Monday, June 30, 2008

An Emergency Landing for the UPA Government in India?

IF THE country is going to have a mid-term election later this year, it is surely going to be a crash-landing for the United Progressive Alliance Government led by Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Going by the current situation, it is almost clear that there are very few options for the government as well as the left parties who have declared their intention to part ways after four years of supporting this government.

It does not take much hard speculation as to why the left parties decided to pull the rug at this point. They simply can’t be seen accepting a policy that takes India to the Untied States’ global policy framework, or their global agenda. That would be suicidal because the left parties have always survived on a consistent economic and political line whose axiom remains anti-imperialism. Not that they do not make concessions, compromises or even opportunistic positions. They do and try to accommodate all such compromises within their overall ideological positions. They know private investment and capital is a must, and that capital can only come from the moneybags in the west, because they have been running governments for a long time.

That is why they, in spite of public show of great antagonism to the Chidambaram brand of neo-liberal economic policies, were comfortable with the UPA alliance. They needed to have some expertise in political acrobatics, or the dexterity to adapt to the philosophy of running with the hare and hunting with the dog. They do have these qualities, in abundance too.

But accepting the Indo-US nuclear deal was something different. It meant accepting the US hegemony in our hemisphere, in our own backyard. It also meant discarding the long held convictions of our foreign policy, nurtured and perfected from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. Though it was officially Congress policy, its primary supporters and beneficiaries were the left forces, as it suited perfectly to their world view.

Then why the Congress abandons their age-old policies of non-alignment, inherited from the days of Nehru, and run to the US arms now?

Because, the world has changed and it has changed beyond recognition. The foreign policy of India was perfected in the days of cold war, when the world was divided into two grand camps, the capitalist US and socialist USSR. Every country, every region and every conflict had been caught up in this larger divide and the two forces were behind one or the other contender in those conflicts.

Now things are different. Te bipolar world is no more and uni-polarity is gone and it seems multi-polarity is the name of game. And naturally, India emerges as a regional player and it has ambitions of being a global power. Its establishment thinks the US is a natural ally because both have complimentary ambitions and can play to mutual benefit.

But how far this could be true?

It is tough to say. But one thing is clear. If India takes itself to the US camp, it would naturally have serious consequences among the Muslims, within the country and globally, especially as and when the US goes ahead with its threatened attack on Iran too. Then there is another possibility too: Of the non-US world, may be Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran and others, joining hands in a grand global alliance against the US and its allies. Then India would find itself woefully alone, its natural allies gone and its new friends not entirely dependable.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Social Engineering in the Media?

Thejas was a newspaper being launched by a Muslim organization dubbed extremist by the mainstream press and there had to be a keen and clear understanding of what was going to be its political and ideological standpoint. N P CHEKKUTTY chronicles his efforts to shape an editorial team drawn from among the backward castes, dalits, and Muslim women.

MEDIA SCHOLAR James Mutti’s article on the Challenges before Indian media, at the SAJA Forum, has once again brought into sharp focus the issue of media and its social role in a developing society like India. One thing that has been missing in most of these debates, often initiated and carried out by the urban centric media pundits both in India and the west, is the changing reality of the Indian countryside and the small towns, which are now emerging as major media centres with the fast growth of literacy, economic development and social and political empowerment. For the first time in Indian history, rural masses are coming into the media picture, not only as clichéd figures in some human interest stories but as actual players with substantial stake as readers, advertisers and as a class of consumers targeted by the advertisers.

James Mutti’s article and Ramachandra Guha’s column based on it in Telegraph, has set off a wide debate on Indian media, as the large number of responses in the SAJA Forum blog makes it amply clear. But surprisingly, most of the debates were focused on the metro-centric Indian press, and the rising Indian regional press got very little attention. One reason, I believe, is that most of the media commentators are familiar with only the urban scene and tend to ignore what goes on in the Indian countryside and small towns, where a media revolution is now taking place. As media critic Sevanti Ninan pointed out, “throughout the rural areas there is an emerging rural middle class which is able to afford newspapers but which is still far removed from popular notions of middle class consumption.”

What goes on in the non-metro regions is quite exciting, to anyone who watches the Indian rural scene and keeps a tab on the media growth in those places. Here I would like to write about a particular media experiment I was involved in, during the past three years and how it has developed, despite heavy odds empowering a cross section of the most disadvantaged sections of our society.

Three years ago, while working in Delhi, I was invited back to my home town, Kozhikode in Kerala, where I was asked to help develop a new newspaper that would cater to the Muslims, the backward castes and the Dalits who were the most disadvantaged sections of Malayali population. These three sections combined with certain sections in the Latin Catholic community and the tribal people constitute the most disadvantaged sections in Kerala society.

But addressing all of them was not easy or practical. For one thing, a newspaper that is launched from the northern part of Kerala, which in itself is the backward part of the State, could not easily reach out to the predominantly fisher people of the Latin Catholics in the south while the tribal people in the hills are practically out of bounds for any newspaper, mainly because most of them are still far from a position to buy or read a daily newspaper.

So we had to accept this limitation and focus on the Muslims, the backward Hindus and Dalits, to start with. As for the Muslims, a dominant community in Kerala though most of them are economically and socially backward, there were already four newspapers coming from Kozhikode itself, catering to this reading segment. The most important among them, Madhyamam, launched by a Jamaat e Islami-controlled trust two decades ago, had already reached a good circulation base with editions from various cities in Kerala and also from the Gulf, competing for the third position in circulation after Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi.

It was indeed a saturated market in Kerala, with newspapers like Mathrubhumi and Malayala Manorama with strong financial base and access to each and every segment of the Malayali reading public dominating it, and dozens of other smaller players like Kerala Kaumudi, Mangalam, Madhyamam, Deshabhimani, Chandrika, Siraj, Varthamanam, etc, catering to specific caste, community and political segments.

So right from the beginning, when we started our planning in June 2005, we had to devise new methods to attract readership and find a niche to survive. We also had to contend with a negative campaign as the prime movers behind the new media initiative was National Development Front (NDF), a Muslim organization which was widely described as an extremist group, by their detractors. Hence we had to prove our credentials as equal and responsible players in a democratic polity, speaking up for those sections which were not truly and genuinely represented in the dominant media.

During my 15 years in Indian Express, as a senior journalist in Kerala and outside, I had noticed how few journalists from these backward sections were there in the mainstream media, even in a most literate and progressive state like Kerala. Most of the journalists came from the upper caste segments, and as a result though the subaltern issues were generally given sufficient space in the media, what was conspicuous by its absence was any serious and concerted follow-up taking these issues to a logical conclusion. (In some cases, such reports on abuse of lower castes were relegated to local editions, thus effectively burying those stories.)

That was an area we thought we could make an impact. Right from the beginning, we made a serious search for journalists who could join us from the backward castes and Dalit communities, and we were successful in developing a few new journalists even from the Dalits while even today there are no Dalit journalists in most major Malayalam newspapers. Today we have a few Dalit journalists with us, including a girl in the desk, who are able to make a mark just like any others in the profession.

A second area that was left to us to explore was women journalists. Kerala’s Muslim community is generally very conservative and women are not encouraged to take part in public life and they are not encouraged to take up jobs too. As a result, though there were a large number of Muslim journalists and editors in Kerala, there were not many women among them. (The only Muslim woman journalist in Kerala at that time, to my knowledge, was Shabna Ziyad who worked with veteran journalist Leela Menon in an evening daily in Kochi.)

Thus at the time of recruiting, as executive editor, my main focus was to tap the resources left unexplored by the mainstream. And I was not wrong because there were lots of Muslim girls who were eager to join this new profession that was closed to them till then. Not many of them were fit to be in the desk or in bureaus, but we were able to find a few like Shabna Ziyad (now a district level reporter at Idukky), Jasmine (presently with Indiavision TV, Malappuram) and Khadeeja, an abandoned wife and mother of grown up children who was making a determined effort to find a new life. (Later on, she emerged as one of the most effective food columnists with her keen eye for the exotic Muslim cuisine, not explored by the well known food writers.)

I still remember with a sense of pride and happiness those days in mid 2005 when I was engaged in a search for new faces to run a newspaper that spoke to the subaltern sections in our society. We were able to fish out many good talents, and one of the girls who later developed herself into a good sub-editor and page-maker well versed on the latest version of Quark Xpress, was the daughter of an unemployed person who had smuggled himself to a Gulf country hiding in the lower desk of an uru, a small sea-faring vessel, as an illegal migrant. At the time she came for the interview, she was employed as a salesgirl in a textile shop in the city. Another boy came from Manjeri in Malappuram whose father was an assistant to a butcher in the local meat market. Today this Muslim boy is one of the best reporters with the paper.

It was not an easy task. We had very limited resources, and hence were not able to rope in the best and the well known in the media market. We decided to take the opposite path, recruiting from the lowest sections, training with the most advanced technological and professional systems and helping them develop skills necessary to run a newspaper on their own. We set up an intensive training programme that consisted of two months duration, in which we trained them in technical skills like Malayalam typesetting, page-making, etc; professional skills like reporting, editing and proof reading and translating agency copy that came in English. Besides this we gave them a world view, discussing how as a newspaper we would be able to serve the society we lived in. Veteran human rights activist and journalist Mukundan C Menon who was with us those days played a key role in this, and I remember with a heavy heart that he died during this period, collapsing in the class room one morning.

These class room debates and discussions had to tackle another serious problem, of an ideological and political nature. Thejas was a newspaper being launched by a group of people and organizations dubbed extremist by the mainstream press and there had to be a keen and clear understanding of what was going to be its political and ideological standpoint. Most of the new recruits represented a cross section of Kerala society, and it was a serious task to find a common cohesive ideological standpoint.

We thought we would evolve as and when we went on with our work, so that we could discuss such matters as they emerged. So a practice was evolved in which everyday the desk and editors would together debate the stories we did, the mistake we committed and how we would have done it better or differently. It was mainly a desk consisting of inexperienced people, except for only a very few, and so right from the beginning we knew we would make mistakes and hence one of the first decisions was to keep a column for corrections, which we did and meticulously followed through ever since.

But we were a newspaper that proclaimed to be a part of the victims at the social, political and economic spheres. So we had to be wary of the pitfalls of copying the international and national news agencies who generally toed the official line, which often proved to be quite misleading or plainly anti-Muslim or anti-Dalit or anti-backward as the case may be. So one crucial decision was to avoid use of the word “terrorist”, which was not value neutral. We decided that whenever people are fighting for a cause and engaged in militant struggles against armed forces of the state, we would describe them as fighters.

Here there was another serious question: How to describe those people who targeted civilians? In such circumstances, the best and apt word to describe those perpetrators of such violent acts against innocents was to use the words extremist or militant.

It was on January 26, 2006 that Thejas, a new daily from Kozhikode, was first launched after six-month long preparations. It was a success, going by the response of the readers and the market. We were expecting a very limited circulation, but when the first issue was printed we had printed three times than what we had initially expected. Then came a period of fast growth with editions in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi in the next few months and recently, in May 2008, the fourth edition was launched from Kannur in the northern part of Kerala.

When I look back, I think what made us click was the fact that we made a conscious effort to chart out a new course, in both media business and journalistic practice. We were able to discern our weaknesses and our shortfalls and then we made an effort to convert them into our strength, our core competency. We saw that as a newspaper that spoke mainly to the Muslim community in a world where ‘Islamophobia’ was dominant, it was necessary to give as much global news as possible from the view point of the victims of the aggression. We dedicated a full page to international news, with a daily cartoon strip called Cartoon World. It was the first time a Malayalam newspaper giving a full page in a 12-page broadsheet to international news. Then we changed the whole outlook on Edit Page, giving shorter and sharper editorials instead of the long and dry edits that filled two columns, that was the order of the day in mainstream Malayalam press. Our first edit focused on political, social and economic concerns of the day while the second, a small write-up of 120 words, was written in a witty way on developments in science, technology, religion, literature, etc. We also found space for an editorial cartoon on the same page, that lampooned rather than tickled. At a time when readers’ responses were getting a short shrift in most dailies, we ensured that one third of the space is given to readers’ letters and on Sundays the two column space for editorials was dedicated to readers, for the new column, Readers Editorial.

Now it is time to assess how far such an unconventional media approach has had any impact on the society and the media practice. It is for the media analysts and social critics to make this assessment. But there are some very clear trends now visible: Even most of the mainstream newspapers are now wary of using the term “terrorist” indiscriminately as they used to in the past. As Mukundan C. Menon used to tell us, when Abdunnasar Madani, a Muslim leader of fiery speeches, was arrested nine years ago, all newspapers described him as a terrorist because that is what the police said. After nine years when he came out of the jail as the court threw out all the cases against him, he came as a reminder of how media could be misled by vested interests. Perhaps this rethinking about how to look at media and its vital role is a key contribution that we were able to make to Kerala society in the past three years., posted Saturday, Jun 28, 2008.

(N P Chekkutty, executive editor of Thejas Daily, earlier worked as chief reporter, Indian Express, Kozhikode, director, news & current affairs, Kairali TV, Kochi, and bureau chief, Madhyamam, New Delhi.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Laughing Gas

As the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance finds itself in a bind over the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party releases the first list of candidates for the 15th Lok Sabha elections, due in ten months: news

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Search of a Peaceful and Non-violent Secular Society

Religion, Martyrdom and Evolution of Modern Society- part three

N P Chekkutty: Reading Sachi daa’s introduction to Myth and Literature, I was intrigued by one comment about the myths: That Marx thought it would disappear once science and rational thinking gets deep roots. Perhaps that he was proved wrong tells much not only about our failure in building socialism and a rational society, as he had hoped we would; but also about human nature. As even evolutionary biologists seem to agree, the irrational and mythical has a much deeper role to play in human affairs.

That takes me to another thought: The idea of the (im)possibility of changing the hegemonic ideology. With deep and biological roots for the irrational, religious, and superstitious we may never be able to think of a human society that is free from suicide bombers, thought police and bigots...

That ends up with another, very gloomy thought: That all efforts, all hopes for change is hopeless.

John Samuel: Chekkutty, I don't think so. If so we cease to be human!
Human beings are rational and irrational at the same time; can smile at one moment and get depressed the next; can laugh as well as cry; hug and get angry; floating between sweet dreams and nightmares; hope and hopelessness; memories and amnesia, revenge and forgiveness, create and destroy, procreate and die...there is no full stops, there are only commas and semicolon in this never ending coalescence, making and unmaking...

It is such contradictions that make life and this world move...may be forward, side ways and backward at the same a swing-- make this an exciting movement within and without. So isn't it also exciting to see the world with a sense of wonder, and curiosity of a six-year-old? Society is always driven by the tension between the desire for freedom and tendencies to dominate. The very act of challenging dominations is the most significant aspect. ‘Freedom’ is not an end product-- it is on the one hand a constant sense of desire and on the other, a human urge to find our space, time, joy, existence, and survival in a given context. One of the important tensions in the modern world is the tension between the notions of liberty and equality. Every alternative may end up becoming an establishment tomorrow. But the very politics of dissent and resistance would force us to find another alternative...This sense of resisting and engaging at the same time is what actually makes the world change. And most of the change has occurred in a cumulative manner.

The problem is when we are all driven by the myth of ‘Progress’ -- graduating from one stage of history to another-- in a sort of apocalyptic progression. That sense of certainty, derived from Joachim, Darwin, Marx, etc, are a part of the problem.
The art of discovering and rekindling hope in the midst of hopelessness is what made us human-- that is what gave us poetry, science, and politics. It seems we are a part of the never ending cycle of creativity and destruction: Shristi, sththi and samhara! We are also victims and villains of the hell and heaven among us and within us.
It is the hope of change and the will to transform the conditions within and among us what makes life worth living, worth dreaming and worth doing. So let us not get too much confused by the whirlpools in this river of life as there are also very good soothing ripples beyond such whirlpools of history and human perplexities.

Sajan: Dear Chekkutty, I am an avid reader of all your writings. But I am getting slightly disturbed by your pessimism which seems to be growing day by day.
I would love to think that with all the problems in the world it is
eventually becoming a better place to live.

M P Chandrasekharan: I am afraid that "hegemony" is built into every biological system. Look at a group of elephants, spotted deer or a pack of wolves in the forest. Good or bad, they have a system of electing a leader. Communists also adopted the same model except that they called one another "Comrade". One of the greatest spiritual gurus, Jesus Christ is called "the king of kings" although he had no kingdom to rule. Perhaps hegemonic model is the only stable model that works. All that we can do is to build in methods of changing the leader when we don't need him/her. This could be called democracy, which is practiced by all parties in India except the Congress.

K P Aravindan: Hear is a quote fro Stephen J Gould: (Sorry for
harking back to biology. It is the only thing I know.)

Gould SJ. From Sociobiology debate -1978:

"The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the
major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by
specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brain. Size
itself is a major determinant of the function and structure of any
object. The large and the small cannot work in the same way. We know
best the structural changes that compensate for the decrease of
surface area in relation to volume of large creatures, for example,
thick legs and convoluted surfaces such as lungs and villi of the
small intestine. But markedly increased brain size in human evolution
may have had the most profound consequences of all. The increase added
enough neural connections to convert an inflexible and rigidly
programmed device into a labile organ. Endowed with sufficient logic
and memory, the brain may have substituted non-programmed learning for
direct specification as the ground of social behavior. Flexibility may
well be the most important determinant of human consciousness; the
direct programming of behavior has probably become inadaptive.

Why imagine that specific genes for aggression, dominance, or spite
have any importance when we know that the brain's enormous flexibility
permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive,
spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are
biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of
behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as
biological - and we may see their influence increase if we can create
social structures that permit them to flourish. Thus, my criticism
does not invoke a non-biological 'environmentalism'; it merely pits the
concept of biological potentiality, with a brain capable of the full
range of human behaviors and predisposed towards none, against the
idea of biological determinism, with specific genes for specific
behavioral traits.

The protracted and intense debate surrounding biological determinism
has arisen as a function of its social and political message.
Biological determinism has always been used to defend existing social
arrangements as biological inevitable - from 'for ye have the poor
always with you' to nineteenth-century imperialism to modern sexism.
Why else would a set of ideas so devoid of factual support gain such a
consistently good press from established media throughout the
centuries? This usage is quite out the control of individual
scientists who propose deterministic theories for a host of reasons,
often benevolent. I make no attribution of motive in Wilson's (the
founder of sociobiology - JV) or anyone else's case. Neither do I
reject determinism because I dislike its political usage. Scientific
truth, as we understand it, must be our primary criterion. We live
with several unpleasant biological truths, death being the most
undeniable and ineluctable. If genetic determinism is true, we will
learn to live with it as well. But I reiterate my statement that no
evidence exists to support it, that the crude versions of past
centuries have been conclusively disproved, and that its continued
popularity is a function of social prejudice among those who benefit
most from the status quo.

We are both similar to and different from other animals. In different
cultural contexts, emphasis upon one side or the other of this
fundamental truth plays a useful social role. In Darwin's day, an
assertion of our similarity broke through centuries of harmful
superstition. Now we may need to emphasize our difference as flexible
animals with a vast range of potential behavior. Our biological nature
does not stand in the way of social reform. We are, as Simone de
Beauvoir said, "l'être dont l'être est de n'être pas" - the being
whose essence lies in having no essence"

Satchidanandan: There are enough reasons around to be pessimistic; but I would go with Gramsci's motto for his journal, "Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will"- so that we are aware of dangers and pitfalls and the presence of evil and obstacles, but nothing prevents us from acting and hoping.

Dear NPC,
I have also written in the article on the subversive and revolutionary potential of myths, in Mahasweta Devi (stories like Stanadayini and Douloti and Draupadi), in Dalit writers and adivasi writers who subvert the Ekalavya and Sambooka stories, and the feminists who question Rama on what he did to Sita (Remember Sara Joseph's Ramayana stories- I have written a study on that as intro to the OUP book of English translations of those stories. So myths can be used in reactionary ways as RSS does or in radical ways as our Kadammanitta did or many others do.(Saramago,-'Gospel as Told by Jesus Christ'; Kazantsakis-'The Last Temptation of Christ'; Senghor-'Chaakaa'; C N Sreekantan Nair-'The Ramayana Plays'; Basheer-the story on Manzoor al Hallaj-...) So nothing to be disappointed about. Marx was wrong on many counts, he too was a product of his times, but that does not reduce his value to us even today as he showed us a way of thinking and acting-even of finding he was sometimes wrong- that remains relevant whatever the errors in details.

B R P Bhaskar: The problem is that people are in a hurry to reach the DESTINATION. There is no reason to give up hope because there is plenty of evidence to prove that human effort has resulted in changes. Of course, the changes may not all have been of the kind we were looking for. Even when we succeed in making the kind of changes we desire, we may not be in a position to say we have reached the destination, because by then our concept of destination would have changed. There will always be a new manzil ahead, and so the journey must go on.

Sanil V: This discussion on martyrdom has touched the very foundations of our civil society and political existence. Thanks to Chekkuty, John Samuelm Sachida and others for guiding us to these depths.

As someone said, the tyrant's rule ends when he dies whereas the martyr's rule begins after his death!

Power has two responses to the martyr-to-be. First it kills him. Then it builds memorials for him, celebrates his self-less sacrifice, commitment to his beliefs, his courage, his ideas, his cause. Once the man is dead we are happy to valorize his cause. We are ready to remember him, if he is a mere symbol. Hence a study on martyrdom should not start with its moralistic and symbolic values.

The martyr is neither a hero nor a victim. One who gets killed while killing others could be a war hero, not a martyr. The martyr is a fighter who lets his life be taken instead of killing the evil enemy. He is a substitute for the enemy and not its victim.
As it has been already pointed out here, martyrdom has two important aspects. The martyr remembers and is remembered. He is a memory recording device. He is also a witness. The Malayalam word rakthasakshi captures it well. Martyr is a blood-witness. How do we understand this bloody-remembering -witnessing? What does he remembers and witnesses? It is wrong to think that he witnesses the truth of his beliefs or the injustice of the power which strikes him down. What does blood remember? It remembers blood, blood ties. The martyr preserves the memory of a future social bond - a new sociality which is yet to come. This blood-tie binds us together in a way unimaginable within the statist civil society and its family ethos.

We must be careful in linking martyrdom to sacrifice. The idea of martyrdom as a self-less giving up of life for the sake of faith must be a recent Christian invention. The martyrdom of Christ trans-substantiated the blood and flesh into the pure symbolic values of the Eucharist. With this, Christianity made the daddy-mummy-me family drama the basis of all social bonds. Perhaps Islam hasn't yet yielded fully to this patriarchal drama and hence its fascination for martyrdom, Its prophet was not the son of a virgin mom but an orphan. One would expect a tradition of martyrdom to value the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood over mom-hood and dad-hood. In India the Sikhs learned martyrdom from Islam which in turn claimed the heads of Sikh gurus.

We should look for the link between martyrdom and sacrifice in their common root in a violence, which is constitutive of the sacred. The economic calculations of propitiating gods and giving up goods come much later. Even asceticism had a meaning different from "self sacrifice" in early Christianity. The ascetics declared themselves as outsiders of society. Once persecution lost its edge, the true believer declared himself as an evil outsider to the society. Raktha-snathanaya Buddhan - our poet saw the truth which social sciences often missed.

Sachida's observations on Kayyuur martyrs contain an undeniable truth. Most or all martyrdom is fabricated or forced upon. However, this does not touch its essence. Substitution or vicariousness is the very core of sacrifice. A goat or a first born is killed in lieu of the real target of violence in order to avoid collective death or uncontrollable violence. The very idea of self- sacrifice is incoherent. No martyr wants to die. The Palestine film Paradise Now by Hany Abu-Assad brings out martyr's love for life.

What is the relevance of martyrs in contemporary society? In the age of digital technology do we need the bloody recording device of martyrdom? A lot of home work is needed before we get to this question. First of all, social sciences should give up their wishy-washy notions like competition, calculation and instrumentality and look at violence in its face. They should learn to acknowledge that violence is constitutive of the good and society. Our political discourse should begin to think about blood ties beyond racism and humanism. This would demand a politics which goes beyond moral schooling in marriage and family. Feminism, in so far as it questions only the symbolic power of the father without challenging the power of the symbol ends up as nothing more than a ripple in the patriarchal cup.

Is a suicide bomber a martyr? Yes, only if he is MORE than a war hero, self sacrificer, victim of injustice and a symbol. I do think that Islam has something to teach us about this "more". Perhaps Islam still witnesses and remembers something which Christianity has taught itself to conceal and forget. To understand this, we urgently need an encounter between religions that goes beyond the secular assertions of vacuous unity and universality of all religions.

Sureshkumar: And where do we place self immolations as a way of protest? Compared to suicidal killings which have been happening in only certain specific regions of the World, self immolations seems to be more diffused more widely. What surprised me when I saw the statistics for the period 1962 - 2002 in a recent book (chapter by Michael Biggs in the book 'Making Sense of suicide Missions' edited by Diego Gambetta) was the fact that though it shows reports of fatal self immolation from from 22 countries, almost 50% are from India and reports from India, Vietnam and South Korea form three quarters of all self immolations.

N P Chekkutty: I am overwhelmed by the kind of response I received. Thanks to all.
I find this inquiry has a metaphysical and political dimension. It has a direct bearing on our day to day life too. A few months ago, I had occasion to see the body of a comrade who committed suicide with the red flag tied onto his wrist. It was in Thalassery where the party took its birth. It was also a kind of message, a gruesome message that we, thinking people who are aware of these complexities, can ignore at great risk.

Another aspect, a positive one for a change, is that we are in a position to enlarge this inquiry, from a purely individual pursuit as it used to be from the days of Upanishads till the other day, to a collective and communal effort to seek truth. You need not go to the woods to seek truth, you do it here and now.

And we need to be ever more urgent too. If Sajan finds a kind of pessimism in my words, it is not a personal trait. It is the expression of a generation of those who put faith in some great ideals and now find themselves lost, and they desperately seek some way out in these chaotic situation.

As I said about the other comrade, he has not been able to. Perhaps we as conscience-keepers of the society, are all answerable to his tragedy.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Science, Metaphysics and the Concept of Martyrdom

Religion, Martyrdom and Evolution of Modern Society- part two

John Samuel: This is an interesting issue. Because the questions raised have philosophical (beginning with the question: What is "Self"?"), anthropological and historical significance.

1. ‘Sacrifices' has got a whole range of historical, anthropological and theological interpretations. This must have begun as fertility practice- as human beings began to tame nature. Many such fertility rituals are also linked with menstrual cycle (symbolizing cycle of fertility and cleansing). When religions got institutionalized, such practices have acquired political dimensions (of knowledge, privileges, legitimacy, etc). In more evolved Vedic as well as Semitic religions one can see this.

2. In fact the very notion of Martyrdom is the art of constructing Myth. Though John the Baptist was beheaded, he was not a made so much of a myth. The death and crucifixion of Jesus was indeed made a myth through knowledge (the compilation and editing of the 66 books of Bible), theological interpretations and political process.

3. Every powerful intuition works partly on symbolism and myths. Actually the most popular perceptions of institutions are through signs and symbols (where knowledge and interpretative dynamics are in the background). So the Cross, Om the Crescent, sickle and hammer, etc, become the defining symbols. Apart from this each powerful institution also survive on myths. Such myths get expressed in the form of stories, martyrdom, sacrifices and icons. So Gandhi is more of a myth to the Indian establishment (the very identity of the "nations"- this also convey many things - particularly a whole idea about "tolerant and status-quoist" Hinduism.) Marx is indeed one of the biggest myths of the twentieth century. This art of making myth is a historical, political and institutional process. For example, EMS is now being made a myth. Che is probably one of the most celebrated myths. Martyrdom gives a chance to construct and maintain ‘local myths’. So even the Communist parties have got a hierarchy of martyrs, at global, national, state and local levels.
The Church too survived on sacraments, myths, and festivals- which have global and local dimensions. The entire circus of Sainthood is the most evident form of Institutionalized myth making in the Catholic Church. So Mother Teresa is a social-political construction, which serves the institutional purpose of the Church. She will be made a myth. In fact RSS too follows some of these things. Osama bin Laden has already become a myth.

N P Chekkutty: Now I think the only way we can rationally explain this phenomenon of martyrs and their hold on society is through economic motivation. What they serve is the self-interest of themselves (a wonderful after-life) or their own society (economic well-being, eradication of enemies through divine intervention, social peace, etc, etc, or whatever thing be that you make this sacrifice for.)

But the point is that this thing works only in a kind mythical atmosphere, as John pointed out. What proof do you have that the persons who take upon themselves the role of the sacrificial goat, did get the benefit in after-life or in the case of our own secular ‘sacrificers’, in social well being? We know many people went to gallows with the intention of bringing in a classless, exploitation-less society, but where are we now?

That takes us back to the fundamental question, why do we need to keep this elaborate hoax? Why can't we admit that there is no interest other than self-interest in society and all this talk about making sacrifices, taking the world into a wonderful new age, etc, are simply hogwash?

As a child, reading Dickens' Christmas Story, I was angry with Mr. Scrooge. But he said the truth. There can't be any free lunch and there can't be celebrations without the cost. And there can't be any sacrifices without some real hard, shrewd calculations about the benefits behind it.

Santhakumar: Agree that we must rethink the need for martyrdom in the current context. We do not see much dependence on this practice even among communists these days. But one group, which depends on this now, is the fundamentalists including Islamists. So whether martyrdom is good or not for some specific group (say, Islamists) is a different question. But for the society as a whole, such extreme sacrifices are not needed now. We can have other forms of communicating signals that we are not `free riders' (of the prisoner's dilemma kind).
But some sacrifice and signals of that kind may be necessary. For example, in international treaties, there are genuine arguments that some important players should signal that they are ready to take pro-active actions (including the bearing some others' cost) to motivate others. There are many situations when people do not take up the self-interest option even when they can, and are aware of it. This serves some important coordinating function. There is a substantial set of literature, including experiments, to show that normal people behave more nicely than the predictions of self-interest make out. (A famous experiment is the dividing the pie game - where two people are dividing say Rs.10 given to them by some external agency. If one is designated as the first mover, and only one division is allowed, FM can offer any amount to the other, since the other has no other option. But it is shown that if FM gives say only 50 paise, the second person do not take it, even though it is rational for him to accept it. Thus he is willing to sacrifice the 50 paise to signal something. In many such experiments, the equilibrium seems to be somewhere around 6:4, the first mover taking 6 and giving 4 to the other. This is strictly beyond the self-interest based predictions.

But in our writings, we argue for designing institutions based on the assumption of self-interest. This is for another reason. An institution designed with self-interest assumption works well, in most cases, even if some are not self-interested. However, an institution designed with the assumption that people are altruistic collapses, even if one behaves in a self-interested manner. Thus assumption of self-interest is very much useful in designing institutions, even though many people behave in a not so strictly self-interested manner on many occasions.

Satchidanandan: How much distance from Martyrdom to Suicide? What is the relationship between Chance and Martyrdom? What if someone becomes a martyr without even wanting to be one? What if martyrdom is thrust upon someone?

Some years back, while trying to understand the famous Kayyur revolt and the martyrdom of those young rebels that glorified it, a group of people engaged in writing the script for a John Abraham film on Kayyur, collecting all possible data and information from the survivors and books, confronted these questions; it was a blind alley; it choked them; they could not move forward without solving these existential questions. It was not only a financial crisis that stopped the film, but also this philosophical crisis that caught those unfortunate people- now let me say 'us'- between laughter and tears.

M P Chandrasekharan: Chekkutty's point that there is nothing other than self interest comes very close to the truth. Self interest begins from the person, extends to the spouse, children, parents, and the circle widens including friends, neighbours, community, caste, religion, nation, etc. There is a continuum of self interest around every one of us, with decreasing intensity as the point moves away from the person. When many individuals are put together, these self interests of different intensities work 'for or against' one another and create a ‘field’ similar to the electromagnetic field. It should be interesting to develop a field theory and a mathematical model.

I don't think martyrs come up on their own. The society around them works them to a frenzy until they are ready to annihilate themselves. Potti Sriramulu who died in his hunger strike to get statehood for Andhra Pradesh asked for food at the end which his followers promptly refused. Nehru conceded, Andhra became a State and Sriramulu a statue in the town centre.

N P Chekkutty: Here is a very interesting quote about martyrs, which we can extend to the suicide bombers too:

Tertullian boasted to one Roman magistrate in North Africa that killing Christians only increases fervor while inspiring more people to join them: "The more you mow us down, the more we multiply; the blood of the martyrs is seed" for the church. When certain Christians questioned the value of martyrdom, Irenaeus denounced them as "heretics," while Tertullian mocked them as cowards...

Hope you will remember these gentlemen: They were the two important bishops of the Church in the second century who pushed ahead with martyrdom and violence of a self-inflicted kind, on which they built up the Church. In the process, they brushed aside and even decimated those who asked questions, those Doubting Thomases who wanted an alternative path, a path that could lead to a more humane church. In fact reading about these suppressed texts, like the Nag Hammadi texts that include the Gospel of Judas, one comes across a very lively intellectual debate within the Church in those early days immediately after the crucifixion of Christ.

But it took the Church about 1500 years for coming to grips with the problem, through the process of Reformation and a fierce soul-searching that was violent and painful often. But that helped the Church to face up to its past and made it a more modern and open institution which has, more or less, exorcised its own ghosts.

But what about the other practitioners of this martyrdom business? In the case of Islam, I feel it would take a very serious inner battle within the community to grapple with this question. It is fact the community, more or less, is on the brink of such a process and that could take many forms but the ultimate result would be a parting of ways between those who believe in violence and those who trust in peace.

But you see, what Tertullion said is eerily reminiscent of what our secular people say here. Every day we listen to slogans like "Martyrs are not dead, they will continue to live through us" from such secular platforms. I am worried about them because I do not see any possibility of a Reformation-like process within this secular myth-making apparatus.

RVG Menon: In the Gita, Krishna presents all kinds of arguments before Arjuna, to convince him why he should pursue his Dharma.

One very interesting line of argument is this:
"Hatho vaa prapsyasi swargam
Jithvaa vaa bhokshyasae maheem"
If you are killed (in battle) you shall attain the heaven,
and if you win, you shall enjoy this earth(ly benefits).
I think that all the martyrs are fed on this kind of indoctrination, even today.
But in reality, the martyrs are the victims rather than the victors.

As General Patton said:
"No SOB ever won a battle by dying for his country.
Battles are won by letting the other SOBs die for their country!"

As MPC has put it, the potential martyrs are driven into a frenzy by the society, who needs martyrs, at various times. War is the biggest example of mass martyrdom.
Religion, politics, family, caste, gothra, individual honour all call for martyrdom, in various subtle ways.
They are like the gladiators, the chaevakars.
The society wants them, but is also suspicious of them, and hence, is afraid of them.
Because they are different. They are destined for the ultimate sacrifice.
The society is not sure what price they might ask, for this sacrifice!

N P Chekkutty: John says:This art of making "Myth" is a historical, political and institutional process...

Agreed. But what purpose does it serve in the world today, when we have means of communication, means of overcoming them? Don't you think that in this brave new world, there is a real possibility for the rise of a more rational, more intelligent, more level headed behaviour on the part of human beings? Do we need the new myths, do we have to live by such myth-making even today? And is it not proving to be very very harmful? Do we have to be captive of our own illusions, myths and ghosts as in the past when there were some legitimate reasons for it but what prevents the new world of global instant communication from being a more informed society?

John Samuel: I think myths do serve a purpose- in terms of building collective memories, collective identity and collective narratives. In one ways myths are one of the key markers of identity. Though modes of communications and technology changed, basic human instincts and the dynamics of power, society and political process do have some recurring themes.
Even now many of the Institutions invest a lots on brand-building-- using methods of advertising, communications, etc. For instance, the King of Thailand is a perfect example of constructing a myth making using of the most modern forms of communications, technology and media.

Satchidanandan: In T S Eliot's play, Murder in the Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to yield to all temptations, but the temptation of martyrdom and the immortality it brings was too much even for him to resist. Even in courting martyrdom--if it is willfully courted and not an accident as it happened at Kayyur (the attack on the policeman was just by chance and impulse of the crowd in the procession) there is a self-interest, but I would call it the noblest of self-interests, the same that Christ must have had while being on the cross to save humanity. It also depends on two other things: the response of the contemporaries to the cause and the consequence as felt by the posterity. This applies to the crusaders and suicide bombers as much as to the communist revolutionaries.

N P Chekkutty: Yesterday I read a very interesting article in the science and technology section of the Economist (March 22,2008) which explains the effort being made by a few scientists the phenomenon of religion.(The Science of Religion: Where angels no longer fear to tread.)

It was very interesting because it touches upon most of the issues that we were discussing here. In fact, as part of the Explaining Religion project, they did undertake a number of statistical experiments like the dictator game, something quite similar to the one Santhakumar explained here.

One highlight of the study seems to be that like language, religion too has a biological, quite Darwinian, basis. It would even explain the phenomenon of suicide-bombers if you look at it from point of view of the concept of group selection, which seems to have been abandoned by Darwinians themselves earlier.

Dr David Sloan Wilson of Bringhamton University, New York, says that evolution of human morality could be explained in the context of inter tribal warfare. Such warfare can be so murderous that groups whose members fail to collaborate in an individually self sacrificial way may be wiped out entirely. So in order to protect the group, you get into suicide pacts. So survival of the fittest takes some new form, through a group identity.

There are so many such interesting insights in this article. Hope some biologists here would explain the full impact on social and religious life.

M P Chandrasekharan: In the case of Jesus Christ the crucifixion was not with his co-operation and connivance. It was Jonathan Annas's (the High priest of Judaism) collusion with the Romans that really resulted in the murder (martyrdom). The sacrifice element was introduced later (by St. Paul and others) in order to make the Christian ideology as close as possible to the Judaic religion practiced those days. St Paul pictured Christ's crucifixion as a sacrifice at the behest of Jehova in lieu of goats and cattle sacrificed thitherto, thus making further sacrifices unnecessary in the Christian religion. It was this sacrifice element that brought practitioners of Judaism in their millions to Christianity after the fall of Roman Empire, rather than the teachings of Jesus.

K P Aravindan: Yes, there is a lot of biological literature on the subject starting
with Kropotkin's 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. A
recent example is Marc Heuser (Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a
Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, 2006.)
Martyrdom is the most extreme form of altruism which means the
behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of other
individuals while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Such tendency
for altruism may be good for survival of the group, though not
necessarily to the individual concerned.
The problem and controversy among biologists is regarding the degree
to which human altruism is genetically determined. The stream called
Sociobiology tends to give narrow genetic explanations for all such
behavioral traits in human societies. I would tend to disagree with
this. For one, Darwinian evolution works at the level of individuals
rather than groups. Furthermore, Homo Sapiens is a very young species,
less than 200000 years old. There would not have been enough time for
the multiple genes required for such complex behaviors like altruism
to have been selected.
Another simple explanation would be cultural selection. Cultures that
celebrate altruistic acts for example through their grandmother's
tales and epics and ballads would have a selective advantage against
a warring tribe that does not have such traditions. Such cultural
characteristics and (moral(?) traits) thus tend to be preserved in
human societies.

What use is this all in modern societies? Very difficult to tell.
Maybe it would have more value in Socialist societies (survival of the
nicest) than in capitalist societies (survival of the fittest).
Martyrdom maybe passe once we erect other moral edifices (equality,
love, nonviolence etc.) which makes it redundant.

(To be continued. Courtesy:

Friday, June 20, 2008

Martyrdom: Secular and Religious

Religion, Martyrdom and Evolution of Modern Society- part one

I WAS recently involved in a long and fruitful discussion on issues of religious faith, secular institutions versus faith-based institutions, questions of martyrdom and human freedom, etc.

Here is the edited version of this debate:

N P Chekkutty: Listening to the critics of the Communist parties all over the world, I have always wondered how far it is true that the Church and the Communist party have the same organizational structure and belief systems. After all they belonged to two distinct periods in human history and both institutions came up in response to totally different social and economic pressures.

Then two years ago came the revelations about the Gospel According to Judas, a text that has been widely discussed after it was released by National Geographic. I have not seen the text itself, but the review in New York Review of Books was very interesting as it revealed how for two thousand years this crucial text was kept under the carpet by the Church leadership, until it was recovered from a cave somewhere in Egypt. It was a study of how an organized establishment could manipulate history, ideas and even human destiny.

Now a recent book by two scholars, Elaine Pagels and Karen King, reviewed in NY Books this week, takes it forward and tells us how Ireaneus, a second century bishop and other Church leaders, managed this wonderful feat in undermining history. It seems they made Judas into a devil and banished all those who thought he was more of a human who was, perhaps, led astray. Like the Communist aparatchik managing their states, they too divided the Church into two, the bishops and priests on the one hand and the laity on the other. Like our own totalitarian system, the laity had no voice and the ordinary citizen had no vote.

So there seems to be a lot of similarities and parallelisms that make the Communist party the true inheritor of the legacy of Comrade Ireaneus!

K Satchidanandan (Poet and thinker, Delhi):Bertrand Russell had long ago pointed out the resemblance: the hierarchy, salvation in dying for the cause, martyrs, heretics, (they are called either revisionists or extremists according to convenience), concealment and distortion of facts, the dream of a classless heaven. Violence? Hasn't religion been a major source of violence on earth? The language of the Manifesto comes straight from the Holy Book. But that is what makes it so powerful. And the structure of fascism is no different either. What worries us is not the similitude; but the fact that the heaven seems either getting split asunder or moving farther away and the martyrs have reasons to weep over their wasted lives, we may have now to settle for something lesser: a benevolent capitalism. A simulated equality. A democracy that fears itself.

KP Aravindan (Health activist, Government Medical College, Kozhikode):
Why only the Catholic Church and the Communist parties? Why not the
Islamist theologians and power structures? What about Brahminical
priesthood? And ever so many others?

Santhakumar V (Economist, Center for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram):
I am struck by the recent tendency of the Pope and also the head of the Anglican Church (incidentally both of them are renowned scholars) to say sorry publicly for the many misdeeds of the Church in the past - including Pope's decision to meet with those who were sexually harassed by the clergy in US. I think this is a nice positive gesture, that Communists, and other priesthoods can learn and practice! Imagine an Advani saying sorry for what happened in Ayodhya, Hu Jintao for Tianenmen Square, etc.

NP Chekkutty:As to Dr Aravindan's poser why not discuss other streams of orthodoxy, I have no objection to such a wider debate though my post was mainly on the basis of the new insights into the early Church after the discovery of these second century texts known as Nag Hammadi texts.

They are important in many ways, and I think what Santhakumar pointed out, the issues that forced Pope to apologize including the sexual abuse of kids by the Church leadership, should be seen in the way the institution evolved in the early years.

Two points are of extreme interest: The obsession of the early Church with the concept of martyrdom and the fetish for homosexual escapades. It would appear that the organized Church came up on the foundation of martyrs, and the Church leaders actively promoted this offering them with heaven. The second aspect was unusual sexual practices. The Gospel of Judas seems to have been critical of these totalitarian tendencies, and its views were suppressed with force. From what we see, the followers of these ideas were more heterogeneous and democratic.

These similarities and historical parallels are very important. It would also help us to think aloud about how far such systems are good/bad for the society, and how a more heterogeneous and open society may prevent these fundamentalist tendencies. The early Church and its experiences could give important lessons for us today, when we see such tendencies raising their heads in every sphere and in every religion.

M P Chandrasekharan (Educationist, engineer):I think religions in general, and Catholic Church in particular, do share a common characteristic with Communist Party: "Intolerance of the opposite point of view, and a pathological aversion to dissent".

John Samuel (International aid activist, Bangkok):I was very amused by the reception that Pope Benedict got in the USA. This visit has much symbolic significance. The papal media management too tried to project him as a Green Pope.

Here, some views on the institutionalization of Church:
1. The institutionalization of Church (as an institution of power) began with the co-option of Christianity (in fact a denominational formation came out of the Nazarene Movement among Jews- which began as a sectarian Jewish movement- drawing from the Essene tradition) began with co-option of Christianity as a convenient ideology by Constantine. Even the very compilation and editing of Bible was a political process. The 27 books of New Testament were not finalized till 367, more than three hundred years after the death of Jesus.
2. The Edict of Tolerance (of Milan) in 313 and the declaration of Christianity as the official religion of Roman Empire by Emperor Theodosius in 381, transformed a sect into a religion and ideology of an Empire and co-opting an eastern mystical tradition as the powerful manifestation of the Roman and Western Civilization. By 391, all the pagan practices were declared illegal and temples closed.
3. Apart from Paul, the most important intellectual influence in shaping the Church as an Institution of Power was Augustin of Hippo (St Augustin). His Confessions (400), Trinity and The City of God (423) shaped the politics and ethics of Church as a powerful institution. The City of God may be one of the most influential works in shaping the nation of political order and the so-called Christian civilization (as distinct from the City of Man).
4) The entire medieval church history (from sixth to fourteenth century) show how Emperors tried to dominate the Church (from the time the so-called Holy Roman Emperor) and how the Church sought to dominate the State. The history of the Church from the tenth century to the fifteenth century (through four crusades and inquisitions), under the rule of Popes like Innocent and Pope Lucius III( 1184), show the degeneration of power and how the ideals of Jesus got violated every single day by a politically unaccountable and corrupt institution.
5) The paradigm shift of the organizing principle of the Church happened with the Clunic Reforms from 910 onwards. The model of organizing adopted by the monastery established in Cluny in 919, influenced not only Catholic Church, but the entire international organizational models, including that of colonialism, communist party, MNCs and INGOs. Cluny monastery for the first time in the world conceptualized operationally autonomous subsidiaries and institutions, with abbots as the head, but driven by a single vision and ideology and answerable and accountable to a Central command. At first Catholic Church used this organizing principle to build a loose institutional network as well as a strong cadre based hierarchy, answerable and accountable to the Central command. Later on this was adopted by secular institutions. So while Catholic Church has a central command of cardinals headed by the Pope, Communist parties have got a politburo.
5) However, Church learned its lesson after the Reformation and Renaissance, and tried to redefine itself so as to make itself relevant. The first Vatican Council in 1869 was in the context of the Church losing its political power, when the Kingdom of Italy captured the Papal estate. While First Vatican was in a denial mode when confronted with Enlightenment rationalism and modern political power, the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 65) signifies the reconciliation of the Church with Modernism. In fact, Liberation Theology and mystical traditions (including Charismatics) got recognition after that.
In many ways Catholic Church is the mother of most modern political, economic, educational and social institutions. This history of Catholic Church also shows the good, bad and ugly aspects of institutionalization of power.

NP Chekkutty:Thanks John for your very informed input on the history of the Catholic Church.That, however, does not answer my point about the role of the concept of martyrdom in the formation of the Church and how this doctrine gets itself ingrained in any social system. I raise this question mainly because I find 'martyrs' are always a problem for any civilized society. Are they good, bad or just a bottleneck for social progress?

I know it would be sacrilege to say this, but I feel martyrs are a big hurdle for any normal society's progress. The concept needs to be seriously questioned and challenged, because in almost all cases the concept of martyrs is used by a vested group with an eye to keeping a deadly stranglehold on the new forces with the help of the dead chaps who in any case would not be able to deny what is attributed to them. Even Christ failed here, and what to say about our ordinary mortal 'immortals' like Che Guevara? Martyrs helped develop an ossified and highly regimented organizational structure that is too bad for any normal growth.

John Samuel:I will postpone my considered response about the relationship between the Church and Communism and Communist Party. Because this requires a bit more detailed analysis, historicizing communism as well as the multiple political ideologies that shaped the Church.

My sense (this is more of an informed guess) is that the notion of martyrdom came from the practice of the ritualistic "sacrifices". The Old Testament is full of this. In fact Old Testament starts with a murder (of Cain killing Abel). When God asked Cain about Abel, Cain replied that he was not the "keeper" or security guard of Abel. Then the response of God is very interesting: " The blood of your brother is screaming from the earth". This "screaming blood" could be a primordial signifier of " Martyrdom". Then you also find ritualistic sacrifice in the case of Isaac, Abraham ready to "sacrifice" Isaac (his one and only beloved son) for a large cause of God (to prove his obedience). In fact, there are number of examples to point out to the notion of "sacrifice" for cause transforming to "Martyrdom". In fact, all Semitic religions have notions of "sacrifice" and the corollary political-theological notion of martyrdom).
This was also very much there in many other religions. But Christianity became the most powerful and organized political religion in the world as an ideology of the Imperial Romans.
The very beginning of the work of Christ starts after the "beheading" of John the Baptist (who in many ways is a primordial activist). This too can be considered as "martyrdom". However, with Hellenization of the Church (under the leadership of Paul) and politicization of the Church (under Constantine and Theodosius), many of the Judaic practices were transformed in to powerful political tools. So "martyrdom" became a very important and powerful political tool. In fact, during the first Crusade, the Church assured heaven to Martyrs (very similar to the stand of Jehadis) who gets killed for the cause. And those who do not get killed in the Crusade had the option of keeping the "captured" land with him.
In fact we also know the story of Joan of Arc and many others!
Later on many of the practices and assumptions of the Church influenced many Institutions, including the Communist Party.

Santhakumar:Your question on martyrdom is interesting: I had a hypothesis which I presented somewhere else. Martyrdom (or showing serious sacrifice even if alive) was a necessary tool in all societies in the past -- I would argue that it was an epistemological tool and signal. It is a signal of non-self-interest. In all societies we need moments of collective action and leadership; but this can be coordinated in traditional societies only through signals of ‘avoiding self-interest'. That served a useful role. But this has a cost. Such non-self-interest symbols or messages cannot be rejected easily when society moves ahead even if the objective situation warrants such a rejection. But there is a source of optimism -- societies need not reject the symbol but change the content. Such opportunistic use of martyrdom is not uncommon.

N P Chekkutty:That could be true. Sacrifice or lack of self-interest for collective benefit is a fine idea. Perhaps it did serve some useful purpose too in the past, especially since societies needed to be more vigilant to keep its interests safe.

Now the question is whether this concept holds true today? Do we need such people who lay down their lives for the sake of something, while often what they think is the interest of the collective is, actually, their own sweet choice? Is it not true that these martyrs are more harmful than of any good?

I try to raise this question with a view to thinking of a new way of democratic politics and organizational structure for our parties with plenty of martyrs, like the Communist Party. It is also taking serious proportions when each and every college, each and every village in some parts of our state, seems to own at least one martyr today. I think in the past 20-30 years, since the camps murders became a normal practice, we must have produced a few dozens of them.

K P Aravindan:Dear Santhakumar, your hypothesis is interesting. I think you may be able to develop it
further by incorporating or borrowing from some of the popular
theories in evolutionary biology, namely Kin selection theory,
signaling theory and sexual selection theory. Links to Wikipedia
articles on the same

Santhakumar:Dear Chekkutty, there are a number of writings recently within mainstream economics and in other disciplines on the role of, and the perceptions on, suicide bombers in Islamist societies. Probably one can find some parallels here.

N P Chekkutty:Santhakumar and John have come up with some very interesting hypotheses on martyrdom and social life which are of extreme interest.

First, let us examine this link between martyrdom and sacrifice. What actually is the meaning of sacrifice in a religious/political sense? Historically it would appear that this practice started from the need for propitiating gods and super-natural elements. So sacrifice and, ipso facto, self-sacrifice are literally not an expression of non-self interest as Santhakumar argues, but the ultimate form of self-interest.

If you take an example from futures trading, the sacrificer-self sacrificer is investing in future returns and it could come in the form of a berth in heaven, close proximity to the heavenly power center -- I think Christ sits next to God as per the protocol in heaven-- and more closer to earth, they are ensured a major stake in political and economic power. Perhaps that explains the close relationship between priesthood, kings and elaborate rituals throughout history. Perhaps it also explains the religious/political basis of elaborate ritualistic practices in offerings to martyrs even in non-religious establishments, as we see in floral tributes at the communist party congresses, and the gains garnered through state power. Here, my point is that religions and our secular political establishments are one and the same if you look at their historical role and social relevance. So how do we think of a way to keep out religion from politics, as Lenin wanted? Replace one with the other, and get the same result?

But what change that would bring to the world?

Santhakumar:What you said is right that the martyrs may expect some post-life rewards. However, if society views the ‘sacrifice' of those as solely driven by self-interest, then martyrs will not have an imposing role in society. Somebody may try to climb Everest with a 50 per cent chance of death for self esteem or publicity. But his death has no overhang on society. When a suicide bomber kills the leader for the `freedom' of his ethnic group, there is a problem of overhang.

(To be continued. Courtesy:

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Laughing Gas

Kerala's Finance Minister Dr T M Thomas Isaac refuses to accept the federal proposal to ban all lotteries: news

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Half Century of Cartooning: Yesudasan Turns Seventy

CARTOONIST YESUDASAN turned 70 today. Almost five decades of cartooning behind him, Yesudasan is, no doubt, the best among the contemporary Kerala cartoonists still in the profession. Even at this age, he keeps up a steady flow of good and humorous cartoons.

I first came to see his cartons and illustrations as a small boy, may be eight or nine years old as a third or fourth standard student in a village school, when one of the very few publications available to us at the small library there was Janayugom, edited by the late lamented Kambissery Karunakaran, arguably one of the best literary editors Malaylam has ever had. Janayugom was a gold mine for an avid reader those days, with a good selection of excellent articles, novels, stories and cartoons, etc. My favourite cartoon strip was Haram Moosa by Ghafoor who, later on, simply disappeared from the scene.

Yesudasan, unlike Ghafoor, continued to be an active presence and he left Kerala and joined Sankar’s Weekly in Delhi for some time working with the legendary cartoonist at the national scene. Then he came back to Kerala, dabbled with some small publications of his own, and then has been with Malayala Manorama for all these years. Manorama made him famous and perhaps rich too, though I personally feel that much of his best works may have been done before he joined them, mainly when he was running some small cartoon magazines.

It is too early to predict where he would be in the pantheon of the best and most creative cartoonists Kerala has produced in the post-Independence period. Delhi has always been the best breeding ground for Malayali cartoonists, maybe because it is the political power center and that is where you meet political characters in their elements, fit to be targeted for lampooning. The brigade of Malayali cartoonists in Delhi is legion, from Sankar, O V Vijayan, Abu Abraham, Samuel and Kutty of an earlier generation who are now legends. After these stalwarts appeared people like E P Unny, Ravi Shankar, Ajit Ninan and others and even today Malayali cartoonists of a new generation like Bonny Thomas, Sudheernath, R Prasad and E Suresh keep up this tradition.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

As Dr Manmohan Singh Makes a Bitter Announcement

AS I was watching Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the other day as he spoke to the nation on the unpopular decision to hike petroleum prices, I was struck by his quiet voice and his palpably sincere demeanor: It was clear he was speaking the truth though it was a bitter truth to tell, an unvarnished truth that no one wanted to listen to.

But as I sat through the speech delivered in a measured and unhurried tone, I realized it was this simple but straightforward approach that this man, who strayed into politics quite unpredictably, that made him a successful politician in a world where many a career politician crumbled like a pack of cards.

Dr Manmohan Singh was quite simple and forthright as he explained that if we put off this increase further, as his friends in the left parties seemed to suggest, then we would be accumulating these heavy burdens to pass on to our children.

Coming to think of it, I realize that a prime minister announcing such an unpalatable decision like a stiff increase in prices, a record increase in recent Indian history, must be a really tough and brave person because he is going to face a general election in less than ten months and has been facing defeats in most of the assembly elections his party had faced in the past four years. I say, this is moral courage because it is very clear that Dr Singh is a person who utters his words only after giving a serious thought to what he is going to say. He is convinced that the nation has no other way but to face this steep hike in global crude prices and I feel the nation, in the past two days, has shown that his words are taken at their face value. Life is going on as usual and the streets are not on flames.

In fact, except in Kerala and West Bengal where his left party friends are ruling, there has not been any major reaction to this announcement. Even in these two states, it is clear the bandh disguised as hartal was nothing but a political game to hoodwink the people. In fact we see many State governments like Andhra Pradesh, ruled by the Congress, making efforts to keep the burden light reducing sales tax, etc, while Kerala waited for two days to make any such announcement. They did finally as pressure mounted and even Congress governments were making a better show of their public commitment.

Now the question is, will the price hike seriously impair the Congress chances in the next election? I feel it is unlikely, because price rise is just one among many factors that the voters consider as they march to the polling booth. The first and foremost, is the quality of governance, and when we look back to the past four years of Manmohan Singh Government, I would say it is perhaps the best government that we have had in the past two decades.(After V P Singh, I must say.) Or ask any poor laborer in Wayanad or Idukky or Palakkad, where peasants used to commit suicide: They will say this government’s rural employment guarantee scheme would bear witness to Dr Singh’s commitment to poor people.

(Cartoon courtesy: Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Laughing Gas

Prices of petroleum goods, including domestic cooking gas, go up in India: news
A shock treatment in an election year...!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Chakka and the Life of Malayalis: From Dinner Table to Folk Songs

URAVU, AN indigenous technology center in Wayanad, this week organized an exhibition of chakka (jackfruit) delicacies at a village near Kalpetta. There were as many as 58 items on display, making use of all parts of this summer fruit that grows in abundance in all parts of Kerala. Normally, the external skin called karimullu and the inner core known as madal are discarded but I found that even these were not abandoned and delicious items like thoran, upperi and pickle, important dishes in a traditional Malayali meal, were prepared out of these parts.

It appears that traditional dishes are making a comeback and indigenous skills and resources are now being put to effective use with the help of innovations in technology. Quite a number of rural based non-governmental organizations and technology institutions are making an impact and one can see the changes they bring about, at the annual display of rural wares put on show during the IRDP mela that the government organizes every year during Onam season.

Thus, chakka appears to be making a triumphant come back to our dinner table. It was all but abandoned as rural economy grew and people’s income increased in the past few decades but thanks to recent innovations, they are becoming fashionable once again. I have seen quite a number of chakka dishes in all parts of Kerala like chakka varattiyathu, chakkakkuru upperi, chakka moloshyam, chakka pradhaman, chakka payasam, idichakka thoran, erissery, ihstu, chakka ada, etc, but when Prof. RVG Menon recently said that he had tasted a chakka wine, developed at the IRTC (Integrated Rural Technology Center) he heads, I was excited. I have seen wine made out of coconut but I never knew even the lowly chakka could be wine worthy! He says it was delicious.

But chakka, like coconut, had a dignified place on the Malayali menu and lifestyle for long. That is why we have so many stories, songs and other folklore around chakka. The famous among them, I think, is the story of the guy who brought down a chakka: It fell on the back of an unsuspecting rabbit going by and the lucky chap got rabbit meat for dinner!

And we Malayalis got a saying too: Chakkayittapppol muyaline kuttiyapole…
So every time we climb a jackfruit tree to bring down a chakka, we expect a rabbit as a bonus.

And here is a song that describes a summer evening beautifully:

Chakka manga kalam
Anthi monthi neram…

The season of chakka and manga (jackfruit and mangoes), when the sun sets…

From Kannur, Prof M P Chandrasekharan sends a folksong that is popular in those parts. Here, I quote:

Makane, ini nee chakka kakkan poyitename
Kuru ninakku, chulayenikku, pondi nintammakku
Madalum koonjalum karimullum ninte muthiyammakku…

Here is a glossary as some words are known only in the local dialect:

Pondi: The soft skin between the kuru (seed) and chula (flesh)
Koonjal: Central core
Madal: The collection of all the waste
Karimullu: External skin
Muthiyamma: One of the grand mothers. (As the song is from the dad, it is to be presumed that he refers to his mother-in-law as the boy's grandma.)