& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, March 30, 2020

Is Narendra Modi a 21st century Walter Rand?


Indian Prime Minister's sudden lockdown of India to control COVID-19 is reminiscent of
Walter Charles Rand’s tough measures to curb 1896 plague in Bombay


The plague in India: Stricken natives in the Street at Bombay

Lord Sandhurst, in a speech delivered the other day at Poona, said that in spite of the measures taken to combat the plague in Bombay, it was spreading, and that not only had they the plague in their midst, but owing to the failure of the monsoon, the grim visitor famine was staring at them. Europeans have been attacked by the disease, and a nurse has died from it. The scene represented in our illustration is from a photograph by Inspector H. A. Perry of the Bombay City Police, and is, unhappily, one too often to be witnessed in the streets where wretched plague stricken natives are to be seen lying down until removed.



T
he havoc wrought globally by COVID-19 pandemic has yet to run its course. We are hopefully somewhere in the middle of pandemic’s curve and in the next couple of months, the rapid spread of the disease will plateau and begin to decline. It will have killed thousands and more, affecting millions more by then.

The outbreak has tested all governments, and many have been found wanting in being able to control the spread of the virus and the number of fatalities. 

So far (and this is going to be a very long journey) Canada has managed the crisis rather well. Both the federal and the provincial governments have taken the general population into confidence and have been gradually exerting pressure to implement social distancing and alleviating the economic fallout of the pandemic. The Samara Centre for Democracy has produced a useful analysis of the state of democracy in Canada during the pandemic. Read it here: Parliament Under Pressure.  

In India, the federal (central) government has ordered a complete lockdown to ensure social distancing to prevent the community-based spread of the infection.

Swift & Sudden Decisions

The measure, tough and necessary, has caused utter misery to the tens of millions of migrant labourers and daily wage earners, who have been forced to return home. Managing and ensuring a lockdown is not easy especially when its implementation is announced without adequate planning and adequate advance notice.

Whether it is demonetisation or tackling coronavirus, Narendra Modi has made such swift and sudden announcements his forte. It would appear that he doesn’t seem to weigh in on the overall impact his decisions would have on India’s massive population.

In implementing the lockdown, the government has used a colonial era law – the Epidemic Disease act, 1897 – that was enacted to deal with the outbreak of the bubonic plaque in the Bombay Presidency in 1896.

The outbreak of plague in Bombay is remembered for the wrong reasons – the assassination of Walter Rand, the head of the plague commission, by the Chapekar Brothers (Damodar and Balkrishna), and the arrest of Lokmanya Tilak on charges of sedition (both events occurring in 1897).

The wide and rapid spread of plague in Bombay and the adjoining cities also saw the heroic efforts of two doctors – Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas, a medical practitioner from Goa, who discovered the first incident of plague in September 1896, and Dr. Sir Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, who developed the vaccine for the disease.

There is always a political story that underlies the decisions governments take in tackling pandemics and epidemics; it is clear now globally in the way governments are dealing with the coronavirus. It was evident then in Bombay in 1896, too.

Seemingly, the tough, no-nonsense totalitarian response by the Chinese government has yielded results, as compared to a soft, all inclusive approach adopted by many countries in Europe and North America, which has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. China has been able to control COVID-19 but the virus is swallowing all of the developed world.

Tough action

The differing experiences of different countries indicate that the way forward is to strictly enforce lockdowns everywhere. But that cannot be done hastily. It is necessary to take the people into confidence, have their involvement in finding a lasting and permanent solution. That is the true essence of participatory democracy. The dilemma, of course, is to ensure that while people become aware of the gravity of the situation, the death toll is controlled. 

In 1896, at the behest of Lord George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India in London, the British government representatives in India – Lord Elgin the Viceroy in Delhi and Lord Sandhurst the Governor in Bombay – attempted various ways to curb the rapid spread of plague.

Lord Hamilton (the Canadian city of Hamilton gets its name from George Hamilton) was adamant that strictest measure should be adopted to curb the spread of plague because the ships from Bombay were being denied entry into all the ports on the way to England. Both Elgin and Sandhurst, aware of the prevailing sociopolitical and cultural circumstances in Bombay Presidency, were less than enthusiastic to implement such strict measures.

At that time, Governor Sandhurst organised the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria in Poona on 22 June 1897. In his editorial Lokmanya Tilak observed that at the time when the city was suffering from the plague epidemic, the celebration was “the sixtieth anniversary not of our prosperity, but of our decline…” Tilak’s journalism was incendiary; his editorials in Kesri left nothing to imagination even as he took the necessary precaution not to circumvent any imperial laws.

There was a severe, irreparable divide between the moderates and the extremists of the Indian National Congress, with Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale leading the moderates, and Lokmanya Tilak leading the militants. Their difference would split many institutions in Poona that they had co-founded and were a part of, and cause a vertical spit in the Congress in 1905.

Tilak’s maneuvers

Tilak, when he realised that he was sidelined in the maneuvering and jostling for public space by his more astute moderate comrades, began to pursue a stringent advocacy of orthodox Hindu religion, opposing the Age of Consent bill introduced by the British rulers to increase the age of marriage of girls to 12.

When his opposition didn’t prevent the passage of the bill, he launched the public celebration of the Ganeshotsav in 1893 – a political masterstroke that catapulted him to top of the pantheon of Indian leaders. He maintained his stridency in 1895 when he relaunched the Shiv Jayanti – the annual celebration of Shivaji Maharaj’s birthday (February 19), which had been started by Mahatma Phule. 

Walter Charles Rand was appointed the Plague Commissioner of Poona in 1986. He went about his task with the zealousness of a civil servant unconcerned with local customs or local sensitivities. Poona in 1896 was in a political, social, ideological and economic ferment. There was an ongoing famine across Deccan, which had crippled the economy. When the cleaning operations began in Poona and Bombay, the British administration was expectedly thorough, and ruthless.

Stanley Wolpert notes in Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India, notes:

“As chairman of the newly created Plague Committee, (Walter Charles) Rand was invested with dictatorial powers. He arrived in Poona preceded by his reputation as a stern disciplinarian for having sentenced eleven “respectable Hindus” to jail for instigating the Wai communal riots of 1894, when he served as the magistrate of Satara District. After passing the sentence, he had obliged these convicted Brahmans to walk under a blistering sun for more than twenty moles from Wai to their Satara prison. But if Rand was regarded with hostility by the orthodox Hindu of Poona before his arrival there, a brief period in office at his new job in that city sufficed to arouse the hatred of most of its inhabitants against him. Even the Liberal newspaper, which had so recently advocated the appointment of a “strong officer” moaned “for heavens forbear,” explaining that this

Is the universal wail of blank despair that goes up from the suffering inhabitants of this ill-fated city. There is a limit to human patience and human suffering which has long since been overstepped…The accounts we have been from time to time publishing in our Marathi series will, we have no doubt bear sufficient testimony to the unparalleled distress and misery caused to the people of this city in consequence of the operations of the Plague Commission as at present directed.”

Gopal Krishna Gokhale, at that time in London, even accused the imperial police of molesting women during the plague searches. Mahadev Govind Ranade, a judge in the Bombay High Court, Gokhale’s political guru, and the undisputed leader of the moderates, prevailed upon Gokhale to withdraw the allegations.

Chapekar Brothers

When Rand was returning to his carriage after participating in the celebrations of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in Poona that Bombay's Governor Lord Sandhurst had organised on 22 June 1897, along with an associate, the Chapekar brothers shot Rand and Lt. Ayerst. Ayerst died on the spot and Rand succumbed to his bullet wounds after 11 days.

Tilak was aware of this conspiracy, had given tacit approval of the plot to kill Rand, and helped the Chapekar brothers escape and hide. The British administration was probably aware of the linkages between Chapekar brothers and Tilak, it had no substantive evidence. But it nevertheless wanted to ensure that Tilak wouldn't go unpunished and arrested him under charges of sedition on 27 July 1897. He was tried for disaffection, found guilty and sentenced to 18 months of rigorous imprisonment. Justice Ranade and Parsons denied Tilak bail.

Disaffection

Richard P. Tucker notes in Ranade and the Roots of Indian Nationalism, Justice Ranade defined disaffection” in a related case, which laid down the rules of engagement between the British administration and Indian leaders agitating for freedom. 

Justice Ranade defined disaffection thus: “disaffection is a positive political distemper and not a mere absence or negation of love or goodwill. It is a defiant insubordination of authority, or when it is not defiant, it secretly seeks to alienate the people and weaken the bod of allegiance. It is a feeling which makes men indisposed to obey or support the laws of the realm, and promotes discontent and public disorder.”

The public outrage of orthodox Hindus at the tough measures implemented to control the plague epidemic forced the British administration to adopt softer measures. This prolonged the disease for several years. According to Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Senior Visiting Research Fellow, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, “…the stark truth is that cultural sensitivity had its consequences. The plague was not stamped out – and continued to kill until the mid-1920s. As many as 10 million Indians may have died.”


Thursday, March 19, 2020

The importance of not forgetting





There is a perfect storm brewing in Ontario over Gurrtan Singh’s bill to annually observe the first week of November as Sikh Genocide Week.

Gurratan Singh is a Member of the Provincial Parliament in Ontario from Brampton East. He is Jagmeet Singh’s brother. Jagmeet Singh leads the National Democratic Party of Canada.

Expectedly, there is anger and angst among a section of the Indo-Canadian community at Gurratan’s move. They are at pains to explain that the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh guards happened a long time ago and that since then India has moved on.

There is no denying this fact.

Most Indians acknowledge that 1984 was a terrible chapter in India’s history. Contemporary Indian history has innumerable instances of the Hindu majority population going on a rampage against other religious minorities, most notably against the 200 million strong Muslim minority. Under the Narendra Modi government it has become institutionalised, it is the new normal.

Those unfamiliar with present condition of the religious minorities in India, especially the Muslims, should watch the serialisation on HBO of Philip Roth’s classic novel The Plot Against America.

The living nightmare that America could have become for its Jewish population had Teddy Roosevelt lost to Charles Lindbergh (the theme of Roth’s novel) is the fearsome dystopian reality in which most of the Muslims of India survive in present times.

But coming back to Gurratan’s bill. Dr. Manmohan Singh, when he was the Prime Minister of India, apologised in the Indian Parliament to Sikhs for 1984 riots in which the Sikhs were targeted on the streets of India’s capital New Delhi.

A sizeable section of the burgeoning Indo-Canadian population (estimated to be 1.6 million) feels that Gurratan is not justified in trying to keep the memory alive of an incident that happened so long ago.

They felt the same when Harinder Malhi, the then Liberal MPP, succeeded in 2017 in getting the Ontario legislature pass the bill that defined the Sikh massacre of 1984 as genocide.

There are many unresolved questions and emotions that surround this angry debate.

Should we forget a massacre?

What purpose does an annual remembrance serve?

Would it not be better if we just leave the past behind where it belongs, and just move on to a future that is harmonious and without acrimony?

Nelson Mandela gave us the right perspective about not forgetting injustices. He said (in 1995), “Reconciliation does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict, but that reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.”

That is why we remember the Jewish Holocaust and that is why we must remember the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 – because these were crime against humanity but more importantly, our societies remain prone to targeted violence against religious and racial minorities.

Remembering a grave wrong helps us relate to the wounds that may have been inflicted several generations back but which are raw and will remain fresh forever in present and future generations. 

Among my friends I count Sikhs born and raised in Canada and with no real experience of 1984. They turn emotional when talking about the anti-Sikh riots that engulfed Delhi and parts of northern India. It is a part of their collective memory. 

In the act of remembrance is the compulsion of not forgetting.

And it is important not to forget – for those who suffered, and especially for those who did not suffer, and for those who made others suffer. Injustice must not be allowed to be forgotten. Society must be reminded of it regularly.

Let me digress briefly to illustrate how the Indian society is hardwired to forget injustice.

The hierarchical structure of the Indian society, which has been given to it by the caste system, has resulted in the domination of the upper castes who are a numerical minority. They have traditionally subjugated the lower castes and religious minorities.

The rise of the Hindu Right in India in the last four decades has been a direct fallout of the mass conversion to Islam of the Dalits of Meenakshipuram village in Tamil Nadu in 1981.

The upper caste would not give equal status to Dalits or treat them with respect, but when they decided to adopt another religion, they (the Hindu upper caste) launched a vigorous campaign that has lasted for four decades and has led to the Hindu Right occupying the mainstream.

The Hindu Right has successfully throttled all other alternative political and social ideologies. The continued deprivation of justice to Left-Liberal activists Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha is an illustrative example.

In the context of the Sikh massacre of 1984, a blatantly spurious argument offered is that the Sikh militants killed thousands of Hindus from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, when the menace of Sikh militancy at its apogee in India.

Yes, that is correct. But it should not be forgotten that the rise of Sikh militancy had its roots in the petty and devious politics of the Indian establishment dominated by the Congress party at that time. 

Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale was a genie that Congress got out of the lamp, who then refused to quietly return to the obscurity. In trying to control the insurgency that Bhindrawale masterminded from the precincts of the Golden Temple, the holiest of shrines in India, the Indian state did not leave anything to imagination when it unleashed its full force to against the Sikh population in Punjab.

It was state terrorism against its own people that lasted for more than a decade, and was called off only when the establishment was completely satisfied that it Sikh militancy had been extinguished from Punjab.

Gurratan Singh is, of course, aiming for political mileage and he is unconcerned that the bill will keep the Indo-Canadian communities divided; perhaps that is precisely what he wants, as it would help him politically, just as it has helped Jagmeet Singh politically to equivocate on the Air India Flight 182 bombing. 

But the interests of the Sikh community should not be linked to  political shenanigans. Common people, who work hard and look after their families, and mind their own business, would like nothing more than be rid of negativity, and political and cultural influences that religiopolitical leader wield on them and their lives.

It is time for a radical shift in the approach to finding a solution to this logjam. Leaders who speak for the community – whether they are political or community leaders – should call for a town hall meeting in Brampton and have an open dialog on the future direction of peaceful coexistence between all Indo-Canadians.

Another significant step that must be taken in this context is to invite Sikh families who suffered in the 1984 riots and are now settled in Canada, and the Indo-Canadian community should publicly acknowledge their victimhood.

The only way forward is to have a constructive dialog that involves all sections of the Indo-Canadian society – Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and adherents of other faiths.

Remembering a tragedy should not become a reason to hate.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Fruitful City

The Fruitful City: Helena Moncrieff

Late last year, my friend Shirin Mandani arranged for me to participate in a book reading that Heritage Toronto organised at the St.Lawrence Hall on Toronto-themed nonfiction books. 

The books and the authors featured included The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff (ECW Press), The Missing Millionaire by Katie Daubs (Penguin Random House), The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History by Rob Bowman and Daniel Tate (Dundurn Press).

It was my first visit to the grand St. Lawrence Hall, at one time the hub of Toronto political, social, and cultural activities. The venue reminded me of my visits in the 1980s to the annual lectures on Bombay’s history at the Heras Institute at St. Xavier College.

On a Saturday afternoon, St. Lawrence Hall seemed forlornly in its old-world splendour, isolated in a city that has rapidly transformed into a postmodern metropolis eager to abandon its colonial era shibboleths. Except for two or maybe three people, the audience was almost entirely Caucasian. But I suppose that has to do with the composition of the city’s history.

The program was deeply enriching because the three authors and their works reflected the 
vibrancy and the sociocultural diversity that is Toronto’s strength. I know little about Toronto’s music scene to talk about it with any degree of confidence, and so, I’ll focus on the other two books that were discussed that afternoon.

Toronto Star’s Deborah Dundas is a master at talking about books and talking to authors. Her chat with the three authors brought out the nuances of the research by the authors.
Katie Daubs’s The Missing Millionaire is about the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Small, the owner of the Grand Opera House, in 1919. Mahrukh is reading the book at present, and will, hopefully, write about it once she’s done reading.

I found Helena Moncrieff’s premise of her book fascinating. The Fruitful City is a slim book of the different types of trees that are grown by homeowners in their backyards. Trees that reveal the homeowners’ past, their roots in a different land and an attempt – sometimes rather desperate – to replicate a culture from which they were uprooted.

One of the great losses of urbanisation is the near-total lack of knowledge about greenery and the foliage that surrounds us. Toronto, with its ravines, is probably one of the few urban centres in the world, where you are always close to a forest. Moncrieff digs deep into Canada’s history to narrate its fascinating horticultural history, the story of its immigrants and how they imported their trees with them to their adopted homeland.

The book acquired a totally different dimension when I learned from my friend Pawan Chankotra that he was planning to grow a neem tree in his backyard. Moncrieff has a number of examples where immigrants have not only brought trees of their birthplace to Canada, but take tremendous care of their trees, including providing them artificial heat.

The Fruitful City won the Heritage Toronto Book award for 2019. Here is an excerpt from the book; it’s longish only to illustrate the depth of the author’s research:

On a 1791 map from the Ontario archives, pale, watery colours of pink, green and yellow mark off sections of geography, and cartographer Henri Chatelain had covered the margins in tidy script with lists of fruits and other resources identified around what we now know as Ontario. He documented apples, pears, plums, cherries and a variety of nut trees “comme en Europe.” Four berry species are listed too: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and currants.

In fact, more than two hundred small fruits are native to Canada. That might sound like plenty, but most don’t appear in our pantries. To call them all berries is a simplification, although that’s what they look like. Blueberries and gooseberries are “true berries.” The rest fall into the categories of drupes, like cherries and elderberries; pomes such as saskatoons or serviceberries, as they are known in the East; and aggregates, like strawberries and raspberries. They’ve grown here for a long time. Indigenous people used silver buffalo berries to flavour, as the name suggests, buffalo meat. Saskatoons were a key ingredient in pemmican. Plenty more of those native fruits are said to be tart but very good in jellies. You could survive on them if you were lost in the woods, but most need a lot of sugar to make them truly palatable to today’s tastes.

The Huron-Wendat tapped maple trees, harvested berries and grew corn, beans and squash in small cleanings in what’s now Southern Ontario. The habitat was rich with wildlife, horticulture, shelter and access to water travel for many Indigenous societies. A short article in First Nations House magazine on Toronto’s Indigenous history describes the area as being not unlikely the Mediterranean, “in that many cultures and peoples met for the purposes of trade and commerce – dating back thousands of years prior to European contact.”

In the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, wrote in her diary about the berries she collected – fox berries, mountain tea berries and wild gooseberries that, she reported, were excellent stewed as sauce for salmon. The Mohawks gave her young son Francis a gift of cranberries, and Francis offered apples in return. At their white pine cabin on the edge of the Don River, young Francis, whose ailments are well documented in the diary, was said to be “much better, and busy in planting currant bushes and peach trees.” The peach tree is long gone, and all that’s left of the estate is a subway station name, its nomenclature taken from the cabin aspirationally dubbed in the honour of the son: Castle Frank.”


Friday, January 31, 2020

A Delhi Obsession


Image result for mg vassanji"
MG Vassanji
In 2012, I had been in Canada just four years and read Indian newspapers online regularly. I discovered an interview of MG Vassanji in India’s Mint newspaper when his novel The Magic of Saida was published.  The interview was competent, or so I thought. It covered all the things that a newspaper reader would want to know about an author.    

I sent the link to Vassanji, thinking that he would be delighted. I told him that I had posted the link on social media. He told me to remove the link. He was actually livid. 

I asked him why, and said, “They have labelled me. Would they have called Margaret Atwood a Christian author? Or Amitav Ghosh a Hindu author? I doubt it; they wouldn’t. Then, why label me as an Ismaili Muslim.”

I didn't quite understand his anger then. But over the years, as I have got to know him a bit better, I have begun to comprehend his irritation over being labelled. 

It is impossible to categorise Vassanji on the basis of faith or nationality because it is impossible to fit him into a specific ethnic, religious, national silo. 

He is like the Indian raita (an Indian dish of finely chopped cucumber, peppers, mint, etc. in yoghurt, served with curries). The Indian raita spreads on an Indian thali, freely mixing with different vegetables and curries in the thali, and in the process, both acquires their taste and gives its own flavour to them.

Ismaili-Khoja culture is a mix of both Hindu and Islamic traditions, blending the streams into a fusion of Sufi/Bhakti. Although today’s generation believes in having a distinct as opposed to a defused identity, the religious songs of the Ismaili-Khojas called Ginans reveal the strong syncretic roots of the community.

To help me understand the unique syncretism that has made him who he is, Vassanji had sent me a review of a book on Ginans. (Ginanic Travails: Conflicted Knowledge)

Over the years, in many a heated discussion about the religious tensions in India that we have had, Vassanji invariably points out the tendency amongst Indians to label people; even Indian liberals are not above the labelling, he would complain. This labelling leads to stereotypical understanding and portrayal of the two communities in general, but especially of the Indian Muslims.

Finally, in 2019, with A Delhi Obsession Vassanji has published a novel that sensitively depicts the insensitive Indian habit of identifying and categorizing people on the basis of their religion. 

The novel is a love story, an illicit love story between a married Hindu middle class woman in Delhi and a Muslim widower from Toronto, who is uncomfortable every time everyone identifies him as a Muslim.

Early on in the story, when the newly-in-love couple visit a shrine, the tension over identity is palpable.

Image result for a delhi obsession"“The shrine was modestly decorated with marigolds and an idol of a god, behind which quietly sat the priest. Mohini covered her head with her sari end, joined her hands and knelt before the idol, Munir looked around nervously, then shakily half-knelt beside her, joining his hands, too. The priest gave them some water, which following Mohini, Munir sipped from his hand, dabbing his head with what remained. The watching priest then gave them each some coarse sugar pellets.

When they were outside, back in the brightness, she turned to him and said, “But you are a Muslim.”

He took a breath, then replied, “If you say so. But I don’t describe myself by a faith.”

He felt stupid saying that, but it was the naked truth.

“But you bowed to our gods.”

“Your gods…Well, I paid my respect to the gods.”

“What are you, then?”

“Do I have to be something?”

“How do people know you, then?”

“As just another person. A friend. A neighbour. An author.”

Towards the end, when the Hindu nationalist rabble rouser Jetha Lal and his brutish acolytes surround Munir at the club, threatening him, Munir exclaims in despair and anger, “I’m a Canadian. Don’t put your labels on me.” To which the uncouth Jetha Lal patiently responds, “Canadian, sir. But you like Hindu women, I see. Better than Canadian women, no?” He waited. “No doubt. But you are Muslim, sir. Mlechha. Different.” 

(The word Mlechha is italicised perhaps to emphasize it, not because it is an Indian word).

A Delhi Obsession is an incisive portrayal of the unbearable intensity of Hindu nationalism that is rapidly transforming India into an intolerant, bigoted place where fear rules. Expectedly, the novel ends tragically; illicit love stories often do. But the end is as unexpected, sudden, brutal as the end of the popular Marathi film Sairat. The end keeps you awake at night, long after you have read the last page. 

I apologise for spoiling the reading experience of those who haven't yet read the novel, but I was horrified by the end of the story. In half a page, it brought alive the horror that is India today.