Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
August 14, 2020
Mr. President: As Mr. Lincoln might have said ...three-score and thirteen years ago
the Indian subcontinent gained independence (August 14/15, 1947) from the British --
although Indians were even then substantially running the country. The Indian Civil
Service and its administrators, the police and the military were all Indian, as were
many members of the Viceroy's council -- the viceroy as the British government's
representative having ultimate say. Thus the day-to-day running of the country was
essentially being managed by Indians themselves.
The Hindu nationalist ideas of the Narendra Modi government are uniquely (and
mistakenly) revanchist for Hindus were involved in government during the Mughal
era. A proud country treasures its history; not Mr. Modi's BJP Party. It and its goons
instigated mobs and participated in the destruction of the Babri Mosque, where last
week Mr. Modi was at a ceremony marking the beginning of construction of a Hindu
temple on the Mosque site, believed by some Hindus to be the birthplace of the god
Introduced in the epic Ramayana, he is its central figure, and while it is mentioned he
was born in Ayodhya, nowhere does it say where in Ayodhya. The epic also features
a monkey king Hanuman and a monkey army that helped Rama in the story. Beliefs
are beliefs and if all of this clashes with modern rationality just consider some of the
ardent beliefs of other religions.
Of course a harmonious solution for the site might have opted for the structure to be
either utilized by both religions or moved to a nearby location.
If religious structures offend, why not convert them for your own use? That is
precisely what President Erdogan has done -- in the process turning Turkey's secular
tradition upside down, In fact, he led the first Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia, a
mosque now by Erdogan edict that was the former Byzantine cathedral museum and a
popular tourist site in Istanbul. Modern Turkey's secular founder Kamal Ataturk is
probably turning over in his grave.
No such luck for the early 16th century Babri mosque, it was razed to the ground, a
signal to Indian minority religions (Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs,
even atheists and humanists) of the primacy of Hinduism. The ones who strived so
long and hard for India's independence, namely the secular Fabian socialist Nehru
and the inclusive Gandhi would be doing the same as Ataturk, had they not been
With all its conflicts, any wonder that India hovers precariously near the bottom of the
World Happiness Index, as does Delhi as one of the world's least happy cities -- about
as nice to live in as Gaza. If Pakistan (number 66 near Japan at 62) and its cities are
much higher in the Happiness Index, it has its own problems ... like the disappearance
of activists. The latest, a human rights activist (Idris Khattak) turned up after three
months without a word to the families from the security agencies holding him. Some
are not so lucky -- they never turn up. Moreover, religious extremism has spawned
anti-blasphemy laws that border on censorship and serve as a gag on free speech.
The founder of the country was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, an accomplished lawyer who
had practised before the Privy Council. A staunch defender of democratic principles
and the rule of law, suave, suited by Henry Poole of Savile Row and partial to a
whisky before dinner, he would be appalled.
Bangladesh the perennial disaster area is now suffering the triple whammy of its usual
flooding, plus the new covid-19 and the consequent lost livelihoods. It is at number
107 on the World Happiness Index, much happier than India ranked 144 and now one
of the worst places to live in the world.
In the age of management consultants, experts, specialists and private equity
companies with special expertise in turnarounds, perhaps India (perhaps the
subcontinent as a whole) could do worse than invite the British back and pay them to
run the place. At the very least, it is likely to make life bearable in Kashmir.