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Loot: The legacy of British imperialism in India

Loot, a despicable word, was evidently among the first few Hindustani expressions to enter the British lexicon. It aptly illustrates the brand of British colonisation like no other word.

Bhuvan Lall

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On a chilly evening in the first week of December in 1862, British Empire’s railway engineer E.B. Harris reached a small riverside market village called Sultanganj on the south bank of Ganges some twenty miles west of Bhagalpur. Here his 4,771 workers were excavating a vast mound of bricks on the hillside to build a railway yard. Harris, recognised among the railway engineers for the construction of the challenging Jamalpur tunnel, was alerted by the unexpected sound of field axes striking metal. The engineer rushed to the spot where at the depth of twelve feet he spotted the foot of a copper figure. Instantly a large number of people converged at the site. The workers shoved the crowds back and gently retrieved a statue entrenched in a brick-walled chamber. The copper figure was over seven feet and four inches tall and weighed five hundred kilogrammes. It was a stunning representation of Gautama Siddharth, the founder of Buddhism, who lived in India and Nepal around the 6th century BC. This was an amazing discovery.

The railway engineer with antiquarian leanings later noted, “I believe from what I can learn that nothing of the kind has ever been discovered before; certainly nothing in metal so large.” British archeologists confirmed that the copper statue was the only surviving one from the Gupta period of Indian history (4-7th century CE) and demonstrated the extraordinary skills of metal sculptors of ancient India. Some 700 years after it was made, the statue was deliberately buried in the Buddhist monastery for safekeeping from possible damage by foreign armies or rival kingdoms. The news about the chance unearthing of the statue spread swiftly and tens of thousands of Indians came out to pay their respect to the ancient sculpture known as Sultanganj Buddha. Harris, dressed in his vintage-safari hat and light-coloured suit was photographed standing next to the statue. But within two years it disappeared.

The news about the Sultanganj Buddha had reached the ears of Samuel Thornton, a railway ironmonger and the former Mayor of Birmingham. He acquired it for 200 pounds, and secretly shipped it to Britain. On its arrival at the London docks, curators of a local museum tried to pinch it but eventually it reached Birmingham safely. On 7 October 1864, Thornton, proudly presented the discovery of the British Empire to Birmingham Borough Council, writing, “…the colossal figure of Buddha, and the large marble one, to the town, to be placed in the Art Museum, now being erected, where they may be duly and properly located for the free inspection of the inhabitants of Birmingham.”

Renamed ‘Birmingham Buddha’, it went on display first in the Corporation Art Gallery, then in a room in the Central Library in 1867. Eighteen years later in was placed as the most important artifact in the newly built Museum and Art Gallery inaugurated by King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. Since that day innumerable admirers of the British Empire romantically looking back at the Raj, have visited the Art Gallery to carefully scrutinise the Sultanganj Buddha’s arresting facial features that emphasise the rejection of the material world in favour of spiritual enlightenment. But the British Empire never set itself on the path of denying material wealth that was derived from its brutal campaign of global conquest. The Sultanganj Buddha displayed on British soil constantly reminds us of its illegitimate transfer from India. This was not a titanic achievement—it was loot.

Loot, a despicable word was evidently among the first few Hindustani expressions to enter the British lexicon. It aptly illustrates the brand of British colonisation like no other word. Late starters in the build your own global empire game, British seafarers followed the shipping fleets of Portugal, Spain, Holland, Denmark, and France towards the East. Just over a century after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route from Europe to India, The East India Company was established in London in 1599 to reach out for India’s fabled treasures, gold, jewels, and spices. In the 17th and 18th centuries, India was prosperous while Britain was an inconsequential, feudal-ridden kingdom.

Essentially India had endured as an economically flourishing and culturally rich civilisation for millennia before Britain even existed. This multicultural spiritual centre of the planet knew that the Earth went around the Sun and many centuries before the first British ship docked on an Indian port, Indian entrepreneurs had shaped trade routes to Arabia, Africa, China, West Asia, and Southeast Asia. Then in 1602, the East India Company authorised by its charter to wage war, launched its maiden voyage to defeat the European powers in gaining control over India. Though the British outwardly came to India as a business venture and the adventure of finding new lands, the lines between exploration and exploitation blurred rapidly. The Company’s directors sitting in the boardroom of the multinational business in London employed the culture of corporate violence to make war across India.

The gang of bankers, buccaneers, crusaders, gold-diggers, mandarins, pirates and planters, generated almost a quarter of Britain’s trade while systematically stripping India of its riches. And after defeating the Indians in the first war of Indian independence in 1857- 58, the British Crown directly took control of India and it became the jewel of the crown. Now the Queen of the small, rainy island in the North Atlantic ruled over the biggest empire in human history on which the sun never set. For the next ninety years, Indians were subjugated by Hukumat-i-Britannia’s repressive military rule, faced stringent race and class discrimination, and witnessed human greed at its basest.

By the time East India Railway’s Harris accidentally stumbled on the Buddha statue in Sultanganj in 1862, a ruthless campaign of appropriation of Indian art and the archaeological dismemberment of India had been underway for decades. In 1800 a strange-looking tiger automaton toy was delivered to an address on Leadenhall Street in Central London. This was the East India House, the office of the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the East India Company. Carted off from Mysore it was a part of the booty lifted from Tipu Sultan’s palace. The toy was a six-foot-long mechanised wooden piece that was painted in the shape of a tiger devouring a red-coated European soldier lying on his back. An organ cleverly concealed inside the tiger’s body produced sounds imitating a man’s dying moans as well as the roar of a tiger.

From July 1808 onwards it was put on view as a piece of imperial propaganda in the Company’s reading room. It became a popular sight and its sounds caused many members of the British public to faint from fear. Even two hundred and twenty years later the wooden tiger remains the most prominent and intriguing displays at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 1849, the Koh-i-noor (the mountain of light), a beautiful 105.6-carat diamond that originated in the Golconda mines was removed to London under dubious circumstances. This mark of prestige and power in India for centuries was flaunted as an imperial possession in 1851 at the Great Exposition in London. In 1937 it was embedded in the royal crown of the Queen Mother and is now displayed at the Tower of London under the continual protection of the armed Yeoman Warders.

Inexplicably tourists are prohibited from photographing the famed diamond. Besides the over one-thousand-year-old sandstone sculpture of Harihara from Khajuraho now parked at the British Museum in London, one of the greatest robberies of all times from India was the famous Amaravati Railings originating from the Buddhist Stupa of Amaravati in the Guntur district. Here a magnificent architectural achievement of India, with a history that spanned seventeen centuries was ruthlessly dismantled piece by piece. In an indefensible act, the majority of the Stupa’s carved stones were hauled over to Britain. Today some of the Amaravati sculptures consisting of carved relief panels presenting narrative scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha as well as Buddhist emblems and symbols are displayed in Room 33 on the first level of the British Museum. Captain Henry Hardy Cole, the farsighted British Curator of Ancient Monuments in India during 1882-83, had unsuccessfully objected to the removal of the sculptures from the site and recorded, it is a “suicidal and indefensible policy to allow the country to be looted of original works of ancient art”.

Now it is well known that from the reign of Elizabeth I to almost the coronation of Elizabeth II there is an entire unrecorded parallel history of pillaging of Indian treasures. Far beyond the overhyped stories of the Hukumat-i-Britannia’s ceremonial durbars, maharajahs’ balls, Viceregal tiger shoots, cricket matches, Anglicized curries, parades, pageants, and shenanigans in Shimla, there exists the shameful colonial legacy of theft. Notwithstanding the British Empire’s assertion of its benevolence in introducing modern medicine, law, civil services, progressive education and railways in India all the expensive art pieces and artifacts stolen from India are now safely placed in the galleries and vaults of Britain’s museums and stately manors. They signify grave crimes that were committed in India in the name of racial superiority. The British program of plundering was essentially an indomitable endeavour to destroy India’s splendid history and obliterate our nation’s historical accomplishments as if they never existed.

Distinguished American historian Will Durant in his short pamphlet, The Case for India, remarked, “The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company utterly without scruple or principle… bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and legal plunder”. He added, that it was “the most sordid and criminal exploitation of one nation by another in all recorded history.” Recently Indian Economist Utsa Patnaik estimated that Britain decamped with a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938 but this excludes the environmental costs of aggressive deforestation and the institutionalized loot of Indian assets. To write a full-scale comprehensive history of the systematic ravaging of India by Hukumat-i-Britannia would be the work of many lifetimes for historians or the never-ending occupation of a government department. Consequently, there is no such record in the public domain as yet.

In the twenty-first century if British citizens look back impartially on the blotchy history of their occupation of India, they will conclude that the British Empire had a reprehensible past. Last year on 22 September 2020, The National Trust of Britain, Europe’s largest conservation charity, with 5.6 million members; over 500 sites, and up to 14,000 employees made an astonishing disclosure. In an official report that spanned 115 pages, the National Trust admitted, that a third of the properties it manages had direct links to colonialism or slavery. The Trust that made $870 million in revenue in the past year claimed that at least 229 landed estates were purchased in Britain by those who had made their fortune either as employees of the East India Company or as independent merchants in India between 1700 and 1850.

The report highlighted the amalgamated collections of Robert Clive and his family that contained some 1,000 objects including ivories, textiles, statues of Hindu gods, ornamental silver and gold, weapons, and ceremonial armour from India that are now brandished at Powis Castle. It also confessed that the British robbed the spectacular Chinese porcelain dish originating from Shah Jahan’s treasury during the sacking of the Qaisar Bagh Palace in Lucknow in 1857. That rare Mughal heirloom is now held in the National Trust’s collection at Wallington.

On the eve of the seventy-fifth anniversary of India’s Independence, the time has come for the repatriation of the Indian works of art and artifacts from Britain. An aggressive international campaign to retrieve the stolen treasures of India needs the resources of our political, diplomatic, legal, corporate, media, and entertainment communities and the professional expertise of art historians, artists, architects, archaeologists, curators and museum directors of India. The UNESCO’s heritage department must be persuaded to join forces with Bharat Sarkar for returning these antiquities. The planned repurposing of the North and South Block on the Raisina Hill as museums in New Delhi would only be complete with the hundreds and thousands of pilfered Indian treasures lying around the world in museums and the vaults of international auction houses being secured for future generations of Indians.

In the meanwhile, at the Birmingham Museum, the Sultanganj Buddha’s hand gestures (mudras) remain symbolic and can serve as an inspiration for Britain and Her Majesty’s Government to accept a historic blunder. The raising of his right hand, Abhaya means ‘no fear’ and hence shows the Buddha giving reassurance and protection, and the left hand with its palm outward and held upwards represents granting a favour. Fittingly, the fearless repatriation of the loot by Britain is the only practicable resolution that is now long overdue.

Bhuvan Lall is an author, filmmaker, scriptwriter, speaker and entrepreneur. He can be reached at writerlall@gmail.com

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Opinion

PM IS RIGHT, LOCKDOWN IS NOT THE ANSWER TO CORONA CRISIS

Joyeeta Basu

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Amid the current surge in Covid infections, there should be consensus on one issue—a lockdown is not the solution to the crisis. Instead, states need to follow the micro-containment strategy, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear in his speech on Tuesday evening. The human cost of a lockdown is too huge for this country to bear, as it became painfully obvious last year. Some have justified the lockdown last year as necessary, for it delayed the first wave and gave time to an unprepared health infrastructure to ready itself. However, the current move to impose lockdowns is not going to help because the second, more infectious, wave is already here. There is no scientific evidence to prove that a lockdown can prevent a surge in infections. Instead, a lockdown imposes a huge human and economic cost on a country.

Last year, the massive movement of migrants out of the “industrialised” states to the poorer states took catastrophic proportions, leading to untold misery among the underprivileged. The economy took such a hard knock that it required stimulus after stimulus and a “forward looking” budget by the Central government to give it a push towards a semblance of recovery. The economy is still nowhere near normal, especially sectors such as hospitality. With the economy being made to shut down once again, the lockdown is hitting hard different sectors, with the hospitality industry in particular crippled. According to the “Indian Hospitality: The Stats and Pulse Report” by Hotelivate, the hospitality sector may take four more years, until 2025, to go back to pre-Covid levels. Restaurant and movie hall owners say that even a six-day lockdown, as it has been announced in Delhi, is bad for their health, just when things were looking up; and any further extension will sound their death knell. From the sudden outflow of migrants taking place from Delhi and Maharashtra it is apparent that neither of the two governments has been able to instil confidence in them that the shutdowns will be short term. And now, chances are that these migrants are already carrying the virus from the hotspots to their respective states. The migrants are the hardest hit during such calamities and a safety net is sorely needed for them, including provisions for interim payments in case of contingencies. Also, as the Prime Minister said, a drive should be launched to vaccinate them. Supply chains too have started getting affected because of the current lockdown, with the National Capital Region in particular facing a shortage of essential goods because of their dependence on Delhi. And these are just a few examples.

Hence the Prime Minister is right when he speaks about the need for micro-containment zones instead of lockdowns. Even Delhi does not have an even spread of the virus, while in Maharashtra, which is a much bigger state, it’s primarily in the congested urban areas that the virus is spreading like wildfire. A huge caseload does not justify blanket restrictions. In fact, it is surprising that amid all the horror stories about the second wave, not much attention is being given to the fact that 85%-90% of the cases are very mild and do not require any hospitalisation, but just home quarantine and medication. It is doctors who are saying this, but this fact is not being highlighted enough. While following strict Covid appropriate behaviour is necessary, efforts should also be made to allay people’s fears. The need of the hour is increased testing, contact tracing and treatment, with focus being on the micro-containment zones. The hospital infrastructure needs a tremendous boost for the 10%-15% cases who may require hospitalisation. But this is a long-term process. In this context, it is hoped that the 137% increase in the Budgetary allocation this year for health—from Rs 94,452 crore to Rs 223,846 crore—will go a long way in creating an infrastructure that not only delivers healthcare to the poorest, but also insulates the system from any corona-like outbreaks.

In the meanwhile, the need is for responsible, Covid-appropriate behaviour. Also, will it be too much to ask our politicians to stop politicking over a matter of life and death and instead concentrate on alleviating this crisis? For this the states need to work in tandem with the Centre. Blame game is not helping anyone. Moreover, spreading misinformation and even disinformation about vaccines must stop. There are enough reports that vaccination is drastically reducing the risk of hospitalisation even if one contracts Covid, post taking the vaccine. Now that the vaccination process has been opened for those above the age of 18 years, governments need to ensure maximum coverage in as short a span of time as possible.

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Opinion

Forest fires: Not a priority for government

In 2019-20 alone, India lost nearly 38,500 hectares or 14% of its tropical forests. With about one-fifth of it going up in flames each year, Indian forests are no more carbon sinks but carbon emission areas. Why then is the Ministry of Environment turning a blind eye to the issue?

Amita Singh

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Since March, there have been more than a 1,000 major forest fires across the country. Last month, when the Jodibill Reserve Forest near the Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Odisha was ablaze, many other pristine forests and wildlife reserves in many other states in the country were also burning. Fire alerts have been continuously coming from Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, many Northeastern states and Uttarakhand. The peak forest fire season in the country began as usual in March with 3,308 incidents this year, as compared to 1,004 in the corresponding month in 2019. Two major causes which emerge are the failure of forest governance and of disaster governance. After every forest fire, debates are diverted towards assessment of the government’s capacity to douse forest fires but a demand for accountability from those who failed on preparedness gets muted. Only a few question the government’s intention as a causal factor for forest fires.

While I was writing this piece, I received a petition for support from the communities of the Sattal lakes and the forests in Kumaon. Despite the massive devastation that Uttaranchal has been facing due to vanishing forests and ongoing forest fires, it is bent upon invading the pristine biodiversity area and wreaking havoc through the construction of children’s parks, hotels, shops and parking spaces. Uttarakhand’s uncontrollable fire has already scarred more than 700 hectares and remains unstoppable. The government has admitted that in the current month alone a monetary loss of Rs 14,18,909 is estimated, but if the value of ecosystem services obtained from a rich forest biodiversity is also added to it, this loss may multiply manifold. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Minister of State for Environment revealed that in 2019 the area affected by forest fires was a massive 93,273 hectares, suggesting an equally baffling figure for damage and losses.

Interestingly, forest fires are not even recognized as a natural disaster in the framework of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Initially, in the 2009 National Policy on Disaster Management, only earthquakes, floods, wind, cyclones and landslides were recognised as disasters. Later, glacial lake outbursts and heatwaves have been added to the list. But the much needed recognition of forest fires as a disaster is shockingly still missing.

The Forest Protection Division of the Ministry had formulated a National Action Plan on Forest Fires in April 2018 and a report ‘Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India’ was also published. The Ministry also launched a faster and more robust version of Fire Alert System in January 2019 through the Forest Survey of India (FSI) Dehradun. In the meantime, the National Green Tribunal, unsuccessfully, directed the Ministry to constitute a National Monitoring Committee to monitor the National Action Plan on Forest Fires. NDMA’s failure to recognise forest fires as a natural disaster has prevented a synchronized preparedness exercise in accordance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. A previously constituted Standing Fire Advisory Committee of the NDMA had a highly deficient record of equipment, rescue vehicles and trained manpower which prevented any monitoring of funds allocated for fire prevention to state governments.

Forest fires have been the main reason for the loss of forest cover, and with no immediate afforestation, this land is occupied by encroachers making the rest of it still more vulnerable to fires. The Forest Survey of India in 2019 found more than 36% of forest cover in the country as severely vulnerable to fire.

Who could be behind forest fires? There is enough evidence in the history of forest fires about an unholy nexus of miners, the timber mafia, poachers and their representatives in the government who surreptitiously get forest land released for non-forest purposes. The arrest of two men behind the recent Jodibill incident confirms the presence of criminals behind forest fires. A 2002 Down to Earth report had said that the Terai region’s timber smuggling is linked to the poaching of tigers, panthers, elephants, Himalayan black bear and musk deer to such an extent that more than 20-30 trucks get past through most check posts illegally. The forest departments can do nothing before these well armed and well connected mafia agents. Many forest guards are killed every year trying to save animals or timber from criminals. Only last month while a forest guard was shot dead by mafia goons in Dewas, three other forest guards suffered critical injuries in Panna Forest Reserve of Madhya Pradesh after being attacked with axes, choppers and spades. A forest guard is a Group C, non-gazetted, non-ministerial post with a starting salary of Rs 5,200 and is given neither weapons nor life-saving boots, appropriate uniform and protective headgear. They are always overpowered and outnumbered once caught patrolling inside the criminal-occupied forest areas.

Fires push endemic species to extinction as they have location-based lives. While the administration gets busy dousing the fire, traffickers drive off with their wanted reptiles and exotic mammals. Tigers and elephants are dedicated sentinels who guard these forests against illegal human trespassing and lose their lives like the forest guards. Many species of wild cats such as panthers, leopards, tigers and cheetahs have already become extinct due to fires and the subsequent loss of habitat. Many historians and conservationists such as Mahesh Rangarajan have recorded how thousands of tigers had been shot down in the years prior to Independence to vacate forest land for saleable property by the royals. Documentaries on elephants by filmmakers like Mike Pandey and Sangita Iyer highlight cruelties perpetrated by human beings and the diminishing impact of the law on protecting forests. A recently published report by the Global Forest Watch (GFW) has brought out shocking facts about India’s forests. In just one year of 2019-20, India has lost nearly 38.5 thousand hectares or 14% of tropical forest. GFW is an initiative of the World Resources Institute with an open source web application to monitor global forests. It recorded the deadliest forest loss in Mizoram (47.2% loss) followed by Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland, which when put together lost more than 52% of all tree cover in India in 2019-20. Our ‘Look East Policy’ is becoming a ‘Fire East Policy’.

Diversion of forest lands for non-forest use was made difficult by the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA 1980). Subsequently, the rate of diversion of forest land within a decade came down from 1.43 lakh ha to around 15,000 ha per annum. Many subsequent amendments to this restraining Act and, in supersession of the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 1981, many changes were brought in between 2014 and 2017. Most of these changes were not even displayed on the MOEFCC website which is considered quite mandatory for modern governance. The Web Measurement Index (WMI) reflecting upon the government’s intention of what it wants to hide or wishes to display reveals how interested the government is in protecting forests.

The changes to the Act further diluted Environment Impact Assessment procedures and eliminated any scope for assessing wildlife before granting clearances to projects on forest lands. Many forest animals who guarded their sacrosanct forest entry points, like the nilgais and monkeys were declared vermin in 2014-15 by short-sighted policies of the MOEFCC and instead of giving them a green cover they were eliminated within weeks in a brutal bloodshed unleashed upon them and abetted by the Ministry. There is also suspected data fuzzing on forest diversions. The Union Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar in his 20 March 2020 statement in the Parliament divulges a figure of 3,616 projects involving 69,414.32 ha of diversion of forest land since 2014. But the MoEFCC’s e-Green website mentions a much higher diversion, a total of 72,685 ha of forest land. This e-Green website is a product of a Supreme Court directive to the Ministry for effective monitoring of the compensatory afforestation in the country through an authority named “Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA)”. So if two figures with an error of almost 3000 ha are available simultaneously on two government websites, is there yet another figure to which citizens have limited or no access?

Huge forest lands which have sketchy forest cover and immense vulnerability to fire await afforestation through CAMPA. This Division within the MoEFCC was constituted in 2009 by the Supreme Court order after a writ petition involving TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India & Ors. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 further provided for the establishment of funds under the public accounts of India and of each state to credit the monies received from the user agencies towards compensatory afforestation recovered under the FCA1980. It’s laughable to accept that compensatory afforestation is actually possible despite the Court orders. Where is the land for it? If land was available then there wouldn’t have been any need for encroaching into forest land. Consequently, CAMPA became a dragging and rejected division as the minutes of its seven crucial meetings reveal. In fact the first four meetings between 2009 and 2012 were so casual that the minutes neither had the Chairman’s signature (who is the Union Minister for MoEF) nor his name. Later meetings had both but no decisions were ever taken on direct forest management. A simple demand of the DG of FSI for much needed High Resolution Satellite Imagery like the Cartosat-1 and Ikonos for multisectoral and panchromatic imagery which could have increased fire detection capacity of forest personnel was dragged from the 5th to the 7th CAMPA Advisory Gp. meetings of 2015, after which no record of these meetings are displayed on its website which was last updated in November 2019.

Another scuttling of fire prevention efforts occurred when the government rejected every move to consolidate community network, awareness and fire fighting training proposals such as that from the Barefoot College which were brought to its meetings for approval. India’s forest story is saddening with only 3.02% of real dense forest in a forest cover of merely 21.67%. Sustainable and healthy human life needs at least 30% of forest cover but most of the forests we are left with are moderately covered or open forests. Appallingly, it appears that the MoEFCC engages more in the diversion of forest land than in forest fire prevention.

Is there a possibility that we can still blame climate change for forest fires in the first place? India’s forests are no more carbon sinks but carbon emission areas as one fifth of the 70.82 mha of forest land goes up in flames every year. The carbon emission to the atmosphere from these fires would be much higher than the Californian fire estimation of 91 metric ton released from a forest fire area of only 1.4 mha. In this background, the tall claim of the Environment Minister made in 2017 that India’s 1.56 metric tonnes of emissions in 2010 could be attributed to a nature-friendly Indian lifestyle needs revision and introspection unless we wish to maintain a fake global image of a benign Indian.

The writer is former Professor of Law & Governance, JNU, and president of Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group (NDRG). The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

RAM RAJYA: A MORAL SOVEREIGNTY

Both Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard.

Ram Madhav

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“Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation”, wrote eminent scholar-politician-statesman Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in his seminal work The Hindu View of Life. He went on to say, “Precious as are the echoes of God’s voice in the souls of men of long ago, our regard for them must be tempered by the recognition of the truth that God has never finished the revelation of His wisdom and love. Besides, our interpretation of religious experience must be in conformity with the findings of science. As knowledge grows, our theology develops. Only those parts of the tradition which are logically coherent are to be accepted as superior to the evidence of the senses and not the whole tradition.”

Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism is not a religion of ‘believers’. “Unless you believe, you will not understand”, St Augustin of Hippo had exhorted early Christians of the Roman empire. But Hinduism allowed inquiry and wanted men to be seekers, rather than mere believers. Ram and the Ramayana are divine for many. Gandhi called Ram his personal deity. But Ambedkar did not agree much with Ram. He even challenged the Ramayana, going to the original by Valmiki, in his Riddles in Hinduism. However, there is a common aspect in Gandhi and Ambedkar’s stances: both argued from a logical perspective, not from blind faith or blind hatred.

Whether Ram was a historical person or not did not bother Gandhi much. What mattered to him was the concept of ‘Ram Rajya’. In his view, Ram Rajya essentially meant equal rights to “prince and pauper”. Even during his two visits to Ayodhya, the abode of his deity Ram, in 1921 and 1929, Gandhi’s rhetoric was about standing up for the weak and the meek. Addressing the saints of Ayodhya on the banks of the river Saryu during his visit in February 1921, he resorted to his favourite subject of Ram Rajya. He chose cow protection as the point of reference to tell saints, “Praying to God for our own protection is a sin as long as we do not protect the weak…We need to learn to love the way Ram loved Sita”. There is no way to achieve Ram Rajya or swaraj without observing this svadharma, he told them.

Meanwhile, Ambedkar’s criticism of the Ramayana was based on his perception of certain events. He believed, not necessarily correctly, that Ram upheld the Varnashrama system and had killed a Dalit saint called Shambuka. “Some people seem to blame Ram because he…without reason killed Shambuka. But to blame Ram for killing Shambuka is to misunderstand the whole situation. Ram Raj was…based on Chaturvarnya. As a king, Ram was bound to maintain Chaturvarnya. It was his duty therefore to kill Shambuka, the Shudra, who had transgressed his class and wanted to be a Brahmin. This is the reason why Rama killed Shambuka”, Ambedkar writes. Many scholars insist that the story of Shambuka’s killing was an interpolation. Ambedkar was also critical, probably on more valid grounds, of Ram’s treatment of Sita. He saw Ram Rajya as unjust and patriarchal and commented on Ram’s dismissal of Sita to forests the second time as “there are not wanting Hindus who use this as grounds to prove that Ram was a democratic king when others could equally well say that he was a weak and cowardly monarch.”

Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard. The search for such a just and equitable system where there is harmony between the ruler and the ruled has been carried on by political pundits for millennia. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was asked to consume poison by the democratic assembly of 21,000 citizens of Athens. His sin was that he supported the oligarchy of the 30 ruling tyrants of Sparta, a neighbouring city state. Socrates believed that the rule by a select class of wise men, like the oligarchy in Sparta, is better than a democracy based on mass hysteria as that in Athens. Tyrants in ancient Greek regime were those who usurped the role of the monarch; not necessarily the way we understand its meaning today. Plato and Aristotle detested both systems—the cruel authoritarianism of Sparta and the mobocracy of Athens. 

Plato’s panacea was ‘philosopher kings’. As Bhishma tells Yudhisthira in the Shanti Parv of the Mahabharat, which was repeated by Chanakya in Arth Shastra:

प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ॥

This means, ‘The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It is not what the ruler likes that matters, but only what people like.’

In the Yudh Kand of the Ramayana, sage Valmiki narrates certain characteristics of Ram Rajya or Ram’s kingdom:

-While Rama was ruling the kingdom, there were no widows to lament, nor was there any danger from wild animals, nor any fear born of diseases. Every creature felt pleased. 

-Everyone was intent on virtue. Turning their eyes towards Ram alone, creatures did not kill one another. 

-While Ram was ruling the kingdom, people survived for thousands of years, with thousands of their progeny, all free from illness and grief. 

-Trees there bore flowers and fruits regularly, without any injury by pests and insects. Clouds were raining on time and the wind was delightful to the touch.

-All the people were endowed with excellent characteristics. All were engaged in virtue.

Ram Rajya is envisioned as that state of governance where the ruler is wise enough to place the good of the people above the interest of his own. But then, who will determine what is good and bad? Nietzsche, the German philosopher, had interpreted ‘good’ as “whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man,” inadvertently becoming the darling of Hitler and the Nazis. Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ also became authoritarians when the Romans invested divinity in them and philosophers like Nietzsche gave weird interpretations of power. Julius Caesar commissioned dozens of sculptors to make different sculptures of him, while Hitler revelled in his wisdom of a ‘superior race’. Such smugness and self-righteousness have produced cruel authoritarians throughout history.

Ram presented a different ideal. Valmiki used two phrases with profound meaning to describe Ram, whom he called ‘विग्रहवान धर्मः’ or the epitome of morality. Those phrases are: आराधनाय लोकस्य and राज्यम उपासित्वा. Ram ‘worshipped people’ and ‘worshipped the kingdom’. He did not believe in his infallibility nor was he overpowered by any superiority complex. When his mother, Kausalya, asked him after his return to Ayodhya whether he had killed Raavan, Ram’s reply was: “Mahagyani, Mahapratapi , Mahabalshali, Akhand Pandit, Mahan Shivbhakt, author of Shiv Tandav Stotra, the mighty Lankesh was killed by his own ego”.

That is why Gandhi summed up Ram Rajya as “the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority”.

The writer is member, National Executive, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, and member, Board of Governors, India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

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THE POLITICS OF COVID-19

Priya Sahgal

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Finally, the Kumbh Mela has been called off and the politicians too (most of them) have decided to address virtual rallies instead of crowded ones, but the damage has been done. Were these measures too late? Both on the ground in terms of the spreading Covid surge, and I don’t believe the excuse that the rallies are in West Bengal, while the Kumbh Mela was in UP, so how will they impact Maharashtra and Delhi? We are living in a borderless world and even if Maharashtra and Punjab have been affected by visitors from the UK and the US, it is not to say that the rallies and the Kumbh Mela won’t take their toll on an already burdened healthcare system. The numbers will come in later, especially once the devotees and political leaders go back to wherever they came from. And we will once again see another spike before this one has been flattened out.

The politicians make these decisions, and it is the ordinary citizens that suffer. We are told that the lockdown could not have been avoided. But from all our actions, we have been heading straight into lockdown 2.0. This includes our rather nationalistic vaccination strategy that totally failed to ensure that there was enough to go around. Again, a decision has been made to rectify this situation. And again I ask, why couldn›t this decision have been taken earlier? 

In the end, we are once again seeing hordes of migrants heading to the bus stations and railway stations; while most middle class families are once again staring at their bank statements. The economic fall is a crisis waiting to happen. The government was able to inject some liquidity in the market in the last few months, but at some point it will have to tighten the interest rates due to inflationary pressure. What happens then? Again, it is clear that the states are broke and the only one with the money is the Centre. Where will the Centre raise the money from—by taxing the already overburdened salaried class? 

And what about our healthcare system? Was there any learning from last year? Our budget barely made provisions to handle an ongoing pandemic. Perhaps our policy makers were lulled into thinking that with the vaccination, the worst was over. But with the vaccinations barely able to handle the changing mutations, clearly this is not the case. Our doctors are nearing a breakdown point. They are doing tele-consultations, hospital visits and countering WhatsApp forwards.

We have all been so shaken by this second surge that is also affecting our kids, that we need a doctor›s okay for even the most basic medicines. And they just don›t have the time or the energy anymore. Over stressed laboratories now cannot even handle routine blood tests. Once again, as what happened last year, routine and in some cases life threatening ailments are being ignored to handle the Covid onslaught. Most laboratories have drive-in centres for Covid testing to take the pressure of house calls, but while the timing of these are from 10 am onwards, the slots are all filled up by 10.02 am. I have had Dr Harsh Mahajan, founder, Mahajan Imaging, on Roundtable (NewsX) making a plea to state governments to stop routine tests for those crossing state borders as it adds to the already burdened system and those who really need the test done in a hurry have to wait. He has a point. These are desperate times.

Apart from the healthcare system, shouldn’t our budget have looked at the economic drivers such as the hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors? It had barely begun to limp back when the second lockdown had thrown it back into a tailspin. Restaurants are once again reduced to take away counters and that is not where their revenue comes in. Malls are once again locked down as are gym and spas. Commercial real estate is at an all-time low, though residential real estate has taken off in these Covid times where work from home means you don›t have to live in an expensive apartment near your work place, but can actually invest in your own home in the suburbs.

These are not easy times. These are also times that need to see a strong leadership—by strong I don›t just mean a strong personality that can lead, but also one that takes the right policy decisions. During the last month, our Prime Minister has been too busy being a star campaigner. It is only in the last few days that we have seen him revert back to being PM. Hope he stays the course.

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BORIS JOHNSON NOT SERIOUS ABOUT INDIA-UK TIES

Joyeeta Basu

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did it again—cancelled his visit to India. The visit was scheduled for next week, but was cancelled because of the current surge in coronavirus infections in India. The first time he did it was for Republic Day, when he was invited to be the chief guest but cancelled the trip because of a surge in infections in UK. While a Prime Minister going abroad when coronavirus is sweeping across his/her country can be bad optics domestically, by cancelling next week’s visit Boris Johnson essentially expressed his lack of confidence in the Indian government’s ability to protect him from the virus. This is rather strange considering a state guest of the stature of Boris Johnson would have been accorded the same security protocol that this country’s Prime Minister is given. A sanitized bubble would have been created for him, just the way it is created for the Prime Minister of this country when he is travelling. Anyway, the visit was meant to be a short one and only to New Delhi, and not to other cities that he was initially supposed to go to. So where was the need to cancel it? The irony is, it was his own government which failed to create a bubble for Boris Johnson, because of which the British Prime Minister ended up contracting the virus a few months ago.

The visit to India was supposed to be PM Johnson’s first major overseas trip after being elected to office in December 2019. If he had continued with the visit, he would have been considered a true friend of India. Instead, by cancelling it he proved that he was not serious about UK’s ties with India. This has to be seen in the context of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to New Delhi last week—in the middle of the pandemic—when he had a full-fledged meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Let’s also not forget that the corona pandemic did not stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from visiting Bangladesh to participate in that country’s golden jubilee celebrations. Internationally too such visits are taking place, a case in point being Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden at a time when the pandemic is raging in both countries. It is from actions like these that the depth of a relationship is proven—how much importance leaders and countries give to ties with other countries. And obviously, in spite of all those Indian origin ministers in Boris Johnson’s government, in spite of the presence of such a huge Indian diaspora in the UK, in spite of the apparent collaboration in different areas, UK’s relationship with India just does not have that kind of depth.

India is no longer the British colony it once was, while UK is yet to recover from its colonial hangover, so finds it difficult to accommodate India’s interests—a case in point being the trouble that India faces trying to get some crooks extradited from there. Also, it appalls Indians that the UK allows its parliamentarians to discuss India’s internal matters and cast aspersions on India’s democracy, or that India’s high commission in London is attacked by Pakistan-backed radicals but the British government doesn’t take any action, or that British soil is allowed to become a hotbed for anti-India activities. And all these things have been happening on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s watch. There exists a lot of scepticism about UK in India. Moreover, the British media’s blanket negative coverage about anything India and Indian is seen as problematic by a large section of policymakers in this country. Boris Johnson has not done anything “spectacular” about India ever since he has taken over as Prime Minister—first as a successor to Theresa May in July 2019, and then elected Prime Minister in December 2019—that should inspire India’s confidence in him. Even his current focus is primarily about having a trade agreement with India, now that Britain is out of the European Union. It’s not known how interested he is in paying heed to India’s concerns. UK also wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific perhaps because every European power has started sailing its vessels there. But then Britain’s presence in the Indo-Pacific can only strengthen the alliance of the free world and may help in containing China, so that is welcome.

There is a lot that India and UK can do together. A visit by Boris Johnson would have gone a long way in building trust. Instead, news is that soon after PM Johnson said that he was not travelling to India, Britain added this nation to its red list of countries from where most travel is banned. And this in spite of India being generous enough about continuing its flights to and from the UK at a time when the UK strain was sweeping through Britain—the strain that largely caused this second wave in India. But then India approached India-UK bilateral ties in the true spirit of partnership. But the way things are shaping up, UK under Boris Johnson is not a reliable partner for India. India has shown enough generosity towards UK. Not anymore. It’s time India sent out a message to UK by withdrawing its invitation to PM Boris Johnson.

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The difference between faith and fanaticism

A person of faith recognises the truth that God is, whoever it may be, for him and others, while a fanatic is certain that only s/he knows who or what God is and is blinded by her/his passion. That is where differences between the two arise.

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Fanaticism has been in evidence across the world. Even Europe has no respite from the scourge, as one saw during the summer of 2016—from the acts of terrorism in Brussels on 22 March to the machete attack in Belgium on 6 August. And the trend continues till date. This wave of fanaticism raises certain questions for all people of faith. They are proud of the strength of their religious convictions, but so is the fanatic. What then sets a person of faith apart from a fanatic?

This question becomes particularly relevant in the context of terrorism, as one could pose a similar question about terrorism. The state uses violent force to combat terrorism but the terrorist also uses violent force against the state. So what is the difference between the two? All of us feel uneasy with an equation of this kind but we need to think clearly about this issue in order to feel clearly about it. In a country, the state has a monopoly on the use of violent force, which is supervised by a democratically elected government. Such moral and legal supervision is lacking in the case of a fanatic and that is why the apparent equation is misleading.

The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realizes that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways. But most will acknowledge, even the most faithful, that we can only know God as we can relate to God, not to God as God, not to God as God is by himself, herself, or itself. Right there we have a built-in check which prevents honest and profound faith from degenerating into fanaticism, because fanaticism presumes to know what God is. It is strange that sometimes religions tend to believe that they have a monopoly on God and that’s where fanaticism comes in. But if they examine the concepts of God in their own traditions, they will find that the traditions insist that one cannot know God fully.

Allow me to elaborate this point with an example from Islam, since some members of this tradition have been associated with many acts of terrorism in recent times. The fanatic member of this tradition is out to get the infidel, but in order to define someone as an infidel, we need to know who a true Muslim is. At this point a crucial distinction in Islam between the legal and theological identity of a Muslim becomes crucial. According to Islamic law, any person who recites the Islamic confession of faith in good faith in the presence of witnesses must be accepted as a Muslim and may not be denied access to a gathering of Muslims. He or she may not observe all the obligations of being a Muslim, such as performing the five prayers daily, but that only means that the person is not a good Muslim and cannot mean that she is not a Muslim. Thus, while the distinction between a Muslim and a non-believer is fairly clear in legal terms, the theological understanding of who is a Muslim is much more subtle. Whether one is a true believer or not is known only to God, and one and oneself only really know whether one is a true believer or not in the presence of God on the Day of Judgement. One can see how easy it is to fall in the gulf between these two understandings.

Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between truth and certainty. Often, when we think we are seeking truth, we are really seeking certainty. If such is the case then, yes, there is great potential for fanaticism in a faith, if we arrive at a conclusion and feel that it is absolutely certain. But the genuine seeker after truth realizes that we ourselves cannot know everything conclusively, except perhaps for the conclusion that ‘God is.’ Admittedly, there is a discomfort involved here. But if we can live with it—and all genuine faith recognises that we have to—then we have a built-in check against fanaticism, in faith itself.

Another distinction gains importance in this context. Whether one is a person of faith or a fanatic also depends on our attitude towards other people of faith. If we are certain that the people of other faiths are condemned, and abide by the ‘legal’ conception of one’s identity, then we have no purchase on our spirituality. If, however, we realise that only God can pronounce such a judgement and not mere human beings, then, as people of faith, it might be easier for us to understand that there are other people who are also people of faith like us. And that if we deny them their right to their faith, then in a sense we are questioning our own faith, or at least our humanity. Actually, when you become a fanatic, then in a sense, instead of worshiping God, you start playing God. Thus, like any other passion, even religious or moral passion can blind a person.

The writer is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at the McGill University in Montréal, Canada. He is also associated with the Nalanda University in India. The views expressed are personal.

The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realises that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways.

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