A lot has been written about the BJP not being able to dismantle and prevent the Trinamool from romping home to victory in the recently conducted West Bengal assembly polls. First things first, going from 3 seats in 2016 to 77 seats in 2021 is a massive achievement, translating into an over 2400% rise in seat share. Don’t forget that the TMC was set up in 1998 and has no impact or presence outside Bengal whatsoever. Despite focussing only on Bengal, it took Mamata Banerjee 14 long years to dislodge an inept and corrupt CPI(M) from power in Bengal, before Trinamool struck gold in 2011. In the 2001 Bengal assembly elections, TMC won 60 seats. In 2006, that number halved to 30 seats. In 2011, the TMC won 184 seats, and in 2016, 211 seats. In 2021, the TMC’s tally was 213 seats. Jaded, hapless and largely irrelevant journalists like Pritish Nandy, for instance, who have been frothing in excitement at how Bengal managed to stave off the BJP juggernaut, fail to realise that what the BJP has achieved in just the last five years is incredible and exceptional. From a vote share of just 10.2% in 2016 to 38.1% in 2021 is not a mean achievement. The Lutyens’ cabal, driven by its visceral hatred for Narendra Modi, has always applauded Mamata Banerjee for managing to uproot Red terror from Bengal in a short span of 14 years, but is not willing to credit the Shah-Nadda duo for becoming the principal challengers to the TMC in a matter of just five years! Is that not rabid hypocrisy?
The BJP has made the Bengal electoral scenario from a four-party to a two-party affair. The BJP has also completely demolished the Congress and the Left to an embarrassing zero seats in the just concluded assembly polls. That most of the Congress-Left votes were transferred to the TMC this time is a different matter altogether that needs introspection. But to the BJP’s credit, it is the largest party in the world today, because it celebrates its victories but more importantly it learns from its defeats, dusts off the inadequacies, brainstorms, thinks hard, works harder and eventually wins the war! That Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda put in an incredible amount of effort, toiling day and night, is something that makes the BJP the disciplined, organisationally strong party that it has turned out to be, where not only is winning important, but playing by the rules is even more important.
The moot question then is: what about the “Modi factor”? The charisma, respect, ground-connect with the electorate, popularity and indomitable capacity for relentless hard work are all factors that make Prime Minister Narendra Modi a leader who is in a league of his own. PM Modi, the tallest leader in post-Independence India, has no competition. To even try and create a false equivalence between the indefatigable Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee, a fascist, rabble rouser, limited to Bengal, is doing a great disservice to even the basic understanding of Indian polity.
The Congress has ceased to matter after a string of debilitating defeats, with Rahul Gandhi turning into a vacuous paper tiger on Twitter whom no one takes seriously. The Left, barring in Kerala, has been wiped out. Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav never had any national stature to start with and both their parties were almost reduced to nothingness in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls in 2017, with SP winning only 47 seats, compared to the massive 312 that the BJP won. Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, while the BJP secured 62 seats in UP, Congress was reduced to 1 seat, Samajwadi Party merely 5 seats and Mayawati’s BSP to 10 seats. The “Khan Market Gang” has tried to resurrect the political fortunes of many failed regional satraps in a bid to checkmate the Modi aura, but these efforts repeatedly came to nought.
The recent efforts to portray West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as a challenger to PM Modi in 2024 is therefore both laughable and ridiculous. Outside Bengal, Mamata has no impact or credibility. At the Ramlila Ground in 2014, where Anna Hazare was supposed to speak but did not turn up, Mamata Banerjee had held the fort for Hazare by filling in for him, but no one turned up to hear her. She was greeted with an empty ground with rows and rows of empty chairs. Also, to be a national-level leader, a certain amount of empathy and compassion is a must and Mamata Banerjee, unfortunately, has neither. Mamata is the same lady who had mocked the rape of Suzette Jordan in Kolkata in 2012, saying that Jordan was a disco-going, alcohol-loving, club-hopping, partygoer, who probably deserved the ignominy of rape. Yes, womenfolk have been voting for Mamata in good numbers, despite her pathetic record in stalling crimes against women in Bengal. To that, let people be reminded that Rome was not built in a day. Womenfolk voted even this time for Mamata, more out of a fear of retribution, rather than any admiration for her brand of politics. The grim truth is that in the last ten years, the track record of Mamata’s governance has been shoddy: no new industries have come up in Bengal in the last decade, Central government schemes were stalled by Didi, driven by her hubris, and Hindus have been systematically marginalised at the expense of the Rohingyas and illegal migrants who have wreaked havoc in the state in terms of festering rampant lawlessness.
There are those who ask, if lawlessness prevailed in Bengal, why did womenfolk vote for her in 2021? To that, the simple answer is, “voter inertia”. The Sainbari massacre happened in 1970, followed by the ghastly Marichjhapi massacre in 1979. The brutal murder of Ananda Margi monks at Bijon Setu near Ballygunge in 1982 was followed by the heinous Nandigram massacre in 2007. Yet, CPI(M) ruled Bengal with an iron fist for 34 long years. From being invincible in 2001 to being reduced to zero seats in 2021, the Left has been completely routed. Hence, those who use Mamata’s 2021 victory to sideline her gross incompetence as a failed leader would do well to know that the TMC’s decline has started, and rather rapidly. It will take the BJP far less time to dislodge the TMC than it took the TMC to dislodge the Left.
The Left parties and the Congress have failed to win a single seat in the 2021 Bengal polls. This will be the first time since 1962 that the Left parties will have no representation in the legislative assembly. The CPI(M) registered an all-time low vote share of 4.73%. The other major partners of the Left alliance like the All India Forward Bloc registered 0.53 % votes and the CPI 0.20% votes. The Congress registered an all-time voting percentage of 2.93% in Bengal and lost its political clout over Malda and Murshidabad districts. In effect, the Congress is not a national party of any standing anymore.
The fact that the BJP in 2021 has made huge in-roads into a non-Hindi-speaking, non-Western, non-Central Indian state like West Bengal speaks volumes about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invincibility and credibility. Don’t forget, the BJP won Tripura in 2018 after 25 years of inept, Leftist misrule. The BJP increased its vote share in Assam in the 2021 polls from 29.5% to 31.5% with a thumping majority, for the second time in a row. The BJP raised its tally from zero to four in Tamil Nadu and from zero to six in Puducherry. In Puducherry, the BJP’s vote share went up from 2.4% to 11% while the Congress saw a decline in its vote share from 50% to a measly 6.7%. While the local leadership in Assam played a pivotal role, the fact remains that it is the overarching and indefatigable “Modi factor” that should be given credit for the spate of electoral successes that the BJP/NDA has witnessed in the last seven years, over and over again.
Bengal has, over the decades, always held on to the status quo before a complete electoral shift. The CPI(M) was in power for 34 long years before Trinamool took over and the first time Trinamool tasted the scent of an impending victory, it managed only 60 seats. In sharp contrast, this time around, the BJP looking to displace the TMC did far better, with 77 seats. True, the BJP had set a target of 200 seats. But does that give out-of-work political pundits the right to mock the BJP? In the Bihar elections in 2020, the BJP upped its tally from 53 to 73 seats and got just two seats lower than the RJD. Tejashwi Yadav was stonewalled and despite a 15-year-old anti incumbency, the NDA, led by the “Modi factor”, won! Even in the DDC polls held last year in Kashmir, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 75 seats, checkmating the combined bunch of six parties aka the “Gupkar Alliance”. In the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections, the BJP raised its tally by 1100% from 4 to 48 seats, while the TRS came hurtling down from 99 to 55 seats. In the Gujarat local body polls a few months back, after winning 483 of the 576 seats, the BJP, boasting of a success rate of 84%, trounced the Congress, which had a measly strike rate of just 9.5%. The very media which fails to give credit to the solid 77 seats won by the BJP in Bengal was pontificating at the 27 seats won by the AAP in the Surat local body polls, despite the fact that the AAP lost deposits in Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar and Ahmedabad. The BJP-led NDA, under the fantastic leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has had a string of noteworthy successes, despite a highly critical media that has exacting standards for the BJP, but handles the Opposition with kid gloves. The talk of “Godi Media” is plain hogwash.
While the media has been writing reams and reams about the BJP’s performance in the Ayodhya and Varanasi panchayat polls, there has been stoic silence about the fact that the BJP won the hitherto impregnable Pandharpur seat, Rajsamand in Rajasthan and Belagavi in Karnataka in the recent bypolls. Last year, the BJP audaciously snatched away the Dubbaka seat in Telangana, an erstwhile TRS bastion. And it is precisely this audacity of ambition that pushes the BJP to do the unthinkable and achieve the unimaginable. As they say, if you aim for the summit, you get halfway there. Next time, the BJP would be well on its way to scaling the summit and winning Bengal, with no ifs and buts whatsoever.
Some allege that Mamata’s vast and regular cash transfers to the Dalits and OBCs swung the votes in her favour, while others say that the turncoats who entered the BJP from the TMC played spoilsport for the BJP. Yet there are others who believe that the insider versus outsider narrative propped up by Mamata worked to her advantage. With the Muslim percentage in West Bengal more than double the national average, the Muslim vote was always going to be a huge advantage for the Trinamool if the community consolidated behind it. And by corollary, this would be a huge disadvantage for the BJP.
In 2021, the Trinamool painted itself as a nativist force,saying the BJP was a party of bohiragotos (outsiders). “Joy Bangla” overtaking “Jai Shri Ram”, “Bengali Nationalism” superseding “Hindu Nationalism” and Hindu votes getting splintered were the other reasons advanced by political pundits for Mamata’s victory. The elections are done and dusted. The key question now that begs a response is, is Mamata Banerjee worthy of taking on a larger national role? Is Didi capable of becoming a fulcrum around which the disparate Opposition unites for 2024? The answer to both these questions is a vehement “No”!
Mamata Banerjee is absolutely unfit and unworthy of a larger national-level role. She has peaked out. 2021 was her best performance ever, which she will not be able to repeat. Her loss in Nandigram to BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari signifies the many chinks in her armour. Even in 2016, Mamata’s victory margin in Bhawanipore had come down from over 60,000 votes to barely 25,000 votes. Mamata’s personal credibility amidst charges of massive corruption against her nephew have dented her immeasurably and going forward, the TMC could even split into two. While turncoats who came into the BJP may not have won this time, the exodus from the TMC shows that all is not well within the party and, for all her false bravado, Mamata has been unable to contain internal fissures.
Also, Mamata has a wildly maverick, fascist side to her. Rather than accepting her Nandigram defeat gracefully, she trained her guns on the Election Commission (EC), blaming it for the debacle. How can a leader who has scant regard for the EC, the apex court, the judiciary and the armed forces, be entrusted with a responsible role beyond Bengal? So consumed was Didi by her desire to win that she did not even spare the CRPF and CISF, who were repeatedly targeted by TMC goons. What a pity that those who talk about FoE and lecture Prime Minister Modi on the sanctity of democratic institutions have not once blamed Mamata Banerjee for the untold misery and mayhem that she has been a mute spectator to, even as TMC vandals unleashed a macabre chain of arson, loot, gangrapes, political killings and brutalisation of BJP karyakartas and supporters, largely Hindus, post the TMC victory. A large-scale exodus of Hindus (over 80,000) from Arambagh, Durgapur, Sitalkuchi, Karimpur, Bishnupur, Bolpur, Hooghly and Midnapore to Assam is a deliberate and mala fide attempt by Mamata and her goons to delegitimise the 2.28 crore voters, also largely Hindus, who voted for the BJP.
The national media which raised a stink over Hathras has completely avoided coverage of the horrific Hindu exodus from Bengal, which started with the exodus of Hindus from Raniganj in 2018 during the Asansol riots. How can Mamata Banerjee, who refuses to take action against large-scale communal violence, be even considered by the so-called secularati for a serious national role? Mamata Banerjee is a puny leader and her barbaric justification of political killings of those from the right wing ideology do her no good. Even as Bengal burnt, Mamata and her party, the TMC, rather than assuaging the victims of the Bengal violence, kept suggesting that the gruesome mayhem was a figment of the BJP’s imagination. The likes of a forgotten for good and irrelevant Yashwant Sinha and the out-of-work clubhouse chatterati played along with Didi. Yes, Mamata won the Bengal elections, but she lost her credibility, just as she lost that wheelchair magically the moment election results were announced!
She launched a personal attack at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah after a CBI team questioned her nephew’s wife in connection with a coal pilferage case. At a rally at Hooghly’s Dunlop Ground, Mamata took potshots at the duo without naming them.
“I don’t want to malign the post of the Prime Minister. But two men from Delhi are visiting Bengal and spreading misleading words. One is hodol-kutkut and the other is kimbhut-kimakar,” said Didi. “Two persons are running the country. One is Ravan and another is a danav (monster),” she added. Those who accuse Prime Minister Modi of leading a misogynist campaign against Mamata have completely missed the point. “Didi o Didi” is neither an abuse nor a catcall. ‘Didi’ is merely a colloquial term for fondly and respectfully addressing someone as “sister”.
I am a woman myself and I say this with complete responsibility that, if anything, it is Mamata Banerjee who needs to be castigated for repeatedly abusing the office of the Prime Minister in the most unworthy language and then having the nerve to play the victim. Modi has been viciously abused by Mamata and her goons but national and international media has conveniently chosen to be quiet. Why? Does being a woman give Mamata Banerjee the carte blanche to abuse the Prime Minister and the Home Minister of the largest democracy in the world repeatedly and then pretend to be sanctimonious under the garb of gender neutrality?
Last but not the least, the BJP has 77 MLAs and 18 MPs in West Bengal today, from virtually nothing a few years back. The growth trajectory of the BJP, thanks to the “Modi factor”, has been phenomenal and will only get better going forward. For Mamata Banerjee, the writing on the wall is clear. It is time for her to get her act together and behave like a Chief Minister and not a rabble rouser who gives in to bouts of bogey victimhood and criminal lethargy when dealing with lawlessness. And for all those who say that Mamata did not act against arsonists and marauders during the Bengal exodus due to the prevalence of the Model Code of Conduct need to know that the EC only oversees conduct of free and fair elections. The law and order and administrative machinery continue to be with the incumbent/outgoing CM till the new CM takes over. Since both the outgoing and incoming CM was Mamata in this case, she needs to take complete ownership of over 80,000 Hindus who were forced to flee Bengal in a gruesome reminder of why she can never aspire for a significant national role. The Bengal exodus will prove to be Mamata’s final nemesis politically, and rightfully so.
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DELHI UNIVERSITY UNDER A CLOUD IN ITS CENTENARY YEAR
The country’s premier university, Delhi University, in its centenary year, is in the grip of a major crisis resulting from apparently “illegal and questionable actions” of the ministry for Human Resources Development. The major contentious issue is that the university has a person functioning as the acting Vice Chancellor without the requisite approval of the Visitor, in this case the President of India. Prof P.C. Joshi was appointed as the VC by the ministry following the superannuation of Prof Yogesh Tyagi, who spent the last few months of his tenure under suspension. The objection of those well conversant with the Delhi University Act, its Statutes and Ordinances is that the ministry could not have unilaterally appointed Prof Joshi to serve, even in an acting capacity, without the matter getting the Visitor’s nod.
Here too, there are some alarming serious views that emerge. The Vice Chancellor usually appoints his team of the PVC, the Dean of colleges and the Director, South Campus, soon after assuming office. Prof Tyagi had himself not followed many conventions and established practices in the university and when during the last year of his tenure appointed Prof Joshi as his PVC, he did not obtain the approval of even the Executive Council, which was merely informed, and also the appointment was done without the consent of the Visitor. In Delhi University, the practice has been that once the tenure of the VC ends, those appointed by him to assist him also have to go. In other words, their tenure is co-terminus with the office of the VC. Prof Tyagi retired on 9 March without being reinstated which itself raises many questions, and Prof Joshi was asked by the ministry to continue till such period, a new VC was appointed. In fact, his tenure would have automatically ended with that of Prof Tyagi and in that case, the Registrar should have convened a meeting of the EC to take stock of the situation and to seek the final advice from the Visitor in this regard.
As per knowledgable sources, the Registrar or the senior-most Professor of the university should have been asked to take over for the interim period or whoever the Visitor deemed fit to discharge the functions. Instead, Prof Joshi continued to perform the functions of the VC. The second problem that has arisen is that Prof Joshi also superannuated as professor in the university on 31 May, thus his continuation becomes questionable even on the above grounds. A PVC is appointed from among the professors in the university and if the person ceases to be a professor, how can he be the PVC or the acting VC. To make matters worse, the HRD ministry has not sent any file regarding the DU VC’s position and even the Search Committee has yet to be fully constituted for the appointment of a regular Vice Chancellor.
The DU Executive Council in its meeting had suggested a panel of seven names from which two were picked up by the Dean of Colleges; P.C. Joshi declared that he would not preside over the meeting since he was himself a candidate. The two names—Yogendra Narayan, former Defence Secretary and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha, and Prof Raj Kumar, Vice Chancellor of the Punjab University—exist only in a file that has not been sent to the Visitor to enable him to nominate his own nominee to make the search committee complete. This inordinate delay is on account of the ministry sitting over the DU issue deliberately or inadvertently.
Delhi University certainly does not need to be treated in such a shabby manner in its centenary year where the actions of the acting Vice Chancellor could be legally challenged. There are nearly 20 odd universities which do not have regular VCs and it is high time that the Prime Minister’s Office should intervene and get the matters sorted out. There are more than half-a-dozen ministers in the present government who are the alumnus of this prestigious institution which is crying for help.
LINKING SCHOOLS WITH HIGHER EDUCATION
Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular.
The growth of higher education has to be synchronous with the school education in the long run. Although well recognised, it needs to be reiterated that the growth of education in most of the developing societies shows commensurate progress across elementary, secondary and post-secondary sectors of education. It has been substantiated through a number of longitudinal studies conducted across the globe. However, there seems to be some incongruity insofar as transition rates in Indian school system are concerned. It requires a whole series of corrective measures as it has serious policy implications for higher education in the country. One of the serious shortcomings of the Indian education system is the lack of linkage across different sectors of education. They have been working in isolation for long as if they have nothing to do with each other. Of them, the higher education sector is primarily responsible for this malaise as it has failed in providing desired level of academic support to its feeder sectors.
It is quite perplexing to find declining trends in transition rates across different sectors, while there is an upward trend in enrolment. Transition rates seem to be moving on a sliding scale as is evident from 2018-19 data. While the transition rates from primary to upper primary and from elementary to secondary are found to be 91 and 90 respectively, it is as low as 69 from secondary to higher secondary. An analysis of the District Information System for Education (DISE) data over a period of five years from 2014-19, reveals another kind of incongruity in transition rates across different sectors of school education. While it shows declining trends from primary to upper primary and elementary to secondary for three consecutive years in a row from 2015-18, a similar trend is seen only for a year (2016-17) in the case of secondary to higher secondary. If we are to attain 50% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education within 2030, as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, then it is necessary to ensure commensurate upturn in transition rates across all sectors of school education.
The declining trends of transition rates at school stage would continue to be the main impediments, if not addressed through academic interventions at school stage, to the overall growth of higher education. There are multiple reasons for these declining trends which need to be appreciated and appropriately addressed by the university system in a time bound manner. It is vital to understand that when students transit from one stage to another stage or change classes within or between schools, their teaching and learning are invariably calibrated in accordance with the intended learning outcomes. Some of the critical factors like acclimatisation of students with unacquainted ambience, their social and emotional adjustments are not given as much attention as they deserve. It is primarily because these aspects are not adequately addressed in our teacher training programs.
These problems get accentuated as students move upward because of the load of curriculum and lack of individualised instructions. It not only makes a negative impact on their learning but also affects their ability to withstand the academic pressure and the test of time leading to continuous decline in transition rates in all subsequent stages of education. There are also other factors like socio-personal, academic attainments, average annual dropout rates that contribute to declining trends. With an average annual dropout rate of about 17%, at secondary stage, the transition rate from secondary to post-secondary is going to be much less than the number of places available at that stage. Furthermore, all those who would graduate might not make the cut to higher education due to a variety of reasons like poor marks, fierce competitions, limited seats, financial constraints and several other family obligations.
It is evident that we are losing out a large number of learners at every stage of education and which is why we have been still struggling with the universalisation of elementary education, let alone universalisation of twelve years of schooling. Global experience shows that transitions are more successful in those schools where teachers ensure seamless learning by way of preventing vulnerable students from their disengagement with learning. Since there is an acute shortage of such schools in the entire country, urgent measures need to be taken to ensure seamless learning right from lower primary to senior secondary, without which it would not be possible to realise the goals that have been set in the NEP, 2020. This obviously requires, among others, policy interventions at the level of teacher preparation.
Transition rates across different stages of education can be improved substantially if institutions persistently focus as much on students’ adjustments and acclimatisation as on academic attainments. They need to proactively address curricular as well as social and personal issues of vulnerable students who would predominantly be from marginalised groups of the society. The curricular areas at school stage provide a feeder to the knowledge domains in higher education. Such disciplines, having poor enrolments at the school stage, need to be strengthened to improve the quality and intake in such disciplines so that the higher education system does not remain starved for want of appropriate intakes in those subjects of study. This would of course require proper attention and linkage between school education and higher education which is presently not as appreciable as it ought to be.
Interdisciplinary approach to education is a catchword expressing the reality of higher education in the current context. This orientation to education needs to be attempted through curriculum reforms at secondary education by avoiding insularity of subject disciplines. The current tendency of independent streams like science, commerce, humanities, medical and non-medical need to be merged in such a way that the students can choose from amongst various subjects which cut across physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences and mathematics. This would require a revisit to curriculum practices at the secondary stage which is generic to orientation to higher education. This is going to help improve the transition rates across different stages of school education. But these curricular changes cannot be accomplished without the active participation of eminent experts from higher education.
Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular. This can be done, among others, by organising continuous professional development programmes for school teachers in different subjects by the higher education system. School teachers need to be familiarised with the developments in curricular areas so that their focus remains on ensuring that nothing is taught which has to be unlearned at the higher education stage. It needs to be noted that major curriculum development projects which have influenced school education all over the world have emanated from the campuses of higher education institutions. This approach has also been instrumental in improving the quality of school education and that in-turn has provided a much better foundational edifice for curriculum reforms even at the higher education level. The higher education system in India is presently insulated from the school education sector in this regard and the gap that exists needs to be bridged through this strategy.
University departments in education, sciences, and social sciences need to generate innovations in pedagogy in the curricular areas of school education so that such an output provides a face-lift to teacher education which is so very vital for the overall qualitative improvement of both school and higher education. Another priority concern in education in the current context is Vocational Education and Training (VET) leading to skills development. Secondary education pass-outs should be one of the feeder streams to the vocational courses at the higher education level, at least in some areas, and it should also provide vertical mobility. Therefore, vocational education at the school stage needs to be strengthened. The present picture is not very encouraging and in its present form it is not going to provide vocational orientation to higher education which is the need of the hour.
There is a need for strengthening certain academic reforms such as semesterisation, choice-based credit system, comprehensive internal evaluation at school stage for the purpose of improving transition rates from school education to higher education. The present position indicates a lot of confusion and lack of will to implement such reforms even at the higher education stage in several universities. Another significant aspect that requires urgent attention is the reform at the level of teacher education. The Education Commission (1964-66) had made a significant recommendation of bringing teacher education for all stages of school education under the umbrella of the university system. This was done to provide a very vital interface between school education and higher education for a holistic and qualitative development of school education. This recommendation has not been implemented thus far. Perhaps the idea can be put to some scholarly discourse now to analyse the implications and possible strategies for realising the objectives in the larger interest of both the school and higher education.
India has the largest system of higher education in terms of number of institutions. But there is hardly any institution of higher learning, except the NCERT, which institutionalised the culture of active engagement with schools. The time has come when higher education institutions across the country should take proactive steps to improve the quality of school curriculum, pedagogical processes, assessment techniques and continuous professional development programmes. They should also undertake action research to improve academic attainments, organise motivational lectures, science exhibitions, summer schools and summer camps to improve the overall quality of school education without which Indian higher education will continue to remain woefully deficient both in quantity and quality.
The writer is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.
AGRA HOSPITAL WHERE 22 PATIENTS DIED SHOULD BE CHARGED WITH MASS MURDER
In a shocking revelation, the owner of a hospital in Agra has claimed on a video that went viral, that he had directed the oxygen supply to some patients to be discontinued for some time to determine, who all could survive without it. As a consequence of this ‘mock drill’ 22 patients died both in the Covid and non-Covid areas of the medical institution. Although the Uttar Pradesh authorities have ordered an inquiry to go into the claim and have suspended the licence of the hospital, yet a strong case is made against those responsible for this gross callous behaviour. If the inquiry establishes any kind of wrongdoing, the owner and all those involved in this brainless exercise should be charged with mass murder, and their case should be put before fast-track court to dispense justice.
These kinds of drills should only be carried under normal circumstances and with adequate precautions and close monitoring by the authorities. In any case, before embarking on this misadventure, the owner and others should have at least kept the district administration posted so they could have also deployed a backup plan.
The entire episode is bizarre and insane and if it had happened in a developed country, lawsuits would have ensured that the hospital authorities would have gone out of business for a long time. In any case, mock drills or real-time things do not mostly work when the actual situations occur. In the early 1980s, the Delhi Fire department learned for the first time that its equipment was inadequate to handle multi-storey fires after a huge blaze at the Gopala Towers at Rajendra Place broke out.
Helicopters that were deployed to pour water from above made things worse since the rotors fanned the fire further. It was in June and the Fire hoses could only go up to a particular height which was not sufficient to bring things under control. The Fire department did not have the requisite equipment to deal with the situation. It was only later that Snorkels and Turn Table ladders were acquired.
Even now, the Fire services in the NCR, particularly in Gurgaon need to be strengthened. With so many multi-storied structures, one shudders to think what would happen if some major untoward incident was to take place. The Disaster Management Committee and the Crisis Management Group, have meetings and plans which need to work when something actually happens.
One can recall that when the Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked to Kandahar, the telephone numbers at the crisis management office were all found to be outdated. The preparations should factor in various aspects including the presence of multiple authorities that call the shots in the country. Delhi appears to be better prepared than most cities but its contradictions do not seem to be evident to the authorities.
There is an urgent need to review all the plans that have been put in place for any kind of emergency so that things don’t backfire at the apt time. Prevention is the best cure for most situations.
HOW MODI GOVERNMENT IS EMPOWERING FARM ECONOMY
It is time for India’s Opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset because the agriculture reforms by the Narendra Modi government are pro-farmers and the new farm laws are indeed India’s ‘Glasnost’ moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency in the country’s farm sector. For this government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not just a slogan.
What has the Modi government done for the well-being of India’s farm community? This is a question that is often asked. Well, for starters, the government has been transferring cash directly to farmers. Over Rs 1.35 lakh crore has been paid (via PM-KISAN, since its inception, in December 2018) to over 12 crore farmers. From just 255 million tonnes in 2012-13, under an inept Congress regime, to 297.5 million tonnes in 2019-20 and 303.34 million tonnes of foodgrain production in 2020-21, is a vindication of how India’s self-sufficiency, with an exportable surplus in the foodgrain space, has added to India’s economic heft. The latest data available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) shows wheat procurement crossed 418 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) till May 29, 2021, in the ongoing rabi marketing season (RMS), higher than 390 LMT in RMS 2019-20. The current year’s wheat procurement figure is the highest ever in post-independent India. This is also the first time that wheat procurement has crossed the 400 LMT mark. The record wheat procurement comes just after the all-time high procurement of paddy. In the 2020-21 Kharif marketing season (KMS), paddy procurement crossed 789 LMT, compared to 773 LMT in KMS 2019-20, according to FCI data.
Given the hue and cry over Minimum Support Price (MSP), it is only apt to ask, what has been the track record of the Modi government? Without an iota of doubt, the track record on MSP has been exemplary. Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a form of market intervention by the Central government, to insure agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices. For the 2021-22 crop year, the Modi government raised the MSP of paddy (common variety) by Rs. 72, to Rs 1940 per quintal from Rs 1868 per quintal in the year-ago period. The MSP of Grade A variety of paddy has also been increased by Rs. 72 to Rs. 1960 per quintal this year from Rs. 1888 per quintal last year. Among coarse cereals, the government increased the MSP of jowar (hybrid) by Rs 118 to Rs 2738 per quintal from Rs 2620 per quintal last year.
A similar increase has been made in support price of jowar (Maldani) to Rs 2,758 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. The government increased the support price of bajra by Rs 100 to Rs 2,250 per quintal from Rs 2,150 per quintal last year, while ragi support price has been increased by Rs 82 to Rs 3,377 per quintal from Rs 3,295 per quintal last year. The support price of maize has been increased marginally by Rs 20 to Rs 1,870 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year from Rs 1,850 per quintal last year. The government has made concerted efforts over the last few years to realign the MSPs in favour of oilseeds, pulses, and coarse cereals to encourage farmers to shift to the larger area under these crops and adopt the best technologies and farm practices, to correct the demand-supply imbalance. The added focus on Nutri-rich, Nutri-cereals is to incentivise their production in the areas, where rice-wheat cannot be grown without long-term adverse implications for groundwater table.
To boost pulses and oilseeds’ production and reduce the country’s dependence on imports, the government increased the support price of tur and urad dal by Rs 300 to Rs 6,300 per quintal each. Moong support price has been increased by Rs 79 to Rs 7,275 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year.
Among Kharif-grown oilseeds, the government increased the support price in the case of sesamum by Rs 452, to Rs 7,307 per quintal and that of groundnut by Rs 275 to Rs 5,550 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. Sunflower seed MSP has been increased by Rs 130 to Rs 6,015 per quintal from Rs 5,885 per quintal. For oilseeds, the government has approved an ambitious plan for the free distribution of high-yielding varieties of seeds to the farmers for the Kharif season 2021 in the form of mini-kits.
The special Kharif programme will bring an additional 6.37 lakh hectare area under oilseeds and is likely to produce 120.26 lakh quintals of oilseeds and edible oil amounting to 24.36 lakh quintals. On fertilisers, retail prices of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) recently rose in line with global markets, but the government increased the subsidy portion to ensure farmers continue to get the key soil nutrient at Rs 1,200 per bag. In effect, subsidy on DAP was raised by a massive 140% from Rs 500 to Rs 1,200 per bag.
Coming to the Modi government’s track record, the numbers speak for themselves. MSP payment to farmers for paddy rose by 2.4 times to Rs 4.95 lakh crore between 2014 and 2019 under the Modi government, as against only Rs 2.06 lakh crore, under the previous, Congress-led regime, between 2009 and 2014. MSP to farmers for wheat increased by 1.77 times during 2014-19, to Rs 2.97 lakh crore, compared to Rs 1.68 lakh crore in the 2009-14 period. MSP payment for pulses surged by a whopping 75 times under the Modi government to Rs 49,000 crore from 2014-19, compared to a measly Rs 645 crore, under the Congress-led UPA-2. Payment to farmers for Oilseeds and Copra also surged 10 times under the Modi government, to Rs 25,000 crore, during the last five years, in comparison to MSP payment of just Rs 2,460 crore, in the period from 2009 to 2014, under the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) establishment.
Has the Modi government been fair to farmers in Punjab? Well, the straight answer to that is a loud and clear, ‘yes’. In April and May 2021, a little over Rs 21,000 was paid to wheat-growing farmers as MSP, of which a solid Rs 8,200 crore was paid to farmers in Punjab alone. Do the farm bills dismantle the existing ‘APMC-Anaj Mandi’ structure? No, they do not. Going forward, farmers will have the choice and freedom to sell their produce either at APMC designated wholesale Mandis or in ‘Trade Areas’. There will be no taxes or levies of either State or Central government, on trade conducted in these ‘Trade Areas’, thereby reducing the cost of transaction in the entire food chain, from farm to fork. Hence, the whole narrative that ‘Trade Areas’ are anti-farmer is false.
Talking of farm infrastructure, the Modi government launched a new Agriculture Infrastructure Fund worth Rs/ 1 lakh crore, meant for setting up storage and processing facilities, which will help farmers get higher prices for their crops. The government launched the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana – a flagship scheme for focused development of the fisheries sector in the country, with an estimated investment of Rs. 20,050 crore during a period of the next five years. The Modi government also launched a Rs. 15,000 crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund with an interest subsidy scheme to promote investment by private players and MSMEs in dairy, meat processing, and animal feed plants, a move which is expected to create 35 lakh jobs. So the government has been working at strengthening farm infrastructure. This, along with the new Farm Laws (in abeyance temporarily), will boost the productivity of the agrarian sector to areas beyond just growing traditional crops like paddy or wheat.
The Farm Laws also allow for contract farming, whereby farmers can enter into contracts, at a predetermined price, even before the crop has been harvested, with private companies, aggregators, food processors, and exporters. This is an unprecedented reform, as it allows farmers to lock in a good price for their harvest and insulates them from any post-harvest, product-related, or price volatility. The formation of 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) is on track. These FPOs are largely clusters or groups of farmers who are brought together so that credit and other assistance can be extended to them. There are already about 5000 FPOs in India, of which only a handful are private. More than 3900 FPOs are affiliated to NABARD or small farmers’ agri-business consortium (SFAC). Hence allegations of corporatisation and blanket privatisation of Indian agriculture are baseless.
Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million, wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million, and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to $694.14 million in FY21. India’s agriculture exports (including marine and plantation products) have beaten the pandemic, registering a growth of 17.34% to $41.25 billion in 2020-21. In Rupee terms, the increase in agri exports is 22.62%, with exports during 2020-21 amounting to Rs 3.05 lakh crore as compared to Rs 2.49 lakh crore during 2019-20.
India’s agricultural and allied imports during 2019-20 were USD 20.64 billion and the corresponding figures for 2020-21 are $20.67 billion. Despite Covid, the balance of trade in agriculture has improved by 42.16% from $14.51 billion to $20.58 billion.
For agriculture products (excluding marine and plantation products), the growth is 28.36% with exports of $29.81 billion in 2020-21 as compared to $23.23 billion in 2019-20. India has been able to take advantage of the increased demand for staples during the Covid period. Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million; wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million; and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to usd 694.14 million.
The organic exports during 2020-21 were $1,040 million as against $689 million in 2019-20, registering a growth of 50.94%. Organic exports include oil cake/meals, oilseeds, cereals and millets, spices and condiments, tea, medicinal plant products, dry fruits, sugar, pulses, coffee, etc. Exports have also taken place from several clusters for the first time. For instance, the export of fresh vegetables and mangoes from Varanasi and black rice from Chandauli has taken place for the first time, directly benefiting farmers of the area. Exports have also taken place from other clusters viz. oranges from Nagpur, bananas from Theni and Ananthpur, mangoes from Lucknow, etc. Despite the pandemic, export of fresh horticulture produce took place by multimodal mode, and consignments were shipped by air and sea to Dubai, London, and other destinations from these areas. Hand holding by the Modi government, to build market linkages, post-harvest value chains, and an institutional structure such as FPOs, enabled North East farmers to send their value-added products beyond the Indian borders. Cereal exports have done well during 2020-21. The country has been able to export to several countries for the first time. For example, rice has been exported to countries like Timor-Leste, Puerto Rico, Brazil, for the first time. Similarly, wheat has been exported to countries like Yemen, Indonesia, Bhutan, and other cereals have been exported to Sudan, Poland, Bolivia.
Sugarcane-growing farmers too have benefitted in a big way, via an export subsidy of Rs. 3500 crore that was announced last year. The FRP of sugarcane at Rs 285 is 175% if the cost of production. The decision to increase ethanol blending to 20% by 2025 and increase procurement and capacity build-up of ethanol from 38 crore litres in 2014 to 195 crore litres, are big moves. In-principle approval was given last year to 185 sugar mills and standalone distilleries to avail Rs. 12,500 crore of loans for capacity addition of about 468 crore litres of ethanol per annum, as part of Modi government’s efforts to achieve 20% blending with petrol. In the last two years alone, 70 ethanol projects were sanctioned loans of Rs 3600 crore. Under the ethanol interest subvention scheme for molasses-based distilleries, the government in September 2020 also opened a window for 30 days to invite more applications from sugar mills and distilleries. In the normal sugar season, about 320 lakh tonnes of sugar is produced against domestic consumption of 260 lakh tonnes.
This 60 lakh tonnes of surplus sugar which remains unsold, blocks funds of sugar mills to the tune of about Rs 19,000 crore every year, thereby affecting liquidity positions of sugar mills resulting in accumulation of cane price arrears of farmers, the ministry said.
To deal with surplus sugar stocks, the government is providing financial assistance to mills for the export of sweeteners.
However, India being a developing country can export sugar by extending financial assistance for marketing and transport only up to 2023 as per WTO arrangements. For long-term solution to deal with surplus sugar, the government has therefore been encouraging diversion of excess sugarcane and sugar to ethanol for supplying to Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) for blending with petrol. The move would not only reduce import dependency on crude oil but will also enhance the income of sugarcane farmers.
Financial assistance is being extended by way of interest subvention for 5 years at a 6% rate of interest against the loans availed by sugar mills and distilleries from banks, for setting up their projects. The existing installed capacity of molasses-based distilleries has reached a massive, 426 crore litres. In 2020-21, the target has been to supply 325 crore litres of ethanol to OMCs for achieving 8.5% blending. In the next few years, with 20% ethanol blending with petrol, the Modi government will be able to reduce the import of crude oil, a step towards being Aatmanirbhar in the petroleum sector and this will also help in increasing the income of farmers and creating additional employment in distilleries.
To cut to the chase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, famously said, “Mind is never a problem; Mindset is”. Well, it is time for India’s hapless opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset, because the agri-reforms by the Modi government are pro farmers and the Farm Bills are indeed India’s “Glasnost” moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency, in India’s farm economy. For the Modi government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not a mere slogan. The journey of the “Bharatiya Kisan” from being the “Annadata”, to also becoming the ‘Urjaadata’, is at the core of Modinomics.
The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP, and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. Views expressed are her personal.
HAS SECOND COVID-19 WAVE OPENED THE DOORS FOR OPPOSITION?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expertise at using strategic electoral cards to win elections has received a setback in the recently-held West Bengal Assembly elections. Ironically, while the second wave of the pandemic may be held accountable for diminishing the appeal of what was once projected as a Modi-wave, the West Bengal results convey a different message.
PM Modi needs to be on guard against strong state leaders. Voters have conveyed this by choosing to support Mamata Banerjee’s party in these polls. Clearly, regional parties with a firm base in their respective states and headed by popular leaders cannot be easily defeated and cornered by however strong national parties and their respective leaders are.
Of course, the coming year—with seven states heading for Assembly elections—may spell a different political scenario. Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, and Gujarat are three of these states. While it is as yet too early to consider the prospects of BJP in UP and Gujarat, the return of Congress to power in Punjab cannot be ruled out.
In UP, a lot is dependent on how BJP’s rival parties play their cards. It may be recalled, during 2017 Assembly polls in UP, in a notable number of seats, total votes won by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) exceeded those secured by BJP by more than 20,000 votes. While BJP won 312 seats, BSP and SP managed to get only 19 and 47 respectively. Yet, it cannot be missed, BSP won around 22% votes, SP- 21%, while BJP secured 39% votes. This hard reality apparently prompted SP and BSP to align during the 2019 parliamentary elections. While BJP retained its lead in 2019, it won 62 seats, nine lesser than it had secured in 2014; BSP won 10, SP five, and the Congress only one seat. Perhaps, had its two rivals not remained divided in the 2014 parliamentary elections and 2017 Assembly polls, BJP’s fate may have been decided by a lesser number of seats.
Undeniably, the impact of the Modi wave cannot be ignored in deciding the BJP’s luck; the Modi wave doesn’t seem to be at the peak currently. This has suffered substantially because of Covid-19. It has certainly limited the electoral appeal of master cards exercised by PM Modi while campaigning. This also includes his ‘Ayodhya card’. Success on this front helped him dominate headlines for some time. The same may be said about his government’s decision regarding Jammu & Kashmir’s status, Triple Talaq, and also the more controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Yet, the second wave of the Covid-19 may have left a majority of Indians too tensed to be distracted by these issues
But, PM Modi and his team are least likely to give up on their master card. This is partly suggested by the repeat telecast of the once highly popular serial Ramayana. Indians are as religious as they were when this serial was first telecast during the late eighties on government channel Doordarshan. Ninety percent of the Indian population, which includes non-Hindus also, sat glued to their TV screens to watch this serial. There were also reports of some devout persons viewing the serial as a religious exercise. Some groups would indulge in violence, if due to some reason, there was a powe-cut, disrupting the serial’s telecast.
That was in the eighties, more than three decades ago, when the communication boom had not hit India. Compared to several hundred channels now, there was only one channel in the eighties, and that too for select hours. Now, viewers have the option to switch on channels round the clock. Besides, several religious programmes, including serials, are available now but the question of each and/or all being given the ‘religious’ importance that Ramayana-serial was in the late eighties is as good as non-existent.
In addition, the mobile era had not yet entered the scene then. Nor had the computer followed by the Internet. So people had no access to various means of communication that they now have. From one angle, Narendra Modi has the advantage of using multiple means of communication to spread ‘news’ about his accomplishments. The same may be used to increase negative campaigns against his rivals. Unfortunately, for him, the Covid phase has substantially derailed the expected positive impact of these electoral strategies.
During his UP campaign, BJP leaders may well be expected to talk of BJP winning all the 403 assembly seats. But as suggested, a lot may be decided by rival parties’ nature of aligning and campaigning. It would be sensible of Congress to maintain a low profile in UP in the way it seems to have done in West Bengal. This once-dominant party needs to focus more on retaining its base in Punjab, as it has a long way to go in UP. Congress won only seven seats in 2017 and 6.25% votes. There is a view that in Bihar assembly polls, the political results may have been different had Congress not insisted on contesting from 70 seats. It won 19 seats. At present, Congress needs to give more importance to respecting the strength of BJP’s rivals and aligning with them accordingly, rather than displaying over-confidence about its reach
Covid’s phase 2 has caught the BJP off-guard and there may be fewer chances of much-tried strategic electoral cards bearing the same relevance for voters. Prime Minister Modi’s recent national address is an indicator of him acting so as not to let his mastery of over communication strategies go off-track and get derailed by the effects of the pandemic.
THE ETERNAL LEGACY OF INDRA DEVI
In the late 1930s, Eugenie Peterson, aka Indra Devi, launched her yoga school in Shanghai and became the first person in modern history to bring the ancient Indian practice to China. Her compassionate efforts made yoga accessible to everyone. Today in many nations, Indra Devi remains a name synonymous with contemporary yoga.
On a splendid morning in March 1948, Marilyn Monroe stepped into the studio at Columbia Pictures where a photographer awaited her arrival. Just a year earlier she had made her Hollywood debut with The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Her screen-time was so short that if one blinked one would miss her part. Five more insignificant roles later, Columbia Studio boss Harry Cohn spotted potential in the youngster and decided to offer her a six-month contract. At the studio, Oscar-winning still photographer Edward Cronenweth, renowned for publicity shots of Hollywood’s biggest stars adjusted his lenses. As he looked through the viewfinder, he saw a woman more beautiful than most stars with cobalt blue eyes and golden blonde hair. That day, he didn’t realize that the black and white photographs he shot for Columbia would be prized by private collectors and museums for decades. For Marilyn Monroe effortlessly posed for him in a sequence of body postures and twisted like a pretzel. It was Yoga– an import from India that was gently conquering Hollywood.
In another part of Los Angeles, at 8806 Sunset Boulevard, in a room filled with Americans, an amazing woman stood on her head. Her acquired name was Indra Devi and she demonstrated ‘shirshasana’ or headstand. Then the woman, responsible for figuratively turning Hollywood upside down in a picture-perfect move, stood back on her feet. Diminutive in stature but not in grace she explained to her enthusiastic students, some of whom were celebrities, “Yoga is an art and science of living. Yoga in Sanskrit means union, in all its significances and dimensions. Through a certain amount of physical and mental disciplines, we can learn how to stay healthy, alert, receptive and to improve our perception of the external world to feel internally harmonized, with a better life condition and spiritual balance.” Indra Devi fashioned Yoga as India’s most prominent export to the world before information technology.
Indra Devi’s fascinating life story commenced on 12 May 1899 in Riga, Latvia. She began her life as Eugenie Peterson. She was the daughter of Vasili Pavlovich Peterson, a Swedish Banker, and Sasha Zitovich, a Russian aristocrat. Her parents divorced when she was one and in her youth, she enrolled in a drama school in Moscow. Then the ten days of October 1917 shook the world and wrecked Eugenie’s life. The Communist takeover forced Eugenie and her mother to flee Latvia overnight. Along with thousands of refugees, her family too was deprived of their wealth. To make ends meet, she employed her formal drama training and became a stage artist in Berlin’s theatres. After the unforeseen devastation of the Russian Revolution and the First World War, European nobility partly inspired by George Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic, seriously turned towards eastern philosophies. In her early years, Eugenie stumbled upon 14 Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, by American author William Walter Atkinson. From that moment onwards, her heart was set on discovering India. In 1926, Eugenie heard the charismatic Indian sage, Jiddu Krishnamurthy singing sacred Sanskrit hymns at Ommen, Holland. There was no turning back. She sold all her jewels, bid farewell to a fiancé, and on 17 November 1927, boarded a ship in Italy destined for India.
In India, Eugenie traveled across the country as a backpacker. Deeply immersed in Indian culture, she learned to wrap a sari, eat without tableware, relish vegetarian cuisine and speak Hindi. India was in the middle of the tumultuous freedom movement, and she paid homage to the leading lights of the period including Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and corresponded with Jawaharlal Nehru. Two years later on her second trip to India, she took lessons in classical dance. She performed in Bombay (Mumbai) the home of the nascent Indian film industry. In those early years besides finances, the filmdom was severely short of female actors. A major filmmaker Bhagwati Prasad Mishra witnessed the dance performance of Eugenie. He instantly cast the blue-eyed Russian girl as the heroine in his silent film, Sher-e-Arab (The Arabian Knight). Eugenie accepted the role since she had a history in theatre and needed money. Mishra gave her a screen name— Indra Devi (heavenly goddess). Later, she found herself on a film set in a gypsy skirt with a long, dark, braided wig and turban. Across from her was the hero of the film, the handsome rising star Prithviraj Kapoor. The success of Mishra’s Sher-e-Arab established her as the new star of the Indian cinema. Six films later, Eugenie’s tryst with stardom ended with the introduction of sound. Nonetheless, the brief star status automatically provided her with a brand name for the rest of her life.
Subsequently, Eugenie was courted by Jan Strakati, the middle-aged Commercial Attaché at the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay and soon they were husband and wife. In 1937 Eugenie bored of the predictable routines of a diplomat’s spouse experienced panic attacks that demanded medical attention. Later the couple was guests of Maharaja Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, the philosopher-king of Mysore where the legendary yoga guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was the yogi-in-residence. Krishnamacharya was a remarkable man, who had vast knowledge of several disciplines and had studied Yoga from a master in Tibet. In 1935 with a ram-rod straight posture he openly demonstrated his ability to stop his heartbeat to a baffled French cardiologist Thérèse Brosse who certified it. At fifty, he had singlehandedly resurrected the millennia-old practice of Yoga. His most famous disciples were two teenagers, B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, who later established the Iyengar and Ashtanga schools. Eugenie keen to recover from her illness expressed a desire to learn Yoga from Krishnamacharya. But the Grand Master stood on the threshold of the Mysore yogashala (school) at the Jaganmohan Palace, and didn’t let her step in as he had never taught a female student or a westerner. The Maharaja of Mysore in an attempt to unify the East and the West intervened and Krishnamacharya ultimately relented. As the first foreigner and a woman to be admitted to the yogashala, Eugenie observed its strict discipline and severe lifestyle protocol. Krishnamacharya customarily denied his students meals if their performance was deemed inadequate. Eugenie later told the Yoga Journal, “He was very strict with me, thinking that I would not keep up with the regime that he imposed on me”. But even though she was in her late thirties she was equal to every challenge Krishnamacharya set for her. She gave up coffee and turned into a strict vegetarian. Krishnamacharya taught her about the importance of breathing properly, relaxation, diet, and the significance of fasting. The Yoga training was designed to strengthen her body with a series of poses, shoulder stands, headstands, breathing exercises in the Lotus pose, and meditative practice for quietening the mind. The year-long punishing schedule helped her regain her health and the panic attacks vanished. After Strakati was posted to Shanghai, Krishnamacharya directed Eugenie to take Yoga to the world and trained her to be a yoga teacher. With an appetite for adventure, she sailed for Shanghai and to her surprise remained calm right through the stormy journey. She now accepted her life’s mission to be the global ambassador of Yoga.
In the late 1930s, Eugenie in a sari boldly launched her Yoga school in Shanghai and became the first person in modern history to bring the ancient Indian practice to China. Her style of teaching Yoga was characterized by compassion that made it accessible to everyone. Americans and Russians stationed in Shanghai along with the curious Chinese population were her initial trainees. Gradually her Yoga classes in the Chinese language multiplied, and she relocated from modest apartments to the spacious bungalow of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Then the World War Two interrupted her life and the Japanese army ordered her to teach the staff of the American Consulate who were incarcerated. After enduring the desolation of the war, the emotionally exhausted Strakati returned to Czechoslovakia. Eugenie traveled to India again. She lived in the Himalayas and published her first book on Yoga. Subsequently, Eugenie sought a new direction in her life. At almost fifty she recognized that teaching Yoga was her only pursuit. Globally it was viewed as a mystical journey, however, she perceived it as India’s invaluable gift to humanity. Deeply influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s sensational Chicago address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, Eugenie intuitively boarded the troop carrier USS General W. H. Gordon in Shanghai and crossed the Pacific. She was poised to be one of the twentieth century’s most influential women in the world of Yoga.
Americans were drawn towards Indian spiritual traditions for decades. After Vivekananda’s awe-inspiring lecture tours, Vedanta Centres sprung up across America with one located in Hollywood. In the 1920s Swami Yogananda Paramahansa arrived in California and declared, “I have always considered Los Angeles to be the Benares of America.” He created three Self Realization Fellowship Temples in the Los Angeles area with two at either end of Sunset Boulevard. Even Jiddu Krishnamurti established his home eighty miles northwest of Los Angeles in Ojai. Eugenie disembarked at San Francisco on 21 January 1947 and one year later unveiled her business on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood in Los Angeles. A modest billboard placed outside the Yoga studio stated “Indra Devi Yoga Classes”. It wasn’t easy initially. Still, the former Indian star persevered. As an accomplished practitioner, she judiciously presented Yoga on American soil as a defense against illness and aging. She also restructured the ancient discipline to appeal to American sensibilities with moderately challenging poses. The articulate teacher elegantly dressed in a light sari brought an exceptional freshness to the Yoga scene of the youth-obsessed and anxiety-driven Hollywood community. Regular saleswomen, factory workers, and famous stars with their perfectly coiffed hair flocked to her studio to embrace Yoga. She clarified in slight Russian accent that her reasonably priced classes were resolutely free of religion, and added, “Yoga has a very illuminating and practical message for our restless, insecure and spiritually forlorn world of today”. Soon her clients benefitting significantly from Yoga sat in lotus poses and did headstands at homes, offices, factory floors, on the beaches, and the film sets, to restore their energy and vitality. Over time Indra Devi became a Hollywood celebrity.
Strakati passed away in Czechoslovakia in early 1953 and Indra Devi married Dr. Siegrid Knauer who advocated preventive medicine instead of antibiotics. Four years later she received her American citizenship in her new legal name— Indra Devi. As the new-age power couple in Hollywood, Indra Devi and Dr. Knauer entertained many Californians interested in the eastern way of life at their Nichols Canyon home and Yoga Studio. These included Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, Igor Stravinsky and Jennifer Jones. In January 1955, she published the bestseller Forever Young Forever Healthy, and her biggest celebrity client, the film star Gloria Swanson’s endorsement asserted, “In her book, Indra Devi reveals her splendid path to wellbeing.” Indira Devi dedicated her second book Yoga for Americans (1959) to Swanson, and Yehudi Menuhin wrote the Foreword. Her books about Yoga as toolkits for work-life balance received nationwide acclaim. Marilyn Monroe who owned a copy claimed that Yoga improved her legs. Elizabeth Arden introduced Yoga elements in her fashionable saloons. Even superstar Elvis Presley sang, ‘Yoga is as yoga does.’ Till the arrival of gifted Indian yogis to American shores in the 1960s, Indra Devi was the practice’s cover girl nationwide.
Soon Indra Devi’s fame as an amazing yoga trainer reached the rest of the world. In 1960 she returned to her motherland Russia and Indian Ambassador K.P.S. Menon facilitated her meeting with the Soviet leadership at the Kremlin. Speaking fluent Russian at the reception, she assured Andrei Gromyko and Anastas Mikoyan that Yoga was not a religious practice but a method of holistic development. After her thought-provoking talk, Gromyko proposed a toast: “To Indra Devi… who opened our eyes to Yoga”. Eventually, Kremlin removed the ban on Yoga. Dr. Knauer died on 21 December 1984, and Indra Devi once again followed her inner voice and relocated to Argentina in February 1985. The rest of her years were spent zealously propagating Yoga through the ‘Fundacion Indra Devi’, in Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Egypt, Germany, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Russia, Spain, Uruguay, and the Philippines. In 1990, her appearance in a lotus pose while defining Yoga on a popular Russian TV show made her an instant celebrity and the next day she was mobbed on Moscow’s streets. Indra Devi celebrated her century on planet earth on 12 May 1999 in Buenos Aires with three thousand of her fans in attendance. By now, millions of her students worldwide affectionally called her Mataji (mother) and for Argentina, the Spanish-speaking teacher was a national treasure.
The global ambassador of Yoga lived through some significant moments of the twentieth century on four continents and acquired twelve tongues. Indra Devi passed away in Argentina on 25 April 2002, just short of 103. Right through her extraordinary life, Indra Devi leveraged her high-profile friendships to teach the world the form of Yoga she had mastered in the modest Mysore yogashala. Today in many nations, Indra Devi remains a name synonymous with contemporary Yoga.
Bhuvan Lall is the biographer of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Lala Har Dayal. He can be contacted at writerlall@ gmail.com.
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