Category Archives: India

Indira II

Indira became the prime minister of India in 1966 following the death of India’s second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri on the 11th of January 1965. Both Nehru and Shastri were from the Gandhi camp and they were no doubt inspired and influenced by his non-violent stance and his rather peaceful approach to things.

While both men were without doubt able administrators, and were more than capable of governing the country in times of peace neither were suitable candidates to govern in times of war and could be blamed at least partly for India’s relatively poor showing in the first Indo-Pakistan war (1947 – 1948) or the war of Kashmir, the Sino-India War of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Despite the fact that almost little or no territory changed hands in all three wars there was a significant loss of lives.

Things however were vastly different in the Liberation War of Bangladesh 1971. The Nixon administration fearing a rise in Soviet influence, primarily due to affairs in Afghanistan where the Soviet Union was gaining a firm foothold, encouraged their then allies to send supplies to Pakistan and were prepared to overlook or ignore the 1971 genocide of Bangladesh.

It is also worth adding that in the aftermath of 1947 it was obvious that India needed to bolster its defense capabilities and that to some degree explains the BJP’s success in recent times i.e. the willingness to spend extensively on defense. This coupled with the fact that there have been significant improvements in indigenous defense systems and the BJP’s willingness to maintain the trend has helped increase the BJP’s popularity. As far as the average Indian is concerned there are certain sectors that he or she wants to see significant improvements in and defense is one of them.

Indira was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi at an early age and was no doubt familiar with him, his work and his teachings but she could never be described as a leader in the Gandhi mold or even as a leader who was in the Nehru or Shastri mold for that matter and despite having served under both of them – she served as her father’s personal assistant and following her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed the minister of information and broadcasting by the Shastri government, she was nothing like them. She was also appointed the president of the congress party in 1959 and served in the capacity for a year.

There was nothing in her past to indicate that there would be a gradual move away from democracy towards a more state based economy, but that was in effect what happened following the 1966 elections, when the congress party won the elections, albeit by a smaller number of seats and Indira became the prime minister of India. I suspect that the move towards socialism was spurred on not by a sudden fixation for communism but rather a need to address the countries more pressing problems i.e. poverty, illiteracy and gender inequality. Despite the constant criticisms that are hurled at it, socialism does in fact advocate for a more equal distribution of wealth.

As soon as she was appointed the prime minister of India, Indira showed a boldness that would take many of her congress allies by surprise especially those that were expecting a docile leader who would accede to all their wishes because her actions clearly told the congress party that she was prepared to throw party politics out the window.

I am not going to say that she didn’t create a class of hyper rich, I think she did but not intentionally. It happens with nationalization i.e. when ownership is transferred from the private sector to the state and then back to the private sector it tends to create a class of hyper rich people who have a monopoly over certain sectors.

She also entrusted certain key people with the development of certain sectors for example the iron and steel sector and pioneered the growth of the Tatas, the Birlas and numerous other multinational companies like them.

In 1969 Indira nationalized the fourteen largest banks in India and while her popularity with the congress party especially its president was going downhill, her popularity among the regional parties was growing especially the DMK and that started the south’s long-standing infatuation with Indira.

I’m not saying that the leaders of the DMK are not rich. To the contrary they are exorbitantly rich but they too were founded on socialist principles and idolized both Lenin and Stalin and the bottom-line here was simply a better distribution of wealth especially among the Dravidians who felt left out and marginalized by the north. Whether that was indeed the case or otherwise was and is an entirely different matter but at that stage they saw in Indira a leader who was willing to address the inequalities and the alliance was formed.

Indira I

This is my first attempt at writing something that remotely resembles a biography and the person I have selected is none other than the iron lady of India, its second longest serving prime minister and perhaps the most complex person to serve as the prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

Of all the prime ministers of India, I am most fascinated by Indira and unlike most prime ministers who served in times of peace, she was one of the few women prime ministers who served during a war – a war that India was never expected to win, and if it wasn’t for her tenacity, India in all probability, would have lost the war.

At the onset, I have to admit that it is impossible to cover her whole life in an article or a series of articles because it was a long and illustrious career and her tenure as prime minister spanned more than a decade. Her first tenure lasted for ten years and her second tenure for four.

The events that we will be looking at here will be the events that piqued my interest as a young boy reading the New Straits Times between the age of 10-14 and we will look at the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, the death of her son Sanjay – a death that rocked the nation and a death many believe was an assassination, the subsequent fall-out with her daughter in law Maneka, who remains the only member of the Nehru dynasty who is not associated or affiliated to the Congress Party of India. Maneka who has had a long and illustrious political career herself serves with the BJP and finally the events that led to Indira’s death.

The events that I have mentioned here are by no means complete or comprehensive and for anyone who wants to acquire an insight to the life of India’s iron woman, it is best that they get a copy of her biography (there are a few in the market).

I read one of her biographies many years ago and to date I have never really managed to grasp the depths of it. Her life was by no means simple.

Indira was India’s third prime minister; her father Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first and longest serving prime minister and Indira was his only daughter. Indira in fact was an only child and being born in one of the most politically influential families in India, it would be fair to say that she would have come to terms with the intricacies and the subtleties of Indian politics at an early age.

India is one of the most difficult countries in the world to govern, not only because of the size of its population but also because of its diversity and each of its 29 states often demand separate attention and it is more often than not difficult to appease all the parties in the mix, but despite that Indira managed to keep a lid on things. This coupled with India’s external foes makes governing India challenging to say the least.

Indira was a Kashmiri Pandit or a Kashmiri Brahmin and she was born in Allahabad a district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a state rich in history but not without its share of conflicts. Even at birth Indira could never be described as the contemporary Indian because Indians today are normally associated with states like Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana or Bengal and places like Mumbai and Delhi from the western perspective of things anyway.

The young Indira could aptly be described as the orthodox Brahmin girl and she was without doubt conservative but that was only to be expected given the strict upbringing most Kashmiri Pandit girls have.

Indira however was very, very intelligent and I remember reading somewhere that she loved reading and she was very knowledgeable and that she’d even read works like the arthashastra, something that most people don’t read. So it is fair to say that even at a young age, well before being elected the prime minister of India, the concepts of conflict and war were not alien to her and she was to a very large degree or extent able to accept conflict and war for what it was and that would have no doubt helped her during her tenure as prime minister where she would have had to face conflict and war over and over again.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)

Among the top tier parties in India with a larger support base than most parties and a party that has a bigger national appeal than many of the other parties and is not limited to a specific state, region or territory is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose core supporters come from the schedule castes, schedule tribes and other backwards castes and while the party doesn’t have a manifesto per se or has opted not to release one, it represents the rights of those who do not belong to the upper class or castes and while people outside India may have difficulties coming to terms with the caste system, it does play a role in Indian politics. Caste based politics is an ugly facet of Indian politics and representatives do get elected on the caste ticket especially if they represent the dominant caste in a specific area or constituency.

In addition to state interests and national interests’ politicians in India sometimes also have to contend with caste based issues and this can at times lead to heated debates in the political arena but it is not as bad as some people make it out to be. Most Indians these days realize the mistakes that they have made in the past and are working towards overcoming caste related obstacles and likewise most parties realize that in order to either acquire or hang on to the reins of power they need support from all sections of the community and both the BJP and the INC are working towards building a broader support base and are wooing supporters from all sections of the community, regardless of caste, race or religion.

Despite the fact that there have been numerous reports on caste biasness, the official stance has always been to give more privileges to the less fortunate especially when it comes to education and employment.

The government strategy for many, many, years has been to give preference to those that belong to backward castes but that mechanism can sometimes break down at regional levels and it is almost impossible at times to steer away from caste based issues especially when there are politicians who choose to play up on those issues.

The BSP is not without its internal divisions but that is only to be expected. Any party that has a large and diverse following is bound to have internal divides.

The party was founded in 1984 and has been around for some time. Its founder Kanshi Ram was born in the Ropar District of Punjab to a Sikh family. He also founded the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF) in 1971 and the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti in 1981 which was the predecessor of the present BSP to raise awareness among Dalits on caste based issues and the role of Dalits in the wider political spectrum.

Caste issues are not only prevalent among Hindus but it was and in some instances still is an issue among Sikhs. He died in 2003 (18th September) and was succeeded by the incumbent, Mayawati, who has served as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh four times and can be described as a veteran politician who still has a very strong following in Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati is an outspoken critic of the BJP, a party that she views as a predominantly Hindu party and at once stage she even threatened to convert to Buddhism if the BJP doesn’t change its attitude towards the Dalits, but as I have mentioned earlier the BJP is making efforts to widen its support base, it has too if it wants to remain in power.

The party continues to campaign for the rights of Dalits who without doubt belong to the most vulnerable sections of the community and are sometimes threatened with violence. In 2017 for example, a BSP party leader Rajesh Yadav was shot dead and that is an indication of how heated things can get.

The party is currently trying to expand its support base, especially after the BJP’s landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh and is willing to join hands with other secular parties if the terms are acceptable. The BJP’s victory as far as the party is concerned was largely due to the use of Electronic Voting Systems and the party is current pushing for a return to paper balloting.

All India Trinamool Congress

For anyone who is interested in Indian politics it would be worth their while to not only know the two bigger parties in the picture but to also make a note of the regional parties that can formally contest a seat and those that can’t and the parties that are backed by armed militias and those that aren’t. Sounds complicated?? Well it is, exponentially so.

India is probably the most democratic country in the world but with democracy comes the burden of listening to all segments of the population and giving everyone a chance or an avenue to be heard.

The face of Indian politics has changed in the last twenty to thirty years and it continues to change to not only meet the demands of its huge population but to also meet global expectations.

Among the 7 or 8 parties that rank as top tier political parties in India is the All India Trinamool Congress a breakaway faction of the INC or the Indian National Congress led by the often vocal and at times strong critic of the BJP, Mamata Banerjee, who also currently serves as the Chief Minister of Bengal.

The All India Trinamool Congress or the AITC controls 211 of the 294 seats in the West Bengal State Assembly and as far as Bengal is concerned the AITC is an extremely influential party. It has managed to wrest control of the state away from its predecessor the Communist Party of India (CPI)(M) which was by no means an easy feat.

Bengal was once a major stronghold of the CPI(M), a predominantly Marxist party, and the Marxists not only have popular support in Bengal but they also have strong support in various other states in India and that is partly due to the fact that, for the masses and the impoverished, communism provides or appears to provide a better solution. Marxist ideology has an old school charm about it that appeals to many.

In the runup to the 2011 elections the state witnessed violent clashes between supporters of the AITC and supporters of the CPI(M) but at the end the AITC emerged triumphant and won by a substantial majority and has remained in control ever since and it looks to remain in control for quite some time.

The party was founded by Mamata Banerjee and as far as political parties are concerned it is a fairly new party having taken roots in 1998 after a factional breakaway from the INC. In addition to serving as the Chief Minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is also an author, painter and poet of some note.

The AITC appears to be a non-religious based party or a party that is not bound by religious ideology or principles and makes an effort to serve people of all religions and that would not only appeal to those in the middle i.e. those that favor neither the left nor the right but also to the communists in Bengal because communism doesn’t place too much emphasis on religion.

The AITC, going by its manifesto, is a party that puts Bengali culture first, and places more emphasis on Bengali history and tradition as opposed to orthodox political views which look to be fast losing their appeal. As far as Bengal is concerned it may have struck the right balance, especially given the fact that the state is extremely proud of its rich artistic and literary legacy.

In addition to that the party also aims to alleviate poverty in Bengal. Poverty is not only a problem in Bengal but it is a major problem in most Indian states though admittedly some states fare better than others. A lot depends on the state government and therefore state elections are equally as important as federal or national elections and it is fair to say that the commitment to eradicate poverty is something that is common among most political parties in India.

In recent times there have been speculations of a division within the party with the exit of Mukul Roy a member of parliament and a founder member of the AITC.

The party despite its anti-corruption stance has been hit by allegations of corruption and it will be interesting to see how the party recovers from these widespread allegations especially in light of its aspirations of becoming a national party.

The Mizo National Front (MNF)

Indian politics is a like a smoking cauldron filled with varied interests and a successful leader as far as India is concerned is a leader who manages to keep a lid on the cauldron. To borrow a phrase from the arthashastra, a successful leader is a leader who manages to keep the nation intact.

In order to understand Indian politics we not only have to look at the two major parties, Congress and the BJP, but we also need to take a look at the smaller regional communal parties to try and understand their concerns. Communalism remains one of India’s most pressing problems and it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Even today the Kuki National Army, though there is a long standing ceasefire agreement with the Indian army, is asking for a separate state and it is an example of how ethnic aspirations, if unaddressed, can divide a nation.

Mizoram was a British colony and post the independence of India in 1947, the state was given a choice of being either a part of India, Pakistan or Burma and subsequently chose to join India and became a district of Assam.

The Mizo National Front (MNF) which spearheaded the move for a separate state was formed in 1966 but its roots date back at least 11 years earlier and it evolved from the Mizo Cultural Society which was an organization that was established to advocate for Mizo rights. The most pressing problems at that stage were communal problems but that was superseded by the mautam famine of 1959-1960.

Between 1959-1960 Mizoram was struck by a natural disaster that led to a humanitarian crisis of extreme proportions. The bamboo that grew wildly in the state’s dense forests began to flower and fruits of the bamboo plant became food for the rats and that in turn led to an increase in the rat population which quickly spiraled out of control and led to the destructions of crops which in turn precipitated widespread famine.

According to the MNF the government of Assam was warned that the bamboo would flower and that it would lead to famine but the government played in down as tribal superstition and refused to intervene and when the famine eventually did hit, there was widespread anger.

The Mizo Cultural Society changed its name to the Mautam Famine Front in 1961 to not only help with relief efforts but to also demand for a separate state which would at the very least give the Mizos partial self-governance. The organization was founded in 1961 by Pu Laldenga who subsequently, many years later, became Mizoram’s first chief minister. The Mizo Famine Front was later dissolved and changed its name to the Mizo National Front and in 1966 it launched a separatist war.

The combatants were trained by former members of the 2nd Assam Rifles, Pu Laldenga himself served as a sergeant with the army prior to entering civil service and from all account the combatants were trained in exactly the same manner that the members of the Indian Army were.

The separatist war started on the 1st of March 1966 with an attack on an army outpost in Aizawl and escalated from there. The war not only involved ground troops but also included air raids by the Indian Air Force (5th and 6th of March).

The Indian Air Force raid, in retaliation to the uprising, on Aizawl was extremely damaging and under normal circumstances the air force may not have been called in but for the fact that on the 24th of January 1966 Indira Gandhi, India’s iron lady was elected the prime minister of India and she dealt with the situation in the manner that she always did when the security of the nation was threatened, with force.

The question would later be raised as to why the government used such excessive force to deal with its own citizens and New Delhi would deny it, claiming that the raids on Aizawl were in fact routine supply drops.

The ensuing struggle would force members of the Mizo National Front to go underground and the war was fought from hideouts in jungles in and from across India’s borders. It was a desperate struggle that would compel many government and non government organizations to try and seek a peaceful solution.

However, because Mizoram was a predominantly Christian state and still remains so, some 87% of its population is Christian, church leaders, at the request of the then governor, intervened on behalf of the people of Mizoram and peace negotiations were started. In 1974 selected church leaders began to act as mediators in talks between the government and the MNF.

Talks also later began with Rajiv Gandhi who wanted an unconditional surrender but the church argued on behalf of the Mizos. Things went back and forth during which time Pu Laldenga and the Mizo National Front remained underground and finally 20 years after the MNF launched its separatist war, in 1986, a peace accord was signed and Mizoram became a separate state.

The MNF’s armed struggle is a thing of the past. It remains a political party but support for it appears to be waning with new parties like PRISM (People’s Right to Information and Development Implementation Society of Mizoram) emerging and contesting parliamentary seats and it is difficult to say how the MNF will fare in the future but things appear to be changing for Mizoram and the state appears to be heading in the right direction.

India’s Waning Vulture Population

India’s waning vulture population has set its Zoroastrian community on edge and in response the government has provided 5 million in aid to help built aviaries to help increase the number of vultures in the wild. There are nine specific vulture species that are native to India, Pakistan and Nepal and seven of those are found in the Thar desert.

An ailing vulture population wouldn’t normally pique the interest of most people and it is something that even the most ardent wildlife advocate wouldn’t too zealously pursue but the fact remains that these bald-headed scavengers do perform a very important function, a function so important that some writers have even dubbed the fall in the vulture population a national crisis.

The number of vultures in the wild has dropped dramatically from the early 80’s when the vulture population was estimated to be at about 4 million, a rather healthy total when compared to the 100,000 it stands at today.

Interestingly enough the prime cause for the fall in numbers is not urbanization due to a booming population but rather a drug called diclofenac that is used as a pain killer for cattle and when the vultures feed on the remains of dead cattle the residues of the drug that remain in the carcasses seep into the bodies of the vultures and that in turn kills the vultures. Fortunately, the drug has been banned and that should help somewhat in reviving the vulture population of India.

In 2016 the Union Environment Minister Shri Prakash Javadeka launched Asia’s first Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Program aimed at restoring the vulture population to what it was in the early 80’s i.e. to approximately 4 million.

The decline in the vulture population is especially distressing to India’s Parsi or Zoroastrian community because vultures are part of the Zoroastrian funeral rite and it is obviously something that the community wants to preserve and see continue.

Parsis who are Zoroastrians by faith neither bury nor cremate the remains of their dead but rather leave the body under the scorching heat for the sun to absorb the liquid in the body and for the vultures to feed on the flesh. From all accounts, it is over within a few hours but obviously it is very dependent or reliant on the vulture population.

According to the Zoroastrian faith upon death or once the soul leaves the body, the body becomes impure and evil spirits come to attack the flesh of the dead and these spirits precipitate disease and pestilence.

From a more contemporary or scientific perspective this believe is not wrong because decaying and decomposing flesh does promote sickness, disease and pestilence. By allowing vultures to feed on the flesh, the possibility of the decomposing flesh precipitating any type or sort of disease or illness is reduced and the vultures because of their strong beaks not only eat away at the surface flesh but also gnaw away at the bones, and consume the marrow and whatever remains inside and thereby not only arrest the spread of disease and any other forms or sickness and pestilence that may result from decaying and decomposing flesh but from a religious perspective also allow the soul to continue with the journey thereafter.

It is a common believe that as long as the body remains the soul may be prohibited from continuing with the after-death journey. In some Zoroastrian cultures the remains or what is left, though it is difficult to see vultures leaving anything behind, these scavengers normally do an extremely good job at eating away at carcasses, is thrown into a pit and left to turn to dust.

Similarly, vultures also eat away at carcasses of other animals especially remains that most people would ignore, and that further reduces the risk of plagues and disease outbreaks. All in all, these vultures perform a very important task.

It is fairly easy to see why a drop in the vulture population would be distressing to the Zoroastrians of India and hopefully with renewed attempts at reviving the population we will see a boost in numbers and even if it does not get to the 4 million it was at in the early 80’s, it should hopefully in the not too distant future get to at least half that number.

Dowry

The issue of dowries has long dominated the Indian wedding scene and despite the passage of time there seems to be no respite for girls born in below average income families. Parents who want to marry their daughters off are forced into making payments that is often beyond their means and a failure to do so often leads to abuse and other forms of mistreatment in the hands of husbands or in laws. In some parts of India and in certain communities’ dowry appears to be an accepted norm.

Approximately 8,000 deaths are recorded each year as being dowry related, some as a result of suicides and others as a result of abuse in the hands of husbands and in laws but it is fair to surmise that the figure is in reality much higher because many cases of abuse go unreported.

A lot of these women are educated, professional women, who are more than capable of bringing home a decent wage but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in some communities because despite the fact that the wife is able to bring home a decent wage or contribute equally towards the household expenses, she is still required to make some sort of a lump sum payment prior to getting married either in terms of cash, jewelry, chattels or property in order to be bestowed with the title of a good daughter in law.

Sounds like a business? Well in some instances it is. In some communities the prevalent attitude seems to be that a boy can make demands prior to marriage and there are many instances where even when then the demands are met; the girl is still abused and mistreated and despite the passage of time and the advent of modern technology and the advances in many other fields there appears to be no escape for women born in lower income families.

Let’s go back to the basics. Is it illegal to ask for dowry in India? Well according to the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961, with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, it is illegal to ask for dowry in India. The act goes on to define dowry as any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly prior to marriage.

However, it is not illegal for obvious reasons, to give gifts and these gifts could be gifts of cash, jewelry, chattels or property. The act itself isn’t entirely convincing and while it says that would-be grooms cannot demand items of value as a precondition to marriage it does not say anything about giving gifts and in all instances, it only becomes an issue if the aggrieved party makes or lodges a complaint. If no complaint is made then nothing else is ever said about the matter and even if the marriage breakdowns at a later date there is nothing to compel the husband to return any items of value that he received prior to the marriage.

Obviously, no one gets married or enters into the ceremony of marriage expecting it to breakdown but nothing is certain and there are many compelling stories that suggest that the law should somehow make these gifts returnable if the marriage breaks down.

However, the penalty for accepting dowry is quite steep and if convicted the accused can be jailed for a term that is no less than 5 years so the law does to some extent protect women but then again it is a matter of these women stepping up and lodging a complaint but in most instances, many of them just put it down to hard luck.

Likewise, parents can refuse to give dowry but in most cases most parents if they can afford it and some even if they can’t afford it agree because it is a social and cultural norm and a lot of families are just happy to marry their daughters off regardless of whether the daughter is happy or not.

Now I’m not saying that these marriages don’t work, they do, but it is a 50 – 50 chance. Some are lucky and others are not. There is nothing really wrong with arranged marriages as long as they don’t put any additional strain on girls and their families.

The way things stand at present, it is not only important to give a girl an education, but it is also important to make sure that there is enough left in the kitty for her wedding and that can be quite strenuous especially considering the fact that education is not cheap and a good college degree is quite costly. It is a vicious cycle that women in the subcontinent get trapped in.

Is the situation going to get any better in the near future? From all accounts no. With the exception of a handful of writers and the occasional rhetoric from aspiring politicians no one really seems to want to address the matter.