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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ignorant Commentary

The weekend issue of Business Standard has a column by one Arundhuti Dasgupta that is outright ignorant.

It is a shaggy-dog take on alliances in the Mahabharata and the Odyssey, ostensibly to give perspective to the current Indian political scene. None of it makes any sense because her basic premises are wrong.  

For instance, she thinks the Pandavas had the upper hand going into the Kurukshetra war.

She does not seem to have noticed that the Mahabharata goes to great lengths to emphasize that the Pandavas are the underdogs. After 14 years of exile in deprivation and hardship they are powerless and willing to settle for just five villages of their usurped empire.

The Kauravas not only had more allies and the larger army, they had the awesome Bhisma as commander-in-chief and the invincible Drona.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Dasgupta’s ignorance of the Mahabharata more than her take on Duryodhana’s elation at getting Krishna’s army while Arjuna gets Krishna as a noncombatant charioteer.

“Without their commander the soldiers were not as effective; and Krishna provided a huge moral, tactical and psychological advantage even though he did not fight on the battlefield.”

That is not the point!

Krishna is God. Duryodhana in his egoism does not see that all the armies in the world cannot help him if Krishna is guiding the other side.

That blinding egoism defeats the Kauravas at every turn as they spiral down to defeat.

Further along in the column, Dasgupta writes: “Strategic relationships have been a critical aspect of the mythology of the subcontinent. Vishnu, for instance, who is part of the trinity and highest in the hierarchy of gods, rides on the Garuda (a mythical bird) and rests on the Ananta Nag (the world serpent). The two were strong animistic deities who were assimilated in the Vedic fold, albeit in positions lower than the main gods. Alliances with the tribal gods helped spread the Vedic way of life. They widened their influence.”

Was there no one at the Business Standard to ask Dasgupta if she has ever read the Vedas? If she had even skimmed through them, the idiocy of her statements would have been clear.

The Vedas are entirely a collection of tribal hymns (Rig), rituals (Yajur), songs (Sama) and magical spells (Atharva). There is no “Vedic fold” or “Vedic way of life,” separate from the tribal.

The Vedas (literally, “Seen”), are the only holy books of Hinduism that are “sruti,” of divine origin and thus eternal. All else, including such revered books as the Bhagavad Gita, is “smriti,” the remembered works of human origin.

Why that difference? Because tribal lore is the “seen” reality of the universe dating to the very beginnings of the human race.

The hymns to Agni (the first deity invoked in the Rig Veda), Surya, Vayu, Indra the wielder of the thunderbolt, Varuna the upholder of law, and Yama the god of death, give voice to the most elemental poetic/religious experiences of homo sapiens.

Why were the Vedas compiled? Most probably to end inter-tribal conflict by creating a common source of veneration and allowing tribes to settle into interdependent castes. There is solid genetic evidence that each caste was once a tribe.

The persons credited by tradition with putting the Vedas in order were the Saptarishis, the seven sages memorialized as the stars that point to the unmoving North Star.

Straddling the Sruti and Smriti canons is the Vedanta. That is the net wisdom of the Vedas extracted by the Upanishads (literally, “discussions”) organized by the rishis (literally, “seers”).

The teachings of the Upanishads shaped the world view and the value-system we call Hinduism. Its key element is belief in a universal immanent Spirit that a devotee can approach in any form.

Upon that basic faith rests the view that all Creation is “God’s Family,” and that life and death are an infinite continuum through which individuals progress according to their observance of the Dharma (Eternal Law/Duty) and Karma (burden of moral causality).

Two wonderful epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, spread that grand perspective to every village in the country and far afield. Celebrated in music, song and dance, their stories told and retold in religious and secular drama, they shaped the customs, festivals and observances that have given us a common Indian culture and spirit.

The colonial British tried to fit the complexity of Hinduism into the Procrustean view of their own faith, itself the crippled child of a church created by the savage lust of Henry VIII. Not surprisingly, they could not comprehend it, and resorted to a number of self-aggrandizing theories, including the "Aryan invasion" and the Orientalist invention of Hinduism. 

Fortunately, the British are now long gone. Unfortunately, their confusions continue to haunt us through the works of Dasgupta and her ilk.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Romila Thapar and the Hindutvadis

David Davidar, formerly of Penguin India and Penguin Canada, has warmed up the fake culture war between Romila Thapar and the Hindutvadis just in time for the most divisive elections in our history.

Our "elite" English language Press has risen smartly to the bait, and there have been interviews in the TOI and DNA presenting that face-off as a real thing.

It is not real, for both sides of the debate are part of Britain's propaganda war against India.

With the Hindutvadis that is an open and shut case.

The philosophy of "Hindutva" was first enunciated by Damodar Vinayak Savarkar after he had been tortured into submission in a British prison.

It was written while he was still in prison and its political message was a HIndu version of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's "two nation" theory.

With Jinnah and Savarkar as proxies, the British then proceeded to rip Indian society apart. 

Romila Thapar is a more complex case because scholarly credentials hide her involvement in the propagandistic colonial history project.

Perhaps the best way to expose that is to compare her 1966 A History of India with its thoroughly revised and enlarged edition of 2004.

The two versions offer a fascinating contrast in their treatment of Hinduism.

The Pelican Original of 1966 had this to say about Hinduism on page 132 of Chapter 6:

Brahminism did not remain unchanged through all these centuries, nor was it impervious to the effects of Buddhism and Jainism. Some of the Vedic gods had quietly passed into oblivion and some were being reborn as new gods with additional attributes. This was the time when the Brahminical religion assumed features which today are recognized as Hinduism. To call it Hinduism at this stage is perhaps an anachronism, since the term was given currency by the Arabs in the eight century A.D, when referring to those who followed the prevailing religion of India, the worship of Shiva and Vishnu. But for the sake of convenience the religion may be described as Hinduism from this point onwards.”

In the much expanded 2004 edition, the topic of Hinduism was moved up to page 3 of Chapter 1, and Thapar expressed a completely different view.

In the course of investigating what came to be called Hinduism, together with various aspects of its belief, ritual and custom, many [British Orientalists] were baffled by a religion that was altogether different from their own. It was not monotheistic, there was no historical founder, or single sacred text, or dogma or ecclesiastical organization — and it was closely tied to caste. There was therefore an overriding need to fit it into the known moulds of familiar religions, so as to make it more accessible. Some scholars have suggested that Hinduism as it is formulated and perceived today, very differently from earlier times, was largely born out of this reformulation.

The British “reformulation,” Thapar explained, “influenced the emerging Indian middle class in its understanding of its own past. … It was believed that the Indian pattern of life was so concerned with metaphysics and the subtleties of religious belief that little attention was given to the more tangible aspects.”

That was “the genesis of the idea of the spiritual east,” a theme “firmly endorsed by a section of Indian opinion during the last hundred years” because it “was a consolation to the Indian intelligentsia for its perceived inability to counter the technical superiority of the West …. At the height of anti-colonial nationalism it acted as a salve for having been made a colony of Britain.

Thapar did not explain her dramatic shift in assessing the nature and history of Hinduism, but it is not difficult to see that in the second version she has clearly bought into the colonial theme that Hinduism does not exist, that the billion of us who call ourselves Hindu are just plain confused.

However, the explanation is obvious and can be summed up simply: 1984.

Obviously, she has been hurt and traumatized by the events of that terrible year, and the vociferous attacks of Hindutvadis on her various writings have pushed her over the edge.

It is a pity that she did not put what happened in 1984 in the larger context of Britain's merciless manipulation of the Sikhs.

But as for the rest of us, we should look on the Romila Thapar versus the Hindutvadis as a specious culture war entirely of British creation, presented at a critical time in our history by one of their most effective proxies in India, David Davidar.


Monday, March 31, 2014

BJP, Congress or Aam Admi?

As any writer who is not independently wealthy I write for hire. Not as a journalist but as an expert consultant.

My specialty for many years has been international cooperation for development, a field at once richly satisfying -- because it is about hope and aspiration -- and deeply disheartening in the venal cynicism of its theorists.

Consider, for instance, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted as an afterthought by the summit-level meeting of the UN General Assembly at the cusp of the 21st Century.

Advertised as measurable targets for “development,” they were actually little more than a diversion, drawing attention away from such grim realities as the global black market that sucks out ten times more from poor countries than they get as "aid." 

“Halve poverty levels by 2015” was the lead MDG.

It did not say how that should be done, or at what cost.

In China, which has made the most rapid progress in reducing poverty, it was done by massive foreign investments that made the country the “workshop of the world.”

But the costs have been terrible.

A team of Chinese scientists reported earlier this year that air pollution in the country had become so bad that it was blocking out the sun and reducing plant growth. They compared it to “nuclear winter,” when the debris thrown into the atmosphere by atomic bombs is projected to make photosynthesis impossible.

And that’s not the worst of it.

China’s progress has been built on sand.

When the financial crisis of 2008 and the “Great Recession” that followed in Europe and North America threatened to collapse its export driven economy, Beijing spent half a trillion dollars to prop up growth.

Most of the money went to build infrastructure.

They built highways, bridges and tunnels with few users, a pricey super-fast railway and huge airports with little air traffic.

Most of all, they built housing. There is now an apartment for every family in China. But most are unoccupied, for they are priced too high and are in areas where there is no economic activity to support an urban population.

All across China now there are not only millions of unoccupied buildings, there are entire ghost cities.

Even that is not the worst of it.

China’s booming “development” created a crony capitalism that allied predatory wheeler-dealers with the Communist power structure. They took land forcibly from poor farmers, forcing millions to become migrant workers in factories thousands of miles away from their homes.

There are now over 200 million migrant workers living on slave wages in urban areas. While the workers languish in poverty, Party flacks and their business cronies grew enormously rich.

China's growing army of millionaires and billionaires are estimated to keep much of their wealth in other countries and some 80 per cent are reported to have established foreign residency rights.

Narendra Modi is a votary of this model of “development,” and it has enamored Indian Big Business.

It has blinded business leaders to his violent communal record, bully-boy rhetoric and capacity to corrupt and misuse the Intelligence and Police services. One of them hailed him as "King of kings" at a recent conclave that was an unmitigated abomination in a democracy.

Quite obviously, no Indian in her right mind should vote for the Modi-led BJP.

Congress is a better choice in that it is not openly communal and is more aware of the poor and middle class. But in seeking to woo Big Business away from Modi, will it offer – has it offered – the same kind of crony capitalism?

Despite the rhetoric of its election platform, there is little reason to believe that the Congress has a view of development much different from Modi's. Its much touted Land Bill will raise the cost of appropriating land, but will do no justice to the farmer.

Expropriating land to benefit the rich will very quickly begin to destabilize the balance of castes in rural areas that is the bedrock of Indian political stability. It will feed and expand the insurrections that now ravage tribal areas. The country could quite easily slip into the state of general civil war that preceded colonial rule.

Is there a way to avoid this prospect?

Yes, but to see the way the Indian political elite must heed the first teaching of the Hitopadesa and let fall the veil of greed that now prevents them from seeing the true wealth of the country, its people.

“Development” does not mean highways and dams and skyscrapers, and flashy dressers calling each other “Dude;” it means that everyone in the country is fed, educated and profitably employed.

Can we have that without industrialization and Big Business?

Yes. In fact, the technology of the Information Age is making Big Business obsolete.

The capacity to identify and cater to niche markets through the World Wide Web has the potential to make small scale artisanal production competitive with mass produced goods. That will destroy the primary reason for the mass market and giant corporations.

The nature of industrial production is also undergoing fundamental change. The combination of off-grid renewable energy and 3-D printing has revolutionary implications.

It means we can have top quality industrial products made in remote rural areas. When the best educational services and cultural products are also available online in rural areas, the pressures now causing rapid urbanization will disappear. As rural development accelerates, population growth will decelerate very rapidly, and that will change all other economic projections.

We are facing a future when there will be no reason for massive energy and raw materials supplies to be concentrated at points of production. There will be nothing to drive predatory exploitation of natural resources. The corporations of the future will be flat networks of entrepreneurs, each grounded in his/her own community and meeting real human needs.

The rather confused vision of rural development set out in Arvind Kejriwal’s book Swaraj could help bring such a future to life – if the Aam Admi Party can convince the Indian voter that it is capable of governing.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Flight 370 a Grim Omen for India

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 on 9 March should be seen as a grim omen for India.

It portends a 9/11 type attack using the missing Boeing 777 that could precipitate war with Pakistan.

A single chilling fact precludes any possibility that the aircraft was lost innocuously at sea: as it veered off its set course and headed towards India, the aircraft reportedly climbed to 45,000 feet – 2000 feet beyond the maximum for a Boeing 777 – then dropped rapidly to 12,000 feet.

Such a descent occurs when there has been a catastrophic loss of cabin pressure.

The climb to 45,000 feet is also significant if we consider that at that altitude, sudden depressurization will render passengers brain dead in 15 seconds.

At that hour of night – past 01:30 – most of the passengers were probably asleep and of those who were awake few could have grabbed an emergency oxygen mask in time.

We know from the series of satellite "handshakes" by the Boeing's Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), that it continued flying west for five to six hours. 

That is enough time to reach as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia, overflying areas infested with drug dealing terrorists who certainly had the wherewithal to make a one-mile landing strip.

Given the brutality of the hijacking, it is highly likely that the aircraft is now in the possession of terrorists in that general area, being readied for use.

So why is the search for the missing plane focused on the remote southern Indian Ocean?

Because American and Chinese satellites reported debris in the area, and the British company that runs the surveillance system INMARSAT, said that it had registered a number of pings from an unidentified aircraft in that area.

There is no other evidence. Even if some floating seat cushions turn up in the area, it is most likely to have been planted on 24 May, when a fierce storm supposedly stopped all search operations for 24 hours.

The fact that the search was refocused on the basis of such skimpy evidence indicates a willingness of major Powers to turn a blind eye on reality; it should put Indian air defence authorities on high alert for misinformation from usually reliable sources. 

This is not being paranoid.

The world is in the midst of a complex power struggle in which treacheries abound. 

At a time when all the major developed countries are still reeling from the “Great Recession,” and China is on the verge of economic collapse, India is the only national market that can generate the rapid increase in demand necessary to avoid a prolonged global downturn. Control of it is a rich prize.

However, getting a government in New Delhi entirely devoted to foreign interests will require extraordinary circumstances, such as would result from a massive airborne terrorist attack that precipitated war with Pakistan.

(The bizarre essay prophesying an India-Pakistan war published by the Brookings Institution suddenly makes sense! So does Ashutosh Varshney’s book on India’s “improbable democracy:” it establishes his credential as an expert on the planned chaos.)

Another factor that makes me think a major terror attack is in the works is the increasing difficulty Britain faces in laundering the $60 billion proceeds of the illicit drug trade out of Afghanistan. International pressure to close down its “tax haven” money laundering system has made it imperative that the money be invested in the region, which means India.

Such large-scale investment will be possible only if Britain has the kind of political control in India that it asserts in Pakistan through the ISI.

A beginning has been made in that direction by promoting in India the same kind of endemic sectarian violence that bedevils Pakistan: communal incidents this year are up 30 per cent over 2012.

However, that is not enough. Even with the largest electoral war chest localized communal incidents cannot be used to manipulate Indian voters on the scale necessary to bring in a proxy government. Ergo, a terrorist attack that could provoke war, give new life to all kinds of moribund insurrections, and allow a bully-boy proxy to emerge as a national saviour.

There is little doubt who that will be.

The relentless reporting in the country’s British proxy mass media of a “Modi wave,” the personality cult now in the works, and the jettisoning of senior BJP leaders of integrity and stature, all point to a scenario in which the “khoon ke saudagar” can spout on about Hindu power and a 54-inch chest while bringing back foreign rule to India.

Do I think this will happen?

No. There are too many honest sensible Indians to allow it.

Also, I do not think it is in the cards at the end of the Kali Yuga.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What the Crimean Crisis Means for India

All the commentary in India about the crisis over the Crimea has been from foreign viewpoints, and the resulting Russia versus the United States debate ignores our very firm interests in the matter.

To see what they are, it is necessary to be aware of the historical currents that have shaped modern realities.

Perhaps the most important of them is the rise of the United States to global power after World War II and the Ismay-Churchill coup of 1946 that subverted American democracy. It put in place an unconstitutional “permanent government” in Washington that allowed the American military and Intelligence establishments to serve under British strategic command to create the unified “West of the Cold War.

Those realities have been eroding steadily since the end of the Cold War, and have crumbled rapidly since fracking technology freed the United States from the policy constraints imposed by dependence on Saudi Arabian oil. Washington is now engaged in a complex struggle to maintain its global dominance in an increasingly multipolar world. That has involved:

1. Creating the “financial crisis” of 2008-2009 to render the international order fluid and ready for change;

2. Pushing the British to end the various global corruptions (massive money laundering, manipulating LIBOR, rigging currency exchange rates), that have sustained its power since the end of Empire;

3. The “pivot to Asia” to counter rising Chinese power;

4. End of long-standing support for tyrannical regimes in the Middle East and promoting the “Arab Spring;”

5. Continuing pressure on the remnants of the Soviet power structure reconstituted within the Russian Federation by ex-KGB operative Vladimir Putin.

India has chosen to tread very carefully through this multi-front battlefield to take creative advantage of the new opportunities it has opened up. Among the highlights:

1. India recovered quickly from the financial crisis of 2008-2009 with its economy fueled by the massive deficit spending in the US, Europe and China. Along with all other developing countries, it continued to grow at historically unprecedented rates while the industrialized countries sank into the “Great Recession.”

2. New Delhi’s effort to have British communications giant Vodafone pay taxes on assets acquired through the global black market has been a silent but stout refusal to cooperate with that reality. The silence acknowledges the enormous black money holdings of the country’s elite.

3. While engaging in strategic dialogue and partnership with the United States on Asian affairs, India has also warmed its relations with a China newly keen to win friends and influence people.

4. As the “Arab Spring” turned to winter, India has taken no sides, conscious on the one hand, that nearly a third of its $70 billion in foreign remittances come from the Middle East, and on the other hand, aware that its own political system is vulnerable to remote controlled uprisings. It has welcomed some of the changes the United States has forced on the Arab world, especially the Saudi retreat from blatant support of terrorism and its medieval outlook on human rights.

5. On the crisis in the Crimea, PM Manmohan Singh’s call for restraint by all sides is not lame fence sitting but a cri de coeur in a situation that has the potential to spin rapidly out of control. In fact, American strategists might be pushing for that to happen. Sanctions on Russia and its expulsion from the G-8 coinciding with the long feared bursting of the Chinese real estate and debt bubbles will mean there can be no coordinated international effort to contain the contagion of economic chaos. Three-quarters of all South-South exports are to Asia, and China is the largest trading partner of all of Africa, Brazil (which accounts for 3/5th of the South American economy) and India. If the Chinese economy comes in for a hard landing, the rapid growth of the South in the last decade will be history.The prospect of an Asian Century will have to be put off.

Of course, it is very possible that the United States will step in and rescue Africa. Washington is hosting its very first conclave of the continent’s leaders this summer, and a number of indicators point to a massive rise in investment in Africa.

China and India might also be thrown lifebelts, but at the cost of kowtowing to American economic prescriptions.

Whether India will do so will depend very much on the election results on 16 May. And I do not mean that a firm fascist hand at the economic tiller in New Delhi will help matters; on the contrary, it might devastate the country.

More on that in the next post.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Pulping of Wendy Doniger's Book


Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus An Alternative History (2009), is  an almost unbelievably obtuse work of 700+ pages. After a first read-skim in 2009, I summed it up thus: “A work equaled in its confusion, incomprehension and malice perhaps only by John Mills’ History and Katherine Mayo’s Mother India. “

I noted one passage in particular as exemplifying the author's overall attitude and approach; on page 294, explaining the beginnings of the story of the Mahabharata, she writes:

“Where Rama and his brothers have different mothers and different wives but share both a single human father and a single divine father, the five Pandavas have one mother (and one wife) and one human father but different divine fathers.

“In this disastrous levirate, two wives give birth to three sons (two of whom have, for great-grandparents, a female fish, two Brahmins, and five kshatriyas, while the third has a Kshatriya, a female fish, two Brahmins and four slaves. Are you still with me?)”

Doniger's writing ensures that the reader has no chance to be “with” her, and most could be forgiven for thinking the Mahabharata is a freak show. Nowhere in the book does she assay the enormous wisdom of the epic or tell of its central role in shaping India.

Can we imagine any respectable scholarly work dealing with the New Testament or the Koran in this manner?

That is not the only reason for complaint.

Doniger is a professor of Sanskrit untrained in history or theology; all her knowledge of Hinduism is a sort of accidental accretion upon a vulgar, highly sexualized sensibility.

That explains why her naive measure of Hinduism never departs from the standard of her own Judeo-Christian heritage.

On page 25 she explains earnestly, “There is no single founder or institution to enforce any single construction of the tradition, to rule on what is or is not a Hindu idea or to draw the line when someone finally goes too far and transgresses the unspoken boundaries of reinterpretation. Ideas about all the major issues – vegetarianism, nonviolence, even caste itself – are subjects of a debate, not a dogma. There is no Hindu canon. The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita), were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus,’ certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”

She thinks vegetarianism, nonviolence and caste are the "major issues" of Hinduism?! And even more nonsensical is the observation about the Gita. Similar absurdities litter almost every one of the 692 pages of the main text.

From the Hindu tendency to debate all things about their faith, Doniger deduces that “there is no such thing as Hinduism in the sense of a single unified religion…” The whole book is an extended argument of the well-worked colonial theme that Hinduism does not exist.

She seems oblivious to the fact that it is not a virtue in a religion to be "single" and "unified," for their inevitable corollaries are Inquisitions, fundamentalisms and wars. Hinduism is undefinable because it is focused on that most overweening of all realities, God.(See here for a series on Hinduism.)

Many other errors and falsifications are picayune. Chapter 21 takes us on a "fast gallop" over the "two centuries during which India was part of the British Empire."
Now which two centuries would that be?

Bengal fell to the British in 1757. Over the next 100 years British rule expanded slowly across the country; Punjab was taken in 1849. Then came the earthshaking events of 1857. After that their rule lasted 90 years. It would be accurate to say that bits and pieces of India were under British rule for a two-century period; overall, some 3/5ths of the country was part of it for half that time.

On page 574 she highlights the "Black Hole of Calcutta" as causing "dozens of deaths," and a few pages later, gives details, drastically lowering the number of British prisoners (146) that imperial propagandists had reported held in a dungeon under inhuman conditions, killing 123.

The story of the Black Hole was originally cooked up six months after the supposed atrocity by the head Calcutta honcho of the East India Company as he sailed back to Britain. His motive was to justify the aggression that brought Bengal under British rule, and it worked like a charm; no one in London thought of questioning how 146 Englishmen (and one woman) could possibly have fit in a cell 18 feet by 14.

It is a mystery why Doniger reprised the story in 2009 as if were true and falsified figures to make it seem believable.
     
But it does put the book in context and explain its dedication to British propagandist William Dalrymple, “inspiration and comrade in the good fight.”

I am sorry to see any book destroyed, but cannot join in the general censure of Penguin India. Its editors should have seen this coming a long way off and imposed a minimum of quality control.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Has Ambekar "Beaten Gandhi Hollow"?

The dishonesties of newspaper columnists are usually petty and insignificant, but not so with Swaminathan Aiyar's assault on the Mahatma in the Times of India on 9 February; it is a very large attack on the truth.

Its first sentence claims that: "January 30, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, drove home the growing irrelevance of the father of the nation."

How?

Why, Trinamool cabinet ministers in Calcutta did not attend the official ceremonies on the occasion, and the Mayor of Mumbai forgot too. Also, a "newspaper poll some years ago," showed "two-thirds of all voters thought that Sonia Gandhi was related to Mahatma Gandhi."

This is very weak tea and Aiyar moves quickly to a new brew: he claims Bhimrao Ambedkar "has posthumously beaten the Mahatma hollow."

He does not explain how that contest was arranged. Perhaps the statement that Ambedkar is "the icon of all dalits" is a gesture in that direction. For some reason, Aiyar seems to disregard the millions of us non-dalits who also consider Babasaheb iconic; not to mention the hundreds of millions who consider both men heroes.
 
But all this is preliminary throat-clearing; Aiyar's main theme is Ambedkar's opposition to Gandhi's idea that India should be composed of self-ruling villages. He quotes Ambedkar's rejection of panchayat raj in the Bombay Legislative Council on the grounds that a “population which is hidebound by caste ... infected by ancient prejudices ... flouts equality of status and is dominated by notions of gradations in life" cannot "be expected to have the right notions even to discharge bare justice.”

That view "continues to ring true eight decades later," Aiyar declares. As evidence of village-level infamy he points to the "mass killing of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar; the regressive "khap panchayats" in Haryana and Punjab; the recent West Bengal khap panchayat that ordered gang rape of a woman with a Muslim lover; the 2012 arson in a Tamil Nadu village after a dalit boy eloped with a  Vanniyar girl; and, in the same state, the "several cases" of intimidation that kept dalits from occupying reserved panchayat seats.

That is still a very weak case against Panchayat Raj, and to shore it up Aiyar throws in a reference to World Bank "research" confirming that "the world over, central governments tend to be far more egalitarian and secular in outlook than villages." He adds: "What Ambedkar said of hidebound villages is a global truth."

As a student of the Bank's research output for over four decades, I find it a bit hard to believe that it produced that definitive hold-all finding. I could be wrong, but it sounds more like something out of an Oxfam brochure or, at a stretch, a Human Development Report from UNDP

If Aiyar had looked closer home he would have found that the actual Indian experience with Panchayati Raj has been overwhelmingly positive.

Things got off to a slow start because Ambedkar's fears were widely shared. Parliament took 40 years to enact constitutional provisions into law and enable a system of directly elected bodies with quotas for women and Scheduled Castes/Tribes; and in the early years funding was limited and progress slowed by a corrupt nexus of conservative bureaucrats and caste leaders threatened by democracy.

However, by the beginning of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012), there were some 250,000 elected village-level bodies, with 3.2 million elected members, over a third of them women.

By then, their functioning had finally won the confidence of the Planning Commission. It increased funding 471 percent to Rs.775 crores (approximately $168 million), noting that although achievements in the past had not been commensurate with expenditures, the Panchayat system had proved to be a laboratory “of multi-level pluralist democracy, facilitating the achievements of consensus on development issues at the lowest level of government."

Experience had shown that at “the local level, groups learn to co-exist, cooperate, negotiate and arrive at acceptable decisions and even marginalized groups can gain confidence and move on from token participation to higher forms of direct social action for the collective good."

The realization of the effectiveness of Panchayat Raj has not led to any rethinking of the main thrust of Indian economic development. It has continued in the 12th Five Year Plan (2013 -2018) towards industrialization, with tall talk of "corridors" for manufacturing across the length and breadth of the country.

This points to a basic disconnect at the highest levels of Indian policy-making, and it should make ordinary Indians extremely anxious, for it shows that our leaders still think of "development" purely in terms of GDP growth and not the welfare of the people. Consider the following facts:
  1. India is tooling itself to fit into a world economy that is in a state of terminal crisis. 
  2. It is making itself part of patterns of global production and exchange that are killing the life-sustaining systems of the planet.
  3. In the process, it is destroying the basis for Indian productivity, both by unbalancing the complex patterns of social and ecological interdependence in the countryside and by paving over rich farmland for luxury housing and shopping malls.
  4. The result is an ever more obscene gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else: the net worth of India's billionaires increased 12-fold in 15 years. As IMF chief Christine Lagarde noted recently, that money could have eliminated poverty in the country -- twice over.
  5. There is massive proof, made concrete in China, that rapid industrialization will cause a whole slew of new problems, including massive despoliation of air, land and water, and a huge new burden of environment-related illnesses, especially cancer.  
  6. The more we industrialize, the sharper we will feel international pressures through manipulated energy prices and rigged currency markets. 
Mahatma Gandhi's advice that India should seek to revive its villages as the means of advance was not some idealistic pipedream. He knew Indian ground realities better than any other politician of his generation or since; what he proposed would have brought growth where it mattered most, to the poor. 

As things stand, if India is to survive with its traditions intact, we have no alternative but village-based development.