& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, May 10, 2019

The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict

From L to R: Manjushree Thapa, Josh Scheinert,  Eva Salinas
Uzma Jalaluddin and Sharon Bala
at a discussion on
'The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict
at the Festival of Literary Diversity  

The Festival of Literary Diversity’s fourth edition was held recently in Brampton. The festival has grown steadily in participation and popularity over the years, attracting the best literary talent that Canada offers.

In 2016, just prior to the launch of the first festival, I interviewed Jael Richardson, the founder and artistic director of the festival, for TAG TV (see the interview here: https://youtu.be/vDklJugI6Xg). Jael said the idea of the festival came to her in 2014 when she participated in a book conference in New York and was stunned at the lack of diversity in the lineup of the authors. Dalton Higgins, author and events organiser, pointed out to Jael that the situation wasn’t too different in Canada.

Jael and a group of people who shared her interests got together and decided to launch a Festival that would celebrate diversity in all its forms – race, faith, sexual orientation, abilities (physical and mental). The purpose was to create space in the world of literature that would reflect the Canadian reality of multiculturalism. Earlier this year, the Writers’ Union of Canada recognised Jael and FOLD with the 2019 Freedom to Read Award.

Since its start in 2016, I have attended all the four festivals in Brampton. In 2017, I was privileged to be invited as an author. And every year, the festival has featured many authors who congregate in the first week of May to talk about themselves, their books, their readers, other authors, Canada, diversity, multiculturalism, and have fun.

This year, the festival’s main venue was the landmark Rose Theatre in Brampton. Spring had finally arrived, and the longish commute from Toronto didn’t seem too arduous, especially because the session that I’d chosen to attend – ‘The The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict’ – had fine authors, all of whom had their debut novels published in Canada recently.

The panel included

Sharon Bala (The Boat People which was a finalist for Canada Reads 2018 and was awarded the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award);

Uzma Jalaluddin (Ayesha At Last, a revamped Pride and Prejudice that is soon to be made into a film);

Josh Scheinert (The Order of Nature, set in Gambia, portraying the struggles and fears of being gay in West Africa) and

Manjushree Thapa (All of Us in Our Own Lives is her first novel to be published in Canada).

Eva Salinas, managing editor of foreign affairs news site OpenCanada.org and a freelance journalist, moderated the discussion.

Sharon’s and Uzma’s novels are about their protagonists coming to Canada, and Josh’s and Manjushree’s novels are about their protagonists leaving Canada. In all four novels, the borders between home and away get blurred, and lives are transformed because of physical and emotional dislocation.

Eva asked the panelist about the different kinds of borders in their stories, and how their characters and they as writers respond to these borders.

Sharon, whose novel is about Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, landing off the coast of British Columbia, says that more than personal, physical, and geographical borders, her characters navigate the liminal spaces of silences and secrets. 

In Uzma’s Ayesha At Last, the boundaries are purely personal. A character in the novel, Khalid, knows he appears weird to the world because of in-your-face refusal to abandon his ethnicity and cultural rootedness; but he doesn’t worry overtly about this because he contends that he is who he is because of his belief; the reader is not expected to like him rather spend time with him to understand him.

“People cross borders often without having a choice,” Josh says. In his novel, which explores the relationship between an American (Andrew) and a Gambian (Thomas), the protagonists cross the continental borders, and the borders of control drawn by the society and families. In Manjushree’s All of Us in Our In Our Own Lives, Ava Berriden goes from Toronto to Nepal to find meaning in her life, but realises that she is unwanted despite her power.

The discussion dealt with issues that are common to Canadian milieu – issues such as acceptance, belonging, identity and home. “What gives us our identity, and how much of it is related to race?” asked Eva, whose careful choice of questions accentuated the inherently Canadian character of these authors.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Dani Rodrik - 1

Dani Rodrik is a superstar economist whose radical interpretation of the trilemma of globalisation has become an important method to understand the imbalance that globalisation has caused in the last three decades. He wrote about it in 2007, just prior to the financial crises of 2008.

Rodrik was in Toronto recently for the Cadario visiting lecture in Public Policy. He spoke on ‘Globalisation’s wrong turn: What’s wrong with globalisation, and can it be fixed?’
According to his thesis, the process of globalisation involves three sociopolitical and economic variables:

The trilemma is a triangle and we have three corners.

Hyper globalisation as a model of the world which is frictionless mobility of capital, goods, and services

National sovereignty – the ability of nation states to administer their own systems

Mass politics and democracy the degree to which governments are accountable to the people through democracy or other means

The claim of the trilemma is that in a political economy, you can have at the most two of those three things and never all three simultaneously, so people must make a choice.
Rodrik says, all the three forms couldn’t achieve an equilibrium on all the three parameters.

The gold standard combined national sovereignty with hyper globalisation while keeping mass politics at bay

The post 1945, Bretton Woods globalisation combined mass politics with national sovereignty keeping hyper globalisation at bay

The post 1990s globalisation contends that who needs national sovereignty at some level, we can have a hyper globalised economy, increased integration of the market economy – goods, services, finances, not so much labour, which is an exception, and we can deal with mass politics by making our global institutions more representative, more accountable. Politics moves beyond the national to encompass the transnational.

This is a radical interpretation of the relationship between democracy and capitalism, a relationship that has often sought to be portrayed by the votaries of capitalism as natural and deeply intertwined. In fact, Rodrik’s as trilemma indicates, at no point in the history of modern capitalism (since the late 19th century) has this relationship been natural. This is analysed in more details in the third part of this blog.

As per Rodrik’s analysis, globalisation has gone through three distinct forms during three eras in the past century or so. These were:

The gold standard – began from the mid-19th century

The Bretton Woods era that began in 1945, and led to the post-World War II economic reconstruction

The hyper globalisation era that began in the 1990s and we have experienced for the last three decades

Rodrik says that while all the three eras espoused globalisation, they were inherently different in their key characteristics.

Free mobility of capital and free trade in goods

Degree to which governments could enforce regulations across international borders – indicating how the governments felt compelled to pursue economic policies

The presence of multilateral governance institutions

The gold standard we had free mobility of capital across the world free trade in good and free mobility of labour. The Bretton Woods era onwards, the free mobility of labour was curtailed and controlled by developed economies.

According to Rodrik, during the Bretton Woods era of globalisation, governments were free to follow economic and social policies unconstrained; they could follow macro economic policies, taxation, regulatory and industrial policies without the fear that these policies would be viewed as barriers to trade.

Rodrik explains that during the gold standard and the Bretton Woods eras, we did not have any mechanism that imposed on governments rules and regulations that ensured good economic behaviour.

Financially open economies had norms internalised by policy makers; you had to pursue a policy of parity to gold, you were always paying your external debts, no matter what, and when if you didn’t do that, you were not punished by international institutions because there was no such thing.

He adds, however, with the onset of the 1990s hyper globalisation model, the rules of the global economy reached behind the borders in ensuring the regulations promoting globalisation.

In this era, we entered a phase where national economic policies were viewed from the perspective whether they hindered or encouraged the integration of the global economy; rather than from the perspective of the domestically articulated economic and social costs.

After providing this background, Rodrik then relates the history of globalisation to the present discontent over its effects. How does this relate to the backlash to globalisation and the reactions to hyper globalisation of the last three decades, he asks and provides the trilemma explanation.

He explains that the three different models of globalisations are the choices we make of the two out of the three options we have. In gold standard where we combined the free flow of finance, capital, goods and even labour, and national sovereignty and all the sovereigns ensured gold standards and there was a limited role for the sovereigns to take care of the aspirations of their people.

In today’s terms there was a narrow space for governments to implement macro economic policies as those policies may be viewed as re-imposing barriers to trade and goods.
If international finance and trade are to be fostered, the sovereigns didn’t have much freedom to look after the needs of the people.

Mass politics including democracy had to be kept at bay; gold standard was fundamentally incompatible with mass politics especially as participatory democracy developed in the West.

Rodrik explains because the gold standard kept people’s aspirations at bay, it was unsustainable when mass politics began to gain ascendency. He says that the gold standard was abandoned in Britain in 1931 was it had been transformed into a much more developed democracy and mass political movements against gold standards left no choice to the government. FDR followed suit soon after. Countries that abandoned the gold standard experienced more rapid economic growth.

The gold standard constricted the policy makers’ freedom to initiative economic measures that would generate employment. The tight monetary policy which was necessitated as it had to abide by the gold standards led to high levels of unemployment in the economy. Abandoning the gold standard led to inflation and an increase the money supply, reduction in interest rates and a control over unemployment, he says.

Dani Rodrik - 2

The economist then explains that by the time of the famous 1944 Bretton Woods meeting, the governments of the war-ravaged economies had realised that politics has become sufficiently participatory and labour markets have become sufficiently institutionalised to return to the gold standards.

Instead, it was now time to create space for domestic economic management by explicitly keeping hyper globalisation at bay.  So, it was a model of globalisation that was unambitious in terms of how many frictions could segment the national markets.

What that meant in the terms of international finance was that capital controls the ability of national sovereigns to manage domestic financial systems and segment them from global financial markets by limiting the ease with investors could move their money in and out of the country.

Capital controls had to be an integral part of this post-war economic system to create space for what we call today the Keynesian counter-cyclical macro economic policies. That was his idea that you cannot manage your economy and you cannot ensure full employment if you cannot have autonomy over your monetary and fiscal economic polices, and you needed to keep international finances at bay to integrate of the system, as a permanent feature of the system.

The post-war trade regime developed along similar principles. We have a series of multilateral trade agreements and the evolution of General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) that were equally light on the degree of hyper globalisation and in particular the GATT regime proscribed regulations on globally.

Pertinently, Rodrik says, the recommendation on tariff stopped at the border, they did not reach behind the border. They dealt with only tariffs, they did not tell the governments how to run their patent regime, how to run their subsidies, what kind of other regulations they should have.

The Bretton Woods globalisation – was explicitly incomplete, with one of its cornerstones as capital controls and therefore limited financial globalisation, the GATT model, which left countries pretty free to do what they wanted. The moment it looked like some of the domestic policies looked compromised by trade flows, it allowed countries to take remedial measures.

Clearly in favour of this mode of globalisation, Rodrik says, the Bretton Woods era globalisation increased rapidly under the GATT regime, and enabled rapid expansion of world trade. World trade and international investment increased under the GATT regime.

If you look at the world trade relative to world GDP, world trade expanded between 1945 and 1990 much more rapid pace since it did since 1990. This form of globalisation encouraged international trade and investments without unduly compromising domestic economic and social structure.

Then, coming to the latest form of globalisation, Rodrik says, the move to the latest revamped model of hyper globalisation in the 1990s changed the priorities. The world economies moved from becoming the means whereby you achieve domestic economic and employment goals, to the role where the domestic economy becomes an instrument to achieve globalisation goal.

The actual rules of the game involved creating the WTO in 1990s and the expansion of the regional trade agreements which mushroomed after the 1990s. This was different from the GATT model.

This model enabled the globalisation to reach beyond the borders, domestic regulations, investment rules, subsidy regimes, even health and safety regulations were being viewed from the perspective of whether they were a barrier to trade or not, and to the extent that they differed and seem to be discriminatory against other countries, they are treated as non-tariff barriers.

This form of hyper globalisation gave rise to agenda setters such as international banks, multinational corporations, and big pharma. There is a presumption that all major global economies are to eventually converge into a global economic model because complete freedom of trade and capital mobility requires convergence of regulations and policies, and globalisation becomes the end rather than the means.

And while nobody is looking at global political federal structure, political scientists through the 1990s and 2000s have commented on a sort of network of regulators, and global communities that are creating accountability that will eventually evolve into a global system of governance that will sustain this hyper globalisation, and simultaneously, national governments would become less of an obstacle.

However, this scenario envisages a limitation on national self determination and raises the question of who is empowered in this process. And who are they accountable to?
In the world economy at large, we never went the whole way to implement the third way because national sovereignty is far more important. Rodrik concludes by emphasizing that the trilemma gives us a choice of which of the two from the three things that we need to take.

“And I am of the view that the sustainable model of globalisation is the one that was developed in Bretton Woods era – not particular policies, but the spirit of that era – because it acknowledges that world economy constitutes countries with different economic and social models and that we have to recreate what we think that a reasonably good world economy can generate.”

Dani Rodrik - 3

Focusing on the tension that underlies democracy and globalisation, Rodrik says it is important to distinguish between the genuine tension and the tension that is misrepresented. 

There is version that the tension between globalisation and democracy arises because global rules constraint domestic policy space; governments have to maintain openness to enhance trade in goods and finance and that in itself limits democracy. Rodrick emphasizes that this in itself doesn’t undermine or constraints democracy. Democracies can often benefit from such constraints because the sovereign can constraint its action in a way that can improve democracy.

For instance, with respect to monetary policy and inflation control, the executive – the parliament – sets the monetary policy for the sovereign, and the parliament may constraint it. That by itself is not undemocratic. If the monetary policy is subject to the pulls and pressures of day-to-day politics, it would create a crisis in the economy. Similarly, a sovereign can enter into international agreements without these becoming a constraint for democratic values.

Rodrick observes that global rules can enhance the powers of democracy because they limit the powers of special interests and enhancing quality of democracy deliberations; global rule about transparency in decision making would enhance democracy. But the problem is that just because international agreements of the world economy can do that doesn’t necessarily enhance the functioning of democracy.

Rodrik claims that hyper globalisation empowers certain interests – multinational, big pharma, big tech, and big banks, and these entities give advantage to one set of distribution interest against another. “We need to distinguish between international norms that enhance democracy and to those that undermine democracy. We also need to distinguish between how the global rules are impacting domestic policies such as the monetary policy or whether they are just strengthening special interests in the economy,” he says.

He contends that the unease with the globalisation since the 1990s is that it has encouraged special interest agenda. “You have to ask what sort of globalisation we would have had had the policies not been designed by the US Treasury, the OCED, the IMF and WTO, instead by the UNESCO, the ILO or the World Migration Organisation,” Rodrik asks.

The main issue is really about who is being empowered and the degree to which the rules are privileging a certain interest group against the democratic delegation argument through which all interests would be more equitably served.

He believes that the reason the populists are winning in Europe is because they are only ones who are talking the truth. They realise that the three principles of trilemma cannot be maintained, but the populists are clear about national sovereignty and they are happy about keeping hyper globalisation outside. This is what white nationalists are espousing globally and matched by their nativist, exclusionary policy agenda.

Rodrik explains that it does not have to be so. The late 19th century populist movement in the US was a distinctly left oriented movement against big corporate interests and not necessarily against immigrants, or foreigners or minorities.

The New Deal is a left wing in its orientation, it has no economic orthodoxy at all. FDR had no economic training. His views including abandoning the gold standard would have been rejected by the dominant view of the economists of his time.

In present time, too, the space that national sovereigns need to develop economic policies that would benefit their domestic constituents need not leave a section of people out. But it often has especially in the European context.

What kind of economic globalisation should we want?

Rodrik says, it should be inclusionary and there should be compensatory mechanisms built in for that section of the population that would lose from the process of globalisation. “We have to look at the gains and not the type of gains that resulted from the post 1990s trade agreements which were largely redistributed.”

And the second criterion is this model of globalisation should leave room for policy autonomy and institutional diversity and discipline the beggar-thy-neighbour policies in which countries formulate policies where they can only gain at the cost of another country.
Large inclusive benefits and space for institutional diversity. In the area of international trade – he advocates that the main principle should be peaceful coexistence especially in the context of US-China trade dispute.

Both need to understand they have to live and let live. They should be allowed to develop their own social, economic, and political policies without these policies leading to adversities in the other economy and be construed as trade barriers.

He advocates that the global economy should go back to the spirit of GATT globalisation. The expansion the idea that the degree to which the domestic economic and social policies should be constrained by trade agreements and that we need to go back to that era at least in spirit.

This would give countries to maintain social contracts and develop their own economic policies more suited to their conditions. Sustainable healthy economies will lead to healthier economies which will need globalisation.

International finance – we have gone too far and rapidly; financial globalisation has not paid off in terms of increased growth and increased investment, but it has led to increased financial crises. It is going to be important to have some oversight over global tax heavens, and that there is global cooperation to curb tax evasion.

He forcefully advocates for the free movement of labour is one area there are still many gains to be had by encouraging globalisation. Greater globalisation in the area of labour will lead to many gains and we need to distribute these gains equitably.

If you are pushing frontiers of globalisation it should be inclusionary and should include labour. Movement in the direction of pre-1990s type of globalisation with a twist that free movement of labour should be included in this process in the next 10 to 20 years.

More sustainable globalisation with new traffic rules that will allow advanced countries to address inequalities and social contracts and for the developing countries to devise their own growth strategies and economic restructuring.

This envisages governments negotiating for policy space rather than negotiating for market access. The world economy is fairly open right now and the main constraint is the legitimacy constraint, which can be removed by giving space to national governments to construct their own economic and social policies.

That will pave the way for cooperation on issues where globalisation has a lot to gain – climate change, cross border movement of labour, international coordination on tax havens, arms trade, health pandemics – these are areas in which cooperation can lead to major advantages.

Paradoxes of the last 30 years is that we have had more international economic integration but this has come at the cost of more domestic disintegration. Our national elites who are globally networked and are better positioned to benefit from the global economy have become dislodged from their societies, leading to unhealthy politics; healthy politics is going to require reintegration of national economics.

In the process of this transitions will lead us to saner globalisation and global order. Capitalism often reinvents itself and devises methods that don’t always respect the orthodoxy of capitalism.

These policies may seem populist in the traditional sphere, but economic populism may still be the best bet we have to save globalisation and forestall political populism, which is damaging to the world, leading to the decline on independent judiciary, free media and rise of autocratic politics. Restoring liberal democracies and pluralistic policies will require us to reimagine what the role of international economics is in the conduct of our economic policies.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 30

In November 2016, my novel Belief was published and launched at Toronto’s Gladstone. I’ve written rather extensively about it in different places (including here) and so it’d seem bit of an overkill if I repeat myself. But I do want to acknowledge the contribution of MG Vassanji to making Belief what it became.

Although I’d taken several years to work on the various drafts, there were a number of loose ends in the final draft. Vassanji rejected the conclusion of my draft – which he felt was heavily influenced by Hindi movies – and suggested that we leave it more open ended; he also made Jameel, the son-in-law, a rum-swigging Caribbean. In addition to these major modifications, there were a number of minor ones, as well. He made me work on the first chapter more than a dozen times and even then, he continued to say that he wasn’t satisfied with it.

It’s mistakenly believed that writing is a gift one is born with and that it cannot be taught; my experience with Vassanji was different. His observations, comments, opinions on my drafts helped me improve my story, my characters, the pace at which the story developed. He did all this almost always patiently, often imperceptibly; occasionally sarcastically and at least on a couple occasions quite sharply.

The day my novel was launched was one of the most important days of my life; in retrospect, only a few days match up. For me, it was important that Mahrukh, Che and Durga were with me at the launch event, and my sister Sonal enthusiastically ordered a dozen or so copies online from Barnes and Noble; other members of my family in India and the US also went out of their way to buy a copy, as did many of my friends.

The novel received a great reception. The national media – CBC and Toronto Star –covered the novel; Quill and Quire reviewed it; Dana Hansen’s review, though not lengthy, was good. South Asian media gave it prominent coverage. All this assured the proverbial 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol guaranteed every human being would have in the “future.”

Thanks to all my friends, I was also invited to a number of readings and book events between 2016 and 2018, including at the prestigious Harbourfront, and at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton.

The FOLD festival participation in 2017 was a grand experience. Mahrukh and I were provided a hotel room in Brampton for a couple of nights. It was the first time in many, many years that we were in a hotel room together. Since his birth, two years after we were married, Che had accompanied us everywhere we’d gone. Now, although only 19, he decided that he was too old to be with us.

At the FOLD festival I met many outstanding authors and creative people, the most memorable was, of course, Eden Robinson, the much-awarded novelist with a hearty laugh. Mahrukh and I had lunch with her at a Thai restaurant on downtown Brampton. Her novel Blood Sport (the only novel that I’ve read) is raw, gritty, violent.

FOLD Festival is in many ways similar to the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts (later renamed Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts) that Vassanji and Nurjehan conceived and organised once every two years between 2009 and 2015.

But FOLD is a better funded effort, and Jael Richardson, the founder of the festival is able to attract a wider participation from local Canadian authors. By focusing on authors whose works are freshly published, the festival has an immediacy that gives it a buzz.

oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo ooo

Che with braces; I never wore braces
because I had no front teeth 

By 2016 December, my dentist in Toronto Dr. Anant Seth convinced me that it was time for me to remove all my teeth and move from partial to complete dentures. That transition would occur in early 2017.

When I was in my 20s, I remember reading a book which had a sentence, “as common as a 13-year-old wearing dentures…” I don’t remember which book that was, but I do recall, my eyes moistening. I was 13 when Dr. Chouhan extracted most of my teeth except the molars. He then put plastic teeth both on the upper and lower jaws. For the first time in many years, I was finally able to bite and chew properly.

Me and my dentures have a long back story. After my milk teeth fell, the new teeth that emerged were ill-formed, spirally, crooked, sharp and uneven. My parents tried all sorts of medicines for it, including homeopathy, but nothing changed the deformities in my mouth. Then, finally, in 1975, exasperated with the situation, they consulted Dr. Chouhan who recommended partial dentures.

I’d lived with partial dentures through my adolescence, teens and youth. Periodically, I’d have to get them changed as I grew up and the size of my mouth changed. When I was in my early 20s, Dr. Mohan changed the removable partial dentures to permanent, fixed dentures. And then when I was in my late 30s, Dr. Rajiv Khanna, a young man, recommended gums tissue graft surgery because constant wearing of dentures for so many years had resulted in gums reversal.

Dr. Anant Seth is the fourth dentist in my life so far. All of them have had an affable personality. Dr. Seth recommended, with all gravity he could muster, that if I didn’t change to a complete set of removable dentures, it could well have dangerous consequences. I didn’t think much about it before agreeing because dentures had (and have) always been a part of my life.

However, something significant did occur in 2017 when I began wearing full, removable dentures – I no longer felt it necessary to hide that I wore dentures. I’d not necessarily hidden this fact; after all I’d been wearing dentures since I was in my teens, but now I was talking about it more openly and more frequently. Sometimes, I see the look of disbelief on some of my friends and acquaintances when they realise that I wear dentures.

I take time to explain to them that it was because of the strong antibiotics that I was administered as a six-month-old when I got pneumonia which most likely caused my teeth to grow deformed leaving no choice but to wear dentures. Another, perhaps more dangerous outcome of the pneumonia was the swelling on my kidneys, which five decades later, developed in a full-blown kidney disease, requiring constant monitoring.

If all the years in the last decade (2008 – 2018) were significant in some ways, 2016 was the significant for my debut novel and for my kidney disorder. 2017 began with me losing all my teeth.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Indian elections 2019

'No contest': Gandhi versus Modi 

Observations on the forthcoming elections in India and a report on a panel discussion on elections and another one on atrocities against Muslims and Dalits in India

The forthcoming Indian elections are dominating the mind space globally. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will return to for another five years up to 2024. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party may not get the absolute majority it got in 2014 but the coalition of disparate and often disputatious political parties under the umbrella of National Democratic Alliance will form the next government.

Although the Hindutva brigade will hail the narrow victory as the continuing supremacy of their beloved leader over the Indian masses, in reality it would be no more than a repeat of the two-term tenure of the United Progressive Alliance government from 2004 to 2013.  And, the phrase that Dr. Manmohan Singh, India's former Prime Minister, coined, “coalition dharma” will return to be the guiding principle for Indian democracy.

If coalition politics returns, will it affect Narendra Modi’s chances of returning as the Prime Minister? It doesn’t seem likely though it would be an entirely welcome development were it to actually materialise. But with the BJP losing its absolute majority, there would be hopefully some modification in the manner in which India has been governed during the last five years. A possible scenario that shouldn't entirely be ruled out is the joining of forces between the Congress and the other opposition parties who have formed the Mahagathbandhan.

For all his promises of less government and more governance, the Modi era so far has been nothing more than crony capitalism, the tag of ‘Suit boot ki Sarkar’ is justified even though Modi acolytes are at pains to defend all of his actions and not subject any of the claims to scrutiny.

In addition, of course, the Modi government has turned out to be blatantly anti minority – with ceaseless lynching of Muslims and Dalits for killing and consuming cow. The unapologetic, unabashed and virulent hatred that is spewed by the Hindutva proponents against their perceived enemies is both unprecedented and frightening. Opponents of this brand of extremism are always called anti-national, and pro-Pakistani.

Their representatives in the diaspora are eager to hunt down all opponents of the Modi regime and silence them by gravely emphasizing that criticizing Modi tantamounts to tarnishing the image of India in foreign lands.

Two recent programs in Toronto dissected the upcoming elections and the rapidly changing socioeconomic and political dynamics in contemporary India. The first was in March at Toronto’s Munk Centre where Ramesh Thakur, academic and a peacenik, along with Haroon Siddiqui, one of North America’s finest journalists, got together to discuss the Indian elections. Their session’s title 'An Infuriating, Loveable Democracy' was a clear indication of the even-handed, non-judgemental assessment the participants would accord to the Indian elections and the sociopolitical situation.

The second was at Noor Cultural Centre where academic and Dalit activist Chinnaiah Jangam and academic and human rights activist Sanobar Umar participated in a discussion on Dalit and Muslim Persecution in India: History and Current Politics. This discussion – expectedly – turned out to be controversial because right-wing Hindu extremists swarmed the venue and tried their best to prevent a healthy debate.

Here’s a brief report on the Munk Centre event.

Thakur had some interesting observations about India’s economic rise, such as:

What happens in India in the next 10 years will have a strong impact on Canada than what the Canadian government does. Intergenerational improvement in the standard of living that western societies are accustomed to is not going to be possible purely on the growth rates of western economies; these economies will have to depend upon the consumption patterns in the developing, emerging economies, especially India.

Incremental reforms and even moderate growth of 6 to 8 % will add up to a transformative impact on India, Asia, and the world. India is the world’s fastest growing economy; the present dominance in global economy will be taken over by India. 20 million people are added to the workforce every year and therefore economic growth is vital for India.

He felt that while there are many things working for India, it will have to continue taking proactive decisions to sustain the transformation of its society because, paradoxically, India also has the largest percentage of poor, hungry, sick, homeless, illiterate, underweight, stunted, raped, exposed to pollution.

Thakur said Indian society is multiethnic, multireligious, democratic; and federalism and secularism are inherent to the Indian nationhood. If you take away even one of the above, you will destroy India.

On this aspect, he was critical of Modi’s record with the minorities, and especially with the Muslims of India. Thakur unequivocally said that after the first lynching incident, Modi should have gone to the family and should have declared that India is for everyone; had he done that, it would have effectively prevented the recurrence of the lynching incident that continued unabated

Referring to the Balakot incident, Thakur said, this was the first example in history where two nuclear armed countries have had a dog fight. He cautioned that even a limited regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan will have global winter for a decade and globally, 2 billion people will die. And for the first time, the US has sided with India.

He concluded with an observation that democratic institutions in India are resilient, proactive and agile. It was an observation that is not supported by any recent evidence. Increasingly, too, the cliché (which Thakur also repeated) that Indian people are secular doesn’t stand to scrutiny.

Haroon Siddiqui in his brief presentation said that in the early 20th century, the common global refrain was that India and China won’t make it big because they had a large population. It is only now that economists have realised that large population is good and acts as a buffer against economic depression.

India will need to grow at 7 to 8 % if Modi will have to fulfil his promise of 10 lakh jobs a year. He said the Indian election involve large sums and during the last general elections $5billion had been spent. Add to this is the utter lack of transparency of the system.

Siddiqui said that the Pulwama incident had given rise to nationalism among Indians. Indians are angry and united against constant attacks carried out by terrorist organisations based in Pakistan. But there is a growing fear that nationalism will turn into jingoism.

The presentations by Thakur and Siddiqui were followed by a lengthy Q&A where members of the audience asked pertinent and pointed questions. I refrained from asking a question during the Q&A, but on the way out, I briefly detained Thakur and asked him how he would explain the Supreme Court’s decision to release Babu Bajrangi, the prime accused in the 2002 Gujarat riots in the context of his assertion that the Supreme Court was proactive and agile. Thakur didn’t respond.

Continued in the post below...

Atrocities against Muslims and Dalits in India

  • Continued from the above post

The Noor Cultural Centre event began with a series of video screenings of both Indian and international news reports on the lynching spree that suddenly erupted across northern India after Narendra Modi’s ascension to power. Aparna Sundar of York Centre for Asian Research introduced the discussants – Sanobar Umar of Queen’s University and Chinnaiah Jangam of Carleton University.

Sanobar Umar read a piece she had especially written for the program; it was a straightforward reiteration of the atrocities on Muslims and Dalits by the proponents of Hindutva. 

She emphasized that she made a clear distinction between extremists and nationalists. Sanobar said it would be erroneous to call the proponents of Hindutva proponents as Hindu nationalists because nationalists who fought for the freedom of India did not believe in the narrow interpretations of caste and religion; they strove hard to represent all Indians. 

On the other hand, the Hindutva proponents are Hindu extremists who are exclusivists. She said, during the Q&A session, that the Indian state has actively ensured either through legislation or through judiciary that the Indian Muslim stays casteless.

Chinnaiah Jangam’s presentation was an in-depth, studied look at the history of exploitation of the Dalits in India. He said the event was the first in North America to discuss the Dalit-Muslims suffering and violence.

Jangam said that today, the Dalits have truly arrived on the Indian political and social scene. “You can neither suppress us nor silence us. Tracing the history of the rise of Dalits, Jangam said the rise of Dalit literature (which began in the 1970s in Maharashtra) spread across all Indian languages in 1980s and 1990s. This created awareness among the Dalits of their status in the Indian society.

He said Ambedkar was aware of the non-egalitarian nature of Hindu religion and had termed the caste system as a division of labourers and not as a division of labour, as the upper caste Hindus have often defined it. It is because of this inherent hierarchical nature of Hindu religion that is not into proselytizing, despite all the claims of ghar wapsi, because a Hindu has to belong to a caste.

Jangam said the privileges that the Hindu upper castes enjoy make them insensitive and inhuman to the sufferings of caste and religious minorities. The Manu Smriti codified the Hindu caste system and denied knowledge to the Dalits, monopolising it exclusively for the Brahmins. He said that despite the concentration of power in the upper castes, and especially the Brahmins, the history of Hindu religion is replete with resistance against the upper caste dominance.

Jangam said the effect of colonialism globally was the destruction of indigenous cultures, but in India, caste and colonialism colluded and it is during the colonial period that there was a sudden discovery of the rich and glorious history of Hinduism and that led to the assertion of the Brahminical supremacy. 

Colonialism consolidated and strengthened the caste system. The Dalit voice was suppressed. In the grand nationalist narrative, the Dalits obviously wanted to know where are we in this narrative?

He said after independence, the makers of modern India had a vision of a new India that would be a home for everyone. Only in India can one find such an example – one cannot conceive that a black person would be invited to write the constitution of the United States, or a native person is invited to write the constitution of Canada, but in India, a Dalit was entrusted with the task. 

The Indian Constitution is one of the most egalitarian documents and the primary reason for this is that it was prepared by a Dalit.

Jangam said, Ambedkar emphasized that while the constitution guaranteed constitutional equality, the Indian society continued to ensure that there was no social equality.

Talking about the present crisis that the Dalits and Muslims face in India, he explained that in the past, the educated Dalit was a target of violence because she is a threat to the caste system. But the last few decades the Dalits have closed the gap and the condition of Dalits is much better than the condition of the blacks in the US. And that is the reason these days it is the poor Dalits who are the target of the ire of upper caste Hindus.

Laws such as the SC ST Atrocities act are unique with no comparable legislation anywhere in the world. And therefore, any dilution of the act should be resisted.

The Q&A session turned out to be confrontational with a number of right-wing Hindutva proponents questioning the basis of organising the discussion. Jangam had a great answer to their protestations: Organise your event.

Here is a television chat show organized by Tahir Gora's TAG TV
that presents the other side of the debate

Art - A Path to Global Consciousness

Guest Post
By Meena Chopra

Meena Chopra at the Women Economic Forum Portugal 2019
“We see art as a way of knowing, as a way of researching, and as a way of touching the hearts of people and communities. It allows us to encourage things that are fun, but at the same time, critical to promoting deeper thought.”

-       Marco Kusumawijaya, an architect and urbanist. A foremost voice on sustainability

Artists are change agents and by nature have a sense of sustainability as leaders.  Art touches the very core of humanity. Therefore, art as a path to global consciousness could be a great unifying tool because of its collective nature. As an artist and creative writer, I know that my world is in a constant change. It is always facilitating and trying to be the catalyst of innovations, bringing awareness to the issues that matter and hoping to bring about change and even just raising awareness on many issues.

Alex Grey, American Artist says, “Art is an echo of the creative force that gives birth to galaxies.  Creativity is the way with which the cosmos evolves and communicates with itself. The great uplifting of humanity beyond its self destruction is the redemptive mission of art” -  The artist channels the creative force into the artistic work and the work then turns into a kind of charged battery, ready to zap the imagination of the viewer into the new way of perceiving the world. 

This is how global consciousness becomes cosmic consciousness through human consciousness and becomes a unifying factor to humanity. Therefore, throughout history, art has been a major instrument in transforming human consciousness and revolutionizing societies. It is in its nature political, because it represents a voice that will not be compromised and faded easily.

If I speak of sustainability in Canada, concerns about environment have been enormous in general with all creative people and artists and more so amidst our 'first nation artists' whose heritage lies within the land. They are close to earth and to the nature. Urban land has also been a concern of many artists.  Vancouver school of photoconceptualism deals with the subject of how it is to be living in an urban environment. They are also dealing with the subjects like racism, immigration, poverty, hunger, riots etc. Canada is also a homogeneous and exceedingly diverse society in constant progress while meeting global challenges. 

Now, some artists want to explore the eternal question of just ‘what is art’ while delving into the recesses of mind in search of that unifying factor,  while others want to protest with the things that they disagree within the society like the over consumption of the material goods and social inequalities. Many aboriginal artists are using modern and traditional techniques to express their ideas and concerns about sustainability. 

Persistently fighting the stereotypes, trans-cultural, transnational, not fitting into a box, multi-positional, shape-shifting reality that many of us in Canada feel and face. There are series of negotiations that are constantly happening in this multidimensional network that we have.  With all this Art power is emerging as a powerful global consciousness.

Art is giving the consciousness, the ability to understand the global, international, and cross-cultural sources, interconnections, institutions, events, and actions. Most important, it gives value and validity to the diversity of every type while demonstrating open-mindedness and acceptance, also effectively in settings and situations where language and culture are diverse and native. All this comes naturally to the people who are in creative fields. Artists as global citizens are generous.

Technology plays an immense role because it has made the entire world a global village. This technology also plays an important part in artists advancement of the work as global citizens. I perceive technology both as an artistic medium and also as a powerful global communication tool as it can be instrumental in giving art a global voice.

Meena Chopra' is a Toronto artist and poet. This is her address at the Women Economic Forum – WEF Portugal 2019

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Authors don't retire - 1

Writing books as a new retirement activity
Guest Post by Sharad Bailur

I retired from active service in 2005 after three surgeries to my left eye for retinal detachment. Of my parents, who I had taken care of throughout my professional life, my father died in 2002. His influence on me was both malign and persistent, spread over forty years. The lifting of that heavy burden that was the consequence of his death unfortunately did not sort out matters as well as I would have wished. My mother demanded special attention and a home of her own in which I should live with her rather than in my own home. That was not possible. The matter continued to fester till 2015 when she finally passed away. Both were influences in my life that dragged my potential down for decades.

I have written since as long ago as 1968 when I first did a music concert review for a local English newspaper in Lucknow, as a college student. There were long years of desolation in my life dealing with my personal problems that prevented any useful work when I was working for the State Bank of India. Bank managers don't write articles.

And yet during my four years with the Economic and Statistical Research Department of the State Bank, I managed a first rough outline of a novel that I titled, "Safe Custody". It is yet to see the light of day. This was interspersed with articles on various subjects, some of which found favour with newspapers and magazines. Many of them were on Macro-Economic issues. Some were on scientific developments like Diamond Film, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Some others, that did not find favour, and remain in my files, were on concepts like turning metropolitan sewage especially faecal matter into biogas for use as fuel, and developing what I imagined were "revolutionary concepts" like a wing cross section for an aircraft that saved fuel, and a vertical shaft windmill design that could be put atop skyscrapers to generate electricity. I even dabbled in a medical "discovery", that eventually led to Stanley Prusiner winning a Nobel some years later.

In essence, I have been a restless mind that has not been able to stay the course for want of adequate support.

Then quite by chance a suggestion came to me about writing an article on cloning when the story of Dolly the sheep made world headlines. I wrote the article. I was not satisfied with it. It was too involved and pretended to an understanding of science at a level that did not meet with layman standards. Also, it was too long. This was at a time when I was trapped in that famous cloudburst that hit Bombay some time in 2006. I was stuck in my hilltop home in a small place called Dapoli in Ratnagiri district where the rain is about twice as intense as it is in Bombay. I was under a waterfall that hammered down on my roof for a week.

During that week, I sat down to try out an outline of a novel that brought together two diverse threads. The serious part was about human cloning, because it involved hard science. The more entertaining part was that the cloning involved humans, more specifically a famous actress of the fifties and early sixties – Madhubala. The aim was to make a science fiction story appealing to the masses. This was written specifically to be fiction, unlike my first attempt "Safe Custody" which is a sort of "Alternative History" of a political kind.

My biggest difficulty, it turned out, was with the writing of dialogue. I was no good at it. It has taken me years of practising the art of dialogue writing and to this day I am not confident about being realistic enough when I write it. For almost ten years after I wrote that first novel, I could find no publisher for it. Even ten years later in 2017 there was no constructive suggestion about how I should go about getting my novel published.

Sharad Bailur with Mayank Bhatt at the
latter's home in Toronto

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