Thursday, May 29, 2008

As Monsoon Comes Calling: The Story of a Frog Meeting with Global Market

KERALA HAS a vast folklore relating to its abundant monsoon, and these popular stories, anecdotes and little couplets keep changing from place to place according to the local dialects.

One of the popular songs goes as follows:

“Andippekka, thondippekka,
Venalkalathu Vangiya Katam Veeettitha…”
“Tharam pillare, tharam pillare…”

This is a dialogue between a mother frog and kids as monsoon hits the land and the fields get immersed with water, all the little holes in the earth gets filled and life once again blooms all around…

And the frogs celebrate the onset of monsoon with a cacophony of noises, the little ones’ shrieking noise drowned by the rough and deep noise of the bigger ones and then crickets taking up the music continuing all through the night as rains keep lashing everywhere.

This small folk song, collected by my friend K P Devadas from Kadathanadu near Vatakara, tells the story of a small loan the mother frog had taken during the summer season. The children are asking for repayment of the loan and she tells them to wait, she will surely repay once the rains come.

It is not surprising that frogs have a prominent place in these folklores because it is the frogs who herald the onset of monsoon as they launch themselves on a long session of various ragas as they excitedly confront their mating season. The vast paddy fields and the greenery gave them a most hospitable habitation and all parts of Kerala were home to a variety of frogs. Then came a season of exporting frog legs to western cuisines and very soon these harmless beings were wiped out from many parts! Before civilization and global trade came looking for them, frogs mainly had some snakes to worry about, as the local people considered eating frogs infra-dig.

Of course, the gluttony of the west and those who followed the western tastes were not the only reason for the genocide of frog population in Kerala landscape. The changing patterns in agriculture, with the practice of using pesticides, contributed to the decimation of frog population from our fields.

And now that has started showing. In all those years when I grew up as a child in the village where we used to live in a house close to a paddy field, I had never experienced a mosquito bite. But not so any longer. Mosquitoes are aplenty even in our villages and recently when I spent a night at my ancestral home I realized how much the world has changed; and along with it, my sleepy village too. It was the mosquitoes which came like attacking choppers that reminded me about the way my village has changed. Or how it has been able to catch up with the progress of civilization!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Laughing Gas

NASA's Phoenix Mars lander touches down on Mars, digs deep in search of signs of life: news

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Muhammed Abdurahman in the Days of Malabar Rebellion

This is the third chapter of the biography of freedom fighter Muhammed Abdurahman. For the earlier chapters, see blog archives February and March, 2008.

AROUND NINE p.m. on August 19,1921, a special train carrying a contingent of 500 men, including 100 British troops, 150 armed reserve policemen and others left the Calicut Railway Station. The forces were led by Capt. Mc Enroy of the Royal Indian Army and the team included Malabar District Collector E. F. Thomas, District Superintendent of Police Hitchcock, and other officials. They were going towards the south, to the Mappila heartland to arrest rebel leaders and seize arms and ammunition. The authorities were expecting another outbreak of violence, and measures were in place to suppress it.

The Government had issued orders for the arrest of 29 senior leaders of the Khilafat Movement in Malabar, including Ali Musaliar, who was the chief musaliar at the Tirurangadi mosque. Born in 1861 at Nellikkuthu, a small village in Ernad, Ali Musaliar was a well-known and highly respected ulema leader. He had worked for seven years in Mecca and later on at Kavarathi in Lakshadweep islands before he came to Tirurangadi in 1907. The army surrounded the mosque and arrested a number of persons, but they could not get Ali Musaliar. As rumours spread that the mosque had been defiled and religious leaders arrested, enraged Muslims started moving to Tirurangadi in large numbers, with whatever weapons they could get hold of. Nahara, a special percussion instrument used in wars was sounded, announcing to the Khilafat volunteers and members of the Mappila community that the army had arrived. The mosques were flooded with zealous crowds, ready to die in battle. A group of Mappilas who marched from Tanur to Tirurangadi was stopped by the police. In the encounter, 20 Mappilas died and 30 injured. On the Government side, two British officials and an Indian constable were killed. By the morning of the next day, August 21, the rebellion was raging. Ali Musaliar was declared the caliph of the liberated areas of Malabar in defiance of the colonial raj.

As news of the army movement spread, Mohammed Abdurahman sent a messenger to Ali Musaliar, urging him not to resist the army and to make every effort to maintain peace. He expected the army to march to Pukkottur, where a few days ago, the Mappilas had had a violent confrontation with the police and forced them to retreat.

Abdurahman was agitated by the news. As soon as the train left the station, he rushed to the KPCC office at Chalappuram along with E. Moidu Maulavi to report the developments and to plan urgent action to stop imminent bloodshed.

K P Kesava Monon, then KPCC secretary, writes in his memoirs: Around 10 p.m. on August 19, Mohammed Abdurahman came to see me at the Congress office. He said a military train had left for the south an hour ago but he was not sure where it was headed. He wanted me to go to Pukkottur, where he thought the military had gone, to stop any untoward incident and pacify the people…But I thought it would be pointless starting to Pukkottur at that time and urged him to come back to me with more specific information.

It was evident that Kesava Menon was not willing to take the risk. Moidu Maulavi has recorded that he had told Abdurahman that it was unsafe for him, a Hindu, to go to Putkkottur. Moidu Maulavi sarcastically notes that when they went to the KPCC office around nine p.m, Kesava Menon had locked up the house and had even removed the board of the KPCC. It was only after Abdurahman shouted loudly that he came out to meet them. Historian K.N. Panikkar feels that it was not his personal safety that Kesava Menon was worried about when he refused to go with them to Pukkottur. He was afraid that the Mappilas would not listen to him as they had little faith in Congress leadership. The rift that divided the Congress leadership had already developed. The dominant leadership was acutely aware of it.

Though Kesava Menon refused to act, Mohammed Abdurahman decided to go immediately. He told Moidu Maulavi and others that when their brothers were being shot dead by the army, he could not stay back.
Mohammed Abdurahman, Moidu Maulavi and Ponmadath Moideen Koya left for Pukkottur that night in a horse-drawn carriage. A few miles along that journey, the horse ran amuck. They had to leave the horse and travel in a bullock cart. They reached Kondotty at nine in the morning. At Kondotty they came to know that the military had gone not to Pukkottur, but to Tirurangadi. They heard about the developments in Tirurangadi and decided to rush to Pukkottur, a nerve-centre of the Khilafat Movement, where the Mappilas had been preparing to face the British Army.

Abdurahman had reasons to worry. He knew the Mappilas were making preparations for an armed conflict. He had stopped a group of Mappilas from a violent conflict with the police three weeks ago at Ponnani. The Khilafat volunteers who came there for an ulema meeting in a charged atmosphere had clashed with the police, and the situation was brought under control by the intervention of Abdurahman and K Kelappan who rushed to the scene.

Abdurahman and others reached Pukkottur by noon. A big crowd had gathered, brandishing arms, ready to march to Tirurangadi to seek revenge. Rumours spread that the Tirurangadi mosque had been destroyed, that the sacred jaram at Mambram had been defiled, and that Ali Musaliar had called for jehad against the foreign rulers.
Abdurahman climbed on top of the bullock-cart he arrived in, and addressed the gathering. He said he too would be happy to lay down his life for a sacred cause, but it was futile to fight the powerful British Army, which was well equipped to crush them. But his words were falling on deaf ears. Desperate to stop the crowds from moving to Tirurangadi, Abdurahman rushed to Manjeri in the same cart to seek the support of senior Congress leader K. Madhavan Nair.

Madhavan Nair had been released from the prison only three day ago. He was arrested in Kozhikode on February 15 along with Yakub Hassan and two other Congress leaders for defying prohibitory orders. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Released on August 17, a huge pubic reception had been arranged for him at the Kozhikode beach. The next day, Madhavan Nair had reached his home at Manjeri, a small town in the middle of Ernad which had become a political volcano on the verge of explosion.

Madhavan Nair remembers the eventful day in his book Malabar Kalapam: It was afternoon and I was sitting on the verandah of my house. Suddenly a huge cloud gathered in the sky and completely covered the sun. A fierce storm started and then darkness fell along with a tremendous downpour. As the rain started pelting, I saw a bullock-cart coming in my direction and two persons jumped out of it: the first was Mohammed Abdurahman, secretary of the Kerala Khilafat committee…

Madhavan Nair had already held a meeting with some Pukkottur Mappila leaders that morning. On the day of his release, M.P. Narayana Menon, secretary of Ernad Congress committee, met him at Kozhikode and urged him to go to Pukkottur. As he reached home, he sent word to Pukkottur requesting the leaders to meet him. He saw that the Mappila leaders of Pukkottur were divided, one group willing to listen to him and the other aggressive and defiant. They told him that arrest warrants had been issued against them. “If you are arrested the police may take you in a car, but if we are caught our bones will be crushed,” they said. He reasoned with them patiently to convince them that violence would only bring more disaster.

Madhavan Nair recalls that Abdurahman was sad and agitated. There was not even a moment to lose. They alerted M.P. Narayana Menon and all the three rushed again to Pukkottur in a last-ditch effort to stop the Mappilas from taking up arms.
They reached Pukkottur around six p.m. More than 200 people armed with swords, guns and knives had collected there. They were getting ready to march to Tirurangadi.
Madhavan Nair’s speech to the crowd there was fervent and emotionally charged. He told the crowd to stop their violent plans, and to drop their weapons. Violence would only bring disastrous consequences to them and their families, to the freedom movement and Khilafat, and to the Hindu-Muslim unity forged over the years. He tried to quell the rumours that the Tirurangadi mosque had been destroyed. Even if it had actually happened, what was the use of taking up arms? “I urge upon you in the name of God to drop your arms and remain peaceful. If you are willing to listen to me, I will be the first man to face the British bullets standing in front of you”, he told them.

Abdurahman told them that resorting to violence was against the interests of the Khilafat Movement. It was also against Islam. The appeals by leaders had brought some temporary reprieve, but they knew they had lost the battle to win their hearts. They decided to return. Abdurahman, Moidu Maulavi and Moideen Koya returned to Kozhikode and Madhavan Nair and Narayana Menon left for Manjeri. K N Panikkar says that it was a wrong decision not to stay back; as leaders, they were abandoning the crowd to their fate.

The next day Abdurahman reached Kozhikode. By that time the rebellion had spread.

Mohammed Abdurahman and senior leaders of the Congress and Khilfaft movements made two attempts to return to the rebel zone in the next few days, but their visits had no impact on the rebels. They had already established their own rule and Variankunnath Kunhahammed Haji, who had been declared as the king, had started issuing passports for travel in the rebel zone. Their first visit to Ernad took place on August 21. The leaders, including K.P. Kesava Menon, U. Gopala Menon, Mohamed Abdurahman and E. Moidu Maulavi, encountered teams of Mappilas cutting trees to put up roadblocks; people return with booty after looting government offices and courts. According to Kesava Menon, they had to walk through remote routes and they returned after visiting Kondotty and Tirurangadi, without meeting Ali Musaliar and other leaders of the rebellion. On their return journey that night, they found a bridge being destroyed at Ramanattukara. They had to travel by the Chaliyar River in a boat to reach Kozhikode.

The second trip was on August 26. Martial law had already been in force, the military had taken over the entire region and entry to the rebel zones was restricted. Special permission from the district collector and martial law administrators was required for entrance. There were 24 members in the team led by KPCC secretary Kesava Menon and Khilafat Committee secretary Mohammed Abdurahman. Kesava Menon describes this trip and their meeting with Ali Musaliar in his autobiography.

The KPCC had sent a letter to the District Collector Thomas, requesting his permission to enter the rebel zone with a message of peace, urging rebel leaders to surrender. The permission was granted two days later and the Congress activists wearing khadi dress and cap left for Ttirurangadi in six vehicles. They were stopped at Feroke bridge where the military was camping. The railway station there had been converted into a military camp. G.R.F. Tottenham, the commanding officer, gave them permission, with a note on the letter: Pass 24 non-cops [non-cooperatives] from Calicut taluk to Ernad along the Feroke bridge.

From Feroke, they walked towards Tirurangadi. They saw that the railway lines had been removed, roads had been blocked with huge trees, and people hid in deserted houses keeping vigil against the police and the military. They were members of Ali Musaliar’s guerilla forces and they recognized the Congress and khilafat volunteers. Since the rebels were roaming about and were likely to shoot anyone found suspicious, they sent a messenger to Tirurangadi alerting the rebels about the arrival of the Congress leaders from Kozhikode.

It was evening when the group arrived at Tirurangadi. At the Khilafat office, Ali Musaliar arrived to meet them. Kesava Menon, Abdurahman, Gopala Menon and Moidu Maulavi went to the office room for a discussion with the Musaliar. Kesava Menon and Abdurahman urged Ali Musaliar and his followers to surrender, to save the people from British retaliation. They would certainly meet with punishment, but they argued that for the safety of majority of innocent people, it was better to avoid bloodshed.

Ali Musaliar said he could decide only after consulting his lieutenants, Lavakkutty and Kunhalavi. But Kunhalavi told Kesava Menon that there was no question of surrender. They were determined to fight to death.

As the discussions continued, the followers of Ali Musaliar were restive as they suspected the motives of Congress leaders. Sensing danger, the team decided to take leave. That was the final attempt at making peace. Travelling through rebel zones, they returned to Kozhikode, taking a pregnant woman who was trapped there with them to safety.

In the next few days, the rebellion spread to the entire South Malabar region. The armed Mappilas attacked police stations, looted treasuries, destroyed Government offices and set fire to revenue records. Railway lines were removed, telecom links damaged, bridges destroyed and roads blocked. Within a week, the entire region was controlled by the rebels. Even the Chief Secretary reported to the Government that South Malabar, except the Palakkad taluka, was under rebel administration. Government machinery was at a standstill. Courts and Government offices were deserted, and police and revenue authorities withdrew to safety.

Government retaliation was brutal. Three squads of the Leinster Regiment had already been alerted. On August 21 the military commander Captain Mc Enroy took over the administration from the District Collector, Thomas. Martial law was declared all over Malabar on August 26. Special forces set to work to repair the roads, rails and bridges, and reinstate communication lines. A marine unit also arrived in HMS Comus to help army operations. The rebels had a direct confrontation with the army at Pukkottur on August 26 and again at Tirurangadi on August 31. This resulted in huge casualties. Later, they avoided direct conflict and took to guerilla warfare. As the military found it difficult to face the changed tactics of the rebels in an alien terrain, fresh forces were requisitioned; the Gorkhas and Garhwalis specializing in jungle warfare arrived and brutally quelled the rebels.

The army’s tactics can be seen from the way the men of the Dorset Regiment ran over the villagers of Melmury on October 25. They forced the Mappila women, children and old men out of their homes, bayonetted and killed a number of them. They set fire to houses on the suspicion that they had supported the rebels.

The rebels had started surrendering by late October. By the first week of December, as many as 27,000 Mappilas had laid down their arms and surrendered or killed. They included Ali Musaliar, Variankunnath Kunhahammed Haji, Chembrassery Thangal, Konnara Thangal, Seethikoya Thangal and others. Around 10,000 people were killed in the course of the rebellion and 50,000 were arrested or surrendered to the army. More than 14,000 were court-martialled and either sentenced to death or transported for life.

On the Government side, too, casualties were heavy. Around 50 special armed police officials were killed and 126 mortally wounded; 24 reserved policemen died and 30 wounded. Eight army officers including one colonel were killed; 200 men were either killed or seriously wounded. Hundreds of Government offices, including eight revenue offices, 10 registration offices and 53 local administration offices were looted or destroyed and around 1000 Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam in the course of the six months of rebellion.

The rebellion had a long-term impact on the social and political life of Malabar. It seriously damaged the atmosphere of communal harmony that existed in the region while forcing upon the ordinary Mappilas extreme levels of hardship. A large number of them faced jail terms or death, and others had to pay huge amounts of money as penalty for losses caused during the rebellion. The Government came up with a Mappila Scheme, known as the Andaman Scheme, as a kind of a “final solution” to the rebel threat. L Large-scale deportation and resettlement of the Mappilas in the distant Andaman Islands was planned. One of the most significant consequences was the setback to the nationalist political movement as the Mappilas who lost their faith in the Congress Party drifted away from it and were strongly attracted by the Muslim League and its two-nation theory in later years.

Mohammed Adburahman steadfastly remained a nationalist and had to carry on a fight against the divisive politics that crept into his community in the aftermath of the rebellion. It was a hard battle for him. On the one hand, he felt the Congress leadership was not fair towards Muslims. He had even bitterly complained that the relief efforts launched by the Congress leadership in the wake of the rebellion were addressed only to the Hindus. At the same time, he felt a strong disagreement with the policy of isolation and division that the Muslim League stood for in national politics in the years to come.

(Courtesy: Muhammed Abdurahman, a biography in the national biography series, National Book Trust-India, New Delhi.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Techie Writes About the Other World; and How Familiar It Looks !

WE HAVE several genres of writing here like dalit writing, feminist writing, subaltern writing, etc, etc. Now it seems it is the turn of techie writing. I am not referring to technical writing, but writing by techies.

My daughter, who seems to have hit upon a gold mine of good techie writing, recently forwarded me a mail containing this story.

I paraphrase it for brevity:

Once upon a time there was an HR manager in a software firm who, sadly, was hit by speeding bus killing her instantly and she reached the gates of the other world for an admission. The chap keeping the records there had a problem because he did not know where to send her; whether to heaven or hell.

So he thought to give her a choice and told her to take a look at both the places. She thought there was no need to do that and said she would like a place in heaven. But he insisted and so she went first to hell.

The place looked really fun with a golf course, a country club and all the glitter she was used to back home. She enjoyed it immensely and then the next day she went to heaven to take a look there too. Not bad with plenty of clouds, trees, birds, good looking women, etc.

Then when it was time to choose, she thought she would prefer hell. Her wish was accepted immediately.

She was promptly sent there and when she entered, it was a totally different place that she saw. A real hell-like place with people slogging like rag pickers...

She asked the Devil what went wrong. It was not yesterday's place at all?

"Well", he said, "yesterday we were recruiting you. Today you are an employee here!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Laughing Gas

Kerala police on the lookout for false sanyasins and racketeers: news

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ethics in Journalism? What Is It?

I HAVE often noticed the flippant nature of the political campaigns with an eye to score a point, to garner support or to run down an enemy. That is quite understandable especially in the shifting sands of parliamentary politics. Truth gets discounted and what takes precedence is the effectiveness of a campaign, even if it is based on half truths or plain untruths.

But that can be dangerous from a national point of view. In a multicultural society like India, we need to show respect to others and remember that without this mutual respect and trust, there can’t be any meaningful nation-building. The media has to be careful while reporting sheer propaganda and hate-campaigns.

I am going back to a campaign unleashed against the members of the Muslim community in Kerala in the immediate aftermath of the Babri Masjid destruction over the much talked about Islam Encyclopedia. I reproduce below a report I had written for Indian Express on March 13, 1994 based on my personal interviews with the people concerned.

What is to be remembered is that though this report effectively nailed down the campaign as a false and communal move, a few weeks later those who launched it managed to get a totally one-sided report published in the same newspaper repeating their line of arguments. Interestingly, it was written by a journalist based in Delhi who knew nothing about Kerala and spoke no Malayalam and still he found nothing wrong about writing a report on a book in that language without checking the facts with his colleagues.

Well, that speaks much about our objectivity and professional ethics in Indian journalism.

Here goes the original report garnered from the Express online archives:

Much Ado About Islamic Encyclopedia

N P Chekkutty

It seems to be a storm brewing in a tea cup; the BJP-sponsored campaign for the ban of Islam Vijnanakosam (Islam Encyclopedia), published recently in Malayalam, and prosecution of Education Minister E T Mohammed Basheer, a member of the advisory board of the book, for treason. The BJP leaders have declared that the book, which contains a controversial map and a chapter on Kashmir, is part of an anti-national propaganda.

The Yuva Morcha has declared that its volunteers would march to the residence of the Education Minister on March 19 and would also prevent his movements in the public roads.
But the BJP’s orchestrated campaign against the book and its kangaroo trial for the Education Minister look more like a political gimmick as the book proves itself to be an independent study and not a hot piece of anti-national propaganda as alleged by the BJP.

It was K Raman Pillai, former State president of the party, who first demanded banning of the book alleging that it had a “map which did not show Kashmir as part of India” and that it contained certain “factually incorrect” references about the State.

Later Yuva Morcha took up the campaign. Morcha state unit president P K Krishnadas declared, “The references in the encyclopaedia reflect the interests of Pakistan and give proof of the activities of Pakistani secret agencies even in Kerala.”

Krishnadas and Raman Pillai were critical of the map on the first page of the 1,024 page book, published by Kalima books here, which, according to them “shows Kashmir as part of Pakistan and an Islamic country.”

But it is a demographic map on Muslim population all over the world, based on the world population figures in 1976, pointed out Pocker Puzhithara, publisher of the book. The map shows all the areas with above 50 per cent Muslim population in green and hence Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, etc are of the same colour.

“I fail to understand how a demographic map on Muslim population could be treated as a political one,” Pocker said. “This, indeed, is a politically motivated campaign,” he added.

But the BJP leaders counter, “The book contains anti-national references on Kashmir and it says that the Pakistan-aided terrorists are freedom fighters". Krishnadas says the Indian Army fighting these terrorists are charged with committing human rights violations. “This is just a one-sided propaganda,” asserts the publisher. “We have said in the book that Pakistan has a direct hand in the troubles in Kashmir Valley, and how could it be a statement against India’s interests and supporting Pakistani position,” he asks.

But Pocker admitted that there were many mistakes in the book, as it was the first attempt in any Indian language to bring out a comprehensive encyclopedia on the community. "We are aware of it, and we would correct them in the next edition,” he said.

However, the BJP seems to be adamant on going ahead with its campaign, with the Education Minister as the main target. Interestingly, there are others in the same advisory board, including 107-year-old freedom fighter E Moidu Maulavi and Central Sahitya Akademi fellow Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. “Luckily, they seem to have been spared from the charge of treason," said one of the editors of the book.

(Indian Express, March 13, 1994.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Where’s the World Heading? Neo-cons, Neo-libs and the Crisis in Democracy

AFTER THE fall of Soviet Union, there was much excitement in the western world about the future course of history: many thought it was going to be a unipolar world in which the United States and its allies would rule the roost. That gave an unrealistic assessment about the global power relations and perhaps this fantastic notion of no-challengers gave rise to the muddled world view of the neo-conservatives who took over the US Administration after Clinton, who embarked on their ruinous mission to crush the little monsters who were proving to be an eyesore.

Now at the end of a disastrous second term of the Bush Administration, when America licks its deep wounds and looks for a way to get out of its killing fields in West
Asia, one wonders what went wrong. Perhaps it was simply hubris. Often little men successfully fight off behemoths descending on them accompanied by ‘shock and awe’, even defeat them, with their grit and determination added with their intelligence. It was unlikely that Bush & co had read something about the travels of Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians or about how Ulysses handled the Cyclops…If he had, perhaps the history of our world would have been different, one thinks. Now the question is, as history sweeps these cobwebs, will it also sweep away the modern empire along with it? Political scientist Fareed Zachariah says it won’t, because unlike the British Empire that went bust in the middle of the last century, the US of today is still very strong in its fundamentals and what is lacking is a less muddle-headed leadership, he argues in a recent article.

Anyway, there was a recent debate in which some of these concerns came up. Excerpts:

N P Chekkutty: I know that in the present circumstances, when everyone is a 'neo-con' baiter, it is dangerous to say anything in defense of them. Personally I am an ardent neo-con hater and my pet subject is the neo-con madmen and one woman in the Bush administration making a mess of Iraq and the whole world.

But let me ask: Why neo-conservatism became such a hot idea in the past ten or fifteen years? What gave them currency, respectability and acceptance?

If we look at the history of ideas in the contemporary world, we will see that neo-cons came to limelight so suddenly as liberalism came to a dead end. It was not only liberalism that came to a dead end, but the connected ideas of democracy, welfare state, etc, also had come to a serious crisis. It was in such a situation that market came to take over the whole world and, hey presto, all our thinkers, leaders, opinion-makers became pro-market. Manmohan Singh who wrote the South Commission Report became the author of Indian globalization. And many others like him...

So why not ask some serious questions as to why and how neo-conservatism came to rule the roost and now why it is also facing a crisis?

John Samuel: Political liberalism as an idea and a discourse always co-existed with various shades of conservative politics.

There is a rather vast spectrum of liberal discourse as well. Right from the time John Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Civil Government in 17th century, there has been a whole range of liberal discourse, primarily dealing with the questions related to Liberty and Equality.

There is a school of progressive liberalism (primarily represented by Social Democratic parties in Scandinavian countries), deriving its legacy from T H Green, Keynes, William Beveridge, John Rawls, etc. I would also locate Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom) as a part of this progressive stream of liberalism that try to balance between the questions of individual liberty with that of equality (and sometimes equity).

The works of Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944, The Constitution of Liberty,1960, The Fatal Conceit: Errors of Socialism, 1988), Milton Freedman (Capitalism and Freedom, 1960, Free to Choose, 1980) and Robert Nozik (Anarchy, State and Utopia) shaped the discourse of neo-liberalism. In fact, Hayek took the lead to form the Mont Pelerian Society in 1947 and this academic and advocacy group played a very significant role over a period of forty years in shaping the neo-liberal discourse. By mid eighties they (usually called the Chicago School) penetrated various academic institutions and policy making forums. But it is important not to confuse this with neo-conservatism.
With the rise of conservative political leaders such as Reagan, Thatcher, Paul Johnson and consequent emergence of the New Right, the neo-liberal economics began to converge with the neo-conservative politics. However, there were many neo-liberal activists/policy wonks opposed to neo-conservative politics. Though Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs etc may be termed as some of the key proponents of neo-liberal policy framework (Washington Consensus), they are explicitly opposed to neo-conservative politics.

While Manmohan Singh conveniently oscillated between the progressive liberalism (till the eighties) and neo-liberalism, I do not consider him as a neo-conservative. He is indeed a political liberal. Even within the Congress Government the progressive liberalism (represented by the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyer, Arjun Singh and may be Antony as well) coexists with active neo-liberalism. This uneasy mix is partly responsible for the confusing responses of the UPA Government.

However, the streams of political liberalism (as distinct from neo-liberal economics) and progressive liberalism (both as politics and economic framework) are very much active across the world. If it was not there, there would not have been any NREGA and a few other progressive legislations. The various left leaning governments in Spain, Brazil and different parts of Latin America (Bolivia, Argentina, etc) also clearly show that Progressive Liberalism is still a very important and strong movement against neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism.

It is with the rise of Bush that neo-conservatism began to swallow neo-liberal economics and both of them together became a rather hegemonic political-policy framework (primarily operating through WB, IMF and WTO).

In fact, the neo-liberal economic framework is already getting saturated (over a period of twenty years) and redundant. The neo-conservative politics and policy framework (unilateralism, new protectionism, subversive politics of exclusion based on identity, etc) are still in operation. But my sense is that there will be a new wave of political and progressive liberalism as well as socialism. While we need to challenge the neo-conservative politics and neo-liberal economic framework, we also need to develop viable alternatives of progressive democratic socialism based on liberal principles of equality and liberty.

N P Chekkutty: I do not dispute the point made by John that conservatism and liberalism are two different streams in our democratic political thinking.

But my concern was about the crisis in democracy witnessed in the past two decades, and the resultant neo-con tendencies in politics and even in economic policy-making. As John himself admits, the neo-liberals in economic thinking were swallowed by the neo-cons eventually as most of the key decisions taken by this trigger-happy crowd had the tacit support of neo-libs. For example, Tony Blair was a liberal (after all he was the leader of the Labor Party!) and what better neo-con fellow-traveler there can be? And again, Hillary Clinton can never be accused of being a neo-con, but who supported the Iraq invasion whole-heartedly and now regrets it half-heartedly?

Then, Manmohan Singh. John says he is a liberal. Yes, he is. In his personal faith and beliefs, I should add. But in practice, he is the most pro-US Indian prime minister and his efforts to take this country to the US camp had been rebuffed by the nation. We can't forget that fact, though his arguments about the economic gains of the nuclear deal with US may have much weight in itself. But economics and politics are not isolated entities, they are twins.

John Samuel: Yes, I agree that economics and politics are not isolated entities; they are twins.

I have tried to trace different trends because of the fact that many of ideas and concepts are often used in a very generalized and erroneous manner in the political discourse and media discussions in Kerala. For example, many of our journalists and political leaders use terms such as ‘imperialism’, ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘neo-conservatism’ almost as synonyms. Then they tend to link all these things to ‘West’, ‘America’, ‘Bush’, etc. Such kind of quick populist rhetoric do not help to understand or appreciate the nuances and also help to address these issues in a clear manner.

The entire dynamics of international economic and political relationship and the notion of national interest, etc, are a function of various factors. ‘Realism’ has been the sort of predominant trend in international politics and power relations. Such dynamics are often shaped by the self-interest of the nation-states (read the ruling elite of a country) in relation to other nation states. So the shift in India's positioning in the international relationship too is a function of various factors (not merely ideological) including the erosion of NAM, rise of China, economic calculations, etc. This trend has been there for the last fifteen years.

Prof. K Satchidanandan: My little devil seems to be getting nastier day by day. What do I do with that arrogant nincompoop? Just this morning he was playing neo-con/neo-lib/neo-col by putting on different masks and speaking in different voices. But strangely all of them were saying almost the same thing in different tones and seemed to know one another quite well. He feels there is an unwritten alliance among all the three when it comes to the fate of what is called 'aam aadmi' in these parts, that is the common man who is losing all his hold on things since the distance between power and powerlessness, between those who take decisions and those who have to suffer those decisions, has increased enormously. Sitting in Geneva or Washington, bureaucrats have the power to decide the fate of millions. Connections seem to be getting lost somewhere in our age of specialized knowledge, including the connections between politics and economics, economics and culture, science and history, knowledge and power. My devil says -- is he Gandhi's monkey? -- we have to snatch our futures back from the experts and academics and economists and people who really want to kidnap or capture things and carry them away to their lairs and protect them from the unauthorized gaze or understanding of the passers-by. We don't need any economics that Gandhi, for example, would not understand, he says. The expert tells the ignorant: I am an expert on something that you may not understand. My expertise is vital to your life, so let me make the decisions. So not only in fiction, but in social life or history too, the question who tells the story is very important; who calls the shots can change everything. And it has become difficult for experts to hide from the people what corporate globalization has done to the people below, for their suffering teaches them a bit of real economics. Who does not know that the move to corporatize agriculture, the whole business of genetically modified foods, pesticides, cash crops like cotton or soybean are crushing the Indian agricultural sector? In Madhya Pradesh anger is building up against the privatization of the essential infrastructure like power and water that is strangling the agricultural community. In Punjab the lands irrigated by Bhakra Dam is becoming saline and water-logged. We have the ground water problem in Plachimada that had been caused, if not entirely, partly, by the Cola plant. They say 59 million people have been displaced by big dams in India, and the government does not even have a proper statistics, let alone accounts of their rehabilitation. My devil says he reads the poetry of Neruda or Nazim Hikmet, or the novels of Saramago or Pamuk when he is serious; and to relax he reads fiction, that is, Milton Friedman and co. He has watched Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11, Jehane Noujaim's Control Room and Aradhana Seth's DAM/AGE and several other films and says they have taught him better economics in its inter-layering with politics. He speaks of the connections too, between religious fundamentalism, state repression and corporate globalization. He also has read some Chomsky that has turned his head. He hates Saddam, but he hates Mr. Bush even more as Bush's terrorism is not confined to one place... and recalls he had been friends with Saddam and had also given a helping hand to Bin Ladin. He does not believe in violence in the least, but says he can understand it when it comes from the poor whose non-violent resistance has gone unheeded. And by refusing to respond to non-violent resistance, the State or whoever holds power is actually promoting violence, they are responsible for violence from below. I do not know, he says, and continues to say....For example, that 580 billionaires in the world have greater income than the GDP of the 135 poorest countries! Can this be true? Who created this disparity? Cannot be God, he knows very little economics and cannot tell between a dollar and a euro....

A final note: This is an unending debate. Perhaps tomorrow everyone on the face of this planet earth might have something to add; if they could gather enough strength to raise their voice…

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Laughing Gas

Hillary Clinton refuses to quit race despite heavy setbacks in the Democratic primaries: news

Monday, May 12, 2008

Kanjikuzhy Leads the Way for Rural Kerala

Travels in Vasco da Gama Country --part two

By N P Chekkutty

IT WAS at Kanjikuzhy, a small village on the Alapuzha coast, that I met Saswathan, a 75- year-old farmer. We were on a mission to check out what goes on in villages as Kerala grappled with the difficult task of negotiating with forces of globalization and maintaining an egalitarian society that ensured minimum livelihood to its people. Kanjikuzhy is a panchayat on the Arabian Sea coast, tucked between Muhamma in south and Mararikkulam North in the north. It has a predominantly farming economy supported by other traditional trades like coir products. Most of the 1200-odd coir unit owners are part-time agriculturalists also. Kanjikuzhy, at the same time, is at the centre of new economic transformations that were brought in by globalization and its beaches are now booming health tourism spots and its coir products highly prized items exhibited in multinational retailing chains all over the world.

On the highway, we saw the decently decorated outlet run by the Kanjikuzhy Panchayat Primary Development Society (PDS) which displays all kinds of fruits, vegetables and other farm items besides a variety of coir products. The farm products are collected by the society from the village farmers who supply them on a regular basis. They get paid in cash and no middlemen are involved. Saswathan had come there to sell his vegetables. He looked happy as he got around Rs. 200 for the few items he had carried to the retailer in the off-season. He was one of the scores of farmers in the village who regularly sold produces in the PDS outlet, who accepted everything the peasants had to offer, even those items usually discarded when they sell to private businesses. Saswathan said the PDS outlet accepted not only banana, but its leaves and fiber too; besides all kinds of vegetables, coconut, melons, etc. The day’s fixed price is displayed on the board and there is down payment in cash.

Santhosh, a pleasant-looking young man in his early thirties, is the president of the primary development society (PDS) for vegetables and he gave an account of how they built it up and how it functions. The panchayat had only a few families in farming as it s a predominantly coastal region focusing on coir an cottage industries, and it was only a decade ago that they decided to attract youngsters into farming activities in a big way. They organized groups of farming communities in each ward and started planting seeds in leased lands. It was a political movement as the community leaders were worried about the way farming was becoming a “lost career” in Kerala.

It was a success, asserts Santhosh; and Saswathan agrees. Production started booming and then the question was how to sell all the vegetables and fruits they produced. It is a perishable item and traders used to undercut farmers when production was in plenty. In the past there were scores of small private vendors who used to set up their stalls on the highway, took the products from farmers at their own terms and the prices were fixed at their own convenience causing much hardship and losses to cultivators.

It was then the idea of marketing came in. Dr T M Thomas Isaac, now finance minister of Kerala, who represents Mararikulam which includes Kanjikuzhy in the Assembly, gave the lead by initiating and supporting the effort to organize what is now widely known as the Mararikkulam Marketing Company Ltd, a society registered for production and marketing of local items. They got support from UNDP and Union Government’s rural development ministry for developing infrastructure. Now the company has its own production units making a variety of items like jams, fruit juice, notebooks, soaps, umbrellas, pickles, fish and other marine products, coconut and coir products, etc. They employ a number of local people in various units, most of them women and their various products are marketed throughout the state in the ‘Mari’ brand-name.

I went to see Saswathan’s family, who lives a kilometer away from the PDS sales outlet. It is a small thatched house, and he lives there with his wife and younger son. He has three children and the eldest son is a toddy-tapper and he works a dozen coconut trees which gives him a daily income of around Rs. 400. He said toddy, the natural brew from coconut palms, is much in demand, and he works on his trees twice a day: in the mornings he brings the brew down as the earthen pot gets filled up in the night, and in the evenings, he has to work again tapping the tender leaves for excellent yield. “It is like milking a cow,” said Saswathan who also used to work as a toddy-tapper in his younger days.

Saswathan said he has been able to get a decent income from his two-acre plot in which he cultivates paddy, vegetables and bananas. He said he goes by the organic farming methods though when there is a severe attack of pests he has to apply chemical pesticides. For manure, most of the peasants here depend on natural sources like compost, ash, cow dung, etc.

The village has around 80 full-time farmers now and they are divided into various groups focusing on different farming operations. Paddy cultivation is carried out as a group activity as it helps them sort out the acute problem of labor shortage, as it is a labor intensive activity as the sowing and harvesting has to be done in a few days’ time based on the agricultural calendar. There are two types of paddy based on the time it takes to harvest; the virippu needs only four months to get ready for reaping, and the mundakan, a more hardened variety, would require ten months to mature. The self-help groups carry out the operations in unison and all members -- generally a group has 15 to 20 members-- are eligible for an equal share. All members have to take part in the operations and if anyone opts out they would have to pay a fine, said Santhosh.

The self-help method has taken deep roots in this village, with palpable impact on the lives of people here. Already there are as many as 242 self-help groups in this tiny village: 36 in coir, the most important activity in this coastal village, paddy-16, floriculture- nine, coconut 11 and the rest in a variety of other activities in trade, industrial production, etc. Since the PDS sales outlets were opened in February, 2007 with a view to help producers get maximum income and keeping middlemen out, the private vendors have practically gone out of business.

The elimination of middlemen who were fleecing the producers had the greatest impact on the coir sector. In this village almost all houses has a coir-making machine, locally known as thari, which produces various kinds of coir products like yarn, mats, carpets, packing materials, etc. Women and children work on the machines in their spare time and men also help them out. But the coir products are generally exported and the business was monopolized by a group of firms known as depots who were private outlets who used to collect these items from the small manufacturers and supplied them to exporters. Four years ago the struggle against this exploitation reached a critical stage when Dr Thomas Isaac and others launched the coir PDS which took over the collection of coir items for a more transparent business model. Dr Thomas Isaac said the Coir PDS, which started its operations in 2003, had done a business of over Rs. 22 crore, which meant that more than Rs. 2 crore was additionally made available to the producers as the middlemen used to take ten percent of the proceeds. In fact the struggle against the strangle-hold of the depots who controlled the coir trade was a long and difficult one. Almost all the small producers were indebted to them as most had taken money as advance, and then the struggle had to be waged on a global level with direct communication to the global outlets and consumers groups, through a campaign over the internet about how the original producers are being fleeced by middlemen. That had a great impact as the exporters, under pressure, started negotiating with the small producers through the PDS in coir sector, said Dr. Isaac.

As a people’s initiative, Mararikulam experiment is a grand success. However, it depends on the volunteers who are dedicated to a political and social cause. Jalaja, the block panchayat president, and Santhosh, who heads a successful PDS, are examples of the selfless volunteers who are leading these efforts. But it is an island of hope in a sea of desperation, as in most other panchayats in the district the Mararikkulam example is not being followed. The reason is a lack of leadership and enthusiasm.

Can’t you convert this into a professionally run business, I asked Santhosh. He said it would be disastrous. The Mararikkulam example is strong because of its political content. Once a bureaucratic setup comes into place, this unique experiment would simply go astray, he feared.

Mararikkulam looks like a promising example for the people everywhere to emulate, provided they have such an excellent leadership as this village has. But that is not the case everywhere and in most places even local politicians seem to be working as agents of the big money business in their effort to grab lands and farms. Still, there are efforts to copy the Kanjikuzhy model and in the neighbourhood panchayats of Muhamma, Aryad etc, are setting up similar groups, mainly in the coir sector.

(This is the second of a three-part series on Kerala. for part one see blog archive, February 2008. The final part will examine the impact of global economy in the cash crops in the Kerala interior.)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dispensing Justice on the Spot: Television Channels and the World of Criminals

A Malayalam weekly goes to town with a story of a gun-runner turned sanyasin, and another channel says this man is innocent: A clash of media titans or a travesty of legal systems...?

SPIRITUALITY IS a big business and one advantage in this line is that it helps you build an aura of respectability and invincibility as the dress covers up all the dark and shady aspects of life.

That perhaps explains why an arms runner on the Interpol’s look out decided to turn a sanyasin, set up an ashram and enjoy life with a brand new wife he managed to get despite stiff resistance from the first and a police complaint against him by the aggrieved first party.

The episode is now making waves in Kerala as the police are on the hunt for the missing swami, who appears to have been given sufficient time for his escape by the keepers of law and order as it is now known that a large number of top cops in the city were in the habit of taking ‘spiritual service’ from the swami’s posh guest house.

Such sleazy things are not uncommon, and they are the bread and butter of every reporter on crime beat, but this time what makes it worthy of commenting upon is the way the media took an active and partisan role in the whole affair.

It was Kerala Sabdam, well-known Malayalam weekly with a penchant for investigative reporting, that broke the story of the swami who was a gun-runner. It had made a thorough job of it and had unearthed the various complaints against the swami in India and abroad and the Interpol notice for him that had been sent out to various countries. In fact even before the story had hit the news stands, copies of the magazine had been made available to senior police officials in the city so that they could take action to prevent the bird flying away, it seems.

But they chose to ignore it and it was only two days later when other newspapers took it up, that they went for a raid of the premises. What they got and what they hide are matters of speculation as different newspapers gave different versions about it. And there is no official word about the raid and its outcome.

That is as it should be as no police official could speak about an ongoing investigation nor could he conduct it online or though the pages of a newspaper or magazine.

But those on the run seem to think otherwise. They seem to realize that they could conduct a campaign through the media, thus outwitting and even defeating a legal system, howsoever corrupt or inefficient it might be. This morning, I saw a person alleged to be the main accomplice of the accused swami/gun runner, on the television, being interviewed by a TV reporter in a running car. This gentleman claimed that the police were barking up the wrong tree and the real culprits were elsewhere. As for him he had done nothing wrong and would present himself to the authorities when he pleases to do so…

Watching the scene, I was struck by the nonchalance of the man in the car and the way the interviewer conducted himself. He was presenting an absconder from the law to the world and telling them that this man was a nice, guileless gentleman…

Well, now why do we need a law and order mechanism and courts of law when we have such television channels ready to dispense justice on the spot?

PS: Towards the evening the controversial swami himself was on the small screen, at another channel, claiming that he was not the person the police were looking for. It was a case of goofed up identity. The drama thickens really and the TRP ratings climb...

Monday, May 5, 2008

Laughing Gas

The growing Indian and Chinese middle class is causing the world food crisis: Goerge W Bush.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Eating Fish and Sanyasa: Vivekananda’s Travels in Travancore

THE OTHER day, I came across a very interesting document, an account of Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Thiruvananthapuram in December 1892. It was written by K Sundarama Iyer, a senior officer in the education department who was a tutor to the crown prince Marthanda Varma, almost 20 years after the visit. The long narrative, named Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, is appended to the four volume book, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, published by Advaita Ashramam, in 1961.

It is a long narrative, a very fascinating and evocative one, as it brings to life not only the personality of this great sage but also the life in Travancore at the turn of the 19th century; its pet concerns and topics of high society discussions, its aloofness from the world at large, its court life and caste prejudices, its uneasy encounters with modern ideas of the time.

The Swami was on his tour of south India, as every monk from time immemorial used to do, going from place to place, immersing themselves in the sacred waters in four corners of the country, visiting pious householders, accepting their obeisance and giving them advice and then moving onto the next place…

So one day, the Swami accompanied by a Muslim peon in the Cochin state service, arrives at the gate of Sundarama Iyer, unannounced. Iyer’s 12-year-old son took the visitors to be Muslims because of the peculiar kind of dress the Swami had, and told his father so. The peon was accompanying the sage from Cochin as a guide on his trip to Travancore.

They had left Ernakulam two days earlier and on the way, the Swami had not imbibed anything except for a little milk. It is not clear which route they took, whether they traveled by foot or took a boat as a major part of the route is easily covered by water. Both travelers were weary as they reached Thiruvananthapuram but the Swami insisted that his attendant be cared for before he took anything from the household. By our standards, it was an unusual journey because the Swami came unannounced, as a complete stranger, without making any arrangements beforehand for his stay or meetings.

During his nine-day stay in the city, Vivekananda made many acquaintances, met many people and addressed many small gatherings. His meeting with the elite of the city at the Trivandrum Club and his audience with the Maharajah are very interesting episodes. At the club, he had an encounter with a Brahmin dewan peshkar, a middle level revenue official of the principality, who took objection to the way the Swami had returned his salutation merely uttering ‘Narayana’ as is customary with sanyasins. But the Swami who had noticed the way the man had returned the salutation of another officer of a lesser caste, showing off his caste supremacy, asked him how he could discriminate against another person and then demand equal treatment for himself: the man had no answer…

Then there was the meeting with the Maharajah himself. The Swami in his tours had been the guest of many an Indian prince, and had a wide experience meeting them, talking to them and advising them on statecraft and other matters. But in Travancore, the meeting with the Maharajah lasted just two or three minutes as the author tells us and he continues, “the Swami was a little disappointed”.

The Swami’s Travancore visit was a few months ahead of his historic visit to Chicago where he addressed the Parliament of World Religions in September 1893. Curiously, the Swami was reluctant to address public meetings and all his meetings were either dialogues or conversations in small groups. Sundarama Iyer says that he once requested the Swami to address a meeting to which he replied that he had never before spoken in public and would “surely prove a lamentable and ludicrous failure.” But in spite of his reluctance to address public gatherings, Vivekananda was preparing himself for the coming address and when asked how he would face the gathering at Chicago, he cryptically remarked that “if it was the will of the Supreme that he should be made His mouthpiece and do a great service to the cause of truth and holy living, He surely would endow him with the gifts and qualities needed for it.” Surely Sundarama Iyer thought Swami was being evasive (if God could help him in Chicago why not in Travancore…?) May be he was not willing to address a meeting at Travancore, that was all.

On the third or fourth day of his visit, the Swami made inquiries about the whereabouts of Manmathanath Bhattacharya, an officer of the Madras Government who was on an official tour to Travancore. As the Swami expressed a wish to shift to the fellow Bengali’s place, Sundarama Iyer was naturally reluctant to let him go, and the Swami pacified him saying that “we Bengalis are a clannish people.”

He also told him that Bhattacharya was a class-mate and that his father Pandit Mahesh Chandra Nyayaratna was a famous scholar in Bengal. But there was another, perhaps more pressing, reason why the Swami wished to go to the place of Bhattacharya. Ever since he left Bengal, especially during his long south Indian tour, he was staying with Brahmin households where fish and meat were anathema. A quintessential Bengali, the Swami thought a little rice with fish was a welcome diversion even for an ascetic like him!

When Sundarama Iyer, a Tamil Brahmin of orthodox ways, heard this, he was flabbergasted. But the Swami pointed out to him that ancient Hindus were used to eating meat and they were also used to kill cows for their yagas and yajnas. He thought it was the habit of avoiding meat, which came with the rise of Buddhism, that made India lose her strength and paved the way for foreigners to conquer her. This line of argument, interestingly, resonates with the advice given to a young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by his Muslim friend in Rajkot, that to gain strength one should eat meat and encouraged him to do so…

Those nine days were eventful in a deep way, though surprisingly Sundarama Iyer or his other scholarly friends, who were engaged in long and passionate conversations with the Swami, never thought it necessary to keep written records of these daily meetings. In fact the author says he was writing from memory after a lapse of two decades and he confesses that many of the deep metaphysical discourses the Swami had been engaged in while in Travancore, were lost to posterity.

Perhaps that particular lapse speaks much about our lack of a sense of history…!