Archive for August, 2008

Why Civilizations cannot Climb Hills?

Prof. James C. Scott, a professor at Yale, was a visiting professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Roskilde University in Denmark. Presenting his research on Southeast Asia, he spoke about Why Civilizations cannot Climb Hills on 29 April 2008. He argued how states stop when they come to hills and presented the history of non-state spaces. According to him, the history of agriculture in Southeast Asia is of 8,000 years. The history of homo-sapiens is 200,000 years and the history of homo-sapiens in Southeast Asia is 50,000 years. He also argued that most of human experience has been state-less. Population and production in Southeast Asia was dispersed.


He distinguished between the Valley and the Hill and argued that the valley has always been the sites of states – taxes, Kings, sites of war and of hierarchy. The hill has no permanent states, no permanent Kings and taxation system. It is relatively egalitarian, although it is considered uncivilized, primitive and as barbarian periphery. Hill peoples are the past of the valley people. Hill peoples don’t share the religion of the valley. Mountains remain at the fringes of civilization. People run away from valleys to hills to evade state-making – taxation, mono-cropping, etc. of the state. Hills are not barbarian periphery but they are kind of political refugees. Hill peoples are considered as tribes and tribes were the creation of states and empires. They are the people who live in the fringes of the state. In Southeast Asia and South Asia, tribes were escaping state-building where as in Africa tribes were part of the state project. The idea of nation-state has been to control the periphery and to expand the state sovereignty till the border.


Empowering Visions

What roles do the modern media play in the sphere of culture, politics and governance? Christiane Brosius’ Empowering Visions: the Politics of Representation in Hindu Nationalism (London: Anthem Press, 2005) is an attempt to address ‘why, how and when Hindutva ideologues and pragmatics exploited the video media in order to claim power over public opinion-making and opinion-shaping’ (p. 3). Grounded on the theories of popular culture, anthropology of audiovisuals and thick ethnographic analysis, Brosius brilliantly depicts the roles played by Jain Studios’ videography in representing Hindutva’s cultural nationalism as an alternative conception of modernity, nationhood and national identity against the existing morally corrupt culture of secularism. These alternative empowering visions are realized through active entwining of ‘imagination to politics and ideology, space to time, image to narrative, and agent to action’ (p. 4).


The author argues that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, since the late 1980s, have heavily exploited the modern media, particularly audiovisual technologies to create visions of idealized Hindu way of life. Employing Schiffauer’s idea of ‘field of discourse’– ‘as a sphere in which cultural agents interact with each other with regards to interpretations, norms, values, questions of style and memories’ (p. 3) – Brosius argues that Jain Studio’s production and distribution of propaganda videos has helped the BJP in spreading cultural and ideological images to influence the public consciousness with a pan-Indian cultural nationalism grounded on the glories of the golden age. By depicting the people passionately participating in the saffron revolution, these images and narratives invite further participation of the audience. Key images and narratives from the domain of local popular culture were appropriated and commodified in a package to heighten ‘political marketing’ and mobilization (p. 93); to influence the popular psyche of the people; and to present itself as a credible force to reshape the modern nation-state, reclaim the stolen stories and rewrite the national history.


Selective use of particularistic media imaginations and narratives has colonized the public conscience and provocative representations in the public sphere have generated antithetical feelings of ‘self’ and ‘the other’. Visual media has convincingly justified Hindutva’s agenda of Hindu cultural identity as ‘credible’ and depicted Muslims as anti-nationals and a threat to the nation. It argues that the national history has been misrepresented by the anti-nationals and a self-empowerment could be achieved only by re-mapping Indianness through a return to the ‘indigenous and “true” history of the Hindu people’ (p. 12). A sense of ‘pop patriotism’ is being crafted by softly manipulating the Hindu sentiment through devout citizenship, righteousness, self-sacrifice, sacred violence, heroism, national devotion, and the notion of martyrdom which has ‘left deep scars on the skin of civil society, and changed the mental maps of large parts of Indian citizenry for good’ (p. 180). The video media, which is a part of Hindutva’s ‘cheerful revolution’ aimed at forming a powerful paternalistic state with a seemingly disciplined and infantile citizenry ever ready to sacrifice for the cause of universal brotherhood and moral community (p. 93). Since 1998, the Internet has decentralized the power of representation and disseminated Hindutva ideology on a wider scale. The presentation of imaginary and narratives in cultural production has, thus, played a significant role in redefining identity, history, nationhood, governance and politics.


The only shortcoming of the book would be its overemphasis on the cultural ‘production’ of image and narratives and not the ‘reception’ of it by the people. Despite this, the book is an admiral contribution to the Anthem South Asian Studies series. Its uniqueness lies in its provocative and telling arguments embedded in ethnographic description and provides a valuable contribution to the field of popular culture and anthropology of iconography.




@ Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 16, No. 3, September 2008, pp. 357-358.


Who Invented Hinduism?

Hinduism, I had thought, is a very old religion. To my disbelief, it is actually not. Many have claimed that Hinduism is a colonial construction/invention and was non-existent before the colonial times. W.C. Smith, who is identified as the pioneer, cites the year 1829 before which “Hindooism” did not exist. As John Hawley (1991) writes, “Hinduism – the word perhaps the reality too – was born in the nineteenth century, a notoriously illegitimate child. The father was middle class and the British, and the mother, of course, was India”. Similarly Brian Smith (1989) has argued that “Hinduism was probably first imagined by the British in the early part of the nineteenth century to describe (and create and control) an enormously complex configuration of people and their traditions found in South Asian subcontinent. ‘Hinduism’ made it possible for the British, and for us all (including Hindus) to speak of a religion when before there was none or, at best, many”.


The question however is if Hinduism is an illegitimate invention of colonialism, what was it called before the British gave it this name? Contrary to the above claims Many argue that variants of the word Hindu were existent in Persian and vernacular Indian languages long before nineteen the century. The religious sense also coexisted and overlapped with an ethnic and geographical sense. It is commonly agreed that the word Hindu is derived from the name “Sindhu” to refer to the inhabitants of the lands near and to the east of the Indus. If the word “Hindu” had a purely geographical sense up until the nineteenth century, then why were the foreign Muslims, who permanently settled in India, or at least their descendants born in India, not called Hindus? Heinrich von Stietencron answers this by insisting that the Muslim rulers persistently maintained a foreign self-identity for generations, while the Hindus, i.e. native Indians, just as persistently maintained a separate, indigenous identity. Addressing some of these contentious and controversial issues, David N. Lorenzen argues that the claim that Hinduism was invented or constructed by European colonizers, mostly British, sometime after 1800 is false. The evidence instead suggests that a Hindu religion theologically and devotionally grounded in texts such as the Bhagabad-gitas, the Puranas, and philosophical commentaries of six darshanas gradually acquired a much sharper self-conscious identity through the rivalry between Muslims and Hindus in the period between 1200 and 1500, and was firmly established firmly before 1800.



Dragon vs. Elephant

In an April 20 column, I argued the case for Sino-Indian economic co-operation, suggesting the two countries had complementarities that could make such co-operation mutually beneficial (as some companies in both countries are already proving). I also dismissed any talk of comparing India to China, arguing that the two countries’ systems are so different that we simply can’t compete with China in the growth stakes. Lest some readers infer from this that i think China is superior to India in every respect, let me assure them that they are wrong.

Certainly, in absolute numbers, the Chinese are way ahead. Their export of electronic goods now tops $180 billion a year. One out of every three shoes exported in the world is made in China. They make 75% of the world’s toys. Foreign direct investment is at the level of $70 billion a year (for comparison, India gets $15 billion). Shanghai alone has nearly 4,000 skyscrapers (more than all of India, and exceeding Los Angeles and Chicago combined). China has built an estimated 60,000 kilometers of expressways in less than two decades and will soon outstrip the total length of the US highway network. Per capita income has risen nearly 10-fold since 1978 to over $6,000 a head, and the number of people living in absolute poverty has dropped from 425 million two decades ago to 26 million today. The population is almost totally literate; life expectancy is reaching developed-country levels. This year, China is expected to overtake Germany to become the world’s third largest economy, behind the US and Japan. It won’t stay Number Three for long.

Against this, though, are a number of factors suggesting that not everything is rosy in China. Economic growth has occurred at breakneck speed, but that means some necks have been broken: the human cost of development has not been negligible (population displacement, farmers thrown off their lands, villages flooded by dams, mounting pollution, low-wage labour in appalling conditions, widening disparities between the rich and the poor, an absence of human rights and few checks on governmental abuses). The Chinese have seen great and rapid improvements in their Internet access, but Beijing employs some 40,000 ‘cyber-police’ to monitor politically-undesirable activity on the Web.

Equally important, China’s success has not just been China’s; a disproportionate share of the benefit goes abroad, to the foreign companies who have set up factories in China. It has been estimated that of the $700 American price of a Chinese-made laptop, only $15 remains in China. Only four of the country’s top 25 exporters are Chinese companies, according to Forbes magazine’s Robyn Meredith, who adds that in practice, ‘Made in China’ really means ‘Made by America (or Europe) in China’. The Chinese financial system also leaves much to be desired. Where India has been running sophisticated stock markets since the early 19th century — and Indians are so skilled at doing so that they got the Bombay stock market up and running within 24 hours of the 1992 bomb blasts — China is new at the game, and not particularly adept at it.

The financial information provided by China’s companies, especially those in the large governmental sector, is notoriously unreliable, and standards of corporate governance are low. There are no world-class Chinese companies with sophisticated managers to match Tata or Wipro or Infosys. China’s capital markets are weak and its banks inefficient: the Chinese banking system carried an estimated $911 billion in unrecoverable loans as of 2006, mainly to government firms. State-owned enterprises still account for half of China’s economic assets. China has yet to master the art of channelling domestic savings into productive investments, which is why it has relied so extensively on foreign direct investment.

And the world has yet to develop any confidence in China’s legal system (where a contract still means whatever the government says it means). In other words, it still lags behind India on the ‘software’ of development — not just technical brainpower or engineering know-how, but the systems it needs to operate a 21st century economy in an open and globalising world.

And then there’s politics. Whatever you might say about India’s sclerotic bureaucracy versus China’s efficient one, our tangles of red tape versus their unfurled red carpet to foreign investors, our contentious and fractious political parties versus their smoothly-functioning top-down Communist hierarchy, there’s one thing you’ve got to grant us: India has become an outstanding example of the management of diversity through pluralist democracy. Every Indian has been allowed to feel he or she has as much of a stake in the country, and as much of a chance to run it, as anyone else: after all, our last elections were won by an Italian woman of Roman Catholic heritage who made way for a Sikh to be sworn in as PM by a Muslim president, in a nation 81% Hindu.

And our largest state is being ruled by a Dalit woman, from a community once considered ‘untouchable’, who bids fair to rule the entire country if she can make the coalition arithmetic add up right after the next election. She wasn’t promoted by the Brahmin elite in New Delhi; she rode to the top on the ballots of her political base. Contrast this with Beijing, where political freedom is unknown, leaders at all levels are handpicked from the top for their posts, and political heresy is met with swift punishment, house-arrest or worse. India’s politics means its shock-absorbers are built into the system; it has endured major road-bumps without the vehicle ever breaking down.

In China’s case, it is far from clear what would happen if the limousine of state actually encountered a serious pothole. The present system wasn’t designed to cope with fundamental challenges to it except through repression. But every autocratic state in history has come to a point where repression was no longer enough. If that point is reached in China, all bets are off. The dragon could stumble where the elephant can always trundle on.


@ Sashi Tharoor, Why the Elephant can Dance better, The Times of India, 3 August 2008.


The history was busy to write your name,
Amongst  the nations with the highest fame.
The world was proud of your grace,
Virtue and love were the signs of your face.

From your soil, streams of justice used to flow,
To the vices and  wrongs , you were a lethal blow.
You used to inspire   a trust in all,
You drew no line between   big and small.

The cascade of wisdom from your mind,
Quenched the intellectual thirst of every kind.
To the benighted humanity, you sowed new seed,
The compassion of Jesus (p.b.u.h.) was your  creed.


Why suddenly, for you, this turn of fate?
How you emerged as a symbol of hate?

Stir up your conscience,
Look   ahead with prescience.
Strain your nerves to see the right,
With  a sense of justice, not with might.
Your eyes will perceive a demeaning course,
That made you believe in arms and force.


Delve deep into your soul,

To find out your filthy role.

Each part of the globe was within your reach,
With the  Bible in hand; its lesson to preach.
You threw it away with a ruthless shake,
Your hands now possess weapons , for power sake.


The world is now standing aghast,

Why this all has happened so fast?


I know, only a few in your midst,
Spoiled your serenity with a grisly twist,
Sullied your image as a graceful race,
And eclipsed the sedateness of your pace.

Rise up ! purge your glory,
Of the present grim story;
Restore  your  lost dignity,
With penitential ‘sad’ and ‘sorry’.

Listen to the shrieks and wails,
See the destruction and travails,
Your sons have caused in others’ land,
With the dead falling  like heaps of sand.

When the advent of  Christ (p.b.u.h.)  is too close,
Why you became so hideous, and why you chose,
To smear your face  with innocent blood,
To engulf  the humanity with your raging flood.

Now is the time for you to repent,
For what you have done, and what you spent,
To   bring about fright and fear all around,

Let once again the global ambience reverberate,

Not with threats and piercing cannonade,

But with your soothing sermons, and remorseful sound.



@ Written by Dr. Mustafa Kamal Sherwani, President, All India Muslim Forum, Lucknow- India