk factory, her mother nine years, boiling silkworm cocoons and removing the threads from which silk is made. The steam was foul and their hands bled, she said.
"(The master) came and he said to my mother, if you will not repay the money then we'll have a rich man and you will have to go and sleep with that man," said Naseeba.
"I'm afraid of the owner, because he has given us (a) home to live in," she added. "Where should we go? We cannot go anywhere. We don't know what he will do with us after (sees) this video."
Hadia and Naseeba concealed their faces on camera and agreed to be identified by CNN only after they had received their release certificates.
In India, bonded laborers can approach authorities requesting a certificate of release. If an investigation finds their case to be genuine, they are issued the certificate, which proves their debt is cancelled and entitles them to government assistance. The process can be lengthy -- sometimes taking years -- and can require bonded laborers to come forward to authorities in the face of social pressures and intimidation.
"It is very difficult to convince the bonded laborers (to go to authorities), because they feel that they are beholden to the masters or to the landlords who have helped them in the hour of their need," said Kiran Kamal Prasad, founder of Jeevika, an organization working to eradicate bonded labor.
Authority figures often come from the same communities as the keepers of bonded laborers, or are the same dominant caste as the landlords, Prasad explained.
"Very often, authorities are not implementing the (Bonded Labor System) Act," he added. "It takes a tremendous effort from us to make the officials do what they are supposed to do."
Life after forced labor
Jeevika has allies in people like Shiva Kumar, a senior local government official in Sidlaghatta.
"I grew up as a son of a bonded laborer," he told CNN. "The (bonded laborers) in the village think that this is their (fate). If they come forward with any complaints, we will file a criminal case against the landlord."
For Prasad, freedom is only the first step for the victims. "We want to build up the agency of the bonded laborers to (help) them secure justice for themselves," he said.
Tharoor’s book is the very opposite of mine, and not just in its title. I said I am not a Hindu because of the inequality by birth of different communities within Hinduism, as enshrined in the caste system that pervades Hindu scripture, morality, ritual, social organisation—really the entire Hindu worldview. The very theory of caste goes against the fundamental principle that all humans are created equal. I also criticised Hinduism’s negation of the values and labour that go into productive work, which it stigmatises and reserves for oppressed castes, and the resulting maltreatment of productive communities, including Shudras and Dalits (the book referred to both under the collective term “Dalitbahujans”). Tharoor, by contrast, talks of restoring Hinduism “to its truest essence, which in many ways is that of an almost ideal faith for the twenty-first-century world.” He celebrates it as “a religion that is personal and individualistic, privileges the individual and does not subordinate one to a collectivity; a religion that grants and respects complete freedom to the believer to find his or her own answers to the true meaning of life; a religion that offers a wide range of choice in religious practice, even in regard to the nature and form of the formless God; a religion that places great emphasis on one’s mind, and values one’s capacity for reflection, intellectual enquiry, and selfstudy; a religion that distances itself from dogma and holy writ, that is minimally prescriptive and yet offers an abundance of options, spiritual and philosophical texts and social and cultural practices to choose from.”
Tharoor does not seem to have read my book, despite choosing a title that echoes mine. He does not engage with my arguments anywhere. He also ignores some far more important thinkers on Hinduism. Among Shudra writers alone, the tradition of critiquing the religion goes back at least to Jyotirao Phule, the Maharashtrian social reformer whose 1873 book Gulamgiri, or “Slavery,” was a stinging critique of Hinduism and the caste system. In 1941, Dharma Theertha published The History of Hindu Imperialism, another serious assessment of Hinduism, and came to conclude that it oppresses all Shudras. Although Dharma Theertha was a Nair like Tharoor, he refused to describe himself as a Hindu.
How does Tharoor come to a different view of Hinduism than any Shudra writer of great prominence before him? Simply put, it is by not applying any critical or analytical thinking. His main strategy of persuasion is not argument, but repetition with rhetorical flourishes of a two-in-one premise and conclusion, stated already in the very first paragraph of the book where he describes Hinduism as “that most plural, inclusive, eclectic and expansive of faiths.”
The book’s first section, largely autobiographical and titled “My Hinduism,” is strangely silent on aspects of Tharoor’s own background, including his caste. It is also very selective in its citation of holy texts, while whitewashing Hindu history and sidestepping many of Hinduism’s sharpest critics. The second section, “Political Hinduism,” blames only Hindutva groups for mixing Hinduism with politics, pretending that Tharoor’s own Congress party has never had anything to do with that kind of politicisation. The third section, “Taking Back Hinduism,” disguises a proposed return to Tharoor’s “essence” of Hinduism as a step forward rather than back.
Tharoor admits that he does not write as a scholar of Hinduism, but it is obvious that he does not even write as a sincere autobiographer. That leaves him writing as a politician—a politician who wants to keep one foot each in two camps, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“why am i a hindu?” Tharoor asks. Because, he answers, “I was born one.” This raises the question: with what status was he born into Hinduism?
Traditionally, the basic work of the Nairs, as of many Shudra castes, was agriculture, but the caste system that allotted them this work also denied them land rights. Over the centuries, the Nairs moved away from their typically Shudra occupation, and under the influence of Brahminism entered into a unique relationship with the dominant Nambudiri Brahmins. Well into the nineteenth
century, Nair women lived in sambhandham with the Nambudri Brahmins’ younger sons. This was a form of sexual slavery, with the women denied marital rights and the men freed from obligation towards any children of the union, and it had full spiritual and religious sanction under the caste order.
Like other oppressed castes, under Brahminical hegemony the Nairs were also denied the right to education. That restriction was loosened with the arrival of British power, but with that control over education in Kerala fell largely into the hands of Syrian Christians. In 1914, the Nair leader Mannatthu Padmanabha Pillai established the Nair Service Society, with a view to gaining educational autonomy. The organisation runs a number of institutions of learning to this day, and has been crucial to making the Nairs the most educated Shudra community in India today.
Pillai was a reformer of the Nairs, but not a reformer of society as a whole. In response to the Nair’s historical oppression and humiliation, the Nair Service Society chose not to reject Brahminical social organisation but to further Brahminise the Nair community. The organisation asserted that it was a Hindu group, and aggressively propagated the religion. Tragically, the Nair Service Society never helped in the uplift of other oppressed castes. Instead, Nairs have participated in those castes’ continued persecution, and have played only a marginal role in anti-caste movements. Tharoor is a carrier of this legacy.
“I am the product of a nationalist generation that was consciously raised to be oblivious of caste,” Tharoor writes, recounting that his father dropped “Nair” from his name, “moved to London and brought his children up in Westernised Bombay.” He congratulates himself for how even after he entered the “caste-ridden world of Indian politics … I did not deliberately seek to find out the caste of anyone I met or worked with; I hired a cook without asking his caste (the same with my remaining domestic staff) and have entertained all manner of people in my home without the thought of caste affinity even crossing my mind.” He recalls his “own discovery of caste.” While he was at school, an older boy cornered him near the toilet to ask “what caste are you?” Tharoor replied, “I—I don’t know.” The other boy continued, “You mean you’re not a Brahmin or something?” Tharoor writes, “I could not even avow I was a something.”
Tharoor acknowledges that he holds a privileged position: in today’s India, only great wealth and social advantage, combined to permit a private Englishlanguage schooling, can allow anyone the pretence of being innocent of caste. In Tharoor’s case, it exposes his social ignorance, while his roundabout treatment of caste suggests an unease. If he had been a Brahmin, it is likely Tharoor would have owned up to it matter-offactly. By disregarding his Nair heritage and his caste’s struggle against subordination in the Hindu order, he obscures how he came to be in his privileged position. As a result, he makes it seems as if caste can be shrugged off, where for the vast majority of Indians the attempt to break free of it has been, and is, a bloody struggle. To write in this way about the religion that created the caste system is unethical.
“It is difficult to pretend that Hinduism can be exempted from the problems of casteism,” Tharoor states at the start of a passage examining caste in general, yet taken as a whole that is exactly what the passage does.
BBC India correspondent
Specially marked towels, height-adjustable chairs to rise above the rest, a tsunami of permissions and an unrelenting battle to improve punctuality.
These are some of the features about India's bureaucracy that a leading academic and former chief economic adviser to the government found during a three-year-long tenure.
Kaushik Basu, who later became World Bank chief economist, took leave from his position as a professor at Cornell University in the US to join the federal government in 2009, at the invitation of then-prime minister Manmohan Singh.
His newly published memoir, Policymaker's Journal (Simon & Schuster), brims with light-hearted and revealing anecdotes about how India's gargantuan bureaucracy operates.
The use of the word, sir, is very common in Indian officialdom.
During a government meeting, Prof Basu recounts, he decided to keep a tab on how many times the word was said.
A senior official, he counted, was saying sir, "on average 16 times every minute (there was a minister present)".
Assuming it took her half a second to say the word, Prof Basu calculated that 13% of the official's speaking time was spent saying sir.
Do have 'prior permission'
Nobody can hurt me without my permission, Mahatma Gandhi had said.
But Prof Basu found one needed permission for the smallest of things in the government. (India's government accounts for 57% of formal employment in the country.)
"The requests for permissions generally get passed up the pyramidal structure of the government; and a surprising amount of trivia go all the way to the top, namely, to the minister."
So people seek permissions for literally everything - from wanting to take off for a day to visit an ailing relative to changing the brand of coffee served in the ministry, and needing another attendant to keep the restrooms clean.
"All such proposals move in a chain of hard cardboard folders, tied with strings, from one room to another acquiring notings from senior members of the bureaucracy," Prof Basu writes.
Don't knock on the door!
Professor Basu found it is "impolite to knock" in officialdom. "Either you have the right to enter a person's office or you don't."
So if you have the right, the "norm is go right in".
"It has taken me a while to adjust to this custom, it being such a strict norm in the West to knock before entering," he writes.
But he faced a small problem, adjusting to the new norm.
"What made the adjustment harder is that, given the high humidity in India, many doors are swollen and jammed, and so one needs to push against them for them to open," he writes.
"The upshot is that not only do you not knock when entering someone's office, but you often end up entering the room like a cannon ball, as the door suddenly gives way."
'Delay must be avoided'
In the finance ministry, Prof Basu found that each folder to keep papers and documents had two inside pages with 44 common phrases used by heads of departments and senior officers.
What was fascinating is how many of them were about avoiding delays and being punctual:
Delay cannot be waived
Delay must be avoided
Delay must be explained
Reply today/early/immediately without delay
"If despite such urging India continues to be unpunctual; we deserve appreciation for tenacity," writes Prof Basu.
Having said that, he concedes India is a much more punctual country than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
Do you have the right chair?
In official meetings, status matters. The height of a chair can give it a little boost, Prof Basu found.
"If you are on a relatively higher chair, peering down on others, it gives you an advantage in meetings."
To achieve this, Prof Basu found an easy technique.
Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (p. 64). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
Rama immediately leaps into his flying chariot and spies a mystic hanging upside down from a tree in an act of spiritual asceticism. It’s the Shudra Shambuka, who explains to Rama he is doing this rigorous penance in hopes of knowing the divine. Rama doesn’t even let him finish his sentence. He just slices Shambuka’s head off. All the gods cry out, “Well done!” Flowers from the heavens rain down on Rama, and the dead child of the Brahmin comes back to life.32 This story terrified me as a caste-oppressed child. I could not understand what was wrong with wanting to aspire to know God. Even more tragic than the existential implications of this story, today this kind of ritual decapitation occurs as the violence prescribed in scripture has spread across the subcontinent. Scriptural edict has become material violence.
Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (p. 65). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
"...India, which is jailing its opposition leader on a trumped up defamation charge; Netanyahu, who wants to quash Israel's independent courts; & Mexico, where Obrador aims to end free & fair elections. With pals like these, democracy needs no foes." Me.
President Joe Biden’s second summit for democracy, which is taking place this week, is both virtual and surreal. Among the participants are India, which is in the process of jailing opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on a trumped up defamation ruling; Israel, whose leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to shut down judicial independence; and Mexico, whose leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is trying to end free and fair elections. With friends such as these, democracy hardly needs enemies.
Biden’s aims are noble, and it is noteworthy that neither Hungary nor Turkey, regarded in Washington and western Europe as illiberal democracies, was invited. But the president’s means are open to doubt. According to V-Dem, a Swedish research institute, almost three quarters of the world’s population now live in autocracies against less than half a decade ago. That vertiginous shift justifies the term “democratic recession”.
It is difficult to believe a liberal democratic Russia would have invaded Ukraine. It is equally hard to imagine the people of an autocratic Ukraine fighting as fiercely for their freedom as they are doing now. It is thus reasonable for the US to think that spreading democracy is in its national interest. The problem is that America is not very good at it.
Nowhere has the US expended more guns and butter than in the Middle East. The democratic returns have been almost uniformly negative. The Arab world’s only recent convert, Tunisia, was recently lost to a coup d’état. Israel’s democracy, meanwhile, hangs in the balance. That is without mentioning the fact that the Jewish nation state is not exactly democratic with the Arab territories it occupies.
Sarah Margon, whom Biden named to lead his administration’s efforts on democracy and human rights, withdrew her name in January after senators objected to her criticisms of Israel. Having a record of arguing for democracy seems like an odd rap against the person whose job that will be.
As India’s foreign minister, S Jaishankar, put it last year: “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.” What Jaishankar really meant, of course, was the west as a whole. But he was careful to exclude the US, just as Biden is careful not to mention India’s democratic backsliding. Each needs the other to counter China.
Here it gets even muddier. India’s treatment of its Muslim minorities is arguably as bad as China’s policies in Xinjiang. The US State Department has labelled the latter “genocide” — the gravest charge possible. Yet barely a peep is heard from Washington about what is going on in Kashmir.
When the west can be bothered to listen, the global south’s consistent refrain is for more dollars to help their shift to clean energy, better infrastructure and modern healthcare. Which of the two great powers, China or the US, helps the most is likeliest to shape their political future and foreign policy alignment. One of the by-products of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that it has brought this pressing question to the fore.
Biden’s White House is trying to come up with a coherent US approach to the global south, but officials admit it is a work in progress. China has pumped more money into the developing world than all the west combined — with both good and bad effects. Whether the Malis, Cambodias and Bolivias of this world become democracies lies in their hands. The best way of nudging them down that path is to lecture less and listen more.