Thursday, December 15, 2016

Because We Looked Away

The Oxfam report, An Economy for the 1% (2016), tells us that the richest 62 individuals on this planet own more than half the world's population put together. As you let this statistic sink in, let me throw a couple of others at you. I don't often take recourse to images, but on the theme of rising inequality, I can do little more than point you in the direction of this graphic illustration I came across a few months ago. As visualisations go, this one is staggering. I can't look at it, to-date, without a shiver coursing through my body.  


I'm almost painfully aware of the privileged position I occupy in this country, one of the world's most glaringly unequal societies. My education, the fact that I am not persecuted on account of my religious, caste or sexual identities, my socio-economic position - pretty much everything apart from the fact that I am a woman - all serve to insulate me from the horrors that could have been my lot in what is a devastatingly fractious society. What is essential to understand, and I cannot stress this enough, is that in India, to talk about class is almost always to simultaneously talk about caste. The caste system is our own special 'gift' to the world, originating as it does in this country, and it is the single most bone-crushingly inhuman system of classification anyone could have ever conjured. More, it is, as Babasaheb warned us decades ago, premised not upon the division of labour (as so many caste apologists claim), but on the division of labourers[1]. As old as organised society itself, despite the many efforts of Babasaheb and his ilk to demolish this monstrosity, caste lives on in India today, tenacious enough to take on new forms as it cements its place in our urbanscapes, resisting every attempt at affirmative action[2] which seeks to create a less unjust society.

Numerous scholars and activists have written about the 'spaces between' the India which looks a little like the one I am fortunate enough to inhabit, and the lived reality of, say, the hundreds of people who live down the road from my sylvan campus, on the 'rurban' periphery of Ahmedabad, which is (by population), one of India's 10 biggest cities. My campus stands in the middle of what used to be an agricultural zone, and is surrounded by the tiny rural settlements of Shela and Ghuma. I walk my students to Shela every year, when I'm talking to them about Gandhi and the salt march; about politics-as-spectacle. It is the first time since they come to Ahmedabad that a lot of them have had to engage with their immediate surroundings. In all honesty, my own engagement with Shela only began in earnest when I designed this module, and this is precisely my point: we curate our spaces - sanitise them - till they become ivory towers, minimising any and all contact with those that caste and class or religion have long colluded to 'other'. Why? Because it is easier to, as Harsh Mander puts it in his searing indictment of modern Indian society, look away,[3] than to think about the endless structural inequalities which have made it so that some of us 'have' while so many - too many - simply do not. 

As Mander puts it, "many people believe that inequality is an inevitable part of the surge of economic growth and globalised technological progress. But in fact inequality “is the product of deliberate economic and political policies”, of which the two biggest drivers are market fundamentalism and the capture of power by economic elites,"[4]: this is to be evidenced world over. These ideas are the very bedrock of neoliberal ideology, and taken to their logical extreme, oppose public investment on the part of the State in all areas, ranging from healthcare to education, and labour protection to the acquisition/clearance of land and other natural resources. In India, Mander adds, the tax exemptions "of around five lakh crore rupees" (to corporate houses, in almost every recent budget) "could substantially finance India’s education, nutrition and health care gaps...if India just stops inequality from rising, it could end extreme poverty for 90 million people by 2019. If it reduces inequality by 36 per cent, it could completely eliminate extreme poverty," he writes. 

Mander concludes that we know the way to dam the "surging tides of inequality" which are upon us: a more equal society can be crafted by raising and enforcing minimum wages, imposing wealth taxes, enhancing government spending on education, health and agriculture, providing social protection for the aged and disabled, building on our affirmative action policies for socially disadvantaged groups to counter the travesty that is our caste system, and ensuring basic necessities such as water, sanitation and other utilities to the rural poor and urban slums.

However, this remains a tantalising pipe-dream indeed, all the more heartbreaking because it feels doable, if only our governments were more inclined to ameliorate the lot of their citizens than appease the rampant greed of their corporate overlords. 


[1]The full quotation reads like this: "It is a pity that Caste even today has its defenders. The defences are many. It is defended on the ground that the Caste System is but another name for division of labour and if division of labour is a necessary feature of every civilized society, then it is argued that there is nothing wrong in the Caste System. Now the first thing that is to be urged against this view is that the Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilized society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilized society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments. The Caste System is not merely a division of labourers which is quite different from division of labour—it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other. In no other country is the division of labour accompanied by this gradation of labourers," from The Annihilation of Caste by BR Ambedkar (1936). Access sections of this text at:
[2]In the form of India's 'Reservation Policy' in educational institutions and government organisations.
[3] See Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India by Harsh Mander (2015) for more.
[4] For the full article, see:

Monday, November 14, 2016

It's all over now, baby blue (take it up with Dylan, why don't you?)

I woke up on the morning of the 9th, anxious. A weird sensation coursed through me whole; an unease which I couldn't shake. I reached for my phone to see what havoc the night had wrought, and learned that Donald Trump was leading Hillary Clinton in all the projections news portals were casting/constantly revising in real-time. Not by much, initially, but leading he was. Even as we read the numbers coming in, no one wanted to believe what they seemed to be saying. This couldn't possibly be. Trump might have the lead on Clinton, but surely it would dissipate soon? Surely, when it came to it, people were going to vote for the admittedly uninspiring status-quoist who embodied the establishment they had declaimed loudly - and repeatedly - they despised, right? Because what real option did they have? A misogynistic and racist sociopath whose candidacy almost everyone had failed to counter seriously because they had dismissed it as a joke? Surely voters were going to go with the known evil; the warmonger over the loose cannon?

Some of you may have deduced from my tone that I'm not exactly an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter. Well done. I'm not. Let me spell out why. I identify as feminist: to my core. This has been the one constant non-negotiable tenet of faith around which all my experiments with truth, identity, sexuality - being, in a word - have long unfolded. It angered me endlessly that sections of the media held that not getting behind Clinton's candidacy somehow 'dented' anyone's feminist credentials. Er. No. Because it is precisely feminism that does not allow me to look away from the right royal mess and godawful loss of life in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and anywhere else the US has persisted in pushing its pathetically self-serving (neo-imperialist) foreign policy. Then there's the painful fact that even if we recognise that capital is nameless and faceless, if you squint a little bit, it begins to look a little like the Clinton Foundation and others of its ilk. Paid speeches to the goons on Wall Street? It's hard to curry favour with the 99% after something like that, think you not?
And this is why calling this election has been so bloody complicated: there is clearly a serious amount of misogyny powering how these results have panned out. For anyone looking, this much is clear from even continents away: there was no way America was about to vote a woman into power. But this wasn't just any woman: this was a woman who was an adept player of the 'game' that animates Washington DC. This was a woman who had an 'emic' or insider's perspective when it came to the workings of power and the close nexus between politics and capital. 

Were the Democratic party less invested in maintaining status quo itself, it would have known that fielding Clinton - and pushing her candidacy over Sanders in as obviously partisan a way as they did - was a terrible idea. The call that had gone out was a loud and clear one: the people had made it known that it was 'change' they were after: enough of the establishment, and whoever they thought embodied it. This is why, as I've been saying all year through, Trump and Sanders needed to be read, at least structurally, as companion pieces; alike in more ways than we countenanced. Whether they were or not (for I hold that Trump is the farthest thing from anti-establishment in one sense; more on that soon), they were both perceived as outsiders who would mount a challenge to the power structures that exert and perpetuate hegemony.

I remember being astounded by the numbers Sanders' rallies were drawing nation-wide when I was in America over the summer. So many people I spoke to were convinced he was the 'change' candidate America needed. What struck me then was how, much like with Corbyn in the UK, sections of the media attempted to malign Sanders by making out that he leaned far Left. How ludicrous a world do we have to live in for this to be considered an insult? More, how far Right of Centre has political discourse shifted when a Social Democrat, to most ears, begins to sound like someone on the Radical Left? 

And this is where, in the end, the beginning: Trump and his wealth are products of the same structures of inequity and foul-play that people say they want no more of, without being able to name precisely what it is that ails us. We are living through the death-throes of capitalism. We saw this with Brexit, and I said then that this was a very scary moment to live through because world over, people are increasingly frustrated with the smallness of their lives; of what they imagine it is possible to do with them. There is angst, there is frustration which often plays itself out in myriad forms of violence. In India, our response was to elect a fascist strongman who promised "development" at all cost. In England, the Leave campaign leveraged just the right amount of paranoia and hatred of the 'other' to carry the day. This is what Trump has managed to tap into, because discontent - especially the kind we cannot adequately name or identify the source or shape of - is an engraved invitation to the strongman (and it has, almost unflinchingly always been a 'man') to seize the reins of a flailing polity. Modi did it by saying he had a 56" chest that he would use to protect India from whatever was coming at us. The irony of a man who has benefitted from (and continues to be a supporter of) free markets suddenly tapping into a protectionist and hypernationalist discourse as he plays up the insularity which has long been a hallmark of large parts of America cannot and should not be lost upon us. There's a Chinese benediction which goes something like this: may you live in uninteresting times. Clearly, these are not those times.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Employment is/as the High Cost of Living

My task this month is to think about something I see afflicting scores of my students; students I spend the better part of two years working with, and am invariably therefore extremely invested in the well-being of: their suitability for life outside our idyllic little campus home. I teach in a postgraduate institution which is engaged in the business of churning out "industry professionals" in the area of Communications Management. As a field of study, the applied area of Management education has come to replace - or sit alongside, at the very least - the preferred domains of generations of Indian parents past: medicine, engineering or preparing for the civil/administrative services.

From the late 90s/early 2000s onward, in our newly 'reformed' and opened Indian economy,  the formulaic pathway to a "good life" - whatever that may mean and wherever such a mythical beast is to be found - has taken the form of studying engineering at undergrad level, then proceeding to render that degree meaningless by not putting it to any use, applying instead for an MBA or its equivalent after it. I say this based on following general trends across India, but also from personal experience: in the six years I've been teaching at my current institute, I've never had a class yet in which fewer than 60% of the students were engineers. Oh, and a sizeable number of my former students from an engineering college I used to teach in the Humanities and Social Sciences department of have also proceeded to apply for MBAs on the other side of their ICT degrees.

I know for a fact that those who didn't intend to study after their B.Tech degrees wound up being placed in companies which effectively viewed them as cogs in a wheel: workers on a new production line, with the benefit of chairs, computers, and air conditioning over their factory-floor working brethren. They coded. Endlessly. Without either knowing or being allowed to ask what it all added up to: that information was on a need-to-know basis, and they didn't "need to know" it. This is part of the reason why it pans out that of the last batch I taught at DA-IICT, scores of people have branched out into fields as diverse as starting tea and mineral water businesses, acting, working with Members of Parliament, and undertaking PhDs in Science, Technology and Society (STS), with most of the rest undertaking - you guessed it - MBA studies.             

My contention is simple: the problem of unemployment or perhaps more accurately, procuring employment suitable and commensurate to a student's education, is not something we're going to be able to fix simply by suggesting there is a breakdown between the curriculum a student goes through, the education system they come from, and their seeming lack of "skills" in terms of hacking the job market. This is a very simplistic reading which doesn't, among other factors, account for the shape-shifting nature of industries - across sectors -  in the hyper-globalising landscape of today: what are the jobs that await these students? What do they demand of an individual? What is the philosophy that underpins them? Are they meant to provide job-satisfaction? Is that a possibility at all, given that most industries today subscribe to (and stem from) the extractive neoliberal paradigm? To let the needs of the market dictate changes in curricula without filtering what it is they seek would wreck havoc. It is vital to remember that education runs the risk of being diminished considerably if it is calibrated in this utilitarian a fashion. We see this already in the low intake and funding cuts forced on Humanities and Social Science Departments world over because they are viewed as frivolous or worse, bourgeois, because they are not seen as being able to equip students with the immediate skills they need to enter the world of work. Since when did education become about just that anyway? Sadly, this isn't a rhetorical question. There is an answer: it became about little else when education became privatised. Monetised. Commoditised. When students had to start taking enormous loans to "buy" themselves entry into the institutions (and networks) that would get them campus placements on the other side of their time with us. When students started thinking of education in terms of that curious phrase I encountered a few years ago, Return on Investment (ROI), giving rise to the specious sense of entitlement which marks so many exchanges in academic institutions today. This is the kind of brute neoliberal logic which forces institutions to constantly bear the demands of the industry they must cater to in mind when designing an educational philosophy or policy, which, as educators, we are then charged with translating into curriculum and classroom practice.

I genuinely don't believe that this malaise affects Millennials alone, but they are the ones who've borne the brunt of the privatisation of education most. The Millennials are the ones who've had to incur the loans they'll spend years repaying, many in jobs which may not, by and large, be particularly satisfying (where they're not actively soul-crushing). Perhaps it is time to revisit what we define as success; what drives people to court debt to become part of a system which extracts punishing costs from those who would be in it; and most importantly, what awaits them on the other side. I know only this: an extractive economy isn't sustainable. Ironically, it makes the least business sense. And you're hearing it from a Humanities major first.

Monday, September 19, 2016

What Happens When Leaders Stop Walking (and apparate as holograms instead)

I find that I cannot write about modern India without dealing with a mischievous little (ish – he wasn’t nearly as tiny as most people imagine) imp who went by the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The man was a walker. It was something that stayed with him from his time as a broke, hungry student in England, persisted into his time as a wealthy, less hungry barrister and community leader in South Africa, and then fed into his life-work as the tallest leader of the Indian nationalist movement. South Africa, a country he called home for over two decades, was to prove Gandhi’s laboratory: it is where his experiments with diet, direct non-violent action, civil disobedience, truth or soul force (satyagraha), brahmacharya, caste-less living et al first began. Prime among these was the elevation of walking from an individual activity into an act rife with political significance in the public sphere: think about the Great March of 1913[1]. It involved 2,221 men, women and children (striking Indian miners – indentured labourers - and their families) walking, if they weren’t arrested or ‘deported’ en route, from Newcastle in Natal province to Tolstoy Farm in Johannesburg, in the Transvaal region.  

In the Indian context, I can do little better than to point you towards the apogee of Gandhi’s political life which came in the form of the Dandi March (1930)[2] and salt satyagraha that followed it. This man knew the power of walking as a collective act, not to mention, a symbolic one. An astute semiotician, he knew how to occupy symbols well. Gandhi realised that walking roots and grounds one like no other activity does. Further, it allows the walk-er to be seen as much as it allows her to see – to survey, learn, take in from – her surroundings. This aspect of walking-as-spectacle came to the fore during the Dandi March, but the old man had himself wandered (and covered) the length and breadth of India prior to this, and several times over, in a bid to make himself real to the “masses” he was slowly in the process of crafting into a people. During the Harijan Yatras of the 1930s, given that he was already in his 60s, he no longer walked as much as he once did, but took trains instead. It is said he bled between stations because his skin was chafed from being touched by the thousands of people who turned up to see him, to partake of the magic of the mahatma, everywhere he went. No smoke and mirrors here; there was no room for distance or obfuscation at such close quarters. Those who saw him went away knowing that their leader was as real as they were; wrought of blood and sinew as they were – as human as they were. This inspired faith and belief in his ability to negotiate for them the treacherous terrain that was dealing with the implacable Imperial government.

The Nehruvian era that followed – the dawn of independent India as it were – was configured around the tenet that nation-building was work which took serious doing. A patriot was a producer; one who contributed to the very real task of keeping together this newly hewn nation-state. The leaders were still visible, more or less accessible, and the country seemed to shimmer serenely in the after-glow of the nationalist movement. This period was also characterised by the performance of that rite of passage which marks the most intimate ritual of any democracy: participating in the first set of elections in modern India. If the civic engagement so central to this era has waned since, and with it the sense of a patriot as one who works to build – and keep – a nation, it almost certainly has something to do with the euphemistically titled ‘structural reforms’ unleashed upon the Indian economy at the behest of the World Bank in 1991. The ‘opening’ of the economy has led, among other things, to the shift from patriot-as-producer to patriot-as-consumer (including of narratives such as nationalism itself), and has in the process dismantled the moral imperative upon the nation-state to engage in social welfare (visible in how much ground the State has ceded of what it once occupied in health and education as sectors). This makes it vital to ask, does democracy mean to-day what once it did? If not, what are the new contours of this idea? In a country where leaders are mere holograms – simulated and see-through – and can no longer walk among us (something about security concerns, they say: it would have been fun trying to have this conversation with Gandhi or Nehru or Patel or even Jinnah, no?), how can there be anything but trust deficit in leadership? For example, consider that the last Indian general elections in 2014 saw the BJP sweep to a thumping victory despite the fact that their vote share (the lowest for any single party which has won such a majority in Parliament[3]) was merely 31%. This is indicative of a splintered polity, and it begins with the very real problem of disconnection between so-called political leaders and the lived reality of the citizens they are meant to represent.

Am I suggesting that all is doom and gloom? Possibly. Heaven knows I often feel cynical enough to entertain this possibility. How do we raise and nurture our young – those that Kofi Annan once called the “lifeline” of any nation – into a sentient and sapient citizenry? How do we begin to tackle the problem of trust deficit in political (and corporate, but that’s almost the same thing as we know only too well) leadership? By walking again, I hold. By walking again so we know the land and its inhabitants: the land will learn leaders as leaders learn it back. We need less opaque governance and more accountability, which sounds too obvious to actually need stating, and yet here we are, living in a grossly unequal society, where not everyone can access the categories ‘citizen’ or ‘rights’ in equal measure. Programmes like Swaraj Abhiyan’s proposed rural immersion programme for students, or the Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament (LAMP[4]) Fellowship are instances of interventions which seek to reduce the spaces between us, but over and over again I can only come back to the idea I started this post with. Nivedita Menon says that a nation is a daily plebiscite[5], and if we are to reclaim it for ourselves, it begins with knowing and naming this nation over and over. And to know it, we must walk it together again.                           

Thursday, August 11, 2016

In which the UK mimics the titles of two U2 songs: Brexit as/and the quest for context

The thing about us is that we're contrarian in the extreme. This appears far too obvious a truism to start a post with, but bear with me as I attempt to read the obnoxious campaign that resulted in that ugliest of compounds (not to mention, eventualities) 'Brexit' in its light.

I dig AK Ramanujan muchly. Poet, translator extraordinaire, folklorist, scholar of Indian literatures, and a grammarian to boot, he truly was the real deal. Ramanujan taught at the University of Chicago for long years, and was one of the forces behind the shaping of its excellent South Asian Studies program. How do I know this? He taught one of my PhD guides there, decades ago. One degree of removal separated us, or would have, if Ramanujan had lived. We lost him altogether too soon, but that is another story for another time. To-day, I would have you muse on a formulation Ramanujan offers us in his exquisite 'Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay' (1989) instead.

This piece begins with the author casting about to identify what it is that makes us Indian; he asks whether there is an Indian way of thinking. More, is there an Indian way of thinking? Or, is there an Indian way of thinking? If the questions change as we play with intonation and stress, answers, necessarily, must too. At one point, the grammarian in him takes over, and attempts to read entire societies as one would languages. This is when he offers us the formulation I now put to you. Ramanujan says that there are two major kinds of grammatical rules: the context-free (subjects and predicates in sentences having to stand in a certain relation to each other, for example) and the context-sensitive (examples of which would be how plurals in English are generated by adding an 's' after stops (as in dog-s, cat-s) or by adding an 'es' after fricatives (latch-es) or 'ren' after child etc.). Where this gets interesting is that he holds that cultures also tend to idealise, or fall into, by and large one of these two modes of thinking and being in the world.

India, to no one's surprise ever, is an extreme example of a context-sensitive society: one's caste (and sub-caste), class (and sub-class), gender, religion (and sub-division thereof), geographical and other 'locations' determine the shape one's life may ostensibly take. Even time - in the form of 'auspicious' hours in a given day, or days in a week, or weeks in a month, or months in a year, or years in an aeon - and space are accorded with properties which mark out good from its nefarious other, dictating what action may be committed when, and where .The quest in a society as heavily circumscribed by context as ours is, Ramanujan tells us, is always going to be for a state of free-play: 'sannyasa' from the neat subdivisions which mark life stages (or 'moksha' from life's aims); 'sphota' (a 'burst' of meaning outside language qua language - much like the effect of montage in generating emotions in filmic texts, if you think about it) in semantics, 'bhakti' in religion; these are all examples of the freedom that comes at the 'end' of a lifetime spent performing the roles foisted upon members of context-sensitive societies.

Some of you may have, by now, discerned where this is headed, and you would be right if you had deduced that the United Kingdom would, in this schema, qualify as an example of a context-free society, based as it seemingly is upon the Judaeo-Christian predilection for universals ('thou shall not kill,' - not even if you are a Brahmin who has been wronged by a Shudra, no. Down.). At least theoretically, this would qualify as a society premised upon the egalitarian democratic notion that "any member is equal to and like any other in the group" (Ramanujan 1989: 54), where despite religious, class and other markers, the same rules applied to, as he so colourfully put it, "the lion and the ox". 

Now, if Ramanujan is to be believed, and I see no reason why he shouldn't be, this means that the quest in a polity like Britain's is one for context: for what people imagine to be 'roots and legacies', which can only come from belonging to (which is another way of saying these categories can be claimed only by 'othering' the waves of Eastern Europeans, Asians, West Indians and others who also lay claim as citizens to) this insular little island nation. This is the shadowy, murky underbelly of the quest for context; the calculated and noxious logic which culminates in Jo Cox's killer thinking of himself as a patriot who puts 'England first'. Does this begin to add up? In a world come unhinged, postmodern in the extreme in that the meta-narratives of religion, capitalism, democracy and their ilk have been judged and found wanting for they no longer serve to affix us as once they did and no longer seem to give our identities coherence, we are almost bound to witness a simultaneous unease with, and reaffirmation of the rhetoric of jingoistic nationalism. World over, we seem intent on splintering ourselves into as many sub-groups as it will take for us to feel comfortable in our skins again. 

This is what I meant when I began by suggesting we're devilishly contrarian. Of course there were Asian-Britons who voted 'Leave': every last one of us is someone else's other. Racism can be, and is, paid forward. Which is why, much like those blasted U2 songs I began by invoking, it's fairly safe to assume that the UK is a long way away yet from finding what it thinks it is looking for. With or without (E)U.