If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Can we learn from this conservative politician?

John McCain, the Republican Senator from Arizona, famously lost to Barack Obama in the US presidential elections in 2008. I happened to be in the US during the elections and followed the debates as closely as I could. 

The Grand Old Party that McCain belongs to had just produced one of the worst Presidents in the American history, George Bush, besides the Iraq war and the financial melt-down that brought the entire world to the brink of a disaster. Like most human beings who were not insane, I detested the American Conservatives, I still do. 

But despite my inhibition about the party and the values that the GOP stands for, I couldn't but admire McCain as an individual. He had a simple, practical, down-to-earth approach to the issues and was infinitely graceful in defeat. And his background helped. 

Fighter pilot John McCain's plane was shot down in Vietnam. McCain, who survived the crash with severe injuries, was tortured even when he had been injured. He spent a long time in Vietnamese jails, and although he could have bought his freedom early thanks to his connections -- his father was, if I am not mistaken, a navy admiral and consequently a part of the ruling elite of the US. But John McCain refused to tread that path, didn't wish to leave his comrades behind in jail by exploiting the accident of his birth. 

So I was not surprised when I read this in the New York Times. It is a touching obituary for an ordinary American, who had been -- trust me -- a communist! 

Do we Indians, tormented by an at-times-violent tolerance-intolerance debate, have anything to learn from John McCain?

If you wish to read the article, please click on this link.

[Photo - Courtesy New York Times]

Kolkata / 29 March 2016

Friday, 25 March 2016

If you want to live in India, do you have to chant Vande Mataram?

As an Indian reader, what will you do after reading the headline of this story? Please tick one of the options in your head.

1.       I may or may not read it, but I know you’ve written yet another biased article against a government that is trying hard to take India ahead.
2.       Let me decide, but I don’t think it’s an important issue.
3.       I’ll definitely read it – maybe it contains information that I need.
4.       I might read it or might not – maybe I will come back to it if I don’t find anything interesting.
5.       I’ll move on to the next post. I couldn’t care less.

There are five kinds of Indians in India today – and your answer will perhaps tell you which category you belong to.

1.       People who care for India and support the government of the day or the ruling party or both.
2.       People who care for India but who believe nothing is especially wrong in the present time – we’ve had problems all along.
3.       People who care for India and are seriously concerned about the direction in which the present rulers are taking us.
4.       People who are otherwise preoccupied, who would think politics when they have free time, if any.
5.       People who think of the country or the nation or the state as an abstract entity: “I really can’t change anything, I don’t have a role in it. Why should I bother, let me watch the butterflies in my garden.” 

Dear Rader, I respect your right to have any of the above views or anything else that’s beyond my head, but I am writing this just to tell you why I think you MUST care about what’s happening around us.

Democracy is a story, the country is a story, the nation is a story, and so is the state. India functions as a liberal democracy because lots of people believe in the STORY of a pluralistic society consisting of many languages, religions, and faiths. In parts of India, e.g., Kashmir, people, at least a huge chunk of them, have stopped believing in the story and the Indian Democracy simply doesn’t work there.
… Kashmir valley, … the most densely militarised zone in the world, where half a million Indian soldiers (one to every four civilians) and a maze of army camps and torture chambers that would put Abu Ghraib in the shade are bringing secularism and democracy to the Kashmiri people. Since 1990, when the struggle for self-determination became militant, 68,000 people have died, 10,000 have disappeared, and at least 100,000 have been tortured. [Arundhati Roy in the Guardian, 10 Feb 2013]

While Kashmir and parts of the North East are a colossal tragedy, fortunately for us, the situation is entirely different across the length and breadth of India. We vote for different political parties, but we will never vote against Democracy. Most Indians have heard stories of alternative political structures – of Tamil Eelam, of Khalistan, of a totalitarian Maoist state. But we haven’t bought those stories because we believe that parliamentary democracy is a better story.

And the central part of this story is that every Indian has equal space and some rights that are enshrined in a bound volume called the Constitution of India. Freedom of speech and action – without harming others – is fundamental to our Constitution. I have the choice to be Hindu or a Muslim or an agnostic. I have the right to eat what I like, including beef and pork. I have the right to love my country – even if I didn’t, as long as I didn’t bother others, my constitution gives me the right to live with dignity.

We do not live in Hitler’s Germany, where one could be imprisoned or killed simply because one refused to chant “Hitler is Germany! Hitler is victory! Hail Hitler!”

Or do we? On 16 March 2016, the Maharashtra Assembly unanimously (BJP, Congress, NCP, et al) suspended Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) MLA, Waris Pathan, after he said he would not chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Hail Mother India) even if someone held a knife to his throat.

Incidentally, Pathan’s statement came in response to what RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had said a week before: “Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai.”

In the Assembly too, BJP and Shiv Sena members shouted slogans like “Is desh mein agar rehna hoga, Vande Mataram kehna hoga (If you want to live in India, you have to chant Vande Mataram)”. [The Hindu 17 March 2016]

Reacting to his suspension, Pathan later said: “I love my country. I was born here and I will die here. I can never dream of insulting my country. Don’t judge anyone’s love for the country by just one slogan. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat, Jai Maharashtra.” So here, he is actually reciting “Jai Hind” although he refuses to say, “Bharat Mata ki Jay.”

I believe MIM is one of the worst political parties whose primary aim is to spread communal hatred among Muslims. But the finest legal brains in India say that our Constitution gives Pathan the right not to chant any slogan that the ruling party of the day, or their mentors want him to chant.

In the 1980s, some students were rusticated from a Kerala school because they refused to sing the National Anthem on the ground that they belonged to a religious group known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the group only sang in praise of the Lord and would not sing any other song. So the students were willing to stand up respectfully, but would not sing the anthem. The case came up in the Supreme Court and it reversed the expulsion in 1986.

In doing so, Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy noted: “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.”

Soli Sorabjee, a legal luminary and a former Attorney General has written:
"New-fangled notions of nationalism and patriotism have recently erupted. In substance, they equate patriotism with the chanting of certain words with the clear implication that those who do not do so are anti-national and unpatriotic. It must be remembered that nationalism is a mindset arising from spontaneous feelings of genuine affection for the country and its people. It cannot be manufactured by recitation of certain verses." [Indian Express, 20 March 2016]
And that brings us to the conclusion. India has remained a country despite pundits from all corners of the world predicting since 1947 that she would not survive as a political unit because of her wide diversities. India has survived not because everyone shouted ONE slogan, but because we have the right to shout MANY slogans. And more importantly, because most of us believe in the story of Indian Democracy. Presently, BJP and their mentors, RSS are trying to change that story.

This is dangerous. This will definitely lead more and more people not to believe the story of India. And when people stop believing that story, the government has to use force to keep the country together, like in Kashmir.

Who then are anti-national and who are trying to write a different script that might lead to breaking up India? And finally, do you, Gentle Reader, have a role in continuing the India story?

Kolkata / Friday, March 25, 2016