History And Literature

ONLY A moron would question his greatness. V.S. Naipaul is, of course, one of the greatest and arguably the best English writers of his era.

Generations have grown up admiring his voluminous works of literature, including some that are set in India. No Indian student of English literature, at least, can consider his education complete unless having pored through in detail the various nuances of the myriad of his characters and by corollary his characterization of the Indian history and polity.

Quite naturally, therefore, what happened in Mumbai last week at the Tata Literature Live! Festival— has kicked up a dust that is fast enveloping the conscience collective of a very large number of people: literati, literature aficionados, and even hard-core politicos.

The elaborate, and, as what is being iterated on the various news channels, “the rather unexpected and uncalled for” criticism of Sir Vidia by playwright-actor Girish Karnad has already been touted as a controversy of Himalayan heights. Only, thus far, we haven’t heard from Sir Vidia himself. We know not if he too feels offended the same way as the countless others who have already jumped to the chorus even before he may say a thing or two about the episode.

One doubts if the main contention of Karnad’s arguments (I shall definitely not term it as ‘vitriolic’) against Sir Vidia — his worldview of Indian Muslims, as indicated by his widely quoted remarks — would now, or ever, be disputed by the author himself.

Those who have read him, especially his early work A Wounded Civilization, would discern fully well Sir Vidia’s views about the Medieval India. Now, herein lies the bigger issue. One stream of thought considers this period as the ‘Dark Phase’ of Indian history; they will go to any length to meticulously explain how this phase indeed ushered in bad tidings and how it “wounded” the civilization, a view, many believe not much different with Sir Vidia’s.

Now, coming back to Karnad’s arguments on Sir Vidia (or vitriol, whichever way you look at it!), it becomes increasingly difficult for one to stand on the fence, to be objective. Nay! One has to take a stand this way or the other way. And that precisely is the tragedy of the subject that goes by the name of ‘history’, which is de facto not about some enlightened or bigoted individual’s opinion. On the contrary, history is about empirical evidence, it’s about collection and collating of verifiable facts and sources, it’s about using the best possible methodologies that curtail subjectivity and bring it to the minimum possible of course 100 % objectivity in social sciences is considered unattainable— and coming out with a narrative that is substantially verifiable through the maze of materials available to the historian.

One can say with reasonable assurance that any attempt at arriving at sweeping generalizations about a community through the prism of history must be backed with arguments or logic that can stand the scrutiny of the methods of science —it has to be valid for the realm of social sciences. Otherwise, what one is theorizing or ‘sociolizing’ is all about one’s own worldview, albeit it’s perfectly legitimate for one and all to have one’s own worldview. Why not? Sir Vidia is fully entitled to his own views about Indian Muslims (or others) and their place in history or their ‘rightful’ or ‘wrongful’ place in the modern context. To that end, none can strike a discordant note. After all, we all are entitled to our views. Aren’t we?

But there is one facet to it that needs to be discussed threadbare. The subjective views of an eminent personality, especially a great like Sir Vidia, are likely to be misconstrued and suitably embellished by ‘interested parties’ to suit their own political or other agendas.

And it is on this count that one is tempted to rather agree with at least some of the flak (again, one is not calling it a ‘vitriol’ because one can always present one’s viewpoint in a democracy and criticize the one with the other worldview, just as Sir Vidia does) that Girish Karnad had so specifically reserved for one of the greatest writer of our times.

For example, in the times of what one believes growing intolerance of various hues and shades (and not just along the communal lines), does an eminent writer’s (not necessarily Sir Vidia) unapologetic branding of an entire community as belonging to the ‘invader’s race’ serve to further the cause of integration and coexistence? Does such a view inspire more and more people to be proud of their holistic traditions? And, does it not negate the basic ethos of ‘unity in diversity’ in a multicultural and plural society?

And now the bigger question: If Sir Vidia makes himself available to be “politically appropriated” by adherents of one particular ideology that is not fully backed by all sections of the society, and is seen as ‘divisive’ by many (one of the points raised by Karnad), where does such a worldview stand? And, more importantly, will others (one is talking about those who don’t adhere to this ideology) not be tempted to see such a stand as equally, and perhaps needlessly, divisive?

The reason one is asking these questions is that the personal views of an eminent person like Sir Vidia matter a lot to all of us, as we all are equally proud of his accomplishments and his unique place in the history of English literature as a writer of Indian origin.

It was not without reason why Karnad quoted Sir Vidia’s views on Taj Mahal, a monument that the countrymen look at with great pride and consider as a symbol of the syncretic Indian culture: “The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people.”
Again, Karnad, one would argue, is not off the mark in quoting Sir Vidia on ‘Ayodhya’, which he said, “is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity.”

One can agree or disagree with Karnad and it’s not the objective here to argue in favour of his remarks on Sir Vidia. It’s also not the case to question Sir Vidia’s views about Indian Muslims. The contention of this article is this: History will judge Sir Vidia’s views on Indian Muslims —after he’s gone— as either having contributed positively to, or having negatively influenced, the great Indian tradition of unity in diversity. And therein the crux lies.

(This article first appeared on the Edit page in the Times of Oman newspaper on November 7, 2012. Below please find the page)

Edit Page- History and Literature

Democracy And ‘Mobocracy’

FIRST THINGS first. Nobody in his right senses would deny that a stronger Lokpal would go a long way in fighting the deep-rooted and well entrenched malaise of corruption in India.

For far too long the political class has been playing Footsie with the Lokpal Bill, shamelessly hiding under the garb of procedural nuances.

It has been more or less a similar story with the Women’s Reservation Bill as well, and the nation has watched with utter horror how some politicians have stooped to abysmal levels of parliamentary decorum, with the sole objective of deferring the legislation to some other time and session, which they know pretty well, would never fructify if they continued having their way.

The other plain truth about Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement is the brutal way the establishment tried to first muzzle it, and the way it packed him off to Tihar jail, where, ironically, he was made to share the same premises where Common- wealth Games scam accused Suresh Kalmadi has been put up India has earned its democracy the hard way and there is no way the police or some other state apparatus should be allowed to take the final call as to whether a peaceful dharna, or fast, by a satyagrahi were to be given the nod or not; and if allowed, at which venue; or for how long; and with how many conditions attached?

How can one be denied the basic right to fast or protest in a democracy? But all that is passé now and Anna is firmly in control of what he says, an “unprecedented revolution” unfolding. Emboldened by the huge nationwide support to his cause, the Gandhian activist is reported to have asserted that if his version of the Lokpal Bill is not passed by August 30, then the government should (read would have to) quit. “Either get the Bill passed or go,” he has thundered clear.

The problem, however, is that while Anna’s objective is altruistic, his means towards achieving this objective have increasingly veered away from the essence of democratic mores.

The civil society, much like pressure groups, is sup- posed to act as conscience-keeper. But dictating terms? Surely not! Giving ultimatum to an elected legislature that it better give in to its demands, however genuine, has never comprised the norms of democracy.

Whether one likes it or not, what one is witnessing right now is more of ‘mobocracy’, than democracy! For, hidden is a fundamental assumption that the dispensation would have to give in, in the face such a big churning of the masses.

What about Anna’s version of the bill being debated threadbare by all political parties? And, what about the need for a broad national consensus?

Okay, the mobs have lost patience with the political class. But this political class is not sui generis; it has not pitch-forked its identity on its own; it’s there because the same mobs have exercised their suffrage earlier and sent them to the legislature.

The real problem, however, is long-term impact to the type of democracy we practise in India. No one claims this is a perfect model. But this is a functioning democracy with all its plusses and minuses. Today, there is an Anna rooting to root out corruption. Absolutely fine. What, if tomorrow, the same mobs are steered by someone else with vested interests? Should the elected legislature still pave the way for them, just because they look formidable on the smaller screens, and are backed by an ever-more aggressive media?

As it is, there seems to be a fundamental flaw in the modalities. One only has to listen to the random sound bytes of some of those on the streets. They sound confident that once the Lokpal Bill is passed, all their woes would be a thing of the past. They believe corruption in India may be in last leg right now and it’s just a matter of a few days when Anna gets us all rid of this decades- old malaise. Too simplistic?

Well, this might be a typical middle class assumption. Ever since the process of liberalization started in the early 90’s, we have seen the gap between the rich and poor widening. Yes, the middle class has burgeoned too, but the poorest stratum has been hit the hardest.

The condition of the tribals and landless is more appalling than at any time in independent India and the urban poor have only had the hint of the ‘trickle down benefits’ that were supposed to accrue out of corporate profits, coming their way. That the benefits of development would continue to remain a pipe dream for them is a forgone conclusion.

So, in the midst of all this hullabaloo, is that little boy who calls the pavement his home, gaining? One would probably have to make use of loads and loads of candles to find out how many of these deprived souls are walking side by side with those churning out fluent and chaste English, saying ‘I am Anna’, or ‘India is Anna’!

(This article first appeared on the Edit page in the Times of Oman newspaper on August 23, 2011. Below please find the page)

Edit Page - Democracy and Mobocracy