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Friday, June 24, 2011

Speech at Ashok Saikia's Memorial Service 2008

Close friendships among men often display some peculiar characteristics.  Greetings are almost invariably in the form of insults and imprecations.  The closer you are to one another, the more extreme is the choice of the obscenity.  To achieve the intended result the chosen words or phrase have to be in the vernacular, because the English language in the Indian context lends respectability and sophistication to even the worst of profanities and thereby takes away from the depths of affection you wish to convey.  Obscenities as forms of endearment are peculiar to the human male species and, in my case, such endearments were reserved for some very, very special friends.  Out of my batch mates it was only with Ashok, Devdas Chhotray and Shivshankar Mukherji of the IFS that the instant I saw them or heard their voice on the phone, I had to let loose a volley of colourful expressions in Hindi and Punjabi.  Each of us constantly honed our skills in being more outrageous than the other.  Ashok or Hoicks would occasionally vary the ritual by looking slightly pained if you had hurled the first salvo and ask with grave innocence ‘Oy, shaala, gaali kyun deta hai’ before unleashing his own repertoire.  This ritual exchange of pleasantries was unfailingly followed, irrespective of the time gap between our meetings, and it established many things.  First that the special bond between us was unaffected by time and circumstance. Second, that sincerity in service and exaltation in status and hierarchy would never dim our desire to puncture pomposity whenever the opportunity arose and that we will never take bureaucracy seriously.  Third that both of us continued to have a very strong desire to be always on the wrong side of the establishment whichever be the establishment in power.

This form of ritual exchange of pleasantries had its horrifying moments.  In the long list of the ‘Most Embarrassing Moments of My Life, top of the order belongs to an occasion in 1991 when batchmate M.S. Srinivasan on a visit from Tamil Nadu to Delhi had dropped in my room in the Ministry of Defence and suggested that we talk to Hoicks about meeting for lunch or dinner.  I buzzed my PA an obsequious yet sly buffoon called Kathpalia and asked him to contact Mr. Saikia.  A few moments later, he buzzed me and said ‘Mr. Saikia on the line, Sir’.  Without further ado and without even saying ‘Hello’ I started off on an initial description of some generic blood relatives – sister and mother to be precise, expecting the usual response , so that we could get on with the business on hand.  For a few seconds there was a frosty silence on the other side and then a very unusually genteel Saikia said ‘Hullo this is Saikia here’.  That’s is a new one, I thought, and I won’t fall for it.  ‘Hellow this is Saikia here’ – I mimicked and then went into a flurry of colourful expressions describing in some detail the anatomical explorations of a variety of blood relatives and incentuous relations with them.  The person at the other end sounded most astonished on why one junior Joint Secretary in the Government of India should unleash such an unprovoked verbal assault without even a preamble.  ‘This is A.K. Saikia here’  he said in a very gingerly manner and in a flash I realized that I had been talking not to Ashok Saikia, but to Mr. A.K. Saikia, 1960 or 1961 batch of the IAS, ten/eleven years senior and someone most unlikely to appreciate the turn of expression Ashok and I revelled in.  I felt so foolish that I just put the receiver down.  Giving explanations would have probably worsened the situation and I really was completely flumnoxed on what I should  do.  When I finally got through to the real Ashok Saikia, he just chortled and guffawed at my plight and reassured me that the venerable Mr. A.K. Saikia would just let it pass.  Later, Ranjana fold me that Mr. A.K. Saikia met them soon thereafter and made a passing reference to Ashok’s interesting.  Ashok just blushed.

You will all recall how fetching Ashok’s blushes were.  His cherubic face with that impish glint behind a solemn pout, breaking into a chortle, moments after he had made a wise-crack with a dead serious face or heard a witty remark from you, would always make me awash with an enormous surge of affection for him.  You could never get angry with him.  There were many times in the days when he was wielding enormous power, that I had occasion to feel resentful that he was not doing enough to help me out of a terrible dip in my career and I would build up this resentment to try and confront and shame him.  However, each time I went to see him to vent my anger, one look at his face and all the anger would disappear.  He used to blush oftener than any man I know and his face would radiate such innocence that he would bring out in me almost maternal feelings of affection and tenderness, expressed of course through even more colourful insults.

Ashok became an instant friend the very first time I saw him in the Mussoorie Academy.  Although we had been contemporaries in Delhi University, the psychological distance between St. Stephens, my college and Ramjas his college and English Literature my subject and History his, had kept us apart.  On my very first evening in the Happy Valley block, after dinner, I was on the lookout for company for a cigarette and a nightcap.  My neighbours seemed rather strait-laced and not the kind interested in breaking rules about alcohol consumption in the rooms.  I found Ashok sprawled in a chair with T.R. Srinivasan and both sharing a toothbrush tumbler, full of rum and smoking.  I joined in and Ashok gave me two remarkably insightful bits of wisdom.  The first was in response to my saying how enjoyable a drink would be after a vigorous walk in the mountains.  Ashok, who was a ‘repeater’ as we called them in Mussoorie, told me that in his first stint he used to walk every evening to Lal Tibba and get back and have two bottles of beer that felt wonderful.  In his second stint he said, he realized that if you didn’t go for a walk but had four bottles of beer instead you felt even more wonderful.  I took to Ashok that very moment.  As the evening developed and we were on to our thirtieth cigarette of the day and talking about will power etc. required to give up bad habits, he told me that he had successfully ‘overcome’ his will power on several occasions.  That is a ‘funda’ the philosophical implications of which I am still exploring.

It was this quality of irreverence, of always questioning conformity and convention and received wisdom, of being able to detect any kind of pretentions humbug, this loathing of cant and hypocrisy of any kind, this wanting to puncture all forms of pomposity and sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness, of not being scared of being politically and ideologically incorrect and in all this having a deep seated core of concern for the underdog and the deprived, is what we shared as our common world-view, our ‘weltanschauung’.  For both of us our concerns had to hide behind lighthearted banter and if ever conversations among friends veered towards solemnity or high minded seriousness we had to introduce the totally facetious and the frivolous to restore balance.  This was our greatest bond and with his going away, there is no longer anyone among batch mates that I can share a similar bond with, without being misunderstood. 

Of course, what really cemented our bond was our common love for a tipple.  Ira has written about Ashok being the presiding deity of the ‘Tib Dhaba’  ‘chhang’ joints in Happy Valley where as we discovered to our utter delight that one large kettle of ‘chhang’ for 2 Rs. seemed to have to the same amount of chhang as a kettle worth 4 Rs.   But chang was our drink of the last resort when we had run through our princely takes home salaries of 200 Rs.  The first week of the month was spent in daily trips to Whispering Windows where the management used to dilute the peg and we normally ended the evening having almost a dozen large ones of gin and lime.  The second week was solan No.1 or Old Monk, obtained often by waking up the hapless Bareto of Bhai Dhyan Singh fame at 2 in the morning.  He treated Ashok as his greatest ever tormentor.  The third week was Golden Eagle beer, then really cheaply available and brought in cases every weekend by Ashok to a cottage which Ira and I had hired, in an old fashioned ‘hold all’, with leather straps.  We would polish of a case or two and sit on the hillside rolling empty bottles as they were consumed down the slope waiting to hear the tinkle of the bottles when they broke.  All this while we, Ashok and I, Deepa Jain, Sudip Bannerji, Devdas Chhotrai, Shilabhadra, Sanat Kaul would undertake the most searching enquiries into political, social, philosophical and literary questions, bitch about those of our batchmates we saw as ambitious, careerist prigs, lament the circumstances which had landed us in a career in bureaucracy and strengthen our resolve never to succumb to the culture of petty privilege and patronage represented by the Indian State.  Most of us, ‘Comrades of Chhang’, I think, still retain that something which we gained through our bonding in those idyllic times.

There are hundreds of stories of Ashok and I and alcohol and the rest of our gang but those must be recollected and savoured another day.  What I wanted to comment on apart from our shared values and shared attitudes was a unique role which Ashok played in our batch in the IAS.  In Mussoorie, we were broadly segmented into three or four different types.  Those of us from metropolitan, westernized, public school, St. Stephens type backgrounds with seemingly superior airs, intellectually snobbish, ‘been through done that’ kind of attitude and very little understanding of the world outside Delhi or Bombay; those with somewhat similar backgrounds but a longer exposure to provincial life, small town India and the vernacular tempering their snobbishness and those with a predominantly provincial background for whom the English language was a skill-acquired through diligence and for whom entry into the IAS represented an achievement obtained through struggle.  Most of us got typed into one of these broad groups and our friendships developed primarily within the type.  While there were spillovers and cross overs from one group to another most of us were more comfortable within our ‘type’.  Ashok was probably the only one who straddled all three or four types with equal comfort and felt equally at home with every one of them.  His unique Assamese accent in Hindi and English he converted into a kind of designer statement of his own and whatever he spoke always sounded so sweet and delightful that his acceptability in all circles, including the really snooty ones was high.  It was this ability to relate to every one that made him the central server of our batch network.  We connected with each other through Ashok and now that the central server is down or temporarily inaccessible, we will suffer a severe network failure.  But don’t worry, partner, one of these days we will catch up with you and in the rolling meadows and glens of heaven, you and I will bring out that peat roasted brew and drink ourselves silly and pass lewd comments on all the angels, that go marching by.  For the moment, my friend – ‘Au Revoir’. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

excerpts from a speech I gave at the memorial service for a senior colleague

Intimations of mortality are always sobering. More sobering is the fact that these intimations should come now with such alarming frequency. In the last six months, we have met here in Kapurthala House in precise two-month intervals in remembrance of three of our dearest, most loved and admired colleagues. It is painful to be doing this with such regularity and I sincerely hope that a divine intervention will at least lengthen this gap.

The commonality does not end in that all three colleagues had an iconic status in the Punjab cadre. What is really striking is that one of the most distinguishing characteristics of all three was the bigness of their laughter. Krishnamurthy’s laughter came out of an unfettered ability to enjoy the quirks and quiddities of life. Vaishnav’s had a hint of mischief. But that of Mr, Kapila was in a league of its own. Whenever he was in the throes of his prolonged spells of laughter, we had to check not only that the window-panes of the building were intact but that the foundation had not suffered damage. It was a laughter of such a liberating quality that anyone present in the room would himself begin to feel as though he had been through a paradoxically enjoyable catharsis. It was a laughter which was informed by wit and intelligence. It was a laughter as a signature statement. It was a laughter which should be treated as an intangible heritage.

I came to know the youngest of the Kapila brothers, Neethu, when I was uniquely, distinctively ragged by him as a fresher in St. Stephen’s College. The middle brother, Sethu, who had left College was by then already a legend with numerous records of the ‘how many eggs you can consume in five minutes’ kind. We only knew of the eldest brother through stories but came to realize early on that  all the male members of the Kapila family had a really endearing madcap quality to them, which made them among the most interesting and stimulating friends you could have. Neethu and I were very close friends and shared a streak of impulsive wildness which was both exhilarating as well as something capable of landing us into great trouble. When I came to know the rest of the family, including the grand patriarch in Hoshiarpur, I realized that this was a family characteristic and that whichever of the Kapilas you chose as your friend, you would be in for interesting times.

Mr. Kapila came into our lives and careers when he joined the Mussoorie Academy as a Senior Deputy Director when we were probationers. We immediately made him out as a cut above the rest. The informality of his manner, the sharpness of his wit, his irreverence of all hierarchy without ever being impolite or impudent to those in authority, his articulation and -- above all -- his persuasive skills in making people see things from his point of view and in actually converting them to his own without badgering them, was among the most extraordinary. He was a great trainer and later, when we worked together as the founders of the PSIPA, I was awestruck by his ability to transform stodgy, conventional bureaucratic minds into lively, questioning and open minds even if the transformation did not always endure. His interaction with his peers and especially with subordinates often had an inspirational quality and it was from that I learnt to place a great value on how to do things differently and how to set seemingly impossible challenges toone's subordinates as a means of getting them to extend themselves to their fullest potential. I personally rate the time I worked with him as one of the most stimulating periods of my career.

Of course, working with him required one to pay a price. When we started PSIPA, it was the first time I had access to a staff car that I could also use for personal purposes on a fixed monthly payment. Being unused to such luxuries, I tried to make the most of it by driving the official car myself on Holi, with a large, merry and raucous band of revelers spilling out of the car (on the roof and inside the boot) and going to the houses of all our seniors to play the wettest and most rambunctious of Holis. The revelries included our dousing Mrs. Kapila (who had locked herself in the bathroom to shampoo her hair) with a bucket of pure, glorious magenta water thrown at her through a high ventilator by Inderjit Singh Bindra, honing his skills as a fielder. While Mr. Kapila joined in our antics with his characteristic passion, he made it very clear to me the next morning that he found my use of the official car for a Holi outing as thoroughly objectionable and unacceptable. Knowing that he was right, I decided to give up the staff car and follow his example by going to work riding a bicycle. It was a difficult act to follow because not only did Mr. Kapila go to office (and he was Punjab’s Home Secretary then) on a ruddy bicycle, he insisted on carrying his tiffin carrier himself from his bicycle parking shed to the eighth floor of the Punjab Civil Secretariat.

Those days in the Punjab Secretariat were halcyon days. Somehow differences of age and seniority in service, did not interfere with the informality and friendliness of our relations. Because of his informality and the shared antipathy to pomposity and authority, Mr. Kapila was closer to us, the Young Turks of the Secretariat, than he was to many of his own age group. Rajendran Nair, Krishnamaurthy, Deepa Jain Singh, Piyush Verma, Jai Singh Gill  and I would often get together for tea in his room because he was a connossieur of Lopchu and of tea made exactly the way it should be, to yield you a golden brew to be had, in his case, with a pinch of salt and a crushed cardamom. He would make the tea himself and we would spend a delightful half-hour doing what Vaishnav pithily described as ‘malicious meditation’ directed against common enemies in the still higher echelons of the Punjab bureaucracy, including sundry Chief Secretaries. As always, the room would soon be rocking with laughter of the kind that now seems to be lost forever. I think I speak for most of us that these were among the most enjoyable interludes in our careers.

Why is it that we do not have officers like Mr. Kapila any more? People who wore their position so lightly, people who had passionate interests in things outside their careers—books, music, mountains—people who could stand up to their convictions against seniors and ministers with a deftness of touch, people who avoided unpleasantness without having to make compromises, people who saw that fighting for a cause, or a principle, or an idea or a person was not just a personal quality but something essential to the performance of the job one was paid for; people who had scant regard for the fopperies and tinsels of office? When I now see such people held in contempt  and the opposite kind valorized: those for whom timidity, puisillanimity, sycophancy and kow-towing to those in authority are the presiding values, I am glad that I had a chance to work with and be trained by the Kapilas, the Kathpalias, the Vaishnavs and the Vasudevas of the world. For those who will never be able to know how exciting it was to be with people like Mr. Kapila, I have pity. They don’t make them like that any more.

Amitabha Pande

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The culture of corruption- some reflections

Two months ago, Neera Yadav, former Chief Secretary of U.P. and once its most powerful bureaucrat was convicted and sent to jail. Soon thereafter, BS Lalli, CEO of Prasar Bharati, was suspended on allegations of corruption. Both were my batchmates in the IAS and my memories of them as probationers are so completely at variance with the reputations they acquired later in their careers that it becomes both sad and difficult to reconcile the two.

Do social origins and the cultural milieu in which one has grown up have a role to play in the kind of IAS officer one eventually becomes?

At one level, all bureaucrats have been corrupt in some way or another -- favouring friends or kinsmen or persons of a particular region, using the perks and freebies offered by PSUs, accepting free ‘companion’ tickets offered by Air India, and so on. Worse, many readily condoned or not resisted the corrupt behaviour of those in power and often, while keeping their own noses clean, allowed their masters to get away with murder. A few, however, become known for the voraciousness of their appetite for material acquisitions and their tyrannical behaviour, especially in dealing with the subaltern classes. They stand out both because of the awesome scale of their greed and because of their complete disregard for what this greed does to their reputations in civil society or even their peer group. What makes for this change in behaviour? Were the symptoms, or the ‘Lakshanas’ of such behaviour always there?

When we joined the IAS in 1971, the entrants could be broadly grouped into three distinct, occasionally overlapping, categories.There were those of us whose parents had been/ were in the higher echelons of civil service or senior management positions in the boxwalla companies. Most of us had been to public schools and our undergraduate years had been spent in the elite colleges and universities of India. We cultivated intellectual airs. We thought, or at least pretended to be, well read; were passionate about books, classical music and the arts. We had little understanding of caste and community relations, except in academic terms. The only world we knew was the world of the metropolis and gender distinctions were absent from our world. It amused us that many found us to be insufferably snobbish, English-speaking minority in an India that was then still predominantly rural and provincial.

The second social group in the IAS was also from an urban middle class background but with a strong non metro, medium sized city bias. Belonging to cities like Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Nagpur, Sagar, Baroda or Mysore, their parents were mostly from professional, technical backgrounds working in the middle rungs of their organisations. They were deeply rooted in the emerging Indian middle class and the IAS was a very significant part of their aspirational growth. Their fluency in English, to them a second language, was acquired with a fair degree of effort.

The third group had closer links with the rural and provincial than the second. They were deeply and integrally connected to land and land relations. They accepted, even venerated, feudal style hierarchical relations between ‘master’ and ‘servant’. The IAS of their imagination was still rooted in a semi feudal, patriarchal order. Their most distinguishing feature was their unease with the English language. Their lack of familiarity with Western literature, with the Arts was almost a badge of their being rooted in the vernacular. A strand of anti-intellectualism ran through their normal discourse, as they believed that intellectuals did not make good administrators.

This threefold varna is probably sharper in retrospect than it was at that time and many of us fell in between these groups. Nor was this division based primarily on class or caste or income although these dimensions did exist. The distinctions were primarily cultural and the English language the main dividing line. Many in the first category came from families whose incomes were much lower than those in the second or third categories and many in the third category belonged to the higher castes.

Many of us in the first group were half ashamed of our elitist origins. While we were most comfortable with our own blood group we took pains to cultivate friends from the other groups. To our social guilt tainted eyes a person like Neera appeared a shining example of someone who had fought her way out of a male chauvinist, patriarchal social order and stood her own ground in an elitist milieu. The fact that she was completely unselfconscious about her ordinariness made her even more striking to us.

To understand what changed, tracing the career trajectories of the three groups can offer interesting sociological insights. Those of the third group rarely sought careers in the Central Government, saw little benefit in acquiring specialised technical and professional skills, had very close relationships with provincial political satraps and local traders and contractors (forests, mines, liquour, cement, kerosene, civil works) and most of their corrupt dealings dealt with land and real estate related transactions, mining leases, excise licences etc . All of them displayed a tremendous appetite for acquiring landed property. The economic profiles of most changed dramatically between the beginning and the end of their careers. Very few remained free from the taint of corruption.

Those of the second group, while not averse to Central Government careers, focused on jobs traditionally associated with power and status -- Ministries of Home, Defence, Industry, cultivated low profile politicians powerful in the backrooms of party politics to secure posts in such Ministries and Departments, gave great importance to following rules and procedures and paperwork and avoided getting into controversial situations. For the majority of them wielding authority, being treated deferentially, ensuring protocol proprieties was more important than making money. They never took a bold, unconventional stand and never questioned the status quo. They managed political masters deftly showing sufficient elasticity to bend when required without getting into ugly confrontations. Most of them had their children take up careers in finance, or consultancy or Government and they saw to it that their educational progress was geared towards such careers.The corrupt among them concentrated on opportunities in Government procurements, industrial licences and approvals, grant of concessions, food procurements and trading in essential commodities etc. Unlike the third group, their accumulation was relatively discreet and modest in scale. Corruption was practised more by showing flexibility in the application of Rules and procedures and the calibrated exercise of discretionary powers to favour identified parties than through brute domination and control of resources and powers to grant concessions. The incorruptible among this group suffered from intense ‘bouts of integrity’ with a strong sense of self righteousness and sanctimony.

Those of the first group made a beeline for careers in the Central Government as far as possible in Finance, Commerce, Industry or the Infrastructure Ministries -- jobs that offered the maximum potential for international careers and foreign postings. Many managed careers in the International/multi Lateral bureaucracy eventually getting absorbed by them. Most jobs required dealing with International treaties and protocols and therefore superior skills in communication in English gave them a natural advantage. Those with an Economics and Finance background leveraged that to considerable benefit in career terms with organisations like the World Bank and the IMF or the poorer cousins in the Asian and African Development Banks. Relations with political masters tended to be awkward until the Rajiv Gandhi regime brought in the generation of politicians with very similar cultural backgrounds. The corrupt among them brought high levels of sophistication to corruption itself, making it knowledge- and skill-based either to bring about policy changes conducive to favourite corporates or interpreting policies and regulations to facilitate favoured transactions. While some may have salted away fortunes in tax havens, most corruption was a kind of lifestyle corruption rather than crass accumulation of property.

Several generalisations can to be made from this descriptive account. One, that the differences in the internalised image of the IAS between the three socio cultural groups were substantial and determined future behaviour. In the construction of these images their lingual/cultural origins played a significant role. Two, the language of discourse which persons like Neera and Lalli were used to, being steeped in provincialism, showed a very high degree of acceptance bordering on reverence for existing socio-cultural hierarchies. The purpose of getting into the IAS was not to reduce hierarchies but to be on top of them and perpetuate them. A tyrannical style of functioning was appropriate and expected. The Public School/ St Stephen’s lingual environment, on the other hand, encouraged irreverence and reflected a less socially iniquitous culture. Three, each of these language based categories occupies its own distinct cultural and moral universe in which standards of what is acceptable behaviour differ substantively and qualitatively. In the universe of those with a pronounced provincial background acquisition of wealth by using the privileges of office is natural and legitimate. Rent does not have to be sought but should flow as a natural consequence of the position one has made strenuous efforts to get to. In the same way as politicians from a similar social background join politics in order to acquire wealth and power and see nothing wrong with that as a purpose, entering the IAS with similar objectives carries cultural legitimacy. Being oblivious to the social consequences of their reputations outside their own universe is probably why many of them could be so blatant in their styles of corruption.

For those of us from elitist backgrounds the cultural gap between the Officer and the Politician was enormous. They literally spoke completely different languages that made it easy to caricature the Politician as a crass and greasy low life creature with an unspeakable accent and the Officer as an impeccable, upright (steel frame), genteel and ‘honorable schoolboy’. This cultural gap made it difficult to work out a convergence of interests between the two for the optimal exploitation of rent seeking opportunities. This gap has now substantially disappeared and since achieving success in corruption requires complicity and very close collaborative relationships between the Officer and the Politician the narrowing of the cultural, lingual gap has facilitated the process. At the same time, the induction into politics of the new breed of public school educated politicians has meant the emergence of a new kind of nexus especially when it comes to subtler and more sophisticated forms of knowledge based corruption (corruption related to policy design, design of bidding systems, selection of consultants and experts, designing forms of public/private partnerships etc).

A major part of the problem in the IAS stems from an inherent design flaw. The architecture of the IAS was consciously drawn from the ICS and it was premised on a social and cultural distance between administration and civil society on the one hand and between the political executive and the civil servant on the other. It was self consciously elitist and relied on creating a kind of Brahminical mandarinate which was specifically groomed for the task of governance and wielding power in a way in which even outsiders could be put into an appropriate cultural mould. The critical mass had to consist of people who shared a certain cultural ethos, who subscribed to an ‘Esprit de Corps’, who genuinely believed in what is cricket and what is not.

Such a design was obviously at variance with the rough and tumble of the Indian democracy where the Realpolitik was increasingly emerging as the only ‘Real’ Politics. Instead of redesigning the architecture more appropriate to the changing socio-political context, the IAS was sought to be retrofitted by tinkering with its basic design. Obviously uncomfortable with the bias in favour of the westernised, deracinated and seemingly effete elite the policy makers gradually sought to broaden the recruitment zone to include more and more of those with a vernacular background. This was done in the naive hope that by inducting persons of more vernacular social origins and giving them the same elite status the system could be made more sensitive to the underprivileged.

What has happened is the opposite. A new, more aggressive vernacular elite has replaced the earlier one that has brought in a whole new culture where pragmatism, expediency and moral elasticity are the presiding virtues and the exercise of petty tyranny and corruption a legitimate practice. The flaw in the design is in the idea of the elite in a democratic system not in the social composition of that elite. The concept of the IAS itself is an anachronism in a democratic framework and tinkering with its design makes it prone to ‘corruption’ in a very fundamental way. To think that one can actually engineer an elite force which is trained into social conscientiousness and good governance and which remains immune to changes in the socio-political environment is not just naive, it is dangerous. Just think of the number of new, techno savvy, culturally sub-educated, petty tyrants who get added on to the monstrous apparatus that is the Indian State and tremble with fear! What is the alternative? As that contemporary of the Bard said: ‘Another time another place... Besides, the wench is dead...’.

Jammu & Kashmir - A Tangled Web- The IIC Quarterly

2: At the Crossroads

In Praise of Federalism

et me begin with a dramatic over statement. Kashmir today offers what could be the greatest opportunity for lasting peace in the sub-continent. It also has the potential to take a leadership role in radically redesigning the architecture of democratic federalism in South Asia and serving as a model for decentralized governance based on the principles of subsidiarity. Yet, more likely than not, the national and security mindset, which dominates policy thinking, will once again convert this opportunity into a threat and reinforce those traditions of political conservatism and pusillanimity that have repeatedly thwarted any attempts at revitalizing the peace process. Kashmir’s greatest tragedy has been that is too disturbing a reminder of policy failures and the shallowness of our commitment towards a genuinely pluralistic and federal democracy. Forces of

centralism do not like to be disturbed and Kashmir threatens these forces in very fundamental ways.

But let us for a moment suspend cynical disbelief and explore this unique opportunity. Every recent visitor to Jammu and Kashmir has been struck by the overwhelming, all-consuming yearning for peace, cutting across all segments of society: for restoration of the humdrum routine of daily living; for a life free of curfews and sand-bagged check posts, the ‘concertina wires and jack-booted surveillance’; for the freedom to pursue the aspirations of normal middle-class youth anywhere else in India, and for the young to be able to dream the same dreams as the young in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore. It is also evident that the current phase of unrest is qualitatively different from all earlier ones, although obviously there are connecting strands. It is dominated by the youth. It has seemingly touched a chord with a much wider cross-section of people than all earlier phases of militancy. It has a massive groundswell of popular support without any visible signs of political engineering. These outbursts are spontaneous; they are not the conspiratorial inventions of Mr. Geelani or the Hurriyat. Given its spontaneity and unpredictability, the popular upsurge seems incapable of being handled either by brute force or by economic packages, sops or concessions. The protests have increasingly taken the shape of a movement that has no clearly identifiable centre and can any day blossom or burgeon (depending on one’s perspective) into a Tehrir Square-like mass, direct action, campaign. The conventional political formations, including die-hard secessionists and all shades of the Hurriyat, are now being led by the movement rather than being the ones leading it.

In a situation of such flux, genuine and sincere efforts towards dissipating public anger and communicating a commitment towards carrying the conciliation process through to finish can have an electrifying effect. At the same time, any procrastination can so irretrievably damage the emotional balance that the call for secession will become the rallying cry, shutting out voices of moderation. If this opportunity for reconciliation is missed, it is most unlikely to feature again in a hurry.

While recognizing that the situation in the Valley today is qualitatively different from what it was even two years ago, our discussion of the problems invariably reverts to a political discourse that is insensitive to these differentiates. It is a discourse trapped

in the vocabulary of the past, in dead and meaningless clichés, and derived from constructs that have long outlived their social and political significance. We forget that the language we use determines not only the tone, tenor and timbre of any dialogue that we are engaged in, but defines its very substance. It serves little purpose now to continue repeating ad nauseam that ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’ or that ‘there can be no discussion outside the framework of the Indian Constitution’, or to talk of the ‘Pakistan factor’ and look at Kashmir in the context of ‘the external security scenario’, to view the phenomena of mass popular protests as a ‘law and order problem’ and talk of the sufferings of people in terms of ‘grievances’. Such phrases trivialize the situation and ensure that any dialogue becomes nothing more than a repetition of the rigid positions embedded in the syntax and the idiom of a dead discourse. From the Kashmir side, this means repeating ‘recognition of the Kashmir dispute as an international dispute’, ‘the inherent right of the Kashmiri to self-determination’, ‘Freeing Kashmir of Indian occupation’ – phrases that immediately trigger a hostile reaction from large sections of the Indian middle class. In fact, it is because the repetition of these clichés from both sides provokes a predictable response that they continue to be used. This ensures that the enormous vested interest that has developed in perpetuating conditions of hostility and conflict finds ready sustenance. The existing language of discourse, therefore, will not allow the reconciliation process to take root.

This is a bigger problem than it might seem. Language creates conceptual constructs. Constructs are often taken as being fundamental, immutable and sacrosanct. Some constructs become so loaded with emotional and political meanings that whole ideologies get built around them. Questioning the construct, then, is inevitably seen as an attack on core, fundamental value systems that must be resisted and thwarted at all costs. Wars can be and are fought to defend the sanctity of the construct. The problems get compounded manifold when the construct acquires a religious dimension in addition to a political one.


One such construct is that of the ‘sovereign nation-state’. This construct has now taken such a vice-like grip on the Indian middle-class mind that it unthinkingly accepts that the idea of India is the same as the idea of the Indian State and that the word ‘nation’ means the same as the ‘nation-state’. It is widely believed that until colonial rule consolidated the empire and created the basic structure of the Indian State, there was no real entity called India – a land of thousands of fragmented principalities, feudal fiefdoms and fractious village communes. This was a belief actively perpetuated by colonial rulers and uncritically accepted and internalized by most of us as a ‘fact’. In a seminal article on sacred geography, Professor Diana Eck cites Sir John Strachey as saying: ‘This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India, that there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to European ideas, any root of unity, physical, political, social and religion, no Indian nation, no people of India of which we hear so much’. To the imperial mind, the bewildering diversity of a civilization – that refused to fit into any of his classificatory boxes – represented utter chaos that could only be brought to order and unity within the unity of the imperial state. In fact, it was probably not until the British and the Europeans introduced the idea of a ‘nation’, that Indians began to be troubled at the lack of an essentialized core to the complex network of relationships among a diversity of individuals and communities that was their most distinguishable feature as a civilization. ‘There is, therefore, no central something to which the peripheral people were peripheral. One person’s centre is another’s periphery’ (Wendy Doniger – Hinduism, An Alternative History). Before the idea of the nation as a unified community took root, this absence of a centre, therefore, was never a cause for anxiety and could explain why neither a unified religion nor a unified state was found necessary for forging a national identity.

Yet the idea of India existed many millennia before the formation of the modern Indian nation state under British imperial rule. In a seminal article (Rose Apple Island – Feb./March 1996 – India Magazine), Professor Diana Eck, cites the Greek scholar Eratosthenes giving an account of certain informants who, in the fourth century, could describe India to Alexander and to Megasthenes, as a land ‘which was a quadrilateral shape, with the Indus River forming the western boundary, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush stretching

along the north, and the seas skirting the other two sides.’ She further quotes Alexander Cunningham who in 1871 was a major general of the Royal Engineers writing: ‘The close agreement of these dimensions given by Alexander’s informants, with the actual size of the country is very remarkable and shows that the Indians, even at that early date in their history, had a very accurate knowledge of the form and extent of their native land’. Professor Eck goes on to say, ‘It is remarkable that long before there was any semblance of Indian political unity, those who described India to Alexander’s company apparently thought of it and described it as a single land.’

The idea of India, therefore, is much larger, much subtler and more sophisticated than a constitutional, juridical one. It must be viewed as a civilizational entity, consisting of an intricate web of social, cultural and economic interrelationships within a distinct geography, which has survived and continuously evolved over thousands of years and continues to do so even today.

If, therefore, one was to look for the one, ‘essential’, defining feature in this idea of India as distinct from the idea of the Indian state, that feature is India’s diversity. Diversity is not merely something that exists around us. It constitutes us. It is an integrative phenomenon, not a divisive one. Were we to ask the simple question of who, or what, is an Indian, the answer invariably has to stress our plurality and diversity. We are what we are because of our diversity, not in spite of it. We are one only because we are many. This may appear an obvious truism but is easily forgotten, and – worse still – seen by many as a societal failure that can only be overcome by some form of homogenized cultural nationalism.

Before we consider the political dangers of viewing our diversity as a weakness, it is worth understanding why it is so important to us. Looking at the world of nature, we know that the interdependence of species requires bio-diversity and it is through bio-diversity that Nature maintains its balance. It is bio-diversity that provides ecological sustainability and it is through bio-diversity that species get cross-pollinated and enrich one another. Diversity in human societies is, for the same reasons, as important as it is in nature. It strengthens the mutual interdependence of individuals and groups. It ensures social and cultural enrichment through a cross pollination of communities – languages, customs and cuisine. It maintains balance, in society as well as in individuals, by ensuring that multiple

identities remain dynamic and do not get frozen. The culture of diversity as much as the diversity of culture leads to a broadening of minds, a cosmopolitan outlook and a natural affinity for the values of tolerance and mutual respect.

Diversity as an organizing principle is applicable as much to individuals as to society or nature. Plurality and multiplicity of identities exist within individuals as well as in groups and communities. There are identities that are in a sense given and that are not easily changed – gender, skin and hair colour, place of birth, parentage and ancestry, mother-tongue and genetic characteristics. But most others are contextual, and dynamic – religion, faith and belief systems, professions, languages learnt and acquired, education, class, food preferences, politics, to name just a few. Every human being is a composite of these multiple and diverse identities with a considerable degree of dynamism and fluidity among these identities. Some identities can be altered, modified, reformed, reshaped and revamped; some can be, and are, outgrown or subdued or discarded; some are engineered and re-engineered and some constructed and reconstructed, produced and reproduced. Every human being continually and seamlessly shifts and moves within these identities and the identities themselves grow and change in relation to time, place and the environment.

As long as the plurality of these identities is seen as natural, matters remain simple, uncomplicated and conflict-free. Problems arise when people start ranking identities hierarchically in some perceived order of importance. Identities get frozen and ‘essentialized’ – being treated as primordial, immutable and superior in relation to other identities. This happens particularly in the case of identities of race, colour, religion and caste and it happens when individuals and groups cease to celebrate diversity and instead seek homogeneity. When this occurs, then instead of identities revolving around politics, people start playing politics around identity.

At the national level, similarly, when we stop celebrating our diversity and instead search for an elusive homogeneity or a single, hegemonic, unitary identity – be it around religion or cultural nationalism, as propagated by the Sangh Parivar or the construct of the ‘nation-state’ – we begin sowing the seeds of division and conflict. Unfortunately, our constitution makers at the time of framing the Constitution were themselves trapped in a mindset that saw

plurality and diversity as a challenge, rather than as a blessing, to the creation of a modern state. They were fearful men, as many continue to be now, of what they perceived as ‘fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies, which could be contained only by giving the constitution a bias towards a strong unitary state’. It is precisely the same fear, that were it not for the monolithic Indian state (which at best would grudgingly yield some space for regional identities strictly on terms set by it) the country will break up into a thousand different parts, that provides the state legitimacy in unleashing fierce repression to subdue any semblance of resistance to its omnipotence. The fact that Ms. Arundhati Roy can be criminally charged with sedition for speaking out against the Indian state and that such an action is seen as justified, shows how widespread and how deep-rooted the fear of the break up of the State is. The survival, of the State and its machinery, whatever be the cost in human terms and whatever the implications for democratic processes, becomes the paramount objective, expressed in terms of ‘national interest’. ‘National Interest’ becomes synonymous with the interests of a homogenized, unitary state with the Constitution acquiring the force of an ideology. People become creatures of the Constitution rather than the Constitution being a creation of the people. It acquires the status of divinity and defending it becomes a sacred duty.

Few realize the dangers of this. An ideology that justifies unchecked trampling of human rights, of violent and coercive means of defending the authority of a unitary state, can easily descend into a kind of secular fascism, not very different from the theology or cultural nationalism, peddled by the RSS. In fact, because the ideology of the State is ostensibly secular it is even more dangerous as it allays liberal middle-class opinion against the repressive behaviour of the State.

The architecture of Indian democracy is consequently based on fear

– the fear of diversity. The State fans this fear because it sets itself up as the cementing force that holds together disparate communities, each having its own geography. It is then natural for a whole range of vested interests to coalesce around a strong, unitarist state that views genuine federalism with extreme suspicion. Such vested interests aid and abet the gradual militarization of the State, and make State brutality appear acceptable – a necessary evil for the defence of its integrity. In short,

they fuel the propagation of a ‘national security’ mindset in which democracy has to be subordinated to the interests of security.


The Kashmir problem has to be viewed within the dynamics of this interplay between democracy, diversity, identity and the State. It does not help that in this interplay as the Indian polity becomes more and more federal, or even confederal, systems and structures and processes of government become more and more centralist. There is constant need for increasing the number of Central Police forces, central investigation and intelligence-gathering agencies and expanding the role of the military.

At one level the fight in Kashmir, therefore, is a natural resistance to the forcible submergence of the Kashmiri identity within the Indian nation-state identity. The insistence on treating the ‘nation-state’ identity as the superior one to which the Kashmiri identity must be subordinate not only makes the resistance to it more fierce, it also accords a statist dimension to a regional identity in a way in which the cry for secession acquires an emotional edge. The sharper insistence on the part of the State to have its omnipotence unquestioningly accepted, the deeper the desire on the part of Kashmiris to raise the hackles of the Indian state by demanding separation, little realizing that the notion of secession itself is caught within the nation-state construct that they oppose. Having Kashmir as a separate nation-state does not solve anything. It only replaces one coercive rent-seeking apparatus with another, probably much worse, one.

How do we get out of this trap? It is here that in the character of the current phase of what is happening in Kashmir at present, there lies a great opportunity. The first opportunity is to try and see that any dialogue that is resumed is led by a new set of players: new faces, mainly of the youth, who do not carry with them the baggage of history of the older generations. Most of them have a refreshingly different, ‘out of the box’, approach to issues and while they share with the older generation the cumulative rage against a repressive, insensitive and uncaring state, their political understanding is very different and free of the clutter of clichés and rhetoric. They are capable of using a different language and writing a different script.

Here arises the second big opportunity. One word on every Kashmiri lip that has become a rallying, cry for all age groups in the valley is that of ‘azadi’. In its fullest sense azadi is a very creative, liberating word with very positive connotations. Unfortunately, on both sides, it is the narrow, limited, statist construction of it which gets adopted and it is immediately assumed that it is a call for secession. Many begin to see in it a reiteration of the two-nation theory. It is possible, however, to use the emotional appeal of the word to initiate a collective exploration of its creative potential. In libertarian, non-statist terms, such an exploration can be a unique opportunity for a designing a new architecture of federalism and democracy not just for the state of J&K and the rest of India but for the entire South Asian region.

A beginning in this direction has already been made by the J&K Peoples’ Democratic Party in ‘The Self Rule Framework for Resolution’ they brought out in October 2008. While this document shares similar concerns with the earlier National Conference document on ‘autonomy’, it has a much broader, supra-national focus inasmuch as it brings Pakistan and the concerns of Pakistan Administered Kashmir into the ambit of ‘Self Rule’. In many ways, this is one of the most remarkably well-crafted documents to come out of a political party and it is a great pity that policy analysts and policy makers have generally ignored it. As a working blue-print for a bold new architecture of federalism, it can give substance and focus to any dialogue, especially as it has been formulated in very sober and reasoned terms.

A critical problem in discussing the concept of ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared sovereignty’ in respect of Kashmir, is the tendency to view the problems of Kashmir as something unique, and very different from other regions/states in India. This is primarily on account of the history of the ‘special status’ accorded to it in the Constitution and the special circumstances of its accession to the Indian Union. From the Kashmiri point of view, this means seeking a resolution that is Kashmir-centric, as for them any accent on their separateness from the rest of India is a part of their self-identity. This insistence on separateness invariably provokes the opposite reaction from the non-Kashmiri who tends to treat Kashmir as an aberration and their demands as the demands of a spoilt and pampered lot. At the policy level, this means a constant effort to try and dilute the special status

for Kashmir and have Kashmiris accept that their identity has to be subordinated to the Indian identity. Stalemate situations are thus in-built in the design of the dialogue itself. It is this suspicion of proposals that are a seen as the precursors of separation that has kept mainstream political opinion distant from the otherwise extremely practical solutions proposed in the PDP Self-Rule document.

It is in this context that it is more important than ever to treat diversity as a fundamental organizing principle for the architecture of federalism in the country. By recognizing and celebrating diversity, we paradoxically bring the focus to the commonality and similarity of problems and issues among diverse entities rather than to the differences. The concept of self rule and shared sovereignty, therefore, is a concept relevant not only to the state of J&K and Pakistan Administered/Occupied Kashmir, but to almost every state in India, most particularly, the states in the North-East.

It has the potential for a radical redesigning of India’s federal architecture in which Kashmiris can take a leadership role. It may be worthwhile to conceive of a South Asian Commission on Federalism under the SAARC umbrella that is mandated to look at new political superstructures for all South Asian regions and sub-regions, work out a phased programme of economic integration that transcends borders and suggest appropriate restructuring of the Constitutions of the nation states involved. If the idea is too radical for all of South Asia, an experiment can certainly be made within India to have an All India Commission on federalism led by representatives from Jammu and Kashmir. In one stroke, this takes away the stigma of separatism from the proposals for Self Rule and expands its applicability to a larger national, regional and even international context. It also becomes a means for broadening and deepening the debate on the slogan of ‘azadi’ and exploring how the slogan can be used for conducting a mass participatory dialogue on the nature of democracy in South Asia.

The conduct of such a debate can also make a beginning of taking the federalism debate out of the trap of the ‘State’ and the ‘nation-state’ constructs in which it has been stuck for long. As long as it remains confined to these constructs, it becomes primarily an instrument for containing secessionist impulses, or a means of reconciling, accommodating, managing or resolving diversity-related conflicts. The question then is: who accommodates whom, who manages whom, and who acts, as a conciliator for whom. Inevitably,

this is taken as the role of the state that then uses federalism as a means of perpetuating itself through a system of distribution of legislative and executive process, fiscal equalization, assymetric decentralization, etc. The inherent potential of federalism to question the state itself and rethink and redesign systems and institutions of governance gets lost. It is, therefore, important that in exploring this potential, the radical and subversive edge of the slogan of ‘azadi’, is not diluted but is given a positive, innovative twist.

One person who had a profound grasp of the radical potential of the concept of ‘azadi’ was Mahatma Gandhi. As late as 1946, just a year before our independence, when asked to give a picture of the independent India of his conception, he said: ‘Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic or a Panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.’ He then goes on to say: ‘In this structure of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles – the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.’

The metaphor of oceanic circles is important because it articulates decentralization. A completely different meaning – power being simultaneously ceded outwards and drawn inwards, rather than being handed downwards in a hierarchical order. Gandhi had obviously prefigured the concept of self rule and shared sovereignty in a way that was so far ahead of its times that our Constitution makers could not really comprehend its true significance and pushed it into the margins. From what should have been the framework for the structure of Indian democracy, is it possible to hope that, in the process of elaborating proposals for self-rule, political leadership in Jammu and Kashmir can revive the Gandhian vision to suggest major alterations to the Constitution that are applicable not just to the state of J&K but to all states and sub-regions in India?

It is necessary here to touch briefly on the ‘Within the Constitutional framework’ cliché – constantly bandied around whenever the Kashmir issue surfaces, as though the Constitution is a millstone around our necks and prohibits any innovative changes from taking place in the Constitutional scheme. The Indian Constitution is meant to be an enabling and empowering framework and not a constraining one. It is dynamic. It is flexible. It allows for a great variety of forms of

sub-national governance, and it enables major institutional reforms. It is doubtful whether any substantial section of Kashmir political opinion wishes to question the fundamentals of secularism, of the overall scheme of Indian democracy, of Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law. So let us not see the Constitution as a road block and let us accord the Kashmiri people the privilege of leading the exercise to recommend alterations in the Constitution for deepening federal democracy in the sub-continent.

A note of caution about the government-centricity of our political processes, particularly when such processes are designed and scripted by the executive arm of the government – both the political-executive, as well as the bureaucracy. Too often initiatives are trapped within the short-term opportunistic, political goals of the government in power and are reduced to meaningless, bureaucratic waffle and double-speak. The dialogue process, therefore, will have to be led by alternative institutions in which independent think tanks, civil society groups, non-state organizations play a much bigger role. In the joint Memorandum submitted by Mirwaiz/Yasin Malik for the All Party Delegation that visited Kashmir last year, it had suggested the creation of an empowered Kashmir Committee to enter into a process of engagement with the representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Is it possible to think of such a committee as a subset of a Federal Commission of which the Vice President as the Chairman of the Council of States be made the Chairperson?

It is time to rescue the Federalism debate from ‘practical’, ‘nitty­gritty’, ‘nuts and bolts’ issues within a statist framework and go back to its philosophical roots to rediscover its poetry. For too long the debate has been hijacked by political scientists, policy analysts, constitutional experts and ‘practitioners’ at the political and administrative levels who ensure that the debate continues to remain confined within its conventional categories. Kashmir is the land of the Sufi poets, musicians, mystics, philosophers and artists and a land of bewitching beauty. Is it too much to expect that the youth in Kashmir will now pick up the debate, take it out of the worn-out clichés in which it has been wrapped and imbue it with the beauty of their land and the elegance of its people? Who knows whether the next Gandhi is waiting to be discovered in this paradise?