Grandfathers and other thoughts

This is a post about three unrelated topics.

1. I visited my grandparents in Bombay two weeks ago.  In recent times, Dadaji (my paternal grandfather) has gotten into full story-telling mode.  Needless to say given that he made a 3-month voyage from India to the US in 1948 on a cargo ship, he has some amazing stories to tell.  This one, which I like to call “The Luddites of Pindi”, is my current favourite:

Dadaji was born in 1927, only 5 years after electricity reached Rawalpindi, a city now part of Pakistan.  By the time he started going to school, most of the city was electrified (not sure if this is the right word), but people had yet to embrace this technology.  “Don’t put on the light at night”, the dadajis of that generation would say.  “That’s enough now…put the lights off”, even when my dadaji was trying to study at night.  The reason?  “This electricity thing is a ploy by the British.  It’s going to make us all go blind”.

Another story I loved was about when M.K. Gandhi visited Rawalpindi.  Dadaji’s dad ran a shop and couldn’t leave it unattended, so he told 13 year old Dadaji to go see the Mahatma and donate one rupee to his cause.  Dadaji went to the event and thoroughly enjoyed listening to Gandhi speak.  As Great Soul and his entourage got on the train, Dadaji remembered that he needed to hand over the one rupee given by his dad for the cause.  So he chased after the train and, in a moment reminiscent of the iconic DDLJ climax , a Gandhi posse member held out his hand and Dadaji, at full sprint and full stretch, handed over the one rupee.

2. I was hanging out with ethelnmc a few days ago, discussing some of the problems faced by female workers, when we came up with this thought: what if there was an equal probability that men could get pregnant too?  If pregnancies were distributed equally and randomly across men and women, that would probably change a lot of things.  For one, it would reduce a major disincentive to hiring females (maternity leave).  Might it also reduce rape?  Would it lead to more responsible financial decision-making?  What are other things that could happen if getting pregnant were not an exclusively female trait?

3. India is in the midst of a big anti-corruption protest.  While I applaud the sentiment of this movement (“corruption is bad”), I find the means of protest – a hunger strike in New Delhi by a high-profile activist – irritating and dangerous.  Irritating because it is so well-designed to garner media attention, and dangerous for the precedent it could potentially set for unelected people or groups writing legislation.  Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and perhaps one of the most underrated “superhero” level political leaders ever, seems to have foreseen all this when he made his speech at the signing of our constitution in 1950.  Unfortunately, I have seen only one mention of Dr. Ambedkar’s thoughts in all the media coverage of the protest.  The other major source for the text below is Ramachandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi“.

Dr. Ambedkar (source: http://www.dekhloindia.com/)

Dr. Ambedkar warned the new republic that there were three things its people must be wary of. First, he advised that since we now have constitutional mechanisms that represent the people, we must not rely on civil disobedience and Gandhian stunts like hunger strikes to affect change.  For me, it is hard not to think of the current hunger strike as anything more than an attempt to hold the government hostage to the demands of an unelected group of people.  Even though I agree with some of their demands, the overall argument, “discuss my bill in parliament or I will fast to death”, terrifies me.  Yes, constitutional systems are slow and often feel unresponsive.  But that’s the price we pay for living in a system where we are governed by people we choose.

Dr. Ambedkar’s second warning was about “bhakti“, which basically means devotion.  He believed that Indians were especially inclined to hero-worship, and warned that this was a dangerous characteristic that could blind us to the follies of “great men”.  It’s perhaps this belief that ensured Ambedkar has never been as worshipped as some other freedom struggle personalities.  But this cult of personality is exactly what seems to be driving a lot of the anti-corruption energy.  Anna Hazare, the figurehead of the movement, has inspired slogans like “Anna is India, India is Anna”.  His movement also consciously and constantly insinuates that Hazare is some sort of ideological descendent of Gandhi, with his stage frequently having large photos of Gandhi as the backdrop.  I hope I’m not the only one disturbed by this.

Hey I'm hanging out with MKG! (source: http://winnersdelhinews.com/)

Finally, Dr. Ambedkar warned that even though the constitution guarantees legal equality, we must not forget that the social and economic spheres continue to be plagued by discrimination.  Specifically discussing caste, he states that “Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them.”  Curiously, I think corruption is that rare attribute that cuts across government and private life.  It is difficult to find an auto in Delhi that will immediately agree to go by meter.  The way people drive shows scant regard for rules (government) or other vehicles/pedestrians (private life).  It is hardly considered unethical to fabricate medical bills in order to maximize tax savings.

So let’s not forget Dr. Ambedkar.  We definitely need to become less corrupt as a society and the government should set an example, but the way it’s being done now is far from ideal.

This ended up being far ramblier than I meant it to be.  Much gratitude for sticking through to the end if you’ve made it here.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Arun
    Aug 25, 2011 @ 02:34:00

    I think that the Anna Hazaare movement needs to detail what the Lokepal’s body of logistical support would be and how exactly it would function.
    I believe that the movement is basically contesting the need for for approval from a Government agency or higher official, to investigate and indict certain levels of Government servants- in the bureaucracy or amongst the elected elite; this is a big problem but in a country India’s size, it is very difficult to set up an “autonomous body” that will not try to work as an alternative to the judicial system.
    Unfortunately, even the media seems to be more interested in the events of this episode that inspire eye-catching headlines and visuals, rather than the nuts-and-bolts of the issue.

    Reply

  2. Anne Elizabeth Galipeau Johnson
    Aug 25, 2011 @ 08:57:59

    1) Love the commentary on the hunger strike – nice to hear some more depth than the bits and pieces of news we receive stateside about the goings-on.
    2) I’m pretty sure that most of the gender roles we live by today would be massively altered if pregnancy were equally likely in either sex. So many of the gender roles that shape the way men and women live profoundly different lives are grounded in the idea that women are mothers above all else, and men are innately breadwinners/seekers/entrepreneurs/bringer of the bacon.
    Male culture would probably be much more nurturing and more prone to worrying and risk-avoidance… You’d likely hear of far fewer women content to find a nice husband and settle down (or be so-called “gold diggers”) as they would be equally capable (and expected) to be involved in non-domestic spheres… Shopping and other hobbies related to home-making probably wouldn’t be so exclusively associated with women, but casual sex would probably either go down or become considered more of a big risk among men.
    Also… I love the guardian article on men and women in financial risk taking. I can’t can’t help but argue, however, that the decision-making differences they discuss have at least as much to do with nurture (they way women are taught to question themselves and be cautious because they have babies to look out for) as they do with nature (the effects of testosterone). I guess this just shows I’m a true loyalist to anthropology.
    3) I love your Dadaji’s stories.

    Reply

  3. Urvashi
    Aug 26, 2011 @ 18:09:21

    1. Your Dadaji’s stories are quite amusing. My Dada-Dadi also have several stories of going to see MK Gandhi and Nehru at various events before independence.

    2. The pregnancy argument is interesting and it reminds of this article I read on radical feminism last year. The argument there was that the main source of patriarchy and women’s suppression is the fact that they are “tied to their bodies” due to biological reproduction. And the author says that women should withdraw from biological reproduction and some alternative technology in the future could allow people to procreate outside of this whole biological reproduction/sex framework. It also seems to connect with the whole nature v. culture debate – that women are more closely associated to nature because they go threw while giving birth.

    3. I have a lot to say about the anti-corruption movement and I’m not sure where to begin. The biggest problem I see at this point is that the whole movement doesn’t even seem to be about corruption anymore – but rather about defending Anna’s honour and position in the current situation. Most people supporting the movement have not read any of the possible versions of the bill: Team Anna, Govt. or the one proposed by Aruna Roy/NAC. The other concern I have is whether any bill of this kind can actually curb corruption in the country. Between the CAG, the Central Vigilance Committee and the Courts there are several means to address corruption – the problem is largely of implementing current laws and acting on the findings that come out of these existing institutions. That is how the 2G spectrum scam came to light. The most immediate problem I see with the movement is their stubbornness with respect to their version of the bill – which essentially means that they are holding parliament to ransom. Also, their claim that they represent civil society and the people of India is ridiculous – because about 1 lakh people have gone out and protested and parliament election seats are won by margins larger than that in places. There are a lot of problems with UPA-II and clearly corruption is a significant issue – but I find it increasingly hard to find any merit in the way Team Anna is working. Instead of setting up an autonomous body, with supreme powers over other constitutionally created bodies of government – maybe they should focus on strengthening existing bodies (CAG, CVC) or argue for a stronger Whistleblower’s protection act so that following through on corruption cases becomes possible.

    Reply

  4. Kabs
    Aug 26, 2011 @ 18:18:58

    Urvashi – agree fully with you. One of my friends here was also saying that it’s funny how there’s very little (if any) debate on why corruption happens. As we know with things like caste and gender discrimination, just having laws doesn’t actually change behaviour. So it’s equally important to look at the socio/cultural/economic sides of this problem.

    Personally I do think the judicial system to address corruption needs improvement, but yes the way this is being done is absurd. “My way or the highway” is not how democracy works.

    Reply

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