Beyond distrust: how should citizens view their government?

We’re firmly in that age when questioning the government can easily get labeled as being anti-national. The label can then become an object of radically networked outrage, silencing the original intent, and the question itself.

So, using what lens should citizens view the governments they elect in democracies?

Should trust be the lens with which we should view our governments? After all, we have collectively elected it. Or, should we assume that democratic governments have in their consideration, the interests of a large section of people?

What should be the guiding principle underlining our attitude towards the government?

Over the last few days, I came across a couple of viewpoints that provide some clarity. Yesterday, my colleague Pavan Srinath (@zeusisdead) mentioned that “Constant vigilance!” should be the mantra for the citizenry’s attitude towards its government. Harry Potter readers would remember this as the frequent refrain of the hyper-paranoid Auror “Mad-Eye” Moody, who frequently bellowed “constant vigilance” at people in order to keep them on their guard, says the awesome HarryPotter wiki page. The guiding principle here is that citizens should always be vigilant — interrogating the rationale behind governmental actions. This vigilance would then translate to questions like: will a particular governmental action restrict freedom of citizens? What economic costs will it have? Is government the agency best-suited to do a particular job? And if yes, does it have the capacity to take up the task it hopes to accomplish?

Another perspective on this citizen-government equation was provided by Dr. Ajay Shah (@ajay_shah), during his talk to at a GCPP workshop. Dr. Shah used an analogy,saying:

as a child, you don’t question the quality (or the quantity) of the food that your mother serves. You are absolutely sure that she has your best interests in mind. The principal-agent problem hardly applies. On the other hand, when you eat food at a hostel canteen, you would want to have a detailed contract with the vendor on aspects of quality, quantity, timeliness, and reliability of the food being served. Applying this analogy to the citizen—government relationship, the citizens can either think of a government as their mother or as their canteen vendor. Now, because the government is a complex of principals and agents, don’t treat the government as your mother. Treat it like that canteen vendor.

Constant vigilance and the canteen vendor metaphor are two lenses through which we can look at our governments. An important note here: vigilance is different from distrust. You trust a canteen vendor that he/she will not poison your food but you still have checks and balances in place, making it difficult for the agent to opt for a path that is diametrically opposite to that of the principal. And so it should be with respect to the governments.

But what would this state of constant vigilance imply? It would mean that people will always question governmental decisions no matter how good the intent, or how good the leader is. This would mean that more often than not, we would closely examine and question governmental decisions rather than acquiesce with them. This would mean that the default reaction to any government would be that of skepticism.

The skeptics will also run the risk of being labeled partisans at the very least, and anti-nationals at the worst. The credibility of a skeptic will then rest on the universal application of her skepticism with respect to governments across political formations.

Finally, this couplet from Iqbal’s Tasveer-e-Dard is on similar lines:

Ye Khamoshi Kahan Tak? Lazzat-e-Faryad Paida Kar
Zameen Par Tu Ho Aur Teri Sada Ho Asmanon Mein

How long will you remain silent? Create taste for complaint!
You should be on the earth, so your cries be in the heavens!

Remember, the government is not your mother!

To understand the difference between criticising a government and hating a nation, read our column in the Hindu thRead: Love thy nation, watch thy government.


The last stumbling block

[This article first appeared on Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review]

A breakthrough in the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal negotiations is the last step in clearing the path for India and Iran to help Afghanistan in its quest for strategic autonomy

Negotiators from the P5+1 nations and Iran are working to reach a political agreement on the nuclear deal by March 31st 2015. These talks that will determine the interlinked fate of Iran’s nuclear programme and the economic sanctions imposed on the country. The urgency for coming to an agreement stems from the events unraveling in Iraq. More importantly though, from India’s perspective, a successful conclusion of this deal will also clear the path for India and Iran to work in tandem in Afghanistan on a scale that has never been possible before.

Stability in Afghanistan has long been contingent on the stability of the balance of power between the various geopolitical actors in the region, including India and Iran. And it is likely to remain so in the near future given the weakness of the current Afghan State. These geopolitical actors can be theoretically classified in two alignments, depending solely on their shared interests, even if these alignments do not translate into formal camps or alliances as of today.

The first alignment comprises of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China. The fulcrum of this alignment has traditionally been Pakistan. Both Saudi Arabia and China have perceived Pakistan as a part of the solution to the problems in Afghanistan and have supported Pakistan’s efforts to promote dialogue and improve relations with Afghanistan. As C Raja Mohan explains in The Indian Express, the launch of a new official forum last week named “China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Strategic Dialogue” is likely to emerge as a major force shaping India’s north west frontiers. Due to the preponderance of Pakistan in this force, the objectives of this alignment have long been shaped by the objectives of Pakistan in Afghanistan. The Pakistani establishment in turn has always feared that a strong independent Afghanistan—like the one that existed up to the mid-1970s—will pursue an irredentist agenda, claiming the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan and by extension this alignment has had a shared interest in a weak Afghan State.

The second broad group of actors comprises of Iran, India and US which have a shared interest in a stable Afghanistan. Tehran wants a stable Afghanistan for stalling narcotics trafficking, preventing an influx of Afghan refugees and stopping anti-Shia forces in the country. India sees a stable and strategically autonomous Afghanistan as the cornerstone of its foreign policy for the region. And the US, having made huge economic and military investments post 2001 to instil stability in Afghanistan, is retreating in the hope that the nascent Afghan State will gain in strength and resist occupation by non-state actors of various hues.

Despite the shared interest, even as China has tried to consolidate its alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States has virtually blocked any joint efforts by India and Iran. In the past, US also prevented India from assuming a greater role in Afghanistan for the fear of alienating its ally in the Global War on Terror – Pakistan. And on its part, India too showed no appetite for bringing about a rapprochement between the United States and Tehran.

Luckily, two events in the past decade have pushed the US towards a rethink in its engagement with other countries in Afghanistan. First, the civil nuclear agreement signed between India and the United States in 2008 marked the end of a decades-long estrangement. Second, busting of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad made it difficult for the US to ignore Pakistan’s duplicity. The only remaining stumbling block now is Iran’s isolation. And this is why the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal has the potential to alter the course of events, particularly for India and Iran. Though the US will not be able to work openly with Iran in Afghanistan at this point of time, it can, at the very least, promote a stronger India-Iran front.

It is important to realise that though unprecedented, the opportunity provided by a possible breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations will be short-lived as China and Pakistan will seek to resolve their respective internal issues and consolidate their position in Afghanistan. The new “China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Strategic Dialogue” is an effort to consolidate their position. Thus, coming together of Iran and India on this issue becomes all the more important an urgent. If the Tehran-Washington rapprochement takes place, it will allow India and Iran to quickly get off the mark on three fronts in Afghanistan.

First, the Chabahar port project, facing the Sea of Oman, can become Afghanistan’s gateway to the world, connecting the country to India as well as the extended neighbourhood. The project will end Pakistan’s monopoly as a gateway to the landlocked Afghanistan. For India, this project will also serve a secondary goal of attaining ground access to the Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Second, India and Iran can come together to prevent an Iraq like situation in Afghanistan. India can play a leading role in reaching out to Afghanistan’s northern and western neighbours to reconstitute an alliance as existed in the 90′s. Such an alliance will prevent the return of forces like the Taliban.

Third, India and Iran can play a role in expanding this partnership to engage Russia and China. With respect to Afghanistan, Russia has concerns over the narcotics trade as well as fears the rise of Islamic fundamentalism within its own country, particularly in its insurgent-riddled southern republic of Chechnya. While China has thrown its weight behind Pakistan, it is also concerned about Islamic terrorism in the wake of unrest in Xinjiang. China has previously clarified that while it supports a settlement to bring the Taliban into the political system, it opposes a Taliban government. How far the Chinese and Russians can be nudged to engage with India and Iran remains to be seen. And herein lies an opportunity.

Thus, the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal offers a never-before opportunity that will allow India and Iran to co-operate on an unprecedented scale in Afghanistan while upholding the interests of the Afghan State — which aligns with the interests of the US. This window of opportunity is not permanent and has opened up only for a short time before China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia get their focus back on Afghanistan. So it is for the US and India to seize this golden opportunity and construct an alliance that ushers Afghanistan to peace, stability and prosperity.

[This article first appeared on Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review]

Deciphering the signals behind Asad Durrani’s utterances

The former ISI chief’s successive appearances on television last week are possibly aimed at building pressure on the US to fulfil their side of the ‘deal’

Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani, a former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appeared on the Al-Jazeera Network and BBC HARDtalk last week, and opened up more than one can of worms in the process. In his interview to Al-Jazeera, he assessed that the ISI harboured Osama Bin Laden and wanted to give him up in exchange of a favourable resolution to the Afghanistan political question. On BBC HARDtalk, when asked about Pakistan’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban, he expounded that statecraft is based on realism, and not on abstract emotions of permanent friendship and trust. What Durrani said during these television appearances did not come as a surprise to people in India who have long suspected that the Military-Jihadi Complex(MJC) in Pakistan is a powerful and irreconcilable entity. Nevertheless, this was the first admission of the nexus between Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani State by someone close to the MJC. Officially, the ISI still claims that they did not harbour Bin Laden and played no role in the 2011 raid. Thus, from an Indian perspective, it is not the content of these utterances that matter as much as the the reasons behind the timing of this disclosure.

The first reason for these statements could just be a personal vendetta between Durrani and Gen. Raheel Sharif, who heads the current military establishment, or a feud between Durrani and the ISI chief during the Osama Bin Laden raid, Lt. Gen. (retd) Shuja Pasha. Having figured out that there is nothing to lose personally, this could be a ploy by Durrani to voice his opposition to others in the military. Appearing on HARDtalk, Durrani appears to be critical of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on the grounds that it created more trouble than it killed enemies of the Pakistani State. In response to the military offensive against terrorists following the Peshawar attack, he hoped that the Pakistani military would calibrate its response based on what the terror groups stand for. In his own words: ‘In principle, groups which are ultimately going to be useful in the unity of Afghanistan and groups that are not against the Pakistani state will not be targeted, I at least hope that will not be done because that would be a very silly thing to do’. Such statements indicate differences between Mr. Durrani and the current military leadership. The possibility that these utterances are a part of a personal power play in the Pakistani military elite sounds like a damp squib but one can’t deny the role that personal differences play in such cases. This possibility however, becomes untenable considering that Asad Durrani has been the unofficial mouthpiece of ISI in the past and has served masterfully as a channel of plausible deniability for the MJC. If this modus operandi holds true even today, there are two possibilities that explain the purpose and timing behind these interviews.

The second possibility could be to pre-empt another revelation that might expose ISI’s duplicity further. By taking a stance now, Durrani is attempting to soften the impact that any disclosure which implicates ISI might lead to. When questioned by Al-Jazeera Network’s Mehdi Hasan that was Laden’s compound an ISI safe house, he responded ‘If ISI was doing that, then I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done’. Such statements are meant to shield the ISI against a domestic backlash as Bin Laden still remains an admired figure in Pakistan. What appears to have happened is that the ISI’s plan was to trade Osama Bin Laden at the right time and at a right “price”. What is not clear however, is whether the Abbottabad raid was a result of this deal or a consequence of an aborted one. After Asad Durrani’s outburst, the US seemed to be eager to deny his claims. US State spokeswoman Jen Psaki was quick to assert that  ‘we don’t have any reason to believe that the government of Pakistan knew about the location of Bin Laden’. This evidence suggests that a deal was indeed being negotiated when US took unilateral action, recognising that Pakistan was asking for too much in return.

The third and the most plausible reason could be that a deal indeed took place but Pakistan did not get what was promised. In this context, Durrani rued that ‘there was no co-operation by the US with Pakistan on Afghanistan’ after 2005. Solving the Afghanistan political question in terms favorable to Pakistan was the demand that Pakistan would have wanted in return of Laden’s handover. Since this demand was not met in its entirety, Pakistan now wants to remind US of its side of the deal. Praising Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan, Durrani reminded the US, and the world that Pakistan would continue to support jihadi elements not harmful to Pakistan like the Haqqanis. He even claimed that the Haqqanis were given signals to move out of North Waziristan before Operation Zarb-e-Azb began. Apart from a stake in the politics of Afghanistan, these statements might be aimed at boosting the quantum of US financial aid for the Pakistani military. Since Pakistan has vehemently expressed its disagreement with the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, these interviews could be meant to seek a similar deal between the US and Pakistan.

What happens in the coming days will help understand which of these three possibilities turns out to be true. Meanwhile, a lesson for all of us from these events, to paraphrase Asad Durrani himself, is that ‘Statecraft is not about permanent friends…you play so many games, you keep many balls in the air. International relations are not based on trust’. Serves as a reminder to all of us that amorality is a feature, and not a bug in the domain of international relations.

This article first appeared on The BroadMind blog.

Shivaji Asaa Hota — This is who Shivaji was…

A review of the Marathi book ‘Shivaji KoN Hota’ which says that instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 1.16.05 pmPossibly because they can no longer speak for themselves, historically important individuals are susceptible to massive distortions of their thoughts, actions and lives. This process of weaving myths around a historical figure holds particularly true in the case of Shivaji Shahji Bhonsle, the 17th century warrior king who went on to establish a formidable Maratha empire. It is with this aim of decoupling history from the prevalent demigod image of Shivaji that the CPI leader Govind Pansare gave a speech Shivaji KoN Hota? (Who was Shivaji?) way back in 1987. This was later published as a book and has been a Marathi super hit—the 38th edition of the book was released recently.

This book puts the life and times of Shivaji under perspective. The work is not as much a biography of Shivaji as it is an attempt to debunk the myths surrounding Shivaji. It begins with the question—of what relevance is the life of a feudal king in a democracy? Pansare says that although Shivaji was essentially a part of the 17th century feudal society, it was his vision that set him apart from the other rulers. First and foremost, Shivaji was a great state builder. Starting from a small paragana around Pune, he created a formidable political rule that extended throughout Maharashtra and beyond. Second, Shivaji was an administrative reformer. He modified rules of the tilling system in order to benefit the ordinary peasant. Unlike other rulers, he was able to break the traditional control of the Deshmukhs (highest local authority in a village), the Patils (a title for village chiefs), the Kulkarnis (village record keepers) and other dominant classes. Because he was able to break this nexus, he introduced land reforms that put an end to the discretionary exploitation by the village power elite.

In an interesting section of the book, Pansare debunks the myth of an idyllic 17th century village. He contends that before Shivaji’s rule, the king had no control or an interest in the operations of the village as long as the share of taxes duly reached the state coffers. The village economy was largely self-sufficient and exploitative. Under Shivaji’s rule however,  the administration was centralised. Taxes reached the state first and were then devolved to the village levels.  Moreover, the 17th century was particularly miserable for women. Physical exploitation was common and there was no appellate mechanism against the village elite. This changed in Shivaji’s administration. Pansare cites an instance where, for the first time a landlord was punished for the rape of a village woman. There was also a prevalent practice of women being employed as concubines for the soldiers of a travelling army. Shivaji prohibited that practice, disbanded a standing army and encouraged soldiers to take up other part-time occupations in order to retain stronger family ties.

The author’s take on the destruction of temples by invading armies merits particular attention. The conventional revenue earnings for armies came as a proportion of the loot. Hence, armies had an inbuilt incentive for maximum pillage while conducting raids. Naturally, temples which also functioned as wealth banks came under attack during such raids. Destruction of temples also served as a demoralising weapon—if the ‘God’ could not protect itself from an invading army, of what use was resisting such a powerful force? It was for these reasons that, regardless of religion, both Hindu and Muslim armies targeted temples. This is quite the opposite of the present day narrative where a few rulers have been singled out for destruction of temples. The author gives the instance of the Sharda Sringeri Temple which was in fact destroyed by the ‘Hindu’ Maratha army and was rebuilt by the ‘Muslim’ Tipu Sultan. What Pansare says is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and notdharma. Once the conquests were completed, there were several instances of kings rebuilding temples in order to assuage their subjects. The author says that even Aurangzeb rebuilt the Jagannath temple in Gujarat besides other important worshipping sites in Mathura and Benaras.

In recent times, the totem of Shivaji has been raised by many Hindu extremist outfits, calling him a Hindu ruler who stood up to the Muslim Mughals. Slotting Shivaji in neat compartments of religious dichotomy is factually incorrect. The book has excerpts of letters by Shivaji which are rich in Persian/Urdu words — like julum, farman, mulaaqat etc. Shivaji also issued ordinances disallowing destruction of mosques and temples.There were many Muslims who were happy with his rule just like many Hindu kings who collaborated to undermine his rule. Again, the message is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and not dharma.

The author rues that today, a cult of Shivaji has formed. Groups of people formed along caste and religious lines calling themselves shivbhakts are not difficult to spot in Maharashtra. However, what is conveniently forgotten is that Shivaji faced severe opposition from caste groups (96 kulis), who refused to be ruled by a person belonging to a caste ‘lesser’ than their own. But today, in their quest for narrative dominance, Shivaji was first appropriated by Hindu nationalists, then he was appropriated by various Maratha groups and then as a Gobrahman Pratipalak— the protector of the cow and the brahmin.

The problem with this competition for appropriation of Shivaji’s legacy by a religion, region and caste has been that while Shivaji was a very popular figure in many neighbouring states 50 years ago, his legacy has now been confined to Maharashtra. Pansare says that it is important that we distinguish the real shivbhakts from fake ones. Transforming a human to a god figure is easy because once a human is made a god, one disposes himself of the responsibility of changing his own behaviour. How can one emulate God, people ask. This is what we should be wary of. Instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles. The lesson for all of us is that any nationalism obsessed with exclusion finds it difficult to limit the extent of the exclusion.

After all, history and mythology are separated by a thin, semi-permeable membrane. History enters the domain of the myth when historical figures are transformed into demigods, armed with superpowers. At a latter point, reason, as a means to gauge their power becomes dispensable and their lives attain an axiomatic character—beyond enquiry and too great to be analysed logically. We need to be extremely wary of this process which prohibits us from the spirit of questioning.

P.S.: Govind Pansare was killed by unidentified assailants in Feb, 2015

This article first appeared on The BroadMind blog.

Pakistan’s depiction in Homeland: sign of a deeper malaise

I collaborated with Mr. Anand Arni (@anand_arni) to write in Pragati. We say that the caricatured depiction of Islamabad in the TV series is a pointer to the social, political and economic damages borne by the average Pakistani.

Islamabad, a purpose built capital designed by Greek architects, is set on the northern edge of the Potohar plateau, at the foot of the scenic forested Margalla hills. It has much to praise – its manicured lawns, grassy parks, wide avenues, shopping malls and up-market restaurants. When Homeland, a popular serial about a CIA officer stationed in Islamabad, was set in a fictionalised Islamabad, Pakistan called its portrayal ‘inaccurate’ and far from the ‘grimy hellhole and war zone where shootouts and bombs go off with dead bodies scattered around’. Actually, Islamabad is closer to what the Pakistani establishment has described as a ‘quiet, picturesque city with beautiful mountains and lush greenery’.

Or it was. Things began going wrong with a series of terrorist incidents over the last decade —the July 2007 siege of Lal Masjid, the June 2008 bombing at the Danish Embassy, the September 2008 Marriott bombing and four terrorism incidents in 2011, including the murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.

While some liberties have been taken in its cinematic depiction, not so are the references, which Pakistan has objected to, of the country being referred to as undemocratic and allied with terrorists as also the “repeated insinuations” that the ISI was “complicit in protecting terrorists”. The presence of a Military-Jehadi Complex makes Islamabad one of the most difficult places to serve in. Ask any diplomat who has served in Pakistan and he would find little to disagree with the thrust of Homeland’s portrayal. Pakistan only needs to look in the mirror and question why even citizens of friendly countries hesitate in accepting a posting there.

Much of the fault has to be ascribed to the use of militancy as an instrument of foreign policy. In the early 50’s, it provoked tribesmen to enter Kashmir and, in the 80’s, it encouraged separatists to take on the Indian state. In the 80’s and 90’s, with the acquiescence of the US and Saudi Arabia, it combined the use of religion and militancy to promote jehad in Afghanistan. Following the spectacular collapse of the USSR, Pakistan chose to encourage and fund obscurantist groups to launch a jehadagainst India.

This short sighted policy has had tremendous opportunity costs for the average Pakistani.

Socially, the use of religion has lead to the ascendancy of the clergy even though it has a nominal role in a religion which stresses upon a communion between man and his maker. Concocted ideologies planted in school curricula indoctrinate impressionable minds against non-Muslims or the “incorrect type of Muslims”. Also, Pakistanis can no longer travel freely, not even to friendly countries. No country is prepared to grant a visa without making extensive checks. Pakistanis are routinely pulled out of line at airports for greater checks. The immediate reaction of most journalists when there is a terror attack is to look for a Pakistani connection. It cannot even hold a cricket match on its soil. Of its two Nobel prize winners, one was acknowledged reluctantly and the other cannot come back. While polio is still an endemic viral infection in Pakistan, polio workers are targeted by militants on made-up charges that polio vaccination is an evil scheme for sterilising Pakistanis.

Economically, the damage has been even greater. With an annual GDP growth rate of 6.8 percent in the 1960s, Pakistan was set to become an Asian tiger. In the period upto the 90’s, Pakistan was progressing at a much faster pace than neighbouring India. Its rate of growth was nearly double that of India. From this promising start, Pakistan has today been reduced to a basket case dependent on foreign aid which from the US alone has been close to $83.12 billion since independence. Since money is fungible, aid in whatever form it may be, has further strengthened the military elite which has jeopardised the process of economic growth in the country. On another front, the energy sector is reeling under deficits and power cuts have made many urban centers unfavorable for businesses.

Politically, Pakistanis have been short-changed when it comes to democracy with the Army inveigling itself into the equation. It now has a veto over policies related to India and Afghanistan in all of whichjehad is a preferred option. Those who should have the say through their elected representatives have been sidelined. Every government, even those voted to power with a comfortable majority, has to face its ordeal of fire with the Army engineering incidents which undermine the authority of the government and make it subservient. Though accurate statistics are difficult to come by, there is reason to believe that a number of Pakistan’s elected representatives are either planted by the Army or are dependent on them so that they exist as a fall-back option. The recent decision to try suspected militants in army courts is another case in point for the decreasing political space for civilian institutions.

Thus, even though the depiction of Islamabad in Homeland may not have been accurate, it is definitely a pointer to the deeper malaise that ails the Pakistani society. The responses to this grim portrayal in the western media can lead to two kinds of responses.

First, the response of denial. This will reflect in the Pakistani Army continuing to be in charge of the dominant narrative. Even if it targets militants, this will be selective in the best case. It will continue to deny that the roots of Pakistan’s problems lie in the Punjab where violent groups are being sheltered under the State’s aegis.

On the other hand, the grim portrayals and an even tougher reality can trigger an awakening in the Pakistani society which forces it to introspect the basis of the modern Pakistan State. This could manifest in the form of protests which ask tough questions like how long will the average Pakistani suffer at the hands of violent non-state actors employed as agents of the state? And in the long run, is the Pakistani State aiming for prosperity of its citizens or for upholding of an ideology?

In practice, there will be a contest between the two responses in the years to come. In the immediate future though, it is the army’s vision of Pakistan that is the reality and that reality envisages the continued use of jehad as a foreign policy tool. As long as that continues, Pakistan will continue to be wracked by violence.

Exactly as depicted in Homeland.

सामाजिक क्रांति और भारतीय संविधान : एक अद्वितीय प्रयोग

This post was first published on The Logos Blog.

असंख्य सामाजिक कुरीतियों पर अंकुश लगाने की ज़िम्मेदारी संविधान के लिए एक कठोर परीक्षा है

आम तौर पर ‘क्रांति’ और ‘संविधान’ को विरोधार्थी सन्दर्भों में समझा जाता है । क्रन्तिकारी बदलाव के बारे में सोचते हुए अक़्सर हमारे मन में आंदोलन, जोश-ख़रोश, हिंसा और विशाल जनसमूहों के चित्र सामने आ जाते हैं । वहीं संवैधानिक बदलाव के साथ हम अक़्सर समझौते, धीमें बदलाव, विचार-विमर्श वगैरह जैसी मंद क्रियाएँ जोड़ देते हैं । केवल भारतीय संविधान ही एक ऐसा प्रयोग है जो इन दोनों भिन्न धारणाओं को व्यापक तौर पर साथ ला सका है ।

संविधान को सामजिक बदलाव का मुख्य एजेंट बनाना न केवल एक साहसिक प्रयोग था, यह एक अद्वितीय कदम भी था । साहसिक इसलिए क्यूंकि १९४७ तक भारतीय समाज नाना प्रकार की कुरीतियों की वजह से खोखला हो चूका था । जातिवाद, साम्प्रदायिकता, भूखमरी और गरीबी ने समाज को कमज़ोर बना दिया था । ऐसे वक़्त पर हमारे संविधान के रचयिताओं ने इन समस्याओं का ख़ात्मा करने का बीड़ा उठाया । साथ ही यह कदम अद्वितीय इसलिए था क्यूंकि उस वक़्त तक किसी भी संविधान ने क्रान्ति लाने का जिम्मा नहीं उठाया था । उदराहणार्थ , अगर हम अमरीकी संविधान पर नज़र डाले तो पता चलता है कि वह एक कन्सर्वेटिव रचना है । उसमें  केवल उस समय के मानदंडों की रक्षा करने का भाव है ।

संविधान रचयिताओं की यह असाधारण पहल ज़रूरी भी थी और शायद सही भी थी , किन्तु इस प्रयोग के कुछ साइड इफेक्ट्स भी हुए जो आज तक चले आ रहें हैं और जिन्हें समझना ज्ञानवर्धक होगा ।

एक, इस क्रांतिकारी बदलाव की कोशिश ने पूरे संविधान की वैधता पर सवालिया निशान लगा दिए । जो लोग सदियों से जात-पात या दहेजप्रथा जैसी दक़ियानूसी बातों में विश्वास रखते थे , वे यह पूछने लगे कि चंद लोगों के कल लिखे हुए कुछ  पन्नें आखिर किस रूप से प्राचीन रीति रिवाजों से बेहतर हैं ? ऐसा सोचने वाले आज भी मौजूद हैं खाप पंचायतों के रूप में जो गोत्र और जाति जैसी मनघड़ंत बातों पर आँख मूँद कर विश्वास रखने पर आमादा हैं । और जब कुछ लोग संविधान के एक क्षेत्र को नकारने लगें तो इस अवैधता का डर संविधान के अन्य क्षेत्रों को भी सताने लगा । उदाहरणार्थ, जो संविधान की छुआछूत उन्मूलन के सविचार के विरोध में थे, वह संविधान के धर्मनिरपेक्ष प्रावधानों को भी धिक्कारने लगे ।

दूसरा, सामाजिक परिवर्तन का जिम्मा उठाने की वजह से भारत गणराज्य का काम कई गुना बढ़ गया । कौटिल्य अर्थशास्त्र में कहा गया है कि राज्य के अभाव में मत्स्यन्याय की अवस्था होती है जिसमें व्यक्ति अपने बल के आधार पर अपने से कमज़ोर व्यक्तियों के साथ जैसा चाहे व्यवहार कर सकता है । अतः राज्य का स्थापन मत्स्यन्याय की स्थिति का अंत करने के लिए हुआ। चाहे राजतंत्र हो या लोकतंत्र, राज्य की सबसे बड़ी ज़िम्मेदारी है हर व्यक्ति की स्वतंत्रता की रक्षा करना, चाहे वह कितना ही कमज़ोर क्यों न हो । इस धारणा को rule of law कहा जाता है और हम अपनी ओर ही देखें तो स्पष्ट हो जाएगा कि हमारा गणराज्य इस मुख्य उद्देश्य को पूरा नहीं कर पाया है । ऐसी नाज़ुक अवस्था में भारतीय गणराज्य ने सामाजिक परिवर्तन का एक और महाकार्य अपने कन्धों पर ले लिया जिससे राज्य की कठिनाईयाँ और बढ़ गयी । उदाहरणार्थ, एक पुलिस अफसर का कार्य सिर्फ कानून की रक्षा करने तक सीमित नहीं है – उसे यह भी सुनिश्चित करना है कि दहेज, छुआछुत जैसे प्रकरण समाज में ना हो पाए ।

इन दोनों नकारात्मक पहलुओं का तात्पर्य यह नहीं कि हमें अपने संवैधानिक मार्ग त्याग दे, बल्कि हमें इस बोल्ड प्रयोग को सफल बनाने की और दृढ़ता से मेहनत करनी चाहिए । शायद हमारा गणराज्य निर्दोष नहीं , लेकिन यह हमारा सर्वश्रेष्ठ विकल्प हैं । इसके सारे पहलुओं पर रोशनी डालने से हम इसको बेहतर समझ पाएंगे । आख़िर इसकी सफलता में ही हम सबकी कामयाबी है ।

On Effecting Change

درختوں کے ساہے ڈھونڈھتا رہا میں دربدر
بھول گیا تھا کی ایک بیج تو میں بھی بو سکتا ہوں

दरख़्तों के सायें ढूंढता रहा मैं दरबदर
भूल गया था कि एक बीज तो मैं भी बो सकता हूँ|

Translation: In the search for the shade of trees, I forgot that I could myself sow a seed.

Good sugar, bad sugar; good terrorist, bad terrorist

Some dichotomies stem from reason, others stem from preferences masquerading as reason

This post is inspired by an anecdote and hence all the usual disclaimers applicable to anecdotes apply here.

Two people were discussing the dangers that excess intake of sugar poses for a healthy body. None of them had any disagreements over this fact. Further, one of them said that his solution to remaining healthy was to stop eating rice and start eating a lot of fruits. “Don’t fruits contain sugar as well? Surely, eating a lot of fruits must be harmful as well even though they provide vitamins and other nutrients…” enquired the second. The first guy paused and then remarked: “That’s not exactly true. Because there’s good sugar and there’s bad sugar. Fruits contain the former and hence they are good.” The second guy was at a loss of both, words and knowledge.

Now substitute health for Pakistan’s national integrity, sugar for violence, rice for TTP and fruits for the Punjab based militants. Read the discussion again and what you get is the situation in contemporary Pakistan: where an imagined dichotomy has been created between terrorists. Just because some terrorists are not killing people in Pakistan, their tolerance elsewhere is being tolerated because they have other ‘health’ benefits.

Though I have singled out Pakistan as an example, this substitution applies to all nations including India. Pakistan is used as an archetype here because the dichotomy is clearly visible.

Comparing sugars with terrorists may sound flippant but the reality is that a lot of people sincerely believe in the existing artificial dichotomies. This is because we superimpose our preferences over reason. Just because fruits have some wonderful benefits over rice, they are painted an all-weather good. Similarly, just because some terrorists can help in an apparent cause, their violence is seen leniently.

Geopolitics is an amoral game. Nations have at various times used violence against other nations to increase their power in the world and it is foolish to assume that any spiritual upliftment will change this in near future. Hence, the Indian State has no option but to fight and end the irreconcilable Military Jihadi Complex (MJC) in Pakistan. It is left to the individual nations to introspect if violence as a means for achieving certain goals is beneficial to their own ‘health’.

The risks of conflating poverty alleviation with economic equality

One of them is an urgent and important problem while the other is a moral question

Takshashila GCPP alumnus Prakhar Misra brought to attention these lines from Pratap Bhanu’s book The Burden of Democracy:

The call for a redistributive politics was often confused between two aims, poverty alleviation and economic equality. In principal, the two are distinct.

It is rewarding to discuss these lines further and understand the differences between poverty alleviation and economic equality. It is rewarding because conflating the two concepts can lead to policies that achieve neither and in fact, worsen the status quo.

The word poverty itself can mean different things to different nation-states. In the current Indian context, some of the biggest challenges are malnutrition, lack of sanitation, homelessness, poor public health facilities and unaffordable education. These deficiencies in the living conditions are broadly classified into what is sometimes referred to as absolute poverty. Hence, poverty alleviation in India would mean enabling people to eradicate these problems from their own lives.

Economic inequality on the other hand can be broadly understood to be the same as relative poverty. When OECD countries worry about their poor, they are concerned with the differences in the incomes between the richest and the poorest. This is because they have largely solved the problems of absolute poverty that continue to plague countries like India. Targeting problems of relative poverty would mean that the rich should take the burden of reducing this inequality in the society as it might lead to the alienation of the poor.

The discourse in India about poverty has conflated between the aims of absolute poverty eradication and relative poverty eradication. This confusion is best expressed in common sensical paradoxes like “How can Indians accept that while some of the richest in India are amongst the richest in the world, some X% of people continue to die of malnutrition everyday?” This is a powerful and emotive argument that tends to veer the discussion towards economic equality. Invariably, this leads to redistributive policies which aim at transferring wealth from the rich to the poor.

In this approach to economic equality lies our problem. Aiming for equality when we have more pressing concerns of absolute poverty is detrimental to the society as a whole. A State that is optimising for poverty alleviation would focus on providing for public goods and rely on private enterprise to generate wealth. Economic growth would be its mantra so that no one is poor on an absolute scale. On the other hand, a State optimising for economic equality would be concerned about the best ways of redistribution alone. Such an approach without economic growth will disincentivise private enterprise, even stalling the process of absolute poverty eradication.

Then there is a larger philosophical question of whether a socialist society where everyone is economically equal, a right way to go? Will it not demotivate those who work harder? Will it not motivate free riders? These are moral questions best left for the society to answer. And even if we assume that a society where economic equality is a reality is the best one, why should we let the best be the enemy of the good?

Yaadein – یادیں

PictureThis clock which has now seen a couple of generations in our ancestral home in Indore made me realise that:

कुछ चीज़ों की फितरत होती है वक़्त के साथ बदल जाना
और कुछ चीज़ों का मक़सद है बदलते वक़्त का गवाह बन जाना

کچھ چیزوں کی فطرت ہیں وقت کے ساتھ بدل جانا
اور کچھ چیزوں کا مقصد ہیں بدلتے وقت کا گواہ بن جانا