Why are “peaceful” Buddhists unleashing violence on Muslims in Myanmar?

It’s said that Hinduism is a rotten system and Buddhism is the way to fight all oppression. That Hinduism has abhorrent practices and doctrines is undeniable! But is Buddhism the answer as provided especially in the Dalit-Bahujan discourse?

Let’s have a look around us: two Buddhist majority countries have carried out massive violence against ethnic minorities in their nation states; Sri Lanka persecuted Tamil (Hindus mostly, I presume) and Myanmar has unleashed violence on Rohingya Muslims.

Recently, the Ladakh Buddhist Association, has threatened violence on an inter-religious marriage between a Buddhist and a Muslim; joining the fight against “Love Jihad”. My friends tell me that Muslims in Leh had to face an economic boycott till recently at the hands of Buddhists.

So when I got the chance to talk to a monk in a monastery in Leh I asked him about Ambedkar and his Navayana Buddhism which he had explicitly skipped while sketching the basic structure of Buddhism. He brushed it aside saying that’s a political and not a religious identity!

But when you quiz Bahujan friends; they say you don’t understand the “real” Buddhism. This is eerily similar to what conservative Muslims say about Islam and RSS people say about Hinduism – Sir, aap samajh hi nahin paa rahe ho; “asli” cheez kya hai!

In other words, their representation and articulation of their religion is authentic and not others; not the mainstream. That’s quite an inadequate and self serving explanation! There is no “real” Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.

These alternative articulations at best are a bargaining tool – a bargain of a small public with a larger public – which threatens to destabilise the established dominant discourse.

All in all, these are good tools for political mobilisation but there’s no evidence to suggest that switching doctrinal anchors would solve these problems.

Also, we need to separate Buddha, Muhammad and Ram/Krishna etc from their respective religions. Religions organise people into communities around certain interpretation of doctrine or practices. They have a life of their own. When they become a sizeable majority within a polity; they all become indistinguishable.

That’s why the Buddha can preach non-violence but Buddhist majority countries can carry out genocides. Obviously, this is not to say that all religions are the same; different religious and normative frameworks and histories lend themselves to different polities and hence, ramifications.

What we need is a constant rational criticism of religious systems. Not contorted apologia.

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What else did you expect from Sehwag?

sehwag
Source: http://www.india.com (http://bit.ly/2mKuaHh)

Cricketers are highly skilled people. Doesn’t make them eligible to be discerning about the nuances of politics and policy. From a young age they lose touch with education in an effort to hone skills and spend most of their lives on the ground.When they get selected at the age of 18-23 usually at the highest level; from then to 40 they live in a bubble of luxury and glamour in the highest echelons of society.

They enjoy prestige as representatives of the nation in a Cricket obsessed country. Of course, they would like everything to be looked at from the point of view of Nation and Nationalism because that sustains their identity, privilege and relevance! As a result they buy into toxic jingoism. I’d be surprised if some Cricketer takes up issues of the marginalised! It is foolish to expect this!

No doubt they are highly skilled but sample this: Kohli thinks Demonetization is the best move in the history of Politics. Obviously he does ‘t know Mahad Satyagraha or the devastation caused in the informal sector by demonetization. He spent Lakhs on International Wifi to watch an episode of Comedy Nights with Kapil to bide his time on an Airport; and can afford to joke about it! Ravindra Jadeja said he always dreamt of marrying within his caste! Imagine his idea about the society. He wouldn’t know what happened in Khairlanji or Godhra or that it was due to sticking to caste identities. Sehwag thinks trolling a 20 year old peace activist is cool because he gets popularity on social media and increases avenues for future employment. These people always bow down to authority because these people are dependent on power for making money – especially post-retirement – which is obviously what they want to do and there’s nothing wrong in that.

Leave aside speaking on morally difficult and complicated issues like women’s rights or war and peace; they don’t even have the gumption of criticising the Indian team and the BCCI and speaking their minds in the commentary box! Harsha Bhogle was kicked out because he rightly once said that Bangladesh deserved to win a contest against India and didn’t and was critical of the BCCI! That happens in Sport! These cricketers if they have to keep their jobs; can’t criticize selection or comment on the corruption of the BCCI. Outside India, Moeen Ali was barred for wearing an arm band in solidarity with Palestine and he fell in line. If you expect them to have the right opinion on politics; you are wrong. These people have been reduced to highly paid entertainers.

No doubt their skill gives a lot of joy to billions of fans like me and that’s fine. If you love the game you can appreciate their prowess. But they do not have opinions very different from what their elite masters and friends feed them. Of course, some of them might have an understanding; but by and large, what Sehwag did was expected.

Just because they come on TV for 365 days doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously on important matters. But because in this era, celebrity status translates into acumen somehow – Donald Trump being a shining example – these people are taken seriously. It is also indicative of Right Wing hegemony which scorns upon intellectual rigour and pursuits in the garb of democracy. Their logic is, my stupidity is equal to your informed and well thought out position; or moral blandness like my hate is equal to your arguments for inclusion. That’s a huge malaise of our times. And so we must respectfully disagree with them. If and when power equation changes; these people will change sides. So enjoy their Cricket and support them on the field. Don’t take them seriously on other issues. Or think of it like this: Would you have taken an outstanding banker’s opinion in your local branch on Gurmehar as seriously? I think not.

Who Wants Demonetization: The Politics of Governance Through Surgical Strikes

demonetization
Source: Business Standard: Demonetization: Daily Wagers Fighting Crisis By Skipping One Meal A Day

In 2014, the PM Narendra Modi,  came to power promising the electorate to check corruption, putting an end to the policy paralysis and ensuring “development” by putting the economy back on track. Mr. Modi fashioned himself as the “vikas purush” who was all about development and “good governance” which would ensure growth. While on the economic front, things have been sluggish, to say the least; the promise to tackle black money and corruption was much awaited.

On November 8th, PM Modi took the drastic decision to demonetize “high denomination” currency at a short notice of a few hours. This move led to the withdrawal of 85% of the currency in circulation in one go; leading to an induced decline in purchasing power which would have an overall adverse effect on the economy for two quarters. It is not as if demonetization hasn’t been adopted by governments before, with little success, it must be added. However, such a move, with enormous logistical consequences, at such short notice, is unprecedented.

Does Demonetization Qualify as Good Governance?

The UN definition of good governance lists out the following features of the term: participation, transparency, rule of law, responsiveness, consensus oriented, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness, efficiency and accountability. Demonetization fails on all these counts.

The decision has caused immense hardship to the ordinary folk by bringing economic activity to a grinding halt. Government has estimated 50 days for a return to normalcy, although other estimates indicate that a longer period would be required. On last count, 50+ demonetization related deaths have been reported. The decision has impacted small businesses and the informal sector – which accounts for 80% of the employment and 45% of the GDP – the most; with reports of daily wage labourers being forced to skip meals due to non-payment of wages and lack of work. Add to that the increasing law and order problems across the country, recalibrating new ATMs etc. has led to a logistical nightmare for billions of common people; leading the Supreme Court to observe that the hara-kiri caused by the move could lead to a riot-like situation, if not set right at the earliest.

While it is true that any macro change causes some inconvenience as it shakes up the systemic inertia; there is a consensus evolving among the economists across the ideological spectrum from the Left to Right that the costs of demonetization far outweigh its benefits. Then was this a prudent decision; or did political considerations trump economic and governance considerations?

From Good Governance to “Governance through Surgical Strikes”

While paying lip service to the slogan of good governance, Mr. Modi, prefers to govern by surgical strikes; which it seems are meant more for public consumption and less for long term structural transformation. Public deliberation, one of the hallmarks of Indian democracy, has been replaced by absolute personalization of decision-making; so much so that many ministries and institutions seem redundant in this regime. The announcement of demonetization which could have been made by the RBI Governor was made by the Prime Minister himself, emphasizing its personalized and political nature. The decision was veiled in secrecy and even cabinet members, reportedly, had little idea about such an important decision. Moreover, this secrecy was presented as a positive to the media, which readily lapped it up.

For Mr. Modi, fighting corruption and black money, it seems, is not a matter of establishing strong and transparent institutions to guard against these ills. He prefers to fight it by publicized and personalised surgical strikes even though they may have little systemic impact in the long run.

Such an approach is not restricted to the economy but runs through the entire Modi regime. Whether it was PM Modi’s abrupt meeting with Mr. Nawaz Sharif ending Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation post 26/11 to the unprecedentedly publicized surgical strikes post the Uri attacks to this abrupt move to demonetize currency; there seems to be no consistent rationale or long term vision guiding these actions or statements, except reinforcing the personal authority and projection of strength on the part Mr. Modi. What is worse is that the bug seems to have caught on to the other cabinet ministers with Defence Minister Parrikar giving callous remarks on India’s “no first use” doctrine regarding nuclear weapons; when apparently this government has made securing a seat at the Nuclear Suppliers Group a priority!

The principle of collective decision making and integrity of institutions and public deliberation under a democratic setup – which act as checks and balances in the system – has been supplanted by faith in the wisdom of Mr. Modi and his coterie; and the public must fall in line or risk being labeled unpatriotic or now corrupt.

Demonetization – The Vicarious Revolution of the Elite

How can Good Governance and centralization of authority go together? The answer might lie in the social base of those who share this idiom of politics. Aijaz Ahmad in one of his essays on Hindutva, poses the question, “Can fascism be built within a liberal democratic framework?” The provisional answer to that, unfortunately it seems, is yes. What we are witnessing is the rise of hegemonic right across the world; which does not disavow democracy but uses it to undermine and erode those very structures – from Trump to Erdogan to Modi.

In India, the ideological base of such an assertion is found in the elite, urban, Hindu middle and upwardly mobile classes while not being restricted to them. If one were to unpack the ideological content of the term – Good governance – one would find its resonance with the urban elite’s version of squalor free politics inherent in the idea. The world of the urban, Hindu elite whose precarious upward mobility has been secured by prosperity built on the back of a post liberalization boom in the technical and service sector and who are products of a highly technocratic and uncritical system of pedagogy want to ensure and safeguard the boom in their consumption and affluence at all costs.

This increasingly politically assertive, homogenized cultural mass has little patience for democratic articulations of cultural difference – religious or based on caste – or demands of redistributive justice by the poor. That is why a redistributive program like the MGNREGA or AAP’s subsidies on water and electricity would be called out for its inefficiency, corruption, bad governance or simply appeasement of the poor; but the “surgical strike” on black money – which has cost 50+ lives and makes no economic sense at all – is the best move in the history of politics or loan waivers of billionaires an incentive for growth.

While Mayawati and Lalu – the leaders of the excluded – would be denigrated and slighted; the unrooted and unrepresentative politicians like Subramaniam Swamy or Arun Jaitley would find backers among these folks for they speak their language. Moreover, they will find ready echo chambers in the mainstream English media with studio demagogues like Arnab Goswami reinforcing their worldview from studios in metros claiming to be the voice of the nation.

This elite bloc or mass stripped off all particularities except the identity of consumer or tax payer then uses “Nationalism” to draw ideological sustenance and coherence for its project of accumulation and dominance. Its ideological symbols are no longer oppressed caste leaders or social reformers/workers or those who fought British colonialism like in the past; but the Army, the corporate honcho, the self-made cricketer or the actor – all free of particular identities. Their “other” or enemy won’t be the exploitative businessmen or dominant castes who perpetrate atrocities but poor students termed parasites for getting “subsidized” education on “their” taxes and still not falling in line; or human rights, environmental activists or anti-land grab activists for hindering the prospects of growth of the “nation”.

In the era inaugurated by the financial crisis and the resultant global recession leading to a sluggish economy; this elite bloc/mass requires a strong and decisive leader who ensures accumulation, therefore, is openly pro-big business and uses the language of Nationalism – where minorities are projected as the constant other – to sweep claims of poverty, inequality, difference and oppression under the carpet. One who can firmly deal with this “democratic squalor”; a politician who does not invoke the language of redistribution, recognition or right but of duty and a vaguely defined national interest; the apotheosis of that is of course – Mr. Narendra Modi. The identification of this bloc with their leader and their leader with the nation and its interest is total and indisputable.

For long the Indian, Hindu elite have toyed with the idea of dictatorship setting India straight during idle conversations. It is among this bloc that we can locate the support for Mr. Modi’s style of governance through surgical strikes and policies like demonetization. The tendencies towards authoritarianism and unprecedented centralization of power are passed off as decisive leadership and initiative in this narrative.

Manufacturing Consent in the Post-Truth World

So what happened to Modi’s signature slogan of good governance?

In a world where interpersonal connection is the highest in human history ironically we are living in times when social polarization is so massive that making sense of the world is becoming increasingly difficult. That is why pollsters across the world are having a hard time gauging the public mood; from the decimation of Congress in 2014 to AAP’s Delhi landslide to Mahagathbandhan’s Bihar sweep to Trump’s upset – the media did not have a whiff of what was going on.

The polarization of opinion on Demonetization is similar. The Indian Elites are just not ready to believe that this “surgical strike” is causing immense strife to the working people who are completely absent from the mainstream narrative anyhow. For them this monumental governance disaster is a minor inconvenience to be borne with a grin for the greater good.

In the post-truth world, controlling the narrative is often considered more important than producing demonstrable results. Mr. Modi is a master narrator and the elites haven’t been that affected by the cash crunch. Those affected by demonetization don’t have a voice in the mainstream media. Hence, deaths and chaos due to demonetization has been called a “minor inconvenience” and not be painted as a “breakdown of governance” but the odd-even scheme or worker strikes are painted as such.

The absence of public deliberation and a lack of consistent rationale guiding such massive policy decisions of the government, and their endorsement by the elite, are disconcerting signs for any democratic culture. While the Left tries to debate whether the present conjuncture is authoritarian or fascist; an admixture of both is unfolding in front of our eyes but with the backing of a vocal hegemonic public within a liberal framework. Maybe these terms – fascist or authoritarian – will derive closure only in retrospect; but in the present, the opposition seems woefully ineffective in countering the Leader.

Like Ambedkar, Rohith had no Nation!

Rohith Vemula

The suicide of Rohith Vemula is being met with two kinds of responses – while the Dalit and Progressive sections are calling it an ‘institutionalized murder’, where a Dalit boy was driven to suicide by the administration; the other response paints it as an individual act where caste had no role to play nor could anyone be blamed for it. One must not politicize a tragedy goes the refrain. The Union Minister for Human Resource Development seems to be of the latter view, as she repeated again and again that we should not make this an issue of caste discrimination, not now that we are in 2016.

So was it an act of a distressed individual who happened to be a Dalit or an act caused because of caste discrimination? In other words, was it a political act? To answer these questions one needs to examine Hindutva’s approach to identities and caste within its larger project of Hindu Nationalism.

Why such keen interest?

The question we must ask is: If this was just a regular skirmish between students; why was the MHRD, which has the herculean responsibility of educating millions of Indians, so interested in disciplining these five boys in the entire country? What explains this special attention to these students?

In the course of this hearing two Union Ministries got involved. Bandaru Dattatreya, MoS Labour and MP from Telangana personally wrote to Smriti Irani, MHRD, Government of India, to take cognizance of the matter and ever since the MHRD followed this case keenly with the administration with a series of letters being sent from the highest authority urging the administration to act in this case.

The anti-national Dalits: The Political Context of Rohith’s punishment

Bandaru Dattatreya in his letter to the HRD Minister calls Rohith and his friends anti-national because they protested against the death penalty awarded to Yakub Memon. Dattatreya wrote:

“Hyderabad University … has become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics. This could be visualized from the fact that when Yakub Memon was hanged, a dominant student’s union, that is, the Ambedkar Students’ Association has held protests against the execution”

Abolition of capital punishment is a legitimate debate which has been going on across the world. Even if we overlook the difficult moral question of giving the State the legitimate power to take the life of a citizen; the glaring inconsistencies in the awarding of death penalties in the recent past in India; the proven fact that it is not a deterrent in stopping violent crime and that majority of the civilized world has done away with the penalty; should have been reasons enough to question capital punishment. But according to Mr. Dattatreya, organizing and protesting for the abolition of death penalty, which it must be noted, Babasaheb Ambedkar was himself against, was an anti-national act for which these students needed to be punished.

Don’t talk about caste before we gain independence if you are a nationalist –

This is not the first time that Dalits are being labeled as anti-national. Even during our anti-colonial struggle, Dr. Ambedkar and many non-brahmin, anti-caste leaders were accused of being anti-national. At the time the mainstream nationalist discourse asked the Dalits to overlook the violence, discrimination and humiliation inherent in the caste system; and unite to overthrow the British. However, the British legal system of equality before the law was liberating for the Dalits as opposed to the codes governing the Hindu society; where the Dalits were treated as inferior and impure by accident of their birth – something which Rohith also refers to in his suicide note – and there was no scope for equality or justice. So the non-brahmin and Dalit movement kept on petitioning with the British Raj, until untouchability eradication and the violence of the caste system was acknowledged as an evil by the mainstream nationalist movement led by Congress.

Even after this acknowledgement, while the non-brahmin movement and the nationalist movement could build a strategic consensus on the goal of attaining independence, it was not without disagreements and debates. So while they were together in the fight against the British Raj, they maintained separate positions on many issues. This stark difference has been well documented in the debates that Ambedkar had with Gandhi and the Congress.

Don’t talk about caste at all: Now we are independent and we are Hindus:

We seem to have come a full circle. Today’s dominant nationalist discourse is based on Hindutva; which aims at culling out claims of difference of particular communities from the social and the political discourse. In the Hindutva imagination, we are all Hindus, which in turn is synonymous with being Indians, as this is our “punyabhoomi” or holy land. The fact that the Hindu social order itself is based on graded inequality and ritually sanctioned violence, discrimination and humiliation is supposed to be ignored.

The major challenges from the point of view of the Hindutva project in the unification of the Hindu fold and therefore, the challenge to Hindu power, is the challenge to the Hindu social order from the Dalits from the inside and from the Muslims and Christians from the outside. This political – cultural project to forge a semitised Hindu identity entails twin maneuvers of internal assimilation of hitherto oppressed castes into the Hindu fold and the domination and stigmatization of non-hindu minorities outside of it.

Unlike the Left or the Congress, the politics of the Hindutva brigade aims at reinvention of the self, the creation of the “new hindu man”, and therefore, takes an everyday form. This politics includes rewriting histories of Dalit groups and reinvention of their traditions to integrate them into the Hindu fold. In the past Eklavya who was wronged by Dronacharya for not being a savarna has been co-opted in to the pantheon of Hindu gods; similarly Shabri, the tribal woman in the Ramayana has been elevated to the status of a Goddess by the Hindutva forces.

Be a Harijan, not an Ambedkarite:

In India, defining oneself is itself a political act. The Dalit identity has sought to be defined predominantly through two approaches. Gandhi sought to define the Dalit identity from the prism of Hinduism. He coined the term “Harijan” and said that everyone was equal in the eyes of God, and that the Dalits were children of God as well. He also initiated campaigns to end untouchability and took measures like encouraging inter dining, asking upper caste Hindus to clean toilets, which in those times was a challenge to upper caste orthodoxy. However, this was an approach at accommodation within the Hindu fold.

The Dalit movement, however, contested this coinage as insufficient and patronizing. In their view, it was insufficient to be equal in the eyes of God; it is the equality in the here and now that one needs to achieve. It is for this reason, that Ambedkar opted for converting out of Hinduism. It was a means of de-anchoring the Dalits from the intellectual, moral and spiritual codes of orthodox Hinduism. His conversion to Buddhism was an act of defining the self outside the moral gaze of Hinduism. In other words, it was a rejection of Hinduism.

It is in this context, that the self definition of Rohith and his friends, in opposition to Sanskritised Hinduism, becomes a political act. It was this rebellion which was irksome. According to the Hindutva project, the Harijan is not a challenge, unlike a Muslim or a Christian and has to be co-opted; however, a Harijan cannot define herself but must let herself be defined by the Hindutva forces. In other words, a docile Harijan is a nationalist, but an Ambedkarite is an anti-national.

It must be borne in mind that the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) had organised beef eating programmes in the past, which is a direct political cultural challenge to the Hindutva forces’ claim that the cow is revered by all Hindus. However, what is an even bigger challenge to the Hindutva dispensation is the advocacy for the human rights of Muslims by a Dalit organisation. It should be noted that Dattatreya had called the MHRD’s attention to the anti-national activities of ASA. The ASA had screened ‘Muzzaffarnagar Baaki Hai’ and protested against the death penalty of Memon. A similar kind of response awaited the Dalits of Bhagana, Haryana. When they lost hope of attaining justice from the State, they did a strange (?) thing. They converted to Islam. In response, they were beaten up by the Hindutva organizations.

The alignment of Dalit – Muslim interests: A Nightmare for the Hindutva Project:

In a competitive electoral system, the electoral strength of these two communities makes for a formidable coalition. This solidarity of interests amongst those internally oppressed by Hinduism and those dominated outside by Hindutva is an unprecedented political and cultural challenge.

The political approach of Hindutva at dealing with caste therefore, is: firstly, not to speak about it or make it subservient to an abstract nationalism; and secondly, to pit Dalit interests against Muslims to prevent a cultural and political coalition. It is in this context that one needs to see the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thaawarchand Gehlot’s letter to MHRD congratulating them for questioning Jamia Milia Islamia University’s minority status; for he argues that it is undermining the interests and representation of the Dalits, Tribes and the OBC’s in higher educational institutions. Similar attempts at pitting Dalit – Bahujans against Muslims were made by none other than PM Modi in his election rallies in the run up to the Bihar elections when he warned the electorate that if the Mahagathbandhan came to power it will give your reservation to a “particular community”.

In its strategy with regard to caste, the saffron forces have coined the slogan of “Samrasta” (harmony) in opposition to “Samata” (equality). This has guided their strategies of co-option of castes within the Hindu fold. The 2014 general election which propelled Modi – led BJP to power was noted for smashing the Congress off the electoral map. However, two important events must be mentioned. One was the comprehensive rout of Mandal parties. Since the Babri Demolition, after an initial opposition to reservations, the RSS-BJP has strategically been co-opting OBC’s within its fold. This is reflected by the volte – face of the RSS on reservations; of course it continues to speak in a forked tongue as it has to consolidate its essentially upper constituency. So for the first time BJP’s PM candidate was showcasing his non-brahmin credentials in an electoral campaign. A stagnation in Mandal politics forced by the erosion of employment opportunities within the ambit of the State with increasing privatization and advance of the Market along with anti-incumbency paid rich dividends in the elections.

The 2014 general elections which propelled Modi – led BJP to power was noted for smashing the Congress off the electoral map. However, the most significant victories registered by the BJP were in the states of UP and Bihar which were unable to return even a single Muslim MP this time around despite a huge Muslim population. Interestingly the BSP retained its vote share but was unable to return even a single MP this time around. This was seen as a defeat of so-called vote bank politics.

It was this raw nerve that Rohith and his friends touched when one excluded identity spoke for the other. It was this potentially politically subversive act which invited such intense scrutiny from the highest echelons of power in Delhi.

In 1931, when Gandhi questioned Ambedkar about his criticism of the Congress which he construed as criticism of the Indian national struggle, Ambedkar replied by saying, “I have no homeland. No untouchable worth the name would be proud of this land.”

The consolidation of the power of Hindutva has successfully “denationalized” the “suspect” Muslim community in 2014. It is quite logical then, that if Dalits spoke out for Muslims in Muzzaffarnagar and against the death penalty, it was only a matter of time before they shall be labeled anti-national as well. The attempts at building a coalition of those excluded from the Hindutva public are in their nascent stages, and it is difficult to predict whether it will materialise in the future or not. However, the charge of anti-nationalism levelled against Rohith and his friends tells us how easily a marginalised community can be “denationalised” and in turn what ideological function the category of nationalism performs in the Hindutva project.

Make no mistake; Rohith’s suspension and suicide, both were profoundly political acts. And like Ambedkar, even after six and a half decades of independence he had no nation.

       

Religion and Left Politics: Why celebrating festivals by Leftists is alright

The criticism of the CPI(M) for celebrating Janmashtami raises an interesting question. In a country like India; is it feasible, and more importantly possible, to follow the classical Marxist dictum of complete separation of religion from politics?

The biggest mass leader of modern India, Gandhi, said that “Those who argue for separation of religion from politics do not understand what religion is.” And his most powerful progressive critic, Babasaheb Ambedkar who viciously fought the Hindu social order and its dehumanising and oppressive practices finally converted from Hinduism to a reinterpreted Buddhism – a religion – as a means of emancipation.

In annihilation of caste, he said, he wanted a religion based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. But he did want a “religion”. Why is it that he did not call upon Dalits to embrace Atheism?

In my opinion, it is because he believed that humans are moral beings and need a moral anchor and community to lead meaningful lives which atheism would not provide for the majority of the people. It cannot be imposed on the majority of the people anyway. History teaches us this much. The great humanist revolution of 1917 in USSR led to the official proclamation of atheism and closing down of churches. Today almost a century later, the Orthodox Church is flourishing and the Communist Party is gone. This huge leap towards embracing godlessness as a normal human condition cannot be state imposed.

In fact, Black Churches in the segregated south of USA have played an important role in their struggle towards humanism by overturning segregation and apartheid. Similarly, in Latin America “liberation theology” played a very big role in providing the “ethical basis” for the movement for “human dignity” – the final goal of the socialist project – which engulfed the continent. Hugo Chavez, the biggest leader of the Left in recent times was a practising Christian and even staunchly socialist Cuba has opted for secularism over atheism.

While it is beyond doubt that organised religion is the source of obscurantism, misogyny, bigotry and domination; it continues to play an immensely important role in ordinary people’s lives and state imposed atheism hasn’t borne any results in erstwhile socialist countries like USSR where, for example, conservatism and homophobia are commonsense today. Moreover, in countries where religion has not been swept under the carpet, there exists a progressive critique of religion; which have provided moral resources for progressive movements like USA and India.

The Peculiarity of the Indian Case:

The Indian case is much more difficult in this regard. In India, the Hindu social order has arranged society in unequal power relations between castes; which under the modern, democratic state have become competing communities, albeit still unequally powerful. In fact, over the last 150 years, Hinduism has been subjected to intense public political critique under the gradual process of modern state formation; as a result two things have happened: Hinduism has become a highly contested category and secondly, a nebulous Hinduism has become much more semitized. It can be said that it was only in the post – colonial India that religion and politics were sought to be detached; while in the pre-independence period it was one of the constant poles of public critique and therefore, reform.

One of the accepted critiques of the Left has been its inability to address the oppression faced by Dalits under Hinduism. This in effect, is a criticism of the position of separating religion from politics; of foregrounding exploitation of labour at the base and religion as a superstructural manifestation. In India, in the past century, there have been profound political changes from communitarian contestation within the Hindu social order as much as from the contradiction between capital and labour.

However, being a religion of graded inequality, choosing which rituals to observe and which to critique become difficult choices. In JNU, for example, where publicly acknowledging Hindu affiliation is very rare for Left activists, the entire Left celebrates the Hindu festival of Holi without being judged. So would celebrating Buddhist rituals be alright for a Communist, given that it is in line with the Dalit vision? Is it that only festivals popular among the upper castes would be objected to? While Dalit ideologues call upon people for complete rejection of the Hindu order, a significant number of Dalits continue being Hindus. So while it is a contested category it is not a discarded category, at least in the consciousness of the people. There has, in fact, been a trend of increasing Hinduization in the northern and western belts of the country where the erstwhile individuals from oppressed castes and tribes are reclaiming the Hindu identity.

This popularization of the Hindu identity has been the result of half a century of revivalist politics of the Hindu Right. Hinduism has been left uncontested; by the Congress, for preserving the status quo and by the Left because apparently good communists have to strictly separate politics from religion. So they shall only raise redistributive demands and not recongnitional demands. This understanding meant that they tailed Dalit and Bahujan Parties and lost out on mobilizing the biggest part of the organic proletariat in the post independence period. As a result of Hinduism remaining uncontested – except by the Dalit Movement – for the last half a century; the Brahminical forces have had an open field for shaping this order and consolidating power.

The issue becomes more complicated when under the onslaught of Hindutva on the minorities, the Left forces rightly uphold secularism, but in effect, end up arguing for upholding their religious rights and thereby its inherent anti-humanist orthodoxies. When in state power, this is perceived by adherents of Hinduism, as a selective assault on their ways of worship and religion. This is justified by the argument that reform cannot be imposed from the outside but must proceed from a critique from within. In the absence of such an internal critique, the case becomes, and is portrayed anyway by the Hindu Right, as one of the secular parties using the State to target and tinker with the Hindu social order while leaving the minority religions and their orthodoxies untouched. For example, Article 14 of the constitution makes untouchability a crime; similarly there are SC/ST atrocity acts. These are cases of the State intervening and outlawing a religious tenet or using socio-religious categories to frame laws. However, certain practices like Triple Talaaq among Muslims remain untouched owing to the lack of internal critique.

Of course, it is no one’s case that there should be no intervention in to religious orthodoxy. However, this imbalance becomes fodder for Hindu Right to play victim. Moreover, it is because Hinduism has essentially been a politically contested category; shaped by the political discourse and in effect shaping the political discourse, that this position of separation of religion from politics is untenable in India. On the contrary, by this abstention from acknowledging Political Hinduism and negotiating with it, the Left has ceded historically one of the most important fields of politics in India.

However, the tricky question is what position should the Communist Party take on Hinduism and religion, in general in a profoundly religious country? A democratic, progressive position would entail, firstly, that this position of separating religion from politics is untenable and counterproductive. Sweeping religions under the carpet does not serve the purpose of advancing the humanist cause. Religion needs to be acknowledged and negotiated and critiqued in the public sphere. Hinduism has had a history of being publicly critiqued which forced it to reform. Secondly, religious and social categories cannot be wished away. But they gain or lose their content through constant political critique; they wither away, if you will. For example, being a Brahmin man in an urban space is not the same as it was, in the 17th century. This is how the meaning and power of social categories changes over time. The Left must fight for establishing the legitimacy of the individual’s ruthless critique of religion rather than imposing atheism on the people or their members.

If Communist Politics is conceived as a fight for hegemony; a process rather than a moment in the march towards a humane society, the political category of Hinduism needs to be made a site of contestation, deliberation and public critique again; to mould it towards principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, which might mean renunciation of Hinduism and embrace of Buddhism as well.

The Left must fight for agnosticism rather than atheism. A Communist Party mass organization or members can celebrate festivals as long as they remain engaged in a process of collective critique and deliberation of their religion. Religion will remain an existentially important part of the lives of even Communist activists and masses at large. These calls for the strict separation of religion and politics and outright condemnation of Left members who undertake religious rituals are superficial and counterproductive.

The Greek Crisis: The people, profits and the social contract

Angelos Tzortzinisafp / Getty Images Source: www.jaboin.com
Angelos Tzortzinisafp / Getty Images
Source: http://www.jacobin.com

The referendum in Greece on Sunday is not only about a decision on whether to exit or stay within the eurozone by a struggling European country; whether the majority of the Greeks decide to vote in the affirmative or not in Sunday’s referendum, the referendum itself will turn a page in history by laying the foundation for refashioning the democratic social contract between the citizen and his or her government in the 21st century.

The original social contract: Balancing liberty and equality

The modern government as we know now is premised on two basic principles: only those governments are legitimate who rule by consent of the people and not the whim of a monarch; and exercise power as a trust and not as a divine right in the interests of the people. If a government violates these principles, the citizen has a legitimate right to overthrow the government through elections or in extraordinary cases through civil disobedience.

Modern governments perform two functions to maintain their legitimacy: create prosperity for its citizens (liberty) and justly distribute that prosperity (equality) and in return the citizens follow the laws and help the governments maintain order. These two principles have been epitomized in two forms of governments over the last century: free market democracy and authoritarian socialist republics respectively. The last century saw the triumph of market democracy over authoritarian socialism.

But this defeat was primarily political rather than economic. That capitalism creates a concentration of wealth on one pole and poverty on the other pole is accepted by even the most enthusiastic advocate of free market democracy. The open market created unprecedented wealth for its adherents in the last century; however, the free spirits of the market were tamed by a redistributive welfare state – Roosevelt’s new deal and Johnson’s great society – human rights, labour unions, healthcare but most importantly, democratic accountability and free speech. The people decided their fates. They mattered. Whereas, the Soviet Union – although it countered poverty and ended monarchy in Russia – degenerated into a massive, opaque, authoritarian bureaucracy where the “party” had supplanted the “people” in whose name it ruled and a small unrepresentative party elite controlled the fate of the people. As a result, when a major economic – political crisis mounted in the late 1980’s the people overthrew the illegitimate ruling elite and the Soviet Union was dissolved.

This ushered in an era of global market fundamentalism; a trend which had been championed decisively by Reagan and Thatcher in their respective countries since the 1980’s. The political defeat of Soviet Union was taken as a decisive negation of all arguments for equality and justice. Under a world dominated by the US, global lending institutions were set up which through conditional debt – structural adjustment – to struggling economies forced their markets open and imposed Reaganite economic paradigms the world over.

These economic assumptions were: having a free market with minimal government intervention promoting privatization, maintaining low fiscal deficits and adopting an export-oriented growth model. These became political and economic common sense, globally. Even minimal state regulation was scorned upon. It was not the business of the government to be in business, as Thatcher said. An unelected technocratic elite of global lending institutions pushed these tenets as gospel truth.

A sort of economic absolutism was in vogue and a culture of “greed is good” prevailed. The vacuity of these claims was exposed when none of the adherents of Reaganism could either predict or explain the global financial crisis, which ruined lives of millions in the developed world. Reaganism has created unprecedented polarization of wealth where the top 1% has obscenely more wealth and political influence than the rest of the 99% combined. No one was held accountable for the global financial crisis caused by greed of the bankers on wall street; the top one per cent. If no person was held accountable for such economic ruin, it was  in a strange way accepted by governments that this was a systemic crisis.

Reaganism smashed the welfare consensus which defeated the Soviet Union and most importantly hampered upward mobility – the holy grail of capitalism – as Thomas Pikketty has proven. While people still got to vote once in five years; the MNC’s funded both sides of the political divide. It was a choice between two factions of the big capital; the choice was not real.

Financial Crisis: Politics of Austerity

In the wake of the crisis, US and UK gave their economies a liberal dose of deficit spending and slowly but surely recovered from the recession. However, the fact that the euro zone was a fiscal union meant that states could not devise autonomous fiscal policies and as an EU member, it was required to limit its fiscal deficit, hampering the chance of its recovery. A harsh austerity regime was imposed on these countries when they asked for loans to these multilateral banks. This tore down the State and debilitated the society in Greece.

This is of course not to argue that the Greek state was not corrupt or did not have problems of governance or was not running unmanageable deficits; but that this imposed regime of austerity precluded any chance for a viable recovery. The rich are not affected by the cutting of welfare spending; the poor and the middle classes are. The 1% created the crisis and passed off the effects on to the 99% of the people.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that there are two misnomers about deficits in neoclassical economic thinking: (1) That austerity will lead to a recovery from a recession, for that one needs growth and (2) National debt is not like a personal debt as Reaganites like to believe. It can be managed because it is owed to its own people.

However, we have a case where we have witnessed enormous unemployment and shrinking of economies across Europe not only Greece; but Spain, Ireland, Italy and Finland. The Greek case has been the most devastating, where after agreeing to impose austerity suggested by IMF, there GDP contracted by 25% and unemployment shot up. These austerity measures have only helped the banks and not the people. In fact, out of the last installment of the Greek bailout money only a pittance reached the people, the rest bailed out banks. The deal being offered now will be more of the same. Again the choice is not real.

The wheel of history had come full circle. A tiny, unelected, unrepresentative elite – of global financial banks – was calling the shots again; peddling a dogma again. The dogma had changed its colours. It was no longer red. It was wrapped in the banner of liberty. People once again did not matter. What mattered was the Reaganite economic dogma which had caused the crisis in the first place.

Political earthquakes in Greece and Spain:

It is in this context that there have been seismic changes in the political landscapes of Greece and Spain where Left-leaning, populist and anti-austerity coalitions have gained huge popularity. In the election in 2011, the Social Democratic Party of Spain lost 40% of its support. Similar fate befell PASOK, the social democratic party of Greece which lost 30% of its vote between 2009 and 2013. This was the level of anger of the common people against the elites represented by these parties. They were being punished for the mistakes of the 1% who caused the recession. Imposition of austerity measures only reiterated that they did not matter.

However, this Left, as Pablo Iglesias the leader of Podemos said, starts off by acknowledging the failures of Soviet Communism. Their primary goal is to make democracy work again; power does not flow from the barrel of the gun for these parties but through the voices of the people. In short, people matter, not profits or at least people matter before profits. For both these parties, people’s participation and democratic deliberation are at the centre of their visions of socialism. They want to be mediums through which people can speak out against the unrepresentative technocratic elites of the EU and IMF. This is a decisive break from the 20th century Stalinist party supplanting the people themselves.

For years now, democracies have been perverted by money power and vested corporate interests. In Greece we have a case where a nation has been robbed of its sovereignty by global institutions. It is no longer about the debt as an IMF report attests the claims of the Greek government that the debt is unmanageable and needs to be restructured if it has to be repaid. Then why is such obstinacy being displayed in the face of a massive humanitarian crisis by the EU? It is about preserving the economic status quo, which favours the multinational corporations which have for long swayed political systems across the world in their service.

It is here that the referendum becomes a seminal moment in history. The Leftist Prime Minister Tsipras does not need to go to the people to withdraw from the euro zone. He has the authority as the elected PM of the country to take that decision through his cabinet. But he is putting this up to the Greek people to deliberate and participate in a decision which has a bearing upon their lives. In other words, he is re-seeking legitimacy because he has not been able to renegotiate the debt with the troika, which was the mandate he was given by the people. This act of seeking a referendum is the first step in refashioning the social contract; redistribution not through the gun but through enabling the voices of the people to be heard. Democracy is beginning to be more than voting once in five years.

Syriza has turned the page on the 20th century decisively and arguments of equality have replenished their legitimacy. The Reaganite consensus is under attack. It is accepted that although markets create prosperity; they have no inherent moral compass. The people are speaking back to an unelected technocratic Reaganite elite who have supplanted them much like Soviet Era technocrats. Tsipras might win or lose; but the social contract between the citizen and the government will never be the same again.

As the Slovenian Marxist philosopher has said commenting upon reaganite orthodoxy: “There is only one utopia today, and it is to believe that things will go on without change indefinitely.”

The Importance of Being Irreverent


Culture continuously evolves over a period of time; it does not remain static and at any given time in the polity there are multiple cultures competing to become norms. Twenty five years of market reforms in an open society have created a huge middle class and unleashed its own cultural forces which have hastened the hitherto stunted process of individuation leading to the rise of the category of the citizen, predominantly in urban India. This huge individuated population – citizens or consumers – refuse to let others speak on their behalf and be easily offended by a bunch of profane comics. However, most of the Indian society is dominated by conservative communitarian values. This is what lies at the heart of the recent controversy with the huge outrage caused by the AIB roast.

Am I Charlie?

The Indian people and the establishment rightly joined the rest of the world in condemning the political murders of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in France. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were often racist and portrayed Islam and the Prophet in a bad light. A bunch of fanatics were so offended that they decided to silence the cartoonists by murdering them. At that time, our Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister tweeted in support of France and #IAmCharlie trended on twitter in India.

It turns out that what the government and a big section of the people in this country really condemned was not the violent act of silencing freedom of expression but merely the act of murder. We are all too happy to be Charlie when we are not being hurt. But when the tables are turned, we too are intolerant and only too ready to drown out that freedom in a display of self righteous outrage. The recent episode in Mumbai where a comic collective was forced to take down their show uploaded on YouTube even before a judicial enquiry had held them guilty of violating any laws, brings out the culture of intolerance and the politics of fear, which is pervasive in our society. (http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/aib-official-statement-on-why-it-took-down-the-roast-full-text-736966) Yes, the content of jokes was sexually explicit and many would have found them tasteless. However, the event was ticketed and adequate warnings were provided on the website about the content. Those who still watched it knew what they were getting into. You can always choose not to watch it; in fact, that is the most effective form of censorship.

Cultures of Intolerance: A Contradiction of Modernity in India

One of the reasons for this culture of getting easily outraged and hurt at the behest of the community is the unique process of modernization within India. It is well known and often celebrated that the old and the new co-exist in India, in constant tension, without that tension being ever conclusively resolved. So we can have the most highly paid professionals with the best of education look for brides within their own castes in a matrimonial advertisement.

We as a society are incredibly resistant to change. The changes that inevitably occur are the result of a tortuous process. This is also the case with the tension between the community and the individual or the citizen. The process of individuation and the emergence of the citizen has been stunted and marked by ascriptive identities of caste, language, religion etc.

This incomplete individuation in society has forced the individual into an often suffocating embrace of the community, compromising the development of individual reason and freedom in society at large. This overbearing embrace of the community has also been used by political parties for nurturing constituencies to meet electoral ends, in the process further undermining individuation and reasserting the hold of the community over individual reason. Being a spokesperson for any group – religious, linguistic, cultural, caste-based or the entire “society”- and standing up against its supposed humiliation are the easiest ways of getting a political following.

The importance of iconoclasts

This is of course not to argue against the acknowledgement of differences in society. The attempt is to assert the importance of the development of individuality, reason and the citizen for the healthy functioning of democracy.
In fact, it is through this irreverent and uncompromising struggle for individual personality against the suffocating embrace of tradition and community that Ambedkar and Periyar reformed our society during the course of its freedom struggle. Both these iconoclasts spoke out against existing dominant norms regarding brahminical religion and sexuality. It was considered even more blasphemous at the time to argue for sexual autonomy of women or the abolition of the caste system. Today we thank them for their irreverence.
The point is not to equate these acts with the AIB roast, but to point out that tolerance for irreverence is important for a democratic society to evolve. Silencing an opinion does not delegitimize it. It only delays a debate.

The Battle Against Conservatism

That there should be limits to free speech and that this must be checked through law should be a settled matter. However, what constitutes acceptable free speech is in itself defined by the existing power relations within society. That the group found it pragmatic to withdraw the video shows that the mob decides these limits, not the courts. This is a worrying trend. But this is in line with increasing intolerance in our society; we have seen a string of incidents of the politics of outrage against movies and books (which were watched and read anyway) and politics of hate – vandalizing churches; we have also witnessed politicians employ hate speech with impunity– recently and in the past. The dominant sections of society have always wanted to intimidate and silence the individual. A society where an individual is afraid to voice an opinion – even offensive in nature – is on a perilous path.

A democratic society must learn to have a debate among its members; not to intimidate and silence those we disagree with. Let us have this debate; those who watched the video (it got 8 million views) are also part of your society. And the conservative establishment does not speak on their behalf.