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Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

A Dammed (In)Dependence

Posted by RB Kollannur on November 29, 2011

We lost our independence in 1947.

For centuries the southern half of what is now the Indian state of Kerala had remained free from foreign rule. Indeed the same could have been said about the northern half as well, had it not been for the military excesses of the usurpers of Mysore, Hyder and Tipu (The fact that it was the British who reaped the benefits of these excesses is a minor side matter).

This changed in 1947 when the British left our shores. Faced with international isolation and the military might of the Republic of India, the princely states of Travancore and Cochin, that ruled the south Kerala, had no other option but to join the Republic.

And thus we signed away our freedom.

Of course being part of a much larger country does have its advantages. India can provide a much larger employment pool and a large market for our products. However, both have been counterproductive since Kerala has continued to support a huge migrant population, while sending many men and women abroad for work. From a trade point of view, with limited resources available to set up a manufacturing industry at a competitive basis, Kerala has remained a heavy consumer of Indian made goods. This situation becomes worse when you factor in the Indian Excise regime. In essence, the people of Kerala have since 1947 been spending a large chunk of their income paying taxes to other states.

Perhaps the biggest advantage for Kerala being part of India is security. As a fragile small state, Kerala has very limited ability to protect itself from invaders. For centuries the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats did the job, but in a nuclear era these have huge limitations. The availability of the Indian military can provide a sufficient deterrent to anyone wishing to attack this tiny state.

Unfortunately, this military might has not been able to prevent “foreign” invasion from across the state line, from where the custodians of Mullaperiyar dam on Kerala soil came. It is laughable to note that a state is not allowed to even manage a property within its own borders.

There are two parts in the Indian periphery, that most of India has shown complete lack of concern or compassion. The first is the North East, which the Indian map reveals to be a child dragged behind by her mother. The second of course is Kerala. As the smallest of the southern four states not many give attention to any plight in God’s Own Country. It has become almost boring to hear about the recurring complaints regarding long awaited central projects, be it the Palakkad coach factory or the Vallarpadam container terminal so on and so forth.

For most of its existence, the Indian state of Kerala has outperformed the rest of India in most societal indicators and for the past two decades, when the economy of India had something worthwhile to write abroad about, Kerala has managed considerably better. As one of the biggest consumers in the country with a chiefly urban population gobbling up Indian products, Kerala has been one of the silent engines for India’s growing economic powerhouse. This happened mostly when India provided scant attention to the affairs of Kerala or did little to support it.

During the years of British dominance in South Asia, Travancore and Cochin had silently gone about their business building an efficient and progressive society. Travancore, especially, had consistently received laurels for her progressive reforms. Fortunately after 1947, the civilian governments continued the reforms of the monarchies, improved on it and extended it to the Malabar region that was part of the British regime. These reforms were important in bringing Kerala to where she is now.

Perhaps the only significant change that India has been able to bring about in Kerala is the loss of the fertile regions of Nagercoil and Kanyakumari to neighbouring Tamil Nadu in place of the then barren unpopulated wasteland in South Kanara.

So when many of Kerala are complaining about an age old problem called Mullaperiyar run by Tamil Nadu despite being in Kerala, I do not expect India to listen (or care).

We lost our independence in 1947.


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The Failure of Gandhigiri

Posted by RB Kollannur on April 11, 2011

“Sometimes, a vaccination is just what the good doctor ordered”.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Non Violence / Non Cooperation Movements have received laurels from around the world. But what is left unsaid is that they were also complete failures. That most people have chosen to ignore it may be an indication of the need for humanity to believe such a movement could actually be successful.

Gandhi started his “Gandhigiri” with the Champaran Satyagraha in 1918. He would continue with similar movements for the best part of the next three decades. While Gandhi was laying seeds for his epic struggle for independence, in the farthest corner of Europe another independence movement was underway. Ireland, another British colony, was setting themselves up to throw away their British masters. But unlike Gandhi they chose a more violent method. Though it started disastrously in 1916, by 1919 Michael Collins was organising a successful guerrilla war.

While India, with its massive resources and populace, chose to have a passive three decade long struggle, Ireland chose the aggressive way and became independent in 1921.

The duration of the Gandhi’s movement is an indication of its failure. Still, there would be some relief had it actually managed to gain India its independence. In that also, it failed. Fortunately for Gandhi, events in Europe came to his rescue.

Germany had seen a major fall from power in the nineteenth century. Their desire for former glory led to two world wars and a new world order. Hitler’s forces had so devastated Britain and France that both had to let go off their imperial ambitions for a secure future despite winning the war. Britain no longer had the ability to maintain their vast colonial empire given the economic devastation of its home country. The dissolution gradually began with the people of UK kicking their war leader Winston Churchill out of the Parliament and replacing him with a more progressive minded Attlee. Over the next four decades, the many colonies of Britain around the world gradually received their freedom. The French would follow suit, albeit reluctantly, after their African colonies took to war. The French turned to their WWII leader, Charles de Gaulle, who promptly settled with the colonies.

India, the largest of the British colonies in population, was the first colony to be let go. Though Gandhi struggled for three decades for independence, it was purely fortuitous that India actually became independent. The best legacy of the failure of Gandhi’s movement is the Partition of India. Seeing what they perceived to be differences between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority of India, they decided to divide India into two. Gandhi was, of course, of the counter opinion. But since he had very little role in India receiving independence, he had very little say in what transpired. In Britain’s defence, they did leave India in a far more united and stable state than when they arrived. Their insistence on the princely states to join either of the countries also went a long way in ensuring that unity. States like Kashmir, Hyderabad and Travancore who nursed independent ambitions would not have been able to remain so without British or international support.

In short, Gandhi’s Non Violence / Non Cooperation Movement reaped little dividend to its followers. It remains to be seen whether its emulators will be similarly unsuccessful.

Non violence may seem to be a noble goal to chase, but violence is not without its place in life. The bacteria, which have evolved beyond the antibiotics that have been protecting humanity over the past century, will certainly tell you, that it is the genocide of their kin that made them better living beings. Sometimes, a vaccination is just what the good doctor ordered.

Posted in Society | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

A Suburb Named Kerala

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 23, 2011

“Albeit the country is but small, yet it is so fulfilled with people, that it may well be called one town from Mount D’ely to Coulam” – Duarte Barbosa, c. 1516.

The land the Portuguese writer is elucidating is the coast line of the Indian state of Kerala, from the town of Kannur in the north to Kollam in the south. If we extend this observation to the entire state of Kerala, we can see that, half a millennia later, Barbosa’s words remain true as ever.

The Early Years

It was the spice trade that brought Barbosa and the Portuguese to Kerala. The Arab traders and the Italian city states held a virtual monopoly in it and the Portuguese intended to break that monopoly. He would later accompany Magellan around the world but die on the way in Philippines. The “town” of Kerala that Barbosa saw was made of four city states – Kannur, Kozhikode, Kochi and Kollam. These city states competed amongst themselves, at times violently, over the lucrative spice trade. These rivalries, however, remained independent of influence from the rest of the subcontinent. The Western Ghats provided a natural barrier to a large scale deployment of force from the other southern states (They did occasionally send, often successful, sorties to Kerala, but a meaningful annexation was difficult).

Insulated from the continuous warfare of the subcontinent and helped by the fertile land of the region, Kerala progressed in numbers and its economy flourished (which probably led Barbosa to make that comment). Indeed it can be said that while the Western Ghats kept Kerala away from rest of the subcontinent, the allure of the spices brought the rest of the world to Kerala further enriching its people, both in culture and economy.

However, the southern states did have considerable influence over the culture of Kerala, especially the Tamil nation, of which the people of Kerala originally were. The unknown author of “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” (c. 100 AD) talks of two kingdoms in this region – Cerabothra (Cheras) and Pandian (Pandyas) and their main ports of Muziris (Near Kochi) and Nelcynda (Perhaps Kollam). These were ruled from Karur and Madurai both in present day Tamil Nadu. The influence of the Tamil culture was ever present in those days. Silappathikaram, a Tamil epic dated around this time feature the three Tamil nations – Chola, Chera and Pandya, prominently.

But this was a time when the people of Kerala had not yet branched off from the Tamil people. Malayalam, the language of Kerala, is believed to have developed much later, in the sixth century. By eighth century the Chera kingdom had re-formed in Mahodayapuram near Kochi, while in the extreme South the Ay kingdom ruled as feudatories of the Pandya in Vizhinjam near Thiruvananthapuram. Muziris remained as the chief port in the region till it got flooded in 1341 and disappeared from history. Over time the Chera kingdom also disappeared and the city states that Barbosa came across replaced it (Ay kingdom merged with Kollam to form Venad).  The Dutch and the English would soon follow the Portuguese and an uneasy trade alliance was formed between the city states and the mercenary trading companies.

This would be destroyed by the aggression of the usurpers of Mysore, Hyder Ali and Tipu, which eventually resulted in the ouster of the northern kingdoms by the British East India Company. The Southern half however remained independent from British India, but as autonomous princely states within the British Empire.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the current state of Kerala was divided into three; two princely states – Travancore (erstwhile Venad) and Kochi, and the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency of British India*. The society was heavily based in agriculture (and to a lesser extend trade), but it remained thickly populated. The twentieth century would bring considerable change to the region, but in many ways it continued to remain the same.

The Making of an Ideal Development Model

Chart A: Density of Population 1871-2001 (Persons per sq km) **

Kerala has always been a highly populated region. The early twentieth century saw a considerable increase in population making it more populous than even Bengal, perhaps an indication of the improving healthcare of Kerala. This huge increase in population, however, put a tremendous stress on the society and its resources. Fertile land remained the most important resource, but its importance was reduced with the increase of population. As land got divided over generations, its ability to support its owners reduced.

From 1921 to 1941, the population had grown by 50%. The pressure of population on land was such that in early 1940s large communities of people, mainly Christians, migrated out of Travancore and settled in unpopulated tracts of Malabar. Though this provided a temporary release of pressure, there was no escape from the population explosion that happened across the world after WWII. By the 1970s, the population of 1940s had almost doubled. It soon became difficult for the people of Kerala to depend purely on land for their life.

Despite the slowly choking economic growth, this was a period that saw tremendous societal progress. The Kingdom of Travancore led the way in social reforms receiving commendations from British India on its administration. Kochi did not lag far behind. Marthanda Varma (1729-1758), the architect of the Thiruvananthapuram, initiated the reforms in Travancore, while Shakthan Tampuran (1790-1805), the architect of Thrissur, initiated the reforms in Kochi. The latter was responsible for bringing traders to Thrissur to develop the economy of the region. A century and a half later, Thrissur was lauded for its organized banking system. Early in the nineteenth century the then Queen of Travancore, Gowri Lakshmi Bai (1810-1813), took personal initiative to introduce vaccination to her state. Her son, Swathi Thirunal (1813-1846), established many education institutions. Early in the twentieth century, Rajarshi (1895-1914), King of Kochi, invested the Royal Treasury to bring railway to Kochi. This was soon extended to Travancore a decade later.

By the early twentieth century, both the Kingdoms of Travancore and Kochi had developed excellent educational and health infrastructure. However, not all were freely accessible. Racism, like in rest of India, was strong in Kerala as well. Although it would continue to persist to the latter part of the century, the Dalit movement led by Ayyankali ensured that the lower castes received access to education in line with the rest of the society. There was resistance among the Hindu community but this was quickly brought down. The prevalence of Christian missionary backed educational institutes would have also made education accessible to everyone. Kerala always had a substantial Christian community since the arrival of the Portuguese, who came with a specific directive to convert people to Christianity, unlike their English and Dutch counterparts.

When the British chose to leave India in 1947 after the pyrrhic war of WWII, Kochi was the first nation to join India. The then King of Kochi put forward a proposal to have a united state of Malayalam speaking people. The King of Travancore was initially reluctant to join, and for good reason. It is possible that there were apprehensions about the continuance of the societal reforms taken by him and his predecessors. Fortunately and perhaps as a confirmation of those reforms, the new state of Kerala took special interest in continuing the educational and healthcare reforms of the princely states and extend it to the Malabar region as well. The success of the earlier reforms can be inferred by the fact that it could provide the personnel necessary to support such a state wide expansion.

In the 1970s, the Kerala society received much praise from the intelligentsia around the world for its societal indicators. These indicators were a result of a century of enlightened rule by the Kings of Travancore and Kochi and their continuation by the Government of Kerala. The rest of India for its part intervened very little in this development. However, economic growth continued to be out of reach and the state faced a worrying future with its main resource, fertile land, not enough to provide for its people. It was the time for the people of Kerala to show their mettle.


For centuries, people from around the world came to Kerala for its spices. But, there is a very limited record of people from Kerala going around the world. Perhaps it was because the people were well supported by the land. With that no longer possible, Malayalis had to search elsewhere for their future.

Gulf Boom and Economic Growth

Kerala has an ancient connection with the Arab world. Arab traders held a monopoly of trade with Kerala for close to a millennium, before the interference of European colonialists. Kerala also has a proud Muslim tradition dating back to the days of the Prophet, much longer than the rest of the country. By the 1970s, propelled by the oil trade, the Arab nations were riding high on economic growth. However, they were sparsely populated and suffered a considerable shortage of manpower. Kerala, on the other hand, had a surplus of educated manpower. The historic trade connection and the Muslim tradition helped meet demand with supply, resulting in the Gulf boom of Kerala. The cost of living differences allowed a person earning in Gulf to provide for a larger family in Kerala. The homeward remittances also trickled down to trade and provided impetus to economic growth.

The Gulf boom had some unintended consequences as well. It had a negative impact on the growth of the manufacturing sector. It was already reeling under trade union activism in the state brought upon by a well aware working force. The opportunity of a much better job abroad (or even being already supported by somebody abroad) did not improve this either. It also took off pressure on fertile land as many former farmers also went abroad. Many took opportunity of this to convert farmland to real estate and gain profits. Many chose to leave their fields fallow and focus away from agriculture (This was eventually reined in by the government enforcing cultivation on agricultural land. If left fallow, it would be taken over by the government). But on the whole, the Gulf boom provided the momentum Kerala  needed. It also meant that Kerala progressed from an agriculture based economy to a service based economy, without going through the manufacturing phase.

The Story Now

Kerala has come a long way since the Gulf boom. In the 1970s, Kerala had excellent educational infrastructure, but it was mainly limited to basic education. Technical and professional studies still lagged behind. This was addressed with the privatization of higher education in the early 2000s, right in time for the children of the Gulf “veterans” made their way into college. Jobs in Kerala were still few, but the economic growth of India provided adequate employment opportunities for the new batch of better educated Keralites, which they gracefully took.

Many still find employment in the Gulf regions, but the cost of living difference has since been corrected. Most, however, find employment within the state or in India. The government still continues to provide employment to large sections of the state, but many are employed in trade, exports and tourism. Agriculture has lost its initial importance, as was seen in a recent uproar in the declassification of rubber, tea and coconut cultivators as farmers because it covered a large chunk of the farmers of the state. Exports continue its historical role in Kerala, while tourism has brought in additional revenue. The relief on land meant that the natural beauty of the region remained unexploited for the welfare of the people. This in turn proved to be a boon for the tourism industry.

Although the economy is not as dependent on homeward remittances like the previous generation, there is still considerable investment by the Malayali Diaspora in the state, in the form of real estate. Trade has grown as well, especially in sarees and gold jewellery, perhaps an indication of husbands working away from home trying to keep their wives happy.

Chart B: Per Capita Income per State (Source: RBI)

Economy of Kerala has mostly grown in-line with the bigwigs of the Indian economy; Maharashtra and Gujarat. States like West Bengal and Bihar which have a comparable density of population to Kerala have fallen behind considerably. For a state with limited resources to continuously outperform its peers is of worthwhile significance. More heartening to see is the poverty numbers which reveal that the spread of wealth is even. There is no accumulation of wealth like in the case of Maharashtra. A curious side note is that Kerala rely on migrants from other state for its low end labour. A generation ago, it was performed by Tamil immigrants. Now, Bihari, Bengali and Oriya migrants monopolize it. Despite having a considerable surplus of people, it is still dependent on migrant labour.

Table A: Poverty Estimates on URP Consumption (Source: Planning Commission of India)










A century ago, fertile land was Kerala’s best resource. Now it is its people. The Kings of Travancore and Kochi laid the foundation for a strong society, which the government of Kerala carried forward. But it still required the people of Kerala to step up to work. And they did. Even then things are not all rosy. There are still very concerning aspects about the Kerala society like the high alcoholism, high suicide rates and well, of course, the antics of Sreesanth (Although high alcoholism can be explained by the tradition of consumption of toddy among the people. Ezhavas, the largest community in Kerala, were traditionally the makers of toddy). Like in 1970s, Kerala still do not have the resources to support its own people. Though the population growth has been reined it, density remains high. Keralites have to rely on themselves to make their own path. All the government can still do is provide the tools for it.

Government of India, for its part, had very little to add to Kerala’s progress. Given the situation of the rest of the country, especially the Hindi states, it is not surprising. However, Keralites still rely on its bigger “city neighbour” for defence and, more importantly, employment.

For most of its history, the people of Kerala have been in control of their destiny. For their sake, it continues to be so. That is the Kerala story.

* The Nagercoil district of Travancore was transferred to Tamil Nadu, while parts of South Kanara district of Madras Presidency were added to Kerala.

** The data for 1871-1911 was taken from Wikipedia, 1911-1941 from Census of India, 1951-2001 from India Budget.  From 1871-1911, Kerala includes the data of its three contingents – Travancore, Kochi and Malabar, but for 1921-1941 the data for Malabar has not been considered. But since there is no remarkable fluctuation between 1941 and 1951 data, it is likely that Malabar grew in correlation with the other parts of Kerala. Pre independence Tamil Nadu is based on Madras Presidency, while Bengal contains Bengal Presidency (With Princely States) before independence and only the West Bengal state post independence. Also, Burma and Aden has been excluded from India given above.


A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to Fall of Vijayanagar – KA Nilakanta Sastri
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea – Translated by Wilfred Schoss

Posted in Society | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

A referendum for Kashmir

Posted by RB Kollannur on January 24, 2011

Lord Louis Mountbatten was faced with a difficult job. He had been tasked with giving up an Empire. His great grandmother, Queen Victoria, had proclaimed herself the Empress of India in 1876. Now faced with the pyrrhic victories of two world wars, the “no longer Great” Britain had to let go of its colonial empire to revitalize her society.

United Kingdom no longer had the ability to run a vast colonial empire. The Indian subcontinent, by far the largest colonial chunk before Africa, South East Asia and the Caribbean, had to be the first to be let go.

The subcontinent had a rather unique administrative structure. Ignoring the periphery (Burma and Ceylon), the main part of the subcontinent was divided into two – British India (Ruled by him as the Governor General) and the autonomous princely states (where he represented the Crown of England as the Viceroy). But it was still far lesser than the eighteenth century when the subcontinent was riddled with more kingdoms than Germany. The British had assimilated many of them, building the largest nation in the subcontinent since the time of Asoka, but still many remained. However, they had accepted the suzerainty of the English ruler resulting in a formal political unity across the region.

But with British India gaining independence, allowing the princely states to continue will complicate things, both administratively and politically. Being a princeling of the German House of Hesse, the failure of the German Confederation remained as a grim reminder. The princely states cannot be allowed to become independent, allowing for war and conquest in the future. An ultimatum will have to be given.

Join or else…

India and Pakistan became independent in August 1947. Nominally, still under the rule of the English King George VI (No longer an Emperor), India removed its final colonial shackles on January 26 1950 by becoming a Republic (Pakistan would do the same much later, in 1956, owing to lack of political unity after the death of Jinnah). The princely states faced with isolation from India and Pakistan (and United Kingdom) eventually chose to join either. However, disputes arose about few princely states; Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Junagadh opted for India after a contentious referendum, while Hyderabad was occupied by Indian forces. Kashmir went to war.

After the war, India and Pakistan controlled parts of Kashmir. Legally, India had a better right over Kashmir as the King of Kashmir had formally acceded to India. However, a similar accession by the ruler of Junagadh was ignored by India. UN, in the meantime, resolved to call for a referendum in Kashmir after Pakistan removes their forces. Neither happened. India, for its part, conducted elections for representatives from the people of Kashmir, who later confirmed the King’s accession to India. However, this was not accepted by the UN since it had called for a referendum on accession under the auspices of the UN.

Sixty years have gone since India became a Republic. The voice of the people of Kashmir on the choice of their country still goes unheard. India has been a stellar example for democracy in the world (despite the bloats of conquest of Portuguese India and the Indira Gandhi dictatorship). But the people of Kashmir are still to choose whether they want to be part of it. Many have died on both sides on the border for Kashmir. But no one knows whether the Kashmiris value those sacrifices or whether they died in vain.

Oddly enough, a political party in India seems adamant in asserting Indian authority over Kashmir without even bothering to ask that question to the people of Kashmir. Yes, they apparently do respect democracy and the rights of minorities.

Internationally, Kashmir still remains disputed.

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Hindutva and the Romans

Posted by RB Kollannur on September 21, 2009

(Author’s Note: A really long post, Maybe I should have split it up into three or four parts.)

“It is said that God created man in His own form. But what is not said is that man created God in his own.”

A long, long time ago a city was founded. East of the River Tiber flowing through the Italian peninsula. The founders  –  two brothers, princes of the Latin city of Alba Longa, and descendents (as per Virgil’s Aeneid, maybe some retconning of history / mythology (?)) of the Trojan prince, Aeneas. The city would eventually grow on to dominate the affairs of the world for close to two millennia, albeit in different forms – military, governance and religion.

The city, of course, is Rome, founded as per legends in 753 BC, on seven hills east of the aforementioned river.

It was ruled by Romulus and Titus Tatius, the King of the Sabine City of Cures (Wiki “Rape of the Sabines” for details) in its formative years. After their deaths, Numa Pompilius, the son-in-law of Titus Tatius, would be elected king (Yes, kings do get elected now and then, and need not always be dynastic like in India).

He is also credited with having organized the religion of Rome into an institution that would eventually provide the base for the Roman Catholic Church.

Initially, the Roman religion borrowed heavily from the Greek and the Etruscan religions. During the years of Numa Pompilius (717-673 BC), there were three major deities in the Roman Pantheon – Jupiter (God of Sky and Thunder), Mars (God of Agriculture) and Quirinus (God of War). Please note that Mars is mentioned as the God of Agriculture and not of War, which he would later become when he is more closely associated with Ares, the Greek God of War. The Roman Kingdom (753-509 BC) was largely agriculturist in nature and when the city became more militaristic in its Republican era (673-27 BC)., even the Gods changed portfolios.

These three Gods (What is with Gods and the number three?) and some of the lesser deities had priests associated with them – flamines, city officials and a post created by the aforementioned Numa. Numa also created the office of the Pontifex Maximus, who would eventually become the head of the Roman religious institution in the Roman Republic. The College of Pontiffs was also established during this time period and became the authoritative body of the religion.

Included in this College among others were the Pontifex Maximus, the flamines, the Rex Sacrorum, who would be the nominal substitute for the King in the Republic (which of course did not have a monarch and for that matter a solitary head of state, except in exceptional situations) chairing religious sacrifices, and the Vestal Virgins, an office that Numa had “borrowed” from the religion of Alba Longa.

Vestal Virgins were not the only practice that the Roman religion borrowed from other religions. In fact it was a compilation of all the religions it touched.

Rome absorbed the deities and religious customs of the lands just as they adsorbed those lands. With the absorption of the nearby Etruscan cities (The last being the city of Veii in 396 BC), the Roman Triad changed, to mirror the Etruscan one – Jupiter, Juno (Protector of the city and Jupiter’s wife) and Minerva (Goddess of Wisdom) as against Tinia (God of Thunder, among other things), Uni (Patron of the city of Veii and Tinia’s wife) and Menrva (Goddess of War and Wisdom). Juno and Minerva were borrowed from the Etruscan Uni and Menrva, though the latter lost the War portfolio to Mars (Maybe Quirinus, not sure if he was still relevant in 396BC). Later conquests of Greece, Egypt and Syria would induct their Gods to the Roman Pantheon as well. Isis, Egyptian Goddess of fertility and El-Gabal, Syrian Sun God, would have their tryst with fame in the later Roman Empire.

All this Borg like absorption of religions and changes in divinity may tend to be confusing to the layman, had it not been for the organized nature of the religion. The Pontifex Maximus and the College of Pontiffs were around to oversee the nature and order of the religion was preserved.  The Roman religion became a reflection of the nature of affairs in the city of Rome.

One thing that was distinctly smart on the part of the Romans was how they used their religion, especially in the course of a battle, to boost morale. Taking after the Etruscan tradition, Romans consulted their Gods before they went on battle (Or maybe after it, to interpret the results).  It considerably helped matters when the Roman Gods visited their generals in their dreams.

As Scipio was preparing his army for the crucial battle of Cartagena (which would be the turning point in Rome’s defeat of Carthage), he was visited in his dreams by the Sea God Neptune to convey that He would assist Rome to victory. Scipio promptly conveyed his God’s message to his troops. The troops motivated with the God on their side, readied for battle and proceeded to turn the tide in the Roman favour. When Constantine I took on the usurper Maxentius, blockaded within the Roman city walls, he was told in a dream to use the Cross as a standard for his army before going on battle. Maxentius, frustrated by his helplessness on being stuck in the city, ventured out to launch an attack, and was easily defeated by Constantine.

The Roman religion was a full-fledged state run institution. In the Republican era, the College of Pontiffs and the Roman Senate were distinct, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, bodies. It was consistent with one of the principles of the Republic, which held that no single individual will have complete authority in the city (The position of Dictator was an exception, but was used very rarely and only in times of emergencies). This relationship between the religious and the administrative bodies of the state was to change with the coming of the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar, himself a skilled manipulator of his armies, was the Pontifex Maximus for close to two decades and most of his military career. The office of the Pontifex Maximus would later be integrated with the title of the Roman Emperor during the time of Augustus (13 BC), till it was eventually devolved during the reign of Gratian (375-383). But by that time Christianity had become the official religion of both the Roman Empires (380). The Roman Empire brought with it the custom of God Emperors as well (a custom prevalent in Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid well, wherever they ended up ruling), with most Emperors being deified after their death. This gave the Emperor absolute authority over all the affairs of the state – religious and political, something which Republican Rome had sought to prevent.

All this meant was that the Roman religion mutated along with Rome to become an umbrella of different cultures and people. But it also maintained a definite structure and order, thanks to the Pontifex Maximus and the College of Pontiffs, and was reflective of the nature and stability of the state. It became what can be described as a secular religion for that time period, open to people of any faith while making room for their beliefs as well. There was no imposition of one religion over the other, more a case of both sides accepting each other’s beliefs, with some adjustments here and there. However, refusal to collude with the state religion and still be part of the state was not healthy, which the Christians found out during the reigns of Nero, Domitian and much later, Diocletian (The Jews were the other religion prevalent in the Roman Empire, but they kept largely to their Levantine bases and did not go around looking for converts)

However, like Rome, its religion would also eventually come to a close.

A long, long time ago a book was written. It was a sacred text of an ancient religion. Among other things it talked about Gods – Devas led by Indra and Agni and Asuras led by Varuna and Mitra. There were three followers for this religion – Aryans, Persians and the Mittani. But each of them viewed this religion in a different form. The Mittani disappeared a long time ago, but the other two forms of religion still exist, albeit in a different state. While the Aryans worship the Devas and demonize the Asuras (Though Varuna becomes a Deva), the Persians worship the Ahuras and vilify the Daevas (It has been debated whether Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity of the Zoroastrian faith is Varuna Himself, or a combination of Varuna and Mitra (who is a lesser deity in the Avesta), or something distinct and entirely beyond either of them).

The book, of course, is The Rig Veda, the sacred text of the Vedic religion and origin of which is unknown beyond our reckoning.

A long, long time ago there were few people living on the banks of the River Indus and the neighbouring areas in the Indian subcontinent. They worshipped a deity named Shiva, identified by the archaeological findings of the civilization. It is not clear whether the IVC subscribed to the Vedic texts as well nor is it clear whether the Aryans or the other Vedic people lived among the IVC (That was me trying to steering clear of the Aryan Migration vs Out of India debate).

But given the prominence of Shiva in the excavations and the lack of it for the Vedic deities, it follows that neither Indra nor Varuna had a significant role among the people in IVC.

Sometime later, but still a long time back, the Deva worshipping Aryans and the Shiva worshipping IVC combined to give the predominant form of the Vedic religion that now exists in the Indian subcontinent – Hindutva (or Hinduism if you prefer that nomenclature). Like the Roman religion that integrated the Greek with the Etruscan, Hindutva was a summation of the Aryans and the IVC. However, there were some significant changes in the theological line-up.  Vishnu, a minor God in the Rig Veda, shot into prominence while Indra and his Deva colleagues fell into the backdrop. Also prominent was the IVC Shiva, who was now integrated with the Vedic deity, Rudra (Another minor God in Rig Veda).

Curious nature this religious upheaval is, but clear not the reasons are.

During the reign of the kings of Magadha, Jainism and Buddhism (during the time of Ashoka) dominated the subcontinent. It was only during the rule of the Guptas (240-550) that Hindutva would recover its mantle as the main religion of the subcontinent. However, Jainism and Buddhism would have a lasting effect on this re-jigged form of Hindutva, now in prominence. Diwali, which marks the attainment of Nirvana by Mahavira among Jains, was celebrated by the Hindus to mark the return of Rama to Ayodhya. Whether this is an assimilation of a festival of the former dominant religion (Something the Roman religions are guilty of a lot) or if the Hindus followed Diwali prior to the rise of Jainism is not known.

The Guptas were predominantly a North Indian country. Over the centuries the fluid boundaries of India have been drawn and redrawn many a time, one state has always been left out of these boundaries (till 1947) – Kerala. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kerala do not follow Diwali (Disclaimer: The reason may actually be mythological in nature. Diwali, among other things, celebrates the downfall of Mahabali as well, while Mahabali is revered in Kerala).

Diwali is one of the many regional inconsistencies that prevail in Hindutva. It is cluttered with regional cults; Of Goddess Durga, Ayyappa and to a certain extent, Ganesha. A deity like Ayyapa, an offspring of two of the three main Gods of Hindutva, has very limited relevance in the northern states of the country, while being one of major Gods in the south. These inconsistencies in festivals and Gods have an interesting bearing on the nature of the religion.

It is more likely that the over the last three millennia, Hindutva evolved across the Indian subcontinent integrating itself with local beliefs, much like the Roman religion as mentioned earlier. However, without a central point of authority, the evolution has been chaotic and inconsistent. Also, the evolution was slow and time consuming.

But in the end, Hindutva is a religion similar in character to the Roman one, with respect to religious belief, though not theology.

Back to Rome.

During the years of 186-284, the Roman Empire fell into chaos. It had become too big to rule by a single individual (but not too big to fail) and after the death of the Marcus Aurelius (The old Emperor who gets killed early in Gladiator), periods of misrule, civil wars, rebellions and usurpations would haunt the Empire. The Empire would be revitalized firstly by the soldier Aurelian who reconquered the breakaway peripheries, then by Diocletian’s Tetrarchy and finally by Constantine I, a masterful spinner like no other in the pages of history.

The Crisis of the Third Century was also reflected on the Roman religion. With Emperors changing favours from one God to another and multiple Pontifex Maximus at the same time, the religious institution that preserved the order of the Roman religion for close to one millennium would fall flat. Aurelian (270-275) would attempt religious reform by strengthening Sol Invictus as the main Roman God in an attempt to form a single God, but he would die before he could complete the reform successfully. The reform would happen eventually during the reign of Constantine I (306-337).

By the time of Constantine I, Christianity had gained ground on its Roman predecessor. It had become the state religion of the neighbouring Kingdom of Armenia (301), while it attracted many followers within the Empire. Indeed, Constantine I’s mother was a Christian and so was Diocletian’s wife. More importantly, it was monotheistic, unlike the quagmire of the Roman Pantheon.

Rome needed a clear religion without ambiguity while also being under Roman control. This was the case of the Roman religion prior to 186 before it went awry. Unfortunately, Christianity was neither. The Donatists, who wanted Christians, who colluded with Diocletian when he persecuted Christians, to be kicked out, fell out of Roman favour after the (First) Council of Arles in 314 and were persecuted by Constantine I for continuing their ways (Yes, Constantine I did persecute Christians). The theology was also inconsistent with opposing views over the divinity of Jesus. So, the (First) Council of Nicaea was called in 325, again by Constantine I, to discuss debate and decide what Christianity should be. Finally, Rome had a clear-cut religion like before (It would take some time for Roman Christianity to be completely in force, but it had become only a matter of eventuality). The Pontifex Maximus would eventually be replaced by the Pontiff or the Bishop of Rome, while the College of Pontiffs would be replaced (much later) by the College of Cardinals.

The Roman religion outlived its usefulness to the State of Rome. It became chaotic and out of State control. Soon, it was replaced by the more tenable Christianity (With a definitive Roman touch after the Council of Nicaea).

The world has come a long way since those ancient times. Roman Christianity has undergone many subsequent changes, without the Roman State to shepherd it.

Now, here in India, we have a religion that is much in the similar vein as the Roman religion before its downfall. A combination of the different cultures and people of the Indian subcontinent, secular in the archaic sense of the word. It survives because it is not a creation of the state. It varies from person to person, carved by their own free will (At least in theory). It also chooses not to interfere with other beliefs that exist in the subcontinent (Again in theory). But, if it becomes a creature of the State looking to devour or control everything it sees, it loses its relevance, just like its Roman counterpart.

The days when the state created its Gods are long gone. But religion still tries to define the state not knowing it was state who created it in the first place. The cycle continues…

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The unhealthy, but necessary dependence of Congress on the Nehru-Gandhi family

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 29, 2009

“Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight among themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles” – Attributed to Winston Churchill on the eve of Indian independence. (Disputed)

Sixty years on, neither India nor Pakistan have reached the stage suggested in the remark, though Pakistan has on and off teetered on the edge of collapse, but got a slight gasp of fresh air, after its division. One of the key reasons that India stayed put as a nation instead of falling into its former constituents was the singular and unambigous leadership at the centre in its initial years. Leadership skills not withstanding, by simply being there for close to two decades, any doubt regarding the unity of the nation was vanquished and a new generation of Indians were born (Reminds me of the transition of the Republic of Rome to the Roman Empire under Octavian).

However, this also meant that the question of what happens after Nehru remained unanswered.

One of the key characters of India is that the executive is selected by consensus, rather than by popular election. The elected representatives arrive at a consensus to select the executive from amongst themselves. This essentially leads to a situation where a person who has the most influence over this select group, like the leader of the political party with majority seats, is elected as the executive. If no such leader exists (In the case of coalitions), a compromise candidate will have to be selected.

But at the end of the day, it necessitates the political parties to have a definite leadership structure. (Anyone know who heads the Democrats or Republicans in US?)

Back to the mid 1960s now, when Nehru suddenly died with no clear succession planning in place. Now the question arises who will lead next. For normal persons like you and me, the answer will be obvious – Take a vote and let the majority decide. However, what will happen if the people who lost the vote chose to leave the party unhappy with the results. This is one of the inherent issues of intra party democracy, where there is a practically no exit barrier.

Among the early dissenters of the Congress leadership would be (the later Prime Minister) Charan Singh, who would create his own party in his home state of UP after differences with the Nehru administration. More would follow during the transition from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi – Biju Patnaik, Ajoy Mukherjee and Indira Gandhi herself, in a reverse coup of sorts, leaving behind a nominal Congress (O) led by (the later Prime Minister) Morarji Desai. These frequent departures acted as a drain in the voter base, continuously weakening it.

The success of the dissidents shows how an intra party democracy can be the bane of a national party.

The same scenario would repeat itself after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, when there was an interregnum till Sonia Gandhi stepped in. Leaders, unhappy of losing out of primacy in Congress, floated their own parties. Though some of dissidents flocked back once Sonia Gandhi came to Congress, others left as well. Their initial rivals at a national level, the Janata Parivar, was always a divided house before collapsing into regional entities.

The dependence of Congress on the Nehru-Gandhi ensured a Janata like collapse would be prevented in Congress.

The other comparable national opponents to Congress – the Bharatiya Janata Party is still in its initial stages, with the clear leadership of veterans like Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani. It remains to be seen how BJP will be able to save themselves from falling into uncertain conundrum of leadership that Congress has become accustomed to, with leaders like Arun Jaitley, Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and even Varun Gandhi (After his recent apparent increase in support) waiting in the wings.

The next decade will see the national parties attempt to put an effective succession plan (I wonder how) in order. The earlier they do this, the better. With the current leadership still having control over the party, it is easier to settle a dispute with minimum damage to their party. But as Diocletian found out after handing over power 305AD, even the most powerful man in the world may be rendered helpless by his quarelling successors and contenders.

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The Importance of Being Obama

Posted by RB Kollannur on January 21, 2009

Disclaimer : The following post is a leap of thought. I currently lack the data to completely support or deny it.

A few weeks ago, I came across an eloquent article by a New York Times columnist about a Polish immigrant (The author’s father) who came to US, leaving behind his life in Poland, and carved out a career for himself in the land of opportunities. Issac Asimov, in his autobiography, talks of how his father left behind his life in Russia for an uncertain life in US seeking a better future for his family and better education for his children. A common thread runs in both stories – people sacrificing a certain life for an uncertain one in the hope of a better future.

These are the hands that built America – Immigrants from around the world (though mostly Europe) who came seeking the land of opportunities. They had to start from scratch as they had to leave everything from their past life behind and work hard to make ends meet. And work they did. As Bill Clinton so aptly put in 1998, they proved to be the most restless, the most adventurous, the most innovative and the most industrious of the people. With the necessity to perform from the word go in order to survive, US evolved into a society driven by innovation and results.

However as the society stabilized, an inertia towards accepting new immigrants developed. Immigration was restricted during the boom of the 1920s and the Great Depression hence. World War II saw a revival in stronger immigration, but gradually the quantum of foreign born in the total US population dropped, from 20% in 1900 to 10% in 2000.

But the society kept its focus on performance and innovation. It was encouraged to invest heavily in the private sector and live off future earnings. In order to secure their future, people needed to innovate and produce to bring about these future earnings. It all went fine for a long time. Until…

The late nineties saw the dot com bubble and burst. The best of the innovative minds in US were attracted by the lucrative nature of the market and invested their time and intellect heavily in what turned out to be mostly frivolous internet startups that failed to monetize. Some worked, but most failed. Had the ability to innovate reached a peak?

The late ninties also saw a slight strategic shift of focus in the objectives of the compnay – from more revenue through better results to more revenue through lesser costs. India and China benefited vastly by the outsourcing and offshoring projects in services and manufacturing respectively.

Going by the historical trend of all out action that US has adopted, a step back or a slowdown is a regressive societal behavior. Over the course of the past half a century, the pioneering spirit of the early immigrants diminished as the immigrants became settlers and the settlers became natives. Though innovations are very much in vogue in US (as seen by the numerous Web 2.0 startups), many are still to develop a stable model for monetization their innovations.

So, the question is will US continue as the pioneer in innovation and technology? This is where Barack Obama comes in.

Born to an African father and a Hawaiian mother and grown up in Indonesia, Obama has the markings of an immigrant written on him. He has emerged from political obscurity to become the Head of State of his nation in a decade In the process he has shown he has a clear objective of what he wanted and how to get it. He has put forward his talents to the best of his ability for the betterment of his nation (and self). It is clear that he draws from the spirit that brought the immigrants to US.

Barack Obama represents the quintessential hands that built America. Though he may have been elected thanks to some misguided policies of his predecessor or the color of his skin, what he represents is certain. He can rejuvenate the dying pioneering spirit of America. He is kniting together a team taken from the new immigrants (who have migrated over the past two decades) and old “natives” with a view to bring about an all encompassing change to the foundation of the society he lives in. Though it is too early to comment on his success, he has put a system in place to revitalize the US society.

Going beyond his nation, he is seen as a beacon of hope around the world in these troubled times. A sign of unwavering leadership and a hopeful recovery. It is uncommon for anyone to face the trials that Obama will have to endure in the near future. But he will have to be resolute in his approach and placate any inhibitions still in the minds of any doubters. And it is expected he would come through. So far Obama has displayed the potential to come through adversity. His tasks are clear. He will need to rebuild the identity of his nation, while keeping an eye out for the rest of the world. It is a task not many would ask for and not many would want imposed on them, but it is his, for him to take care.

When he walks down to the take the oath at the US Capitol Building, he follows the path very few in history have taken before him. The path that led Leonidas and his thousand men against the armies from half the world, Hannibal and his army of elephants through the Alps against his mortal enemies, Spartacus in a rebellion against his masters, Octavian as he returned to Rome after vanquishing Mark Antony, Constantine as he summoned the Council of Nicaea, Joan of Arc to call on her countrymen to free themselves from the tyranny of England, Gandhi to Dandi to make salt and Hitler to the Berlin Olympics, among other people .It is a path that has graced the undivided attention of the world they lived in and cared for. Many faltered on the way, while many failed outright, but some continued on till they successfully overcome their travails, to be judged by history. And doing so, they changed the world they lived in. It is this challenge that awaits Obama as he sets out to establish USA 2.0.

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The Equilibrium of Democracy

Posted by RB Kollannur on December 28, 2008

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth” – Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863 in Gettysburg, USA

A century ago, Abraham Lincoln made this powerful statement in the wake of a revolution in his country. The statement resonated over the course of the twentieth century as Old World Imperialism was shunned away and New Age Democracy came into being around the world. The twentieth century personified the power of the people and brought about a level of societal progress never heard in the lore of history.

It is in the second half of the eighteenth century that the power of the people started to rumble. The Americans freed themselves from the dominion of the German prince ruling far away beyond the Atlantic and formed one of the oldest democracies we have in our world today. USA have been a stellar example of the success of democracy and its strongest herald, spreading the message of democracy around the world and as its influence over the world grew, so did their rhetoric over democracy and impatience over non-conformance.

But it was in France that people found a stronger voice when they stormed the fortress of Bastille, usurped their king and freed themselves from tyranny. Though the French First Republic was a failure, France has had a tumultuous time chasing the right rule for their people – Two empires, two monarchies and four republics followed the failure of their first attempt of self rule. Safe to say, France can be an apt reference to understand the evolution of a democracy.

After the fall on Napolean, the usurped Bourbon Monarchy of France was restored but not with absolute powers. France became a constitutional monarchy in the lines of a Presidential democracy (With the King as the President). However, when the king attempted to over reach his authority, he was removed and replaced by a distant cousin. This monarchy also did not work and the French Second Republic was formed as a Presidential democracy, with Louis Napolean, a nephew of the former Emperor, at its stead as the popularly elected President. However, three years later he was able to divert his popularity to crown himself as Emperor Napolean III through a referendum.

French Third Republic was formed after the defeat of Napolean III in a war against Prussia. It was a Parliamentary democracy, though a strong public sentiment towards the Bourbon Monarchy continued. However, an attempt by a monarchist leaning President to dismiss his republic leaning Parliament to move the opinion towards monarchy fell flat and the cause of monarchy was finally laid to rest.

French Third Republic, however, was crippled with political instability although it somehow managed to stumble from one crisis to another unscathed, till it finally faced one beyond its control – Nazi Germany. After World War II, France was reorganized as the Fourth Republic, in lines with the previous one. However, political instability continued (Running through 20 Prime Ministers over 11 years) and faced with the Algiers Crisis, France needed strong leadership. They went to their WWII hero, Charles de Gaulle, who insisted on complete authority, and came into power as a popularly elected President. The French Fifth Republic adopted a Semi Presidential system, with a grim reminder of the autocratic leaders of eighteenth century France.

Over the past two centuries, France has seen it all when it comes to democracy. Its failures also underline the defects of each democratic process. Presidential democracy with its focus on singular leadership has the tendency to move towards an autocratic and an absolute regime, while Parliamentary democracy with its focus on plurality of voices has the tendency to move towards split verdicts and political instability (It has been suggested that political stability is more due to proportional representation used to elect the legislature, but as we can see in India, which follows the Westminister system, fractured verdicts and divisive politics are part and parcel of the system). Both tendencies can prove fatal to a nation if the wrong decision or no decision is taken in times of need.

Exceptions exist in both systems. USA has successfully completed two centuries as a Presidential democracy, while UK has managed to wade through the deep water of coalition politics without much harm. However, from an Indian perspective having given fractured verdicts for two decades, a stitch in time may save nine.

France has made an attempt to outlive the deficiencies by constructing a hybrid model. However, there should be clear separation of powers between the branches of the executive. Otherwise, a strong dissonance between the two may arise leading to inaction or incorrect action. Even if the division of powers is formalized (Finland) or accepted (France), it does not provide the complete solution. Coalition politics will still persist in the legislature and could lead to instability on one hand of the executive. If the President is given more powers, then the tendency towards autocracy will persist. So, in essence, it just prolongs the inevitable.

So, what is the solution?

The tendency towards autocracy or towards plurality is a factor of the mindset of the electorate. Louis Napolean became an Emperor with the support of the people and later Charles de Gaulle managed to overcome the failure of the republic with the support of the people. It is the electorate that continues to give one fractured verdict after another in a Parliamentary democracy leading to coalitions and political instability. While the society is tuned to accept an autocratic leader in the former, it is ready to accept fractured verdicts in the other.

To avoid the pitfalls of each system, what is needed is a correction in the system at the right time. When faced with increasing political instability, some of the political dissonance should be reined in to focus on leadership driven society. When faced with increasing autocratic overtures by the executive, the political discord should be let loose, by having a plural system. A fixed state of constitution cannot solve a problem which arises well after its formation.

From a long term perspective, equilibrium is formed meeting the plural and singular needs of the society, moving from one axis to another.

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A Myth Called “Divide and Rule” ?

Posted by RB Kollannur on October 15, 2008

The British are said to have nurtured a communal divide in India to rule India easily. Though divide and rule is a consistent method of conquest, especially in Africa, where Europeans favored one side against another, in the end ruling both. But in India, where it was most prominent, given the partition of the India and Pakistan in 1947, I find the picture to be far murkier.

It was near the end of the first Elizabethan era of England. On 31 December 1600, the Queen of England and Ireland granted a royal charter to group of merchants to trade in the shores of the far off Indian subcontinent. The route to India had been opened a century ago by the adventures of Vasco da Gama. Spice trade from India had always been routed through the far reaching arms of the Ottomans, Venice or the Habsburgs. Vasco da Gama gave the other Europeans a quicker way to spice. The Portuguese, Vasco’s countrymen, were the first off the blocks. By the start of the sixteenth century, they had established bases in the states of Kerala, Goa and Mumbai. Being true Catholics, they propogated their religion (Probably explains why most Indian Christians are Roman Catholics). Wait, I am digressing here.

The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, as they were initially called, set sail to India to bring spice to the British Isles. When the British East India Company came to India they faced opposition from their European counterparts, Portuguese and French. But things improved when the British Crown made a commercial treaty with the Indian Mughal Emperor, Jahangir. Also, the Portuguese, now part of the much larger, Spanish Kingdom (albeit ruled by mostly impotent rulers), which had huge gold reserves in their American provinces, did not find India much attractive. With dwindling Portuguese interest and support of the strongest of the Indian Kingdoms, British East India Company flourished.

India, like always, was a region divided into many kingdoms. The Mughals, in the north, were the strongest of them all. In Central India, they were the five Deccan Sultanates, remnants of the older Bahmani Sultanate – Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar and Berar. Down south were the remnants of the Vijayanagara Kingdom, which fell apart in the disastrous Battle of Talikota in 1565. Though the Vijayanagara King still exercised control over the south (It ends in 1646), it was largely nominal, with the provinces more of less independent. In the north-east was the dynasty of Ahom. There were probably other smaller kingdoms as well.

By the time British East India Company established themselves in India, Berar was assimilated by the Mughals and Bidar by Bijapur. So in all, India was divided between the Mughals in the North, Bijapur, Golkonda and Ahmadnagar in the Centre, Ahom in the North East and in the South – the remaining Vijayanagara Kingdom, their former subsidiaries – Mysore, Keladi Nayaks, Thanjavur Nayaks, Madurai Nayaks and Chitradurga Nayaks, and their former tributaries in Kerala – Samoothiri, Kochi and Thiruvithaamkoor. In all the Indian sub-continent was divided into thirteen nations. Later the Mughal Kingdon would first conquer the remaining Deccan Sultanates and fall apart by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Maratha Empire replaced the Mughals as the powerful empire in the north, though they also fell apart and divided into numerous principalities.

After the Battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), the British East India Company would usher in British rule over India till 1947, when India was partitioned into two – India and Pakistan.

Okay, done with the History lesson. To put it in short. When the British came to India, India was divided into at least thirteen different nations. By the time they came to power there were much more. When they left, there were just two. So, where is the divide and rule? In fact, British did something that no Indian had ever been able to before (outside mythology). Unite India under a single banner (Note that the princely states were subsidiaries to the British Empire, which acknowledged their overlordship, similar to the Holy Roman Empire and German princes)

The impression about a policy of “Divide and Rule” arises from the belief that the British intentionally divided India on religious grounds, (after uniting it regionally). So, I thought I’d look at the times the British made attempts to do so. In case I have missed out anything, please give me the details.

The first thing that came to my mind was the Partition of Bengal.

The first decade of the twentieth saw many controversial policies by the British regime. The first was the Partition of Bengal. Bengal, at the time, included the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa in today’s India and Bangladesh. The state had a population of around 85 million people, hosted the national capital and the center of the intelligentsia. It is difficult to govern such a huge chunk of people from one place. So, the Governor General chose to split the state in the middle. Unfortunately for him, the split divided the state at a religious level, with the west 16% Muslim and the east 58%. Seen as an excuse to divide the nation by religion, it led to mass protest throughout the nation, with people of all religion uniting together. The partition was reversed later in 1911 and instead Kolkata and the narrow strip of area that now forms West Bengal were added to the earlier East Bengal. The western parts were devolved into a different state. Oddly enough, the addition of Kolkata to East Bengal garnered no negative opinion. The Partition can also not be seen as a case of divide and rule, since it in fact united all religions and had to be repealed to in wake of strong national sentiment.

The second act of “Divide and Rule” was reservation.

After the fiasco of 1857, the British encouraged India self rule. In 1885, Indian National Congress was formed under the auspices of the British Governor General to bring out pro British elite British education Indians to bring some semblance of self rule in India. Instead, it provided to be fertile grounds of Indian nationalism against the British. By the start of the twentieth century, Congress was divided into two factions – the extremists (led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak) and the moderates (led by Gopala Krishna Gokhale). There was also a concern among the Muslims that the Hindu dominated Congress may ignore them. The wikipedia article on Bal Gangadhar Tilak has clubbed him as a part of “Hindu Politics” series, suggesting he was a staunch Hindu and could have been a source of the concern among the Muslim. However, since the article also mentioned he chose Muhammad Ali Jinnah to defend him in court, it suggests he had no ill-feeling towards Muslims. (Do correct me, if I am wrong). However, these concerns were met in the Government of India Act 1909 (Also known as the Minto-Morley Reforms) which gave reservation to the Muslim minority in order to safeguard them from the Hindu majority. On paper, it seems fine, since our nation follows a much maligned form the same reservation by extending to many more categories of people. But this reservation would lead to strife between the two religions till the end of British rule.

I have tried to find more influences of the British with regards to religiously divide India, but have come to no avail. If it is these two instances that caused a religious divide in our country during independence, then the fault lies directly on our grandparents who lived during that time. Reservations were asked for by Indian politicians because of the genuine concerns of the Indian people (Minority interests are something that every nation seek to protect). Post independence, the problem has been compounded by extending it to many more minorities. It seems more in the interest of the nation’s politicians to keep a policy of “Divide and Rule” in effect. If somebody asks me, about the British Divide and Rule policy, I would say it was purely “Made in India”.

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Indian Conservatism – An Historical Perspective

Posted by RB Kollannur on October 1, 2008

I came across an article that mentioned, among others, the lack of aggression of Indians as one of the reasons for the lack of entrepreneurs in India. Well, being an history buff, I thought I’ll see if there is an historical reason for Indian conservativeness.

Europe & the Americas – I am clubbing Europe and the Americas together because for much of the past two millennia they share a common history. To start with, the Roman Empire gave Europe political stability for most of the first five hundred years of the Anno Domini calendar. Rome gave Europe what a good primary education can give us – a strong base to start from. The European successor states grew out of the Roman political structure and did not need to reinvent the wheel. After Rome, its successors constantly fought against themselves vying for European superiority. This provided the European societies a constant avenue for growth. The ease with which Europe conquered the rest of the world speaks of the level of improvement which came about with this constant in-fighting. Europe was blessed with a powerful base in the form of Rome and since then they have been on a path of constant growth in relation to the rest of the world.

The Americas are built together on immigrants from Europe. They already had the inherent advantage of the Europeans, but above that, they were explorers, seeking new opportunities. The risk taking ability of its people allowed the Americas to grow exponentially as a society. Of these, US stood out winning against Britain nearing its peak, while Latin America freed themselves only from a declining Spain and a weak Portugal.

Middle East & Iran – From the days of the Achaeminids, who were stopped by the Greeks in Marathon and Platea, and the Selucids, who succeeded Alexander, to the Parthians and the Sassanids who fought against Rome, Persia provided the biggest rival for the European world. However, the ever changing dynasties meant that each had to start from scratch unlike Europe. The advent of Islam gave long term political stability to the region, but it was still not enough to overhaul Europe (As seen in Poitiers). The rule of the Caliphs and the Ottomans gave Middle East & Iran what Rome gave to Europe, albeit a millennium later. As a result, they are currently playing catch up.

China & Japan – The terrain and the distance from the rest of the world meant China and Japan remained isolated and unaffected by the changes in the world. Since they were never challenged by the outside world till the nineteenth century, they grew at their own pace, unlike the aggressive pace of Europe and US. However, both the countries have enjoyed considerable period of political stability (especially Japan where the Emperor comes from a line of royalty over two millennia old) which has allowed them to bring about consistent growth over the last two millennia.

Indian Sub Continent – The Sub Continent unfortunately has the worst of all evils. Isolated from the rest of the world by the Himalayas and the oceans, we have very rarely been challenged by an outsider. And in all occasions, we have failed miserably; against Ghorids of Mohammed Ghori, the Mughals of Babur and finally the British. Also, there has been practically no state in our history that could give a sense of political stability throughout the subcontinent. The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals gave some semblance of stability but only till the Vindhyas, and in the South there were the Cholas and Vijayanagara. Mughals came close to giving a consistent rule, but Aurangazeb undid most of the good work they did for two centuries and the Mughals fell over themselves. The British instilled a proper structure and foundation to the society and since then, we have been playing catch up to the rest of the world.

On the whole, progress has had a direct correlation to periods of aggression. However, reckless aggression without proper thought will be similar to the Germanic barbarians attempting to bring down Rome – futile and disastrous. With a proper base, however, aggression can bring positive results.

Conservatism seems to be brought upon us because we have very rarely needed to show aggression. But with global resources stretched to its limit, it is time for us to find the latent aggression and take risks.

PS : I had posted this earlier in my main blog

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