Thursday, June 23, 2011


To tell you the truth, I was not impressed at all when I first read Arnayak long time ago, during my school days. We had a small piece from that classic novel in our Bengali textbook. That time it was so boring, monotonous description of nature of our area, Chotonagpur plateau, in India. That description was so common, ordinary to me. I used to see many of the natural wonders described in the book on a daily basis and reading about the same in a book, and that too in a text book, did not excite me. I started reading the novel due to my father's forceful request but left it halfway. It was lying, neglected, in a cupboard with many other old books. I forgot about it.

After a long time my wife bought the book. I started reading it. Now I realized that probably I did the right thing by not reading that classic literature during my teen, when I was too immature to understand nature, human relationship and relationship of nature with human beings. It provoked so many emotions, so many pictures of my lost childhood and more importantly my lost innocence amidst rough, tough nature of chotonagpur plateau. During my childhood I was almost like of some the kids described in that novel.

The novel was written during 1937-1939 by Bibhutibhusan Bandhyodadhya. It was mainly based on his personal experience during 1924-1930, as an estate manager for a landlord Khilat Chandra Ghosh in wild Azamabad - Fulkia – Lobtulia areas of Bihar state. To understand the novel we probably will need to know little more about the author.

Bibhutibhusan was born in 1894 in a village near Kalyani, about 100km away from Kolkata, in British India at his maternal uncle's house, following the tradition that child birth should happen in mother's paternal home or maternal uncle’s home- to save husband and in-laws from the hassles of child birth, to ensure proper care for the new mom and the child and observing so many rituals and restrictions, mainly for new mother, of course. His father, Mahananda Bandyopadhyay, was a sanskrit scholar and a kathak, one who used to tell stories for a living. His home was near Gopalnagar police station in Bongaon, North Twenty Four Parganas. Bhibhutibhusan studied in Bongaon High School, one of the oldest institutions in Brithish India. Incidentally, he also taught at this school at the beginning of his working life. His early days were spent in abject poverty, so typical of an honest scholar and priest, which is still a reality in India. Nevertheless, he fought his way to complete his undergraduate degree in history with distinction, at the Surendranath College, Kolkata. Though he was admitted to the MA and law classes, he could not continue his studies. 

He was married to Gouri Devi. She died in childbirth after only a year of their marriage. Bibhutibhushan again married Rama Chattopadhyay when he was 46. Their only son, Taradas, was born in 1947. Bibhutibhusan died on 1 November 1950, of a heart attack while staying at Ghatshila, in Jharkhand state of Chotonagpur plateau.

Despite of having a childhood in rural India and traveled extensively in that part of India, I did not have much idea about the lives of the common people described in the novel. I had the curiosity but satisfied with watching it from a distance. I neither could gather the courage to proceed further. I started wondering when Satyacharan (the person who narrates the story in the novel) questions himself, “what people want- success or happiness? Why should we succeed if that takes away happiness from us? I know so many people who had succeeded but lost all their happiness. Our consciousness looses its sheen with too much indulgence. We lose the ability to wonder, to become happy. Life becomes so boring, colorless and meaningless. Our minds become too polished to express or extract happiness”. I am not sure if my translation conveys the real meaning of the statement made by Bibhutibusan through Satyacharan. No, I did not have the ability to understand the statement the time I first read Aranyak. Now, I think, I can.

Characters like Jugal Prasad, Raju Pande (Panree), Dhautal Sahu, Nandalal Ojha, Rashbihari Singh, Chutu Singh, Motuk Nath Pandit, Asrafi Tindel, Dhaturia are so real, at least to me, that I could not but recollect so many people that I can assign those characters to. Probably we all know such people around us. 

The descriptions of women in that wild, less forgiving nature indicated Bibhutibhusan’s sensitivity and understanding of human relationship. I really pity those men, those societies who try to strangle, suffocate women and think they can enjoy the charm, the company and even sexuality of women. How stupid they are! They do not know what they are missing. The ease with which tribal princess Bhanumati; Kunta, the daughter of a "baiji" (notch girl) and widow of a Rajput; Manchi- the simple, lively, inquisitive young adult and wife of an old man, are described shows maturity of Bibhutibhusan in man-woman relationship, especially in our highly conservative society, that too in British India.

Bibhutibhusan's attitude towards caste and religion is so evident in many places of the novel. He has no problem to eat and stay with people not only from different caste but also from different religions. The character of Satyacharan was and still is a model of an ideal administrator. It seems that to become a good administrator we need to screen people with both heart and head, not by some rot memorization and coaching based screening test that we use now to make our civil servants. Probably that's why, despite of having the most competitive screening test, Indian civil service is among the most corrupt and ineffective in Asia (1, 2) and "the most stifling" in the world (3). It seems that a head without a heart can only bring darkness to the world.

Many of us, if not majority, still insult people based on social, professional and economic hierarchy. Many of us feel proud thinking they are the descendants of true Aryans and loudly insult people who does not qualify as Aryans - like the tribal king Dobru Panna Birwardi, Jogru Panna or beautiful Bhanumati. We kill so many Dhaturias by not allowing them to learn and express what they love and excel in. We are so blinded by our own distorted interpretation of “education” and “success” that a retired deputy magistrate and his family members never think before they insult Satyacharan, riding a horse in a forest with not so sophisticated dress. Such people hardly care to express their ignorance and stupidity while insulting local, tribal people and their culture. Does our sense of "green" (a catchy phrase for marketing of almost any product these days) have developed in last one century to think before we pollute forests, sea beaches, historical places and many other places of beauty with garbage from their civilized picnic or noisy partying, as we see in almost each and every place in India these days?

Probably such attitude among older (and a small section of current) generation of Bengalis gave rise to mass annoyance, if not anger, against Bengalis in all those places where Bengalis flocked in mass for routine outings  or travel or settled outside Kolkata (which became synonymous to Bengal)- be it within Bengal itself (any person who is not from Kolkata is surely "uncivilized"!) or in North Eastern states, Bihar, UP, MP, Orissa or any other place in India. Many famous Bengali personalities, who used to regularly go to the "west" (west to Bengal- i.e. mainly Bihar, MP, UP and Orissa) for health reason, behaved in the same pathetic way. Majority of them not only exploited and insulted local people and their culture but also practically contributed nothing positive there. Probably it is now payback time for Bengalis in places like North Eastern states, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh etc. Later that urban "civilization" spread all across India. What many Bengalis did a century ago, many other Indians learned and continue to do it today. It gave rise to mass frustration and sometimes anger. That is partly responsible for fast spread of extremist movements like Naxals. Some of such naive Indians taste the same medicine when they travel or live abroad. Then they start understanding and then shouting about racial discrimination. They never understood, leave alone analyze, their own behaviors in their own country, against their own people. It is not at all surprising, to me at least, that India is still a highly feudal, hierarchical and racist society.

I am really surprised with the foresightedness of Bibhutibhusan when he questions our model of “development”, when we destroy our century old natural and human wealth for “success” of few people and logic for establishment and spread of slum culture. He did that at the first half of 20th century, when India was much better (relatively speaking) in terms of natural and human beauty. He seemed to be knowing the consequences of spread of third-world style of "development" of towns and metros like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi that invariably increase poverty. Have you ever seen filthy open drains, stinking people or crying, malnourished babies running all over in a (economically) poor, remote village anywhere in India, untouched by industrial exploitation? Probably no. Just wait till a factory comes up and see the immediate change!

Have you observed Mumbai, the most prosperous and the financial capital of "shining" India, from the sky? It looks more like a slum city with tarpaulin and blue plastic roof, slums all over with few scattered high rises. Can you imagine a $2 billion house, the costliest in the world, in the midst of sprawling slum anywhere, in any developed country? Probably it is possible only in a third world country like India. Mumbai has more than 60% of its population live in slums (4). Slums have increased dramatically since 1950s, despite of so many developmental programs. A person with 2 million rupees ($ 44,000) annual income, which constitute probably less than 1% of its population, does not dare to buy a decent apartment (leave alone having own house) in a decent locality and settle there in that financial capital. Honest economic activities in those cities are not sufficient to support a family there with decent living. Money from all over India is being accumulated in few metro cities. Yet many consider that as development! It is even more surprising that not many people and our policy makers understand what we are losing while trying to impose “development”, that not so educated Bibhutibhusan understood with his BA in history degree, about a hundred years ago!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Our fight against corruption and Anna Hazare

Probably we all are now aware of the recent uproar against corruption in India. People are angry. If anyone providing them an outlet to vent their frustration they readily grab it and participate in such “mass movements”. Our news hungry 24x7 media is more than happy to oblige anyone with an agenda. Everyone seems to be in favour of such movements. Naturally there is a huge market for it. Even corporate houses sponsoring some of the events. It is really surprising that if everyone is so against corruption, why we have such an extensive and intense corruption in almost every field of life there! The answer may lie in another observation. An office clerk joins Anna Hazare in the evening after taking bribe to protest against A Raja's 2G scam, a student after cheating in exam, a teacher after completing his private tuition evading his  teaching duties in the school, a doctor after prescribing some useless tests to unsuspecting patients and so on.

In reality, Indian society never learned what is democracy, what justice means since long; long before we got independence, long before British occupied the land. It is so contrasting if we think that a king, Gopala, in the Indian state of Bengal was among the first few democratically elected kings in the world (around 750 AD). One wonders how such a society reached its current state! That is not limited to political governance but present in every field of life. We need to analyse the problems more critically to find out suitable solutions.

It will be pertinent to understand how Indian society evolved. It is a largely accepted fact that general people from southern India are less corrupt. It coincides with the fact that north India had to face repeated foreign invasions, mainly from Muslim invaders who had very different social, religious, ethical and legal concepts as compared to the locals. South did not face that so often and so intensely. Those foreign invaders, first by the Middle Eastern or Central Asian Muslims and then Europeans (mainly the British) imposed a drastic change on our ways of lives. Many people, mainly men, used so many excuses to hide our own inability to protect our culture, our women, our ways of lives. Many such excuses took shape in form of religious dictates, distorted version of "tradition" and more awfully in the name of peace. Spread of “pardha” among women (which was present only among very few warrior communities like Rajputs, before Muslim invasion), imposing all sorts of rules (in the name of religion and tradition) to deter people asking questions, to curb personal freedom and our senses of justice; in short- to destroy of our own value and education system. Remember Nalanda university, one of the first and great organised universities in the world? It was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khalji around 1200 AD, signifying the start of decline of Indian education and society.

It also changed our perception about corruption. We all witnessed that ruling class do not obey laws that are imposed on others. Different set of rules are applicable to different people, depending on caste, religion, closeness to ruling class and so on. Since then breaking laws was (and still is) equated to power and a sure sign of the socio-political elites. When a common Indian breaks a law or manage any special privilege, s/he feels proud and get satisfaction (may be temporary) to be equated as an “elite”. General Indians forgot that laws are for them, to keep them safe and disciplined. Agreeability and sycophancy, instead of critical thinking and logic, became the rule to climb both social and professional hierarchy. That practice gradually eroded the social shame factor, the best and most effective deterrent against corruption in any country, in any society. We started accepting corruption in the name of reality. Gradually we lost the sense of justice and honesty. University professors, scientists, doctors, bureaucrats, teachers, police and many others from India, in India or abroad (with or without foreign degrees) are as corrupt and dishonest as any illiterate person. It affected our ability to make or reform laws in post-1947 India. Still more than half of our current Indian laws (both civil and criminal) were introduced by our colonial British rulers to rule, not to "govern", their “native” subjects. Most of these laws are highly ineffective today. Some are even anti-national. Recent prosecution of noted social activist and reformer Dr Binayak Sen under British introduced sedation law is one such example.

Not many policy decisions in India are well planned. Not even the much hyped economic liberalization in 1991. That was a mere compulsion after mortgaging 67 tons of gold in the Bank of England due to years of misrule and closed economy. We were desperate to save our economy from total melt down. We could not reform our civil governance and judiciary to match the requirement of a free market, liberalized economy. We naively wished that everything will fall in place due to so-called open market economy and privatization. We conveniently forgot that true “open market” (even in US) is as utopian as communism. Greed of a very small section of our population increased exponentially but we could not protect majority others, the common man (“amm admi” as per popular politicking) from the greed that allowed massive, extra-constitutional manipulation of the system. Those social “elites” include not only businessmen and industrialists but also politicians, bureaucrats, corporate managers, scientists, professors, doctors and other professionals. It simply added to the already high level of corruption (due to socialistic quota-license raj regime of pre-1991 era). Magnitude of recent scams are good indicators. 

We practically ruined almost all (if not all) of our democratic institutions. Universities and institutes start resembling party offices. Internal control mechanisms were effectively destroyed. That’s why none of the recent high profile scams were detected and/or prevented by the internal control mechanism of respective departments or ministries. All the scams came to light due to outside private (by people like Subramanium Swamy) or 24x7 media or Supreme Court interventions. Not a single high profile current office bearers could gather the courage or honesty or both to support the services by people like Binayak Sen or the ongoing anti-corruption movement initiated by Anna Hazare, a class 7 educated gentleman (in real sense of the word). It says a volume about our current society. Our political masters initially gave in to the demands of Anna Hazare in the wake of many state assembly elections. Once the elections were over and government started negotiating with team Anna, the real intension of our “elected representatives” started becoming clearer. They were more interested to discredit team Anna or “civil society” or anyone who raises voice against all pervasive corruption, than any meaningful discussion to draft an effective Jan Lokpal bill. Does it take much intelligence to imagine the level of cooperation and desire of our elected representatives to pass an effective Lokpal bill in a parliament where about one forth of the members (154 to be precise) and 10 cabinet ministers are having criminal cases pending against them (civil litigation that include financial crimes are not included)? It partly explains why the government drafted, much less stringent Lokpal bill failed to pass in Indian parliament in last 42 odd years.

In India, collective decision making hardly exists. That trend is also evident among many Indian professionals, managing a group of people under them, in India and abroad. Most of the meetings or negotiations are used mainly to inform (rather than discussing) others what few people, so-called higher authority (or "high command") already decided. Feudal nature of decision making, lack of taking responsibility is rampant in every section of our society, starting from the highest level of government to private companies to the lowest level of family issues. Remuneration and/or promotion is not always based on performance but one's ability to please higher authority. Many times the credit for a good job and blame/responsibility for a sloppy work goes, rather imposed, on other people (not the person who actually deserve it). We generally try to gloss over any past mistakes, avoid fixing responsibilities and forget to learn from that. We prefer to "move on" and end up doing the same mistakes, again and again. We build new universities, institutions to improve quality (of research and higher education) or crate new ministries to improve governance without analyzing and learning why our old institutions or ministries failed. That ultimately give rise to the "chalta hai" mentality, tendency of shifting responsibilities, as we often witness among Indian professionals (both in government and private enterprises), in India and abroad. We probably can not afford to care how to build a motivated group.
That attitude helps spreading the culture of mediocrity, erode our productivity and quality of work in the long run, in every field of life, starting from research to business to civil governance. "Success" in such situations depends more on one's ability to use the existing corrupt practices and loopholes (of our system) than on taking responsibility, improve productivity, adhere to professional ethics and, more importantly, desire to change the system that can enable us to do better, enable us to dream to become the best.

That systemic failure makes many able people frustrated who ultimately become aloof. Provokes many to seek justice or other avenues to address personal grievances. This is one of the major factors for not only fast spread of extremist movements like naxals but also for huge brain-drain and very low quality reverse brain-drain or "brain-gain" as some call it (going back to India). Many of our better quality manpower, established abroad, prefer not coming back and settling in India. Some do prefer contributing from abroad. That allows them to speak the truth while insulating themselves and their families from retaliation, as we often see against people like Satyendra Dubey.

Our political parties are no exception. Not a single political party has internal democracy to attract, groom and promote people with true leadership quality. All are run like dynasties, feudal kingdoms (barring the communists, so far). That’s one of the reasons for increasing tendencies of common people to take laws into their own hands. If an able person is discriminated against and can pinpoint the responsible person or authority, it is almost impossible to gag or stop him to seek "justice". Such people eventually find their ways. That may or may not be so constitutional, neither do they care.

Many feel that India probably need or will soon have an Egypt-Tunisia type revolution. They probably do not understand that Indian corruption has a democratic twist, unlike Arab countries. It is true that there is a strong selection pressure to promote people without any sense of justice, honesty and courage (to speak out and remain honest). But if you have the required qualifications, you can join the select club to enjoy the fruits of corruption and lawlessness. That extra-constitutional rights are not limited to friends and relatives of the king or social “elites”, unlike Arab countries. That safety-valve eases a lot of pressure from the cooker and prevents it from bursting early. That’s why rise of common-man politicians like Laloo, Mulayam, Mayawati did not have much positive impact on Indian society, despite of a huge initial promise, so far social equality, corruption in public lives and transparency in governance is concerned.

We also need to understand that staging a revolution is not the same or end of reforming a society. In fact, that is just the beginning of a multi-act drama. Later stages are more difficult and need much longer term, more intense preparation. We need to figure out whom do we think would fill the gap, in case of a successful revolution, as many hopes for. We do not have enough, qualified and, most importantly, honest people to replace the existing lot. That vacuum is not limited to politics but present in every field, every occupation in India. Our "test score" culture kills both natural leadership quality and scientific/technical ability. Over-emphasis on database type information, occasional fascination with knowledge do not allow us to become “wise”. We pathetically lack the ability to ask questions, solve problems and generate novel ideas- be it technical or scientific or social issues like corruption. In short, all of our professionals (be it politicians, police, scientists, professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on) are coming from the same society, from the same pool of people with almost same education and grooming. We must not expect to make any sustainable change with such bunch of (mostly) mediocre and corrupt people. Our task becomes harder considering the fact that not a single country in the whole world with considerable period of foreign rule ever became a developed country, so far.

What is the way forward? Or should we keep on marching the same path and expect a divine miracle to become a “superpower”, “developed” country in future, as many Indians dream against all realistic logic?

I think the solution lies within. We cannot expect everyone to become honest but ourselves. Majority of us support corruption (in the name of "reality") when it benefits us. We start shouting only when we are at the receiving end. We fool ourselves. We must understand that we can not eat the cake and have it at the same time. Our homes are the best place to start that crusade, if I may say so. We need to teach our kids to have some sense of justice and honesty. We must allow or force them to face consequences of their actions, from very childhood. At the same time, we must not force them to accept corruption in the name of "reality" or "practical sense". That is more important than some rote memorization and test-score based “education”.

I do acknowledge that its not only very hard but also dangerous to oppose corruption in Indian situation. Many of the time the official complain goes to the same person against whom you are complaining! This is systemic. That's why the rate of prosecution by India's "premier investigation agency", CBI, is so poor (particularly against influential politicians and bureaucrats); that's why so many politicians are opposed to include Prime Minister under Jan Lokpal bill (as proposed by team Anna). We need to be little careful here while speaking out against corruption. Sometimes we may have to become “anonymous” to voice our concerns in more formal settings, in offices, in societies and so on. That is doable in this age of internet and 24x7 media activity.

Lastly, we must bring back the social shame factor, the best and most effective deterrent against corruption. It is our responsibility to make those openly or known corrupt people feel ashamed and socially outcast. If we have the desire, we surely can avoid making any matrimonial relationship with a known, unacceptably high (relatively speaking) corrupt person or children of such people. Generally a tamarind tree does not produce mangoes.

Again, we need to remember that social shame is the best deterrent to minimize corruption in any society and very effectively used in western societies. Can we do that to start our dream of a better India, while joining rallies and praising people like Anna Hazare in public forums?

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