AAP and the limits of expansionism

Why did AAP win Delhi? Can AAP do to the rest of India what it did to Delhi?

Among many answers to the first question, one must stand out as important: the party had its ears to the ground, i.e., it spent most of its time listening to those at the bottom of the pyramid of power instead of imposing the images and words of supermen from above. That they didn’t have any supermen in the first place helped them become popular with laypeople, providing them an impression of flatness of organization and ideology. Everyone, it appeared, was welcome to AAP as long as they weren’t with “the bad guys”.

But organizational and ideological flatness within AAP is a myth. It was stated in exactly these terms by some, who left the party, but one doesn’t need a proof for it; it’s a truism. Any well-run political party must have a command and control structure, and those who command and control must, in a well-known hierarchy, be above those who are commanded and controlled.

When the organization isn’t large enough, hierarchy doesn’t come in the way of its being close to the ground: the voices from below reach the top because the top isn’t too high up in the air.

Why am I bringing this up? I’m bringing this up to answer my second question above, as to whether AAP can do a Delhi with all of India. AAP’s relative flatness compared to BJP and Congress, which was good enough for the geographically insignificant area of Delhi, is not scalable as it tries to “go national”. Localness isn’t expandable from one locus.

For starters, the very name of the party is in a foreign language for most of India: Hindi. The language of Delhi, it is considered a dangerous threat to liberty in South and East India; there aren’t any Aam Aadmis there to begin with; that’s an alien expression. The actual Aam Aadmi, who speaks an Indo-Aryan language like Hindi, is not exactly welcome in South or East India because he comes to replace the native Dravidian or Tibeto-Burman, to colonize.

No successful organization, because of its inevitable hierarchy, can maintain even an impression of flatness when it expands beyond a certain size, or beyond certain natural boundaries such as those of language and ethnicity as discussed above.

The Congress and the BJP have mastered the art, of not even putting up a facade of flatness, in “going national”. They essentially operate without the advantage which AAP had in this Delhi victory, and they’re not apologetic about it. In fact, they want the peoples of India to apologize for being diverse and making it difficult for them to keep their ears to the ground.

AAP’s fate will be no different as it tries to expand beyond Delhi. Aloofness from the ground is in the very nature of expansionism. I’m not saying this to cast my vote in favor of the BJP or the Congress. Far from it, I am saying this to forewarn the peoples of India against falling for another national party to rule over them thinking it will be fundamentally different from the existing ones. The thing to learn from AAP is that localness is the way forward, and this naturally requires rejecting AAP everywhere outside Delhi.


[First published: IBNLIVE, 11-02-2015]

Bangalore to Bengaluru: the Untold Story

While the ‘national media’ is fixated on things of ‘national importance’, the media in Karnataka, both Kannada and English, is abuzz with the news that the Centre has agreed to the Government of Karnataka’s proposal to ‘rename’ several cities in the state. Bangalore is now officially Bengaluru, Mysore is Mysuru, Belgaum is Belagavi, and so on and so forth.

Despite all the hype, celebrations, and the occasional mention of the late U R Ananthamurthy’s name (he stood for this cause), it’s important to pause and understand what exactly has happened here. Are the names really new? Who are they new to? In which language or languages are they new? All in all, does it matter?

These names, Bengaluru, Mysuru, Belagavi, etc., are not new to the people of these cities or of Karnataka as a whole. Nor are they new entrants to the Kannada language. Nobody has ever used the words Bangalore, Mysore, Belgaum, etc., in Kannada; it has always been these ‘new’ names. It is, in fact, impossible to use them because it’s foreign pronunciation. British pronunciation, to be precise.

So what’s happening now is not ‘renaming’ from the point of view of those Kannadigas who take their own language more seriously than others. Yes, it’s true that the India outside of Karnataka is going to try and use the same names as used within Karnataka. I say ‘try and use’ because Kannada names cannot necessarily be pronounced by non-Kannadigas. The ‘l’ in Bengaluru, for example, is not pronounced north of the Vindhyas – at least not any more.

So, is this whole thing a sort of an achievement? Does it call for a celebration?

To get some perspective, consider the fact that Germany is not pleading with the EU to be ‘renamed’ as Deutschland; The Netherlands is not pleading to be ‘renamed’ as Nederland; France isn’t pleading to be ‘renamed’ as République Française; the number of such examples is not even countable. In fact, people worldwide have their own names for all the countries and cities they’ve had the opportunity to talk about.

To take one example of a city, what the British call London is known and written in some of the world’s languages as follows: Llundain, Londër, Londain, Londan, Londe, Londen, Londhíno, Londinium, Londona, Londonas, Londra, Londres, Londrez, Londyn, Londýn, Lontoo, Loundres, Luân Đôn, Lundenwic, Lúndūn, Lundúnir, Lunnainn, Reondeon, Rŏndŏn, Rondon, and Londoni. Is this a let-down of the people of London? No. In fact, it’s a matter of Londoner pride for their city, like all living things, to have a Vishnu Sahasranama of its own.

So then, why did some Kannadigas ask for this, why do they call it ‘renaming’, and why are they celebrating now? There is only one answer. They have resigned to the fate, decided for them by the Government of India, of Hindi and English being more important than Kannada. To ask for the Kannada names to be approximated in Hindi and English is, first and foremost, to accept the over-lordship of these two hegemonic languages. Even U R Ananthamurthy advocated for Hindi’s emergence as a pan-India link language; I don’t think he worked out the full impact of such a disaster on Kannada. Perhaps it gives the celebrators some solace now to think that the hordes of migrants who are coming into these cities from the North will at least try and preserve the names of their cities – if not Kannadigas’ existence in them.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 18-10-2014

How not to sell the Vedas

‘Pride is the fuel,’ says Amish Tripathi, ‘that will help us build our nation’ (Vedic learning is no one’s preserve, everyone’s pride, Times of India, 21 Sept 2014). And what does any right-thinking status-quo-ist do when such is the assumption and a nation is given? He looks for an object of pride and hard-sells it. Tripathi sells the Vedas, asserting that all Indians must take pride in them. Why exactly should we do that? He cannot possibly say ‘because we have to build our nation’ – the object of pride must have independent validity – so he goes on to argue that it’s because ‘all groups in the subcontinent today have descended from the ancient Vedic people.’

What exactly do the geneticists say? In a 2013 study titled Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Priya Moorjani et. al. argue that most Indian groups descend from a mixture of so-called Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI, which Tripathi mentions). Notably, the authors describe these groups as ‘genetically divergent populations’. The first group is ‘related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians and Europeans’ and the second is ‘not closely related to groups outside the subcontinent.’ In other words, there is no walking away from the possibility of the Ancestral South Indians having played hosts to the Ancestral North Indians before intermingling began (from 1,900 to 4,200 years ago according to the same paper).

Tripathi must not have seen much nation-building fuel in mentioning this genetic divergence. He goes on only to say that ‘these groups have inhabited the subcontinent for at least 6,000 years, if not more, heavily intermingling in the ancient past’ (I don’t even want to get into the usual blaming of Germans and Britishers for divide-and-rule). Well, inhabit they could have, but as one group? No. Groups that intermingle ‘heavily’ or otherwise must have been isolated from one another before the intermingling began: it’s commonsense. Moorjani suspects – yes, that word – that ‘the two groups lived side-by-side for centuries without intermarrying’ prior to 4,200 years ago. Tripathi doesn’t want us to read all this in history – glossing over any sort of plurality is the way to go.

Also, Tripathi should be more worried about the shift away from any sort of mingling in the last 1,900 years. According to Moorjani, mixture ‘even between closely related groups became rare because of a shift to endogamy’ – i.e., the caste-system arose – which the Vedic heritage we all must take pride in didn’t do much to discourage. This finds no mention in his article quite possibly because it isn’t good enough fuel, the pontification in the beginning paragraph of his essay notwithstanding.

Even less nation-building fuel there is in seeking the reasons for India’s linguistic diversity. While the novelist can cast his characters such that his prejudice ‘holds true across religions, languages, castes and even national boundaries’, the fact remains that Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages are quite distinct from each other. The Europeans didn’t invent them; they discovered them. This crucial fact, too, finds no mention in Tripathi’s article.

I haven’t seen a study directly linking this North-South linguistic difference with the genetic difference between ANI and ASI, but commonsense suggests that a link must exist. What sort of commonsense? Just this: that the ancestors of people who speak unrelated languages today must not have intermingled – at least not significantly. No such commonsense is visible in Tripathi’s article. In fact, linguistics, where differences are crystal clear, is very bad nation-building fuel for BJP/RSS types in general. It fuels a completely different kind of nation – one which they hate to imagine. So let’s ensure that objective guides research and findings.

Even if, for argument’s sake, one could successfully trace every Indian to some sort of Rashtriya Adam and Eve – one just needs sufficient pride – it doesn’t follow that we must consider everything the couple did with pride. Some of the greatest sons of India have rebelled against the Vedas. The Buddha in the North and Basavanna in the South are but two examples. No number of opinion pieces convinced them to take pride in the Vedas, let alone those that could have stemmed from political agendas. In fact, this whole idea that we ought to respect that which has been handed down to us from history is irrational and an affront to India’s overall spiritual heritage, though certainly part of Vedic heritage. There, you begin and end with pride – at least of late.

All said and done, there is no doubt in my mind that the Upanishads – which are considered part of the Vedas – are the greatest treasure trove of spiritual wisdom in the world, surpassing that of all other religions. Those who wish to sell them need only to place them before the reader in his or her own language; they cannot but attract the spiritually inclined. One doesn’t need to prove, hopelessly, that the Jilebi was a delicacy eaten by ancient Indians everywhere eons ago in order to attract people who might eat it today. Bring a hot, fresh and tasty one if you have what it takes to prepare it, and mouths will water. What a hopeless exercise it is to bring one’s political biases to the argument that we should study the Vedas! The more the Vedas and Upanishads are considered nation-building fuel, the more shall they become the objects of hate, for the very nature of nation-building is to impose one worldview and cut off other shades of opinion.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 23-09-2014

Hindi as Putonghua

It is often difficult to separate out jealousy and enmity. While Narendra Modi‘s attack on China for its ‘expansionism’ is widely understood not to increase friendship between India and China, that’s not the full story. There is jealousy in it, too.

The Government of India has always secretly craved for Chinese-style control on the diverse peoples of India – and that’s internal ‘expansionism’. Not surprisingly, it forms the foundation of the Indian elite’s Idea of India. How nice it would have been if, for the outer world, the Government of India could openly claim complete racial, linguistic, and ethnic homogeneity within India! How nice it would have been if the Many voices of the Many Indias could be made to disappear and instead, the One voice of One India could assert itself on the global stage! Wouldn’t that be the roar of the Indian Lion no force on earth can stand up to? Narendra Modi is a puppet trying its best to turn this necrophilic dream into reality.

Of course, there is no democracy in China; India scores a big positive on that front. But there is no dearth of Indians who think democracy is India’s bane. And there is no dearth of people who think of democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Why, even the founding fathers of independent India considered democracy as the best means to achieve, among other things, the homogeneity that China has achieved – but nonviolently. Why raise an arm where words suffice? Why use sticks when strategically placed carrots suffice? It is in the means that China differs most from India. The end is the same: homogeneity.

The Chinese have been getting rid of diversity, which always opposes the State’s supreme wisdom, from as early as 221 BC when the Qin dynasty came to power. But India hasn’t done anything comparable before 1947 AD – or, I must say, before the freedom struggle came of age. While the Chinese have effectively destroyed the various languages of China using violent means – books have been burnt, scholars buried alive, a single script imposed on one and all at gunpoint – India hasn’t tried anything of the sort. Instead, we are all set to destroy all Indian languages but Hindi nonviolently. No books will be burnt, no scholars will be buried alive, but they will all voluntarily submit their souls to the Centre, propelled simply by monetary, career, and sexual incentives (the last is the territory of Bollywood). That’s the belief, at least.

Take, for example, the upcoming State-sponsored celebration of Hindi beginning next week. That’s like a festival to celebrate the imposition of Beijunghua (the language of Beijing) on the diverse Chinese and calling it Putonghua (common language). Only, the Chinese never had to resort to such cheap tricks: they caught hold of all other languages and sent them to the guillotine after turning the lights off centuries ago, and nobody came to know.

Chinese writers who are allowed pen and paper by the Party, such as Zhang Weiwei, now claim that China is a ‘civilizational state’ – implying an organic homogeneity in one sixth of the world’s population. But in reality, China is a ‘state civilization’ – a whole mass of humanity forcefully subjected to an arbitrary state’s mindless craving for uniformity. The Indian elite working in tandem with the Government of India, jealous that our kings didn’t achieve this in the quietude of history, are now trying their best to achieve it today. Needless to say, they will fail, and the failure will be demonstrated, to an extent, in the next couple of weeks.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 12-09-2014