Editorial 2\Way of all law
Nasty, brutish, middle class
Letters to the Editor

The annual conference of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank became the site for another skirmish between fringe nongovernmental organizations and the police. While the activists hardly spoke with one voice, they did convey a confused but passionate demand that the multilateral institutions be visibly more active in tackling poverty. The IMF has gotten a lot of bad press. Hardline environmentalists oppose multilateral finance because of a general dislike for mainstream economic growth. The left throws brickbats because of the social fallout of implementing the IMF’s stringent loan conditionalities. The nationalist right complains about a loss of sovereignty. Much of this criticism is off the mark. Countries that run to the IMF for emergency funding often do so because they have made a complete mess of their finances. It is absurd to believe the IMF should not ask them to clean up their act in return for a multibillion dollar bailout. India went to the IMF in 1991 because it was bankrupted by a 50 year adherence to an even more bankrupt economic philosophy. Even the halfway reforms the IMF asked of India have doubled the country’s rate of economic growth rate and led it to amass record foreign exchange reserves. The truth is that many reforming economies, India included, use IMF loans to carry out changes that go far beyond anything the IMF expects of them. And most of these economies have done well from liberalizing.

The more reasonable criticisms of the IMF come from the liberal right. These found expression in a report for the United States congress by the economist, Mr Allan Meltzer. Mr Meltzer argues the IMF should become a bank of last resort, providing emergency loans only during severe economic crises. He argues against conditionalities. The IMF should function more like a commercial bank: provide emergency loans but at punitive levels of interest. The World Bank can provide technical assistance to cash strapped governments on straightening their ledgers. Mr Meltzer argues the IMF and the World Bank give too much money to countries like India and China which can tap private capital markets. The real recipients should be marginal countries that lack even an international credit rating. Underlying this thinking are two facts. First, private capital flows dwarf the amount of money provided by multilateral financial institutions to the point that the latter are almost irrelevant to capital flows to poor countries. Second, many taxpayers in rich countries increasingly see no reason why their taxes should be used to support decrepit third world countries that run up huge debts because of corruption and populism. The IMF is largely unloved. But the truth is that if it were not there, life would be even more difficult and third world existence even more precarious than it is today.    

From the discussions and debates of the past five years, it would seem that the Election Commission is more than anxious to find a viable way of barring criminals from contesting elections. The EC itself had come up with a fairly stringent suggestion earlier. So it is puzzling to find that the chief election commissioner, Mr M.S. Gill, has not responded positively to the Andhra Pradesh election commission’s suggestion put forward at the meeting of the election commissioners of states and Union territories recently. The state election commission had suggested that any person who has been convicted of any offence under Section 8 (1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 should be disqualified from participating in elections for 12 years. It had also included in its proposal measures to bar candidates against whom charges were pending and the prima facie evidence indicated that the case deserved trial. Although the CEC has promised to go into the issue of criminalization in politics in greater detail on April 29, he has appeared rather cool to Andhra Pradesh’s suggestion. It is clear from his remarks that he foresees political opposition to the proposal. This is a little sad, since the fear of political opposition should not be allowed to stuff under the carpet a concrete suggestion regarding something as important as barring criminals from politics.

It seems the EC is unenthusiastic for another reason too, and an interestingly circular one at that. The slow process of the law would stall the establishment of innocence of the accused. So the argument runs like this: the judicial process in this country crawls at a snail’s pace; therefore, it is not possible to know who is innocent within a reasonable period; therefore, let those with criminal records or charges continue barging into politics. The only feature in this brief series of intellectual contortions that can be considered at all laudable is a possible faith in the principle underlying much of Indian criminal law — a person is believed innocent till proven guilty. It follows then that barring someone from contesting elections because of suspicion and not proof of guilt, is unjust. This concern for possible criminals who wish to run in elections appears a little misplaced. Millions suffer because of the slow process of law. It is not clear why a certain type of politicians should be let off the hook because the law is slow. Stranger still is the deliberate imposition of technicalities where the principle behind the issue is so obvious. The aim is to decriminalize politics. Anyone who acknowledges the overwhelming importance of this for India would probably agree that in this case it may be right to err on the side of strictness. A country in which conviction rates are abysmally low cannot afford to go easy on potential legislators with even a shadow of criminality on their careers.    

The great success story of Indian democracy is that a political system the Indian elite (including its sub-category of professionals) did so much to promote and sustain during the pre-independence and early post-independence years, is now capable of withstanding the moral and political degeneration of that very elite. The fact of such degeneration stares us in the face. It is revealed in the shameless euphoria with which the United States president, Bill Clinton, was received, oblivious of the evil that the US government has perpetrated globally over the last 50 years. It is shown in the sanctimoniousness about cricket scandals elsewhere. At least the cricket boards of Pakistan, Australia and South Africa have been forced to acknowledge, however reluctantly and half-heartedly, the corruption among their top cricketers. Here a Y.V. Chandrachud report, content with the most superficial of investigations, gave a clean chit to our top cricketers.

But these are only minor indicators. There is much stronger evidence of the sickness lying at the heart of our elite “class” of professionals — those who occupy the upper echelons of our educational, scientific and bureaucratic systems, our corporate and media worlds, and prosper as self-employed businessmen, lawyers, doctors, etc. The new and much greater acceptability of the sangh parivar and its political ideology among this professional elite when compared to its substantial isolation in the same circles some twenty five years ago, is itself a striking testimony to the changes that have taken place in India.

If we analyse the reasons for this shift in the character of Indian professionals we will detect a combination of both general and specific reasons. The more general ones have to do with wider changes related to modernization processes, the more specific ones to changes in India’s socio-political climate.

In an earlier phase of modernity, even as recently as the early and mid-19th century, the average member of the intelligentsia — by and large those who made a living overwhelmingly through mind work rather than muscle work — was almost by nature a social critic, a dissident against authority and established power. Indeed, for the most part it had to be so. To think independently required one to be independent of the main authority systems of the time, such as religious power and state-monarchical power. In such a context, the practice of much of the intelligentsia was the pursuit of a holistic understanding of social reality, precisely to change it for the better. In such a context, the role of the intelligentsia was to speak truth to power.

By the late 19th and early 20th century, this had already begun to change and no one registered this change more perceptively than Max Weber. A developing modernity was characterized by the emergence of multiple authority systems. What was now emerging were distinctive “expert” knowledge systems which at their apex also represented a newer, more diffuse system of distribution of social power. Such numerous and segregated systems of knowledge and authority required a more routinized form of expertise — the kind brought about by a simultaneous specialization of knowledge and bureaucratization of function.

Intellectual professionalism was now becoming increasingly inseparable from niche-based careerism, where careerism itself required a new form of acceptance and subordination to segregated hierarchies of power. Increasingly, the intelligentsia were a category of people most of whose occupants knew more and more about less and less. Moreover, this diminution of, and unconcern with, a holistic outlook combined with the imperatives of careerism to produce a new relationship to power.

Modern professionals were no longer characterized as those most likely to speak truth to power but to put meaning and thought in the service of power. For, only by doing so could professionals themselves hope to climb the career-ladder to exercise whatever power they might hope to enjoy as the new servitors to those who still exercised far more power through economic wealth and political supremacy.

India’s modernization process really accelerated after independence. These general mechanisms of bureaucratization and specialization have really developed over the last 30 years during a period when the political milieu in India also underwent decisive change. The legacy of the national movement was carried over into the first two decades of Indian independence and acted as a partial counter to these bureaucratizing processes, leaving a significantly humanizing imprint on the Indian elite in general, and on its professionals in particular. But with the collapse of the Nehruvian consensus and its replacement by a more self-centred economic ideology of neo-liberalism, and with the steady growth of an aggressive Hindutva, the “social personality”, by and large, of Indian professionals has been transformed.

Professionals are often seen as the epitome of what is also called the “middle class” about which Karl Marx had something very important and accurate to say. He called this social category a vacillating class incapable, by its very nature, of the kind of moral and political courage, right or wrong, which only the classes above and below it could, at crucial junctures, display. As such, it would follow the lead of the class which seemed to have most power. Sections of this middle class could at times play a progressive, dynamic and leading role, but in general, it was a class destined to follow. Professionals never set the pace or direction of society, but they certainly can legitimize and endorse a direction and pace set by others more powerful and socially determined.

In post-independence India, there have been four decisive political landmark events. And of course, all such political turning points also present profound moral choices which unavoidably reflect the choosers’ social personality. How has India’s professional “class” fared in these tests? The first was the Emergency. How easy it is to forget that, by and large, India’s urban professionals welcomed it, lauding the new discipline and order that would make “their” India prosper. Because the Emergency fell so quickly and comprehensively, most former supporters — from bureaucrats to diplomats to media-people to corporate executives and so on — were able to quietly discard their earlier positions and anonymously join the swell of those who rejoiced in the downfall of Emergency.

The second great test was Mandal. And the hatred of the professionals of it had to be seen to be believed. Today, with the Mandalization of Indian politics an accomplished fact, there has had to be a resentful accommodation to the new reality. But opposition to Mandal spoke volumes about the nature of the commitment (or rather the lack of it) of India’s professionals to fundamental principles of equality and how they must be promoted in a deeply unegalitarian society. The third landmark was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Here it must be said that the professional “class” was more divided. A large number was shocked and horrified, but only temporarily. It has not prevented most of them from eventually accommodating themselves in greater or lesser fashion to the forces of Hindutva and to its politics and ideology. Principled opposition to evil is not the hallmark of India’s professionals.

Finally, there was Pokhran II. Sure enough, India’s professionals in the main have come round not only to accepting nuclear weapons but feeling pride in their acquisition. Nuclear weapons are the closest thing to an absolute evil. To endorse their possession, let alone to feel proud about them, is to make a profoundly revealing statement about one’s own moral and social personality. Of course, all nuclear elites justify their positions in the name of nationalism and the competitive global power game. But then, once upon a time, supporters of colonialism justified their nation’s pursuit of such status also in the name of an unavoidable competitive global power game. In short, if India is to progress towards a more decent, humane and morally respectful future, it can only do so in spite of, not because of, its professionals and “middle class”.

The author has recently co-authored the book, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament    


Best faces forward

Sir — So Yashwant Sinha honestly believes 14 pretty faces can achieve what countless delegations of not so good looking bureaucrats, businessmen and worse looking politicians have failed to do (“Sinha’s Fab Fourteen hardsell India Inc”, April 18)? What makes him feel the changed “mode and mood” of the Indian delegation might suit the inscrutable Americans into sending greenbacks to a country whose staple response to anything American has been hostile placards? There is no denying the happy Indian brigade is a great improvement on the sullen coaxing that goes by the name of lobbying for foreign investment. It might also be in keeping with the “changing face” theme India has been trying to project ever since the United States president landed up in remote Naila. What Sinha fails to realize is variety shows abroad will not suffice for the absence of decisiveness inside the finance ministry, whose showing has not particularly impressed the Americans so far.

Yours faithfully,
Jyotsna Sen, Calcutta

On a minor key

Sir — A part of the Moluccas islands of Indonesia are a Christian majority enclave in a predominantly Islamic Indonesia. The Christians have been agitating for religious freedom and freedom from discrimination. This has led to rioting and deaths in both communities. In Jakarta, several Indonesian parties have held a million strong rally calling for jihad against Christians.

Muslims who are a minority in non-Muslim states want freedom, privileges, rights and autonomy. But too many Muslim dominated countries are not prepared to grant the same to other religious minorities.

In India the community has pushed its demands with the help of communists and the Congress. Despite the experience of partition, the clamour for separate administrative areas is still strong. That is how Malapuram was carved out as a Muslim majority district in Kerala. In Jammu and Kashmir, autonomy is denied to the non-Muslim majority areas of Jammu and Ladakh where Hindus and Buddhists predominate respectively.

Yours faithfully,
Bhavani Gupta, Hyderabad

Sir — Terming Muslim personal law out of date, rigid and anti-woman has become fashionable nowadays (“Women’s panel pitches for triple talaaq ban”, April 4). It is part of a deep rooted desire to malign Islam and its rules. Interestingly, there are always Muslims to lend weight to such reports. Some of these members of the community know nothing about the religion and those who know, do not practise it.

Sayeeda Hameed, member of the national commission for women, who tabled the report on the community, should go through surah talaaq. She will find there is nothing derogatory about women in it. She can also refer to the judgment of the Allahabad high court in the case of Abdul Qadir versus Saleema where Muslim marriage has been called a “civil contract”. According to the Indian Contract Act of 1872 an oral contract is as good as a written one. An oral nikaah or talaaq cannot be wrong in the eyes of the law.

People who do not understand Islam think Muslim women are a harassed and oppressed lot. Noted feminist and writer, Kamala Das, recently converted to Islam. She has said she has found Islam to be the only religion which recognizes the dignity of women. Those who disagree with the tenets of the religion are free to leave it. But let’s not confuse an entire society with a faulty understanding of the religion.

Yours faithfully,
Ramzan Ali, Calcutta

Sir — The recent call by the All India Jamiat Ulema on April 1 for a rally at Guwahati to voice apprehensions regarding minority rights made obvious two important facts. First, the term “minorities” has become synonymous with Muslims only. There are a lot of other minority groups, they are less noticeable because they are fewer in number.

Second, is the double standards of our secular politicians. No one protested the rally called by a religious minority group demanding political safeguards and protection in a country wedded to secularism. We have spared no words to condemn the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for its communal bias and rightfully so. However, the RSS does not profess to belong to any one community, although it is known to be a pro-Hindu organization. The Jamiat Ulema has no qualms about being a fundamentalist, Muslims only organization. Had such a congregation been called by a Hindu organization, the secular intelligentsia would have gone at it hammer and tongs.

Yours faithfully,
Prashanta Goswami, Guwahati

Sir — The people of India were still reeling under Partition and post-Partition trauma when “secularism” was foisted on them through the preamble of the Constitution. This was intended to erase all suspicions and misgivings in the name of religion.

Today the term secularism is much abused. Political parties seek to woo religious minorities for votes. We have reservations on the basis of communities and castes. And there are riots and massacres in the name of religion, the most recent cases being in Kanpur, Orissa, Gujarat and Varanasi.

The common people of India have hated violence of any kind, especially those that aggravate religious differences. It has always been power seekers who have sown acrimony and hostility among people of diverse faiths. The Constitution review panel needs to be constructive and assess the validity of the term secularism in the present Indian context.

Yours faithfully,
Rina Chawla, Haldia

Eurasian success

Sir — Amit Roy’s efforts at reviewing Cotton Mary in the “Etc”, “Stirring it up” (March 17), provoke a reply. It is true the Anglo-Indian community was vulnerable at a point of time. The history of the Anglo-Indian is a legacy of colonialism, betrayal and social prejudice. Contemporary literature, particularly filmmakers, portray the community’s weak points. Favourite scenes are of the young Anglo-Indian girl returning home from school to the barbs of street corner hangouts or the poverty stricken family seeking desperately to escape the quagmire.

The views of Alexandra Viets and those who seek their doctorates on the ethnic disabilities of the Anglo-Indian, as well as those of Ismail Merchant and Madhur Jaffrey, need to be modified. In their haste, they reduce themselves in raj stereotypes and overlook the community’s sources of pride.

Was Viets around when Anglo-Indians made up the better part of the world champion Indian hockey squad, when Leslie Claudius represented India in the fourth Olympic games and Norman Pritchard won the only Olympic medal in athletics India has ever secured? Is she aware of the role the community played in disseminating education in India? Has she acquainted herself with the exploits of Anglo-Indians in the defence services, especially those of the Keelor brothers in the early India-Pakistan war? Is she aware of Michael McMohan, an Anglo-Indian who held the position of air vice marshall? Does Viets know how much Parliament today misses the thunder of Frank Anthony?

It is time to take another look at the only minority of mixed European descent to survive in Asia as a recognized entity.

Yours faithfully,
Errol O’Brien, Calcutta
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