Sunday, January 31, 2016

'Students today are a misinformed lot and Modi is banking on their short attention spans'

Letters to the editor

A selection of readers' opinions over the past week.

Scroll · Today · 04:30 pm

Photo Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Caste politics

While I agree with the piece in general (and mourn the past), might I add that these are not the 1990s (“Could the Dalit students’ agitation be Modi’s Mandal moment?”). With all the sources of information at their disposal, students today are a misinformed lot and Narendra Modi is banking on their short attention spans.

Like everything else, the suicide and the agitation shall be forgotten in a month or two. This is not a Mandal moment, just a fashionable intermezzo before the next new atrocity erupts. Life goes on, sadly. Kishore Tejaswi


Narendra Modi was never the leader of the backward classes and Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes. Although he got a fair share of their vote that swung the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in his favour, he knows that these groups will not stick with him and will return to their parent parties.

That’s why he is not acting in this case because it will be futile for him to act and displease his core base supporters – upper-caste Hindus. He knows that they are behind him and if he does something wrong, then they will ditch him as well. Vishal Jindal

Patriarchal perspective

This was the danger which I discussed with my friends when this government came to power in 2014 (“First Chennai, now Hyderabad: Has the government decided that all dissent is anti-national?”). Those who have read RSS and BJP ideology know that they believe in a patriarchal system of society in which elders and most importantly upper castes are always right, and those who are on the receiving end – namely youngsters and lower castes should obey their masters dutifully.

It is their firm belief that no student or children (for them a person is child as long as his/her elders are alive) can question elders in a family and in society. We should see all these student-government clashes from this perspective.

They also believe that any criticism, debate or discussion will raise doubts on their governing ability and so they crush any such attempts.

The BJP’s problem is that it sees everything through the prism of “us vs them”. But this will lead to their downfall. Vishal Jindal

Caste considerations

It’s true that reservations have nothing to do with the development of common Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but only creates a slavery system for SCs, STs, MLAs and MPs (“Despite having 40 Dalit MPs, why has the BJP ignored Dalit complaints? Dr Ambedkar has the answer”).

This is the reason why with the support of slaves, the ruling parties are removing reservation in various places of government through privatisation, and rejecting reservation in higher education and rejecting reservation in promotions through government orders.

Now it’s time to demand that the government scrap reservations in politics. Sivaji A

Credibility in doubt

I’m writing in to let you know that I’m deeply saddened by this article and that it is well written (“Love, justice and stardust: A requiem for Rohith Vemula”). However, the author makes a claim that reserved students are discriminated against in IITs. As a student of IIT Madras I can say this isn’t true, at least over here. Nobody knows or even asks each other’s JEE rank, let alone category. They most certainly aren’t segregated in hostels. They don’t even get unique roll numbers in class and the teachers here never discriminate between students based on caste. Everyone is treated the same.

This one sentence in the article makes me doubt the knowledge of the author and I wonder how many of the other claims made in the article are false or poorly researched. Please do provide the sources of your information in your articles. It will help readers decide what and what not to believe. Vaibhav Nayel

Minister's mess

I feel the onus lies with Smriti Irani, our HRD minister (“So who exactly is politicising Rohith Vemula’s suicide?”). I don’t understand why on earth she is getting embroiled in such controversies. On many previous occasions, she has made a fool of herself by speaking prematurely. Her presser just after Rohith Vemula’s suicide says a lot about her ignorance. Now she has to eat humble pie because the prime minister has spoken belatedly to clear the air, indirectly putting the blame on the HRD minister. Ravindra Arakeri

Evident bias

Good try, Akash Banerjee (“As Modi completes 20 months in office, 20 numbers he should keep in mind going ahead”). We wish you had removed your blinkers while writing the piece. You can become prime minister for six months and try to rectify the shortcomings. You forget the role of the Opposition in creating all possible hurdles after losing power. Writers need to be rational and unbiased while writing about our country. Ravindra Krishna

Hidden atrocities

I take the report as true, without any investigation. The story has entered the public domain – this in itself is proof of it being true (“Déjà vu: Chhattisgarh’s security forces accused of large-scale sexual violence yet again”). The Indian psyche and politics never allows such atrocities inflicted on tribals and destitute to surface in the mainstream media. Shouldn’t we take pride in having defeated ISIS in their odious game? After all, we run with handicaps like democracy, free media, welfare state, among others. Farooque Shahab

Skewed perspective

The use of Shivaji as a symbol of a Hindu king waging war against Muslim Mughals is a complete parody of history (“Why BR Ambedkar’s three warnings in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly resonate even today”). Shivaji did not fight for Hindus and Mughals did not fight against Hindus – both fought for their respective empires. The writer’s judgement is biased and religiously motivated. Dhruv Badolia

Meaningless freedom

This really was a very shocking story of rape victims. It looks like we are still far away from independence (“In Muzaffarnagar, rape videos herald death, judgement and communal incitement”).

Your article only mentions victims from one community. But there have been reports of rape in the Muslim community as well, forcing them to flee their homes and leave behind their landholdings. I think the writer is ill-informed or she has only described the pain of one community.

These were the worst communal riots in the history of Muzaffarnagar for which the political parties were responsible. I feel our respected freedom fighters devoted themselves to the country but our leaders have sucked the peace and harmony from India today. Mohd Zuhaib

Claiming a legacy

I am not supporting any of the so-called special efforts by the rightist brigade to claim credit or ownership of any lineage (“Photoshopping history: Fake Nehru letter aside, here’s why BJP wants to lay claim to Netaji’s legacy”). However, I am very curious to know how come almost all of your articles are bereft of even an iota of criticism of the much lauded “Nehru Gandhi family”.

If a legitimately elected government is proposing some other point of view, can’t it be given a bit of space? Do only Nehrus and Gandhis hold all the intellectual capacity of the country? Much nepotism and corruption has taken place in their presence and indirectly or directly been promoted by them. At least now your eyes should open a bit to newer realities. Vilas Kulkarni

Question time

This article made for a very interesting read (“A question for Indian quizzers: Where are the women?”). Quiz is perceived as a “battle of the mind sport” and an “intellectual activity” among the general public. The lack of women participants in corporate events stems from the lack of diversity in Indian companies.

Schools these days have a healthy mix of male and female students. The same cannot be said for Indian corporates.

Globally, the notion of women quizzers is much more accepted. Where there is a strong culture of pub quizzes in places such as UK, US and Australia, the same gets translated to the corporate world.

While gender auditing and stereotypical questions continue to attract the mainstream, it is important to strike the right balance between “entertainment” and “information”. While quizzes can have Sunny Leone dancing to bring the entertainment factor in place, there is also the informative angle to it by highlighting her achievements as an animal rights campaigner. Such questions are both entertaining and educative – important hallmarks of a great quiz.

A Women’s Day quiz at companies, where we celebrate the achievements and spirits of famous women across all boundaries, may be the starting point to bring about this cultural shift. Daksha Ballal

Alarmist notion

I think the writer is overreacting (“Another Republic Day, another compromise on nuclear safety?”). India needs more energy, and solar power can’t supply all of it. Providing compensation to project affected people is the government’s responsibility and some cost to the environment is inevitable in generating more energy and improving the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Nishant Kale

EPW's identity

I enjoyed reading this write-up (“The legend of EPW: How a weekly magazine became an institution”). While EPW will certainly survive, its corporatisation, and by implication commodification, of the precious EPW knowledge system began after C Rammanohar Reddy became its editor.

The EPW archives are accessible only to subscribers, which means even past contributors have no access to EPW back issues. EPW was conceived and developed as an everyman’s weekly. Alas, it is no more so.

There are any number of EPW readers who may not have institutional affiliation or subscription to EPW. Reddy deprived many of these readers their free access to EPW. I wonder whether Krishna Raj would have gone for such wholesale commercialisation of EPW, and also wonder whether the new editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, will undo the damage. P Radhakrishnan

Remembering Ramanujan

A simple fact that is often deliberately understated and not mentioned at all is that GH Hardy was a Marxist (“What English mathematicians thought of the ‘Hindoo calculator’”). 

The man who knew infinity offers an interesting insight into the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. Though colonialism has ended, we still have to take a glimpse at one of the world’s greatest mathematicians through the lens of the colonial power relationship.

Of course, one should qualify this statement with the caveat that British and US academia always had an open door for talent, though often regarding such talent as mildly exotic social species. Prof Subho Basu

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Source: scrollin

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Bhilai gangrape: ‘If I die, nobody will call me a prostitute anymore’

In her suicide note, the girl says her lawyer, Kalpana Deshmukh, told her there was little hope of her getting justice, and that she would be made to run around in court.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Bhilai | Updated: January 31, 2016 7:09 am

 The room where the Bhilai ‘rape victim’ killed herself

“If I die, nobody will call me a prostitute anymore.” In a suicide note speaking of loss of faith in the judicial process, the “rape victim” who killed herself in Bhilai on Thursday left behind this wish.

The 21-year-old was found hanging from a ceiling fan when police arrived to issue court summons for the next hearing on February 2. “Whenever I go to court on the date I am called, the judge is not present in court,” she wrote at another place.

The letter, in Hindi, was discovered by police inside a notebook, written by her after nearly a year of the case being tried in court.

For six months, she had kept the alleged assault by a doctor and two police constables hidden from her family, worried about their “izzat (honour)”. Her father retired as the guard of an engineering college in Nagpur, and she was the fourth of seven children. The family lives in a two-room house.

She had gone to Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital in Bhilai in June 2014 for some treatment on her face when she was “raped”, allegedly first by the doctor and then the two constables posted there.

“The doctor, Gautam Pandit, told her she had jaundice and kept her at the hospital for three days. He drugged her, and with constables Saurabh Bhakta and Chandra Prakash Pandey, raped her. Then for over six months, they threatened her, saying they had made a video, and even took money from her on two occasions,” says her brother.

In January 2015 she finally told her family, and the three were arrested within a day.

According to the brother, police were reluctant to file an FIR. “They hit her at the time saying she was lying, but eventually the three were arrested. Since then, both my sister and I would get threatening calls, asking us to compromise or withdraw the case. They even came to our house. Sometimes she even got calls from within the jail premises. There was constant harassment. After the matter came to light, people would call her names. It was just too much for her to handle,” he says.

The father claims prosecution lawyers threatened that they would drag her family’s name into the matter. “She never reported this because she told her lawyer everything. We fear her lawyer too did not want to fight for her, and instead told her to give up the case.”

In her suicide note, the girl says her lawyer, Kalpana Deshmukh, told her there was little hope of her getting justice, and that she would be made to run around in court. All of Thursday, Deshmukh remained unavailable, with her phone switched off.

In her suicide letter, the girl goes on to seek the forgiveness of her parents. “Please mummy, papa forgive me. Nor will I get justice anymore, nor will I be able to move forward in life.”

The father claims that while they had attended all the five hearings that been held so far, it was also shown in court records that they had missed them.

Still, the family never expected the girl to take this extreme step. “She was studying B.Sc, and just three days ago, told my mother she wanted to finish it, take a law degree and become a judge, because she didn’t want what was happening to her to occur to someone else,” says the brother.

Police have taken phones of both him and the victim to examine the charges of threats. “We will reach a conclusion in the matter. If any further complaint is received, action will be taken on that as well. Everyone that has been named will be questioned, including the lawyers,” Rajesh Agarwal, ASP, Bhilai, said.

Under attack from the Congress, Chief Minister Raman Singh told reporters on Friday that it was likely “something emotional was going on in the victim’s mind”. “All the accused have been arrested and the case is going on in court,” he said.

Source: indianexpress


Friday, January 29, 2016

Air India perjurer's connection to B.C. town lingers as residents support families

The Canadian Press

Jan 28th, 2016


Inderjit Singh Reyat was convicted of perjury and manslaughter in the 1985 Air India bombings. Photo courtesy Canadian Press.

VANCOUVER — Residents of a British Columbia town are thinking of the families of 331 who died in the Air India bombings now that the only man convicted of the crimes has been released from prison.

Inderjit Singh Reyat became eligible for statutory release on Wednesday. He has served two-thirds of his nine-year sentence for perjury for lying at the trial of two other men charged in Canada's worst mass murder 30 years ago.

Reyat was convicted in 1991 of manslaughter in the deaths of two baggage handlers at Tokyo's Narita airport on June 23, 1985, the same day another suitcase bomb aboard an Air India plane exploded over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people.

The Crown maintained Reyat built the bombs that were housed in suitcases meant to go off mid-air on two state-owned Air India planes as revenge against the Indian government.

Reyat's earlier trial heard that Ken Slade, a resident of Duncan, B.C., unwittingly gave Reyat some of the explosive material found at the Narita bombing.

Duncan resident Tom Paterson said Wednesday that the well driller who used explosives in his job has had to live with that reality for decades.

Paterson said that while Reyat will walk free after his time in a halfway house and return to his wife and four children, the victims' families will have to live with their loss forever.

"My God, I can't wrap my mind around conceiving such a plan in the first place, let alone executing it," Paterson said of the terrorism plot the Crown said as hatched by British Columbia-based Sikh extremists.

"How many communities anywhere have had a Reyat Singh in their midst?"

Reyat's wife and children moved from the Duncan area years ago, but the town's people are focusing on the families of the bombing victims, Paterson said.

"We must never allow the Air India tragedy to be forgotten. And that's not dwelling on it in a morbid sense but as a moral milestone," the writer and historian said.

"I would hope that we all share a sense of being violated by having this within our community."

Paterson said he would often see Reyat and his sons at garage sales around town but then couldn't reconcile that image with the bomb maker who destroyed so many lives.

"He was such a striking-looking man," he said. "I'm six feet two, and he seemed taller, the way he carried himself. Once you saw him, you remembered him.

"To this day, I think that I have actually seen, in a most fleeting way, real evil."

Duncan Mayor Phil Kent said that while he was expecting Reyat to be released soon, he was still shocked to hear he was no longer behind bars.

"For families of that particular travesty, I can't imagine how they're feeling about it," said Kent, adding he met Reyat years ago at the now-defunct Auto Marine Electric.

Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were charged with murder and conspiracy in the bombings but were acquitted in March 2005.

Canada's worst act of mass murder led to an inquiry, and a report in June 2010 cited a "cascading series of errors" by the Canadian government, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for allowing the terrorist attacks to take place.

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Replies to Devdutt Pattanaik: 'One cannot explain caste, one can only condemn it'

Letters to the editor

A selection of readers' opinions about Devdutt Pattanaik's article on how free speech and political correctness prevent India from having an honest discussion about caste.

Scroll · Jan 27, 2016 · 07:30 pm


Dear Mr Pattanaik,

The death of Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad has brought forth a surge of support for the anti-caste movement from a variety of individuals, many of whom are from dominant castes ("The two factors that prevent India from having an honest discussion about caste").

This support has pivoted on the struggles of luminaries such as BR Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule, acknowledging one’s own caste (and therefore oppressor) status, and admitting that Dalit-Bahujan people face the worst caste violence, and hence, they should lead the struggle.

However, you are the first to point out the “problems” of upper caste people when they deign to support people like us – how we don’t welcome the support with open arms, how we’re wary of the sudden love after centuries of oppression and how we’re gagging the “powerful” – though I’m not sure how that’s a bad thing, even if true.

You begin with an account of how caste came to be – “there is no oppression in the world, only hierarchy” – a controversial and oft-discredited theory of the French anthropologist, Louis Dumont.

You say, “Hierarchies are inescapable and eternal… any attempt to overturn the prevailing hierarchy will only create chaos and end up creating just another hierarchy”.

I’m not sure how to read that statement other than an endorsement of the violent caste system, with you saying that any attempt at an equal and just society is bound to fail.

Ground realities

Caste activists aren’t trying to upend the order, they’re trying to demolish it – creating a society where individuals and communities aren’t discriminated and killed based on their birth and choices, where access to resources is just and equitable, and where freedoms aren’t curtailed based on appearance. If this isn’t reconcilable with your hierarchies, then so be it.

You further go on to talk about how we’re reading caste wrong – as a violation of the social contract, instead of “inevitable” hierarchy. This again, is familiar: reducing the real-life struggles of millions of people to an “epistemological” problem. Not that there isn’t a wealth of lower caste literature on caste, but none of that paints it as inevitable or says that if one can’t handle hierarchy, one needs to step out.

You say we haven’t understood caste – as if the thousands of people who are dying as a result of the system don’t comprehend it better than you and I – because of free speech and political correctness.

But you then reduce free speech to your apparent right to hold forth on caste, complaining how people like us are stopping you from your god-given (or is it birth) right to educate the oppressed on caste.

I’m sorry to disappoint but there is no such right, though that hasn’t stopped dominant caste scholars from silencing lower caste voices and crowding them out of voicing their own oppression.

Unlike your assertion, members of privileged communities can speak about caste but we only ask them to foreground the oppression meted out by their brethren to millions of people over centuries who have had limited access to health, education, social resources and wealth.

Pushed to the margins

One cannot explain caste, one can only condemn it – condemn it for stripping people of basic human dignity, of killing men, women and children, of violently suppressing struggles and disenfranchising everyone except a handful of privileged caste Hindus.

Accusing an upper caste person of appropriating the movement comes from this memory of silencing and discrimination, where scholars have examined caste without examining their own privileges and complicity in the oppression.

Despite the wealth of lower caste literature, Dalit Bahujan academics find it difficult to exist in universities and are seldom published. Our much-beloved shops rarely stock any books by lower caste persons, and we don’t acknowledge their contribution.

Unlike your statement, millions of lower caste people are taking back Hinduism from the violence of upper caste traditions, re-imagining the epics and festivals, and asserting our right to public and religious spaces.

The death of Rohith Vemula has seen a surge of support, but most of these tend to put their own statements and justifications front and centre, instead of focusing on the powerful life and struggle of the student. It is no accident that much of this self-righteous assertion comes from upper caste scholars and academics trying to use the movement to again crowd out lower caste voices. This is what we are against. – Dhrubo Jyoti


Dear Mr Pattanaik,

I am not sorry to say that your piece is rather silly and banal in its outlook, and obviously in its content. You have viewed the problems of casteism from a delusional standpoint and tried to appear liberal. Attempting to introduce your article with hints of drawing a genealogy is completely moronic.

I hope when you wrote about the first side of story, where culture is a contract, you have possibly tried to talk about the Social Contract Theory, propagated by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. If that is what you have tried to talk about, please read those texts again. Firstly, they say nothing about what you have written. Secondly, there are several criticisms of the theory too, thus making it redundant in a way. Kindly update yourself. The point is not that the breach in the contract leads to oppression, but that the mere existence of the contract causes the oppression.

In your shallow paragraph laden with hopes of a revolution, you have tried to put across your revolutionary, Marxist outlook. But trust me, anyone who has read Karl Marx could figure out the shallowness and lack of knowledge. You merely repeated certain words, which even a child who reads a little of the newspaper or listens to elders can say. It is true that the revolution will come and at any given time and era, a revolution is needed. But will you wait for one and help your hierarchical system, as you belong to that category?

You mentioned a revolution inspired by messiah or messenger of god. Why did you need to include the rational scientific leader, if messiahs are here? If you have also read world history other than Hindu texts, then you should know that revolutions in the world have always been brought or initiated by either the workers, labourers, or the people from lower strata of the society (read oppressed), or the students - never by a messiah. Are you trying to say that the birth of Christianity and Islam were revolutions?

World of hierarchy

I agree that Hinduism and capitalism work on the basis of hierarchy. But if hierarchy is “inescapable and eternal,” then conflict and resistance will always be inescapable and eternal against this very existence of hierarchy. As long as there is hierarchy, there will be conflict. Then why did you say that hierarchy is inevitable, thus hinting that we, the people of India should agree with it? Why not at least attempt to resist it?

You said: “Any attempt to overturn the prevailing hierarchy will only create chaos and end up creating just another hierarchy. Hierarchies are inescapable and eternal. Those who cannot handle the hierarchy need to step out, either physically like an indifferent monk, or psychologically, like a detached yet engaged household.”

I somewhat agree with the first sentence. Why not have an entirely different hierarchy, where the upper castes for a change switch roles with the lower caste? For several centuries, upper castes have enjoyed superiority over the rest. Let the opposite side enjoy those fruits that have been denied to them since time immemorial. They are the base of the society, upon which the superstructure of upper caste can comfortably dwell. Let for once let the upper caste people go down to the bottom, do all the laborious, scavenging jobs and struggle for once just to survive with dignity.

And can you please explain what you meant when you said that “those who cannot handle it should step out”? Are you trying to say like Rohith Vemula, they all should die? What if we neither step out, nor get to grips with the hierarchical system?

I agree that the caste system is borne out of your second story of hierarchy. But aren’t you too committing the same mistake you are accusing us of: understanding football with the logic of cricket? I don’t think caste can be explained in any other way other than a hierarchical system, which perpetrates only violence in the name of maintaining law and order. It is nothing but an oppressive and exploitative system. But I can surely see from where you have drawn your inspiration, which clearly lays bare your ideological leanings.

Speaking out

Also, free speech was never created to give voice to the opposition. Do you seriously not know the history of the world? There is a subtle difference between “free speech” and “free flow of information and communication”. Free speech is a right, given to us by our Constitution, which says that any citizen of India (definitely not just the upper caste and class) has the right to voice their thoughts and opinions, provided the public order is maintained.

What you have written in your article is basically the second thing: free flow of communication, which definitely is not made for opposition, but for the powerful to grasp even more power as they have more capital to invest.

Meanwhile, the lower strata will lose themselves in just finding a niche amidst all other powerful people, who dominate the communication field by the virtue of owning a lot more privileges and capital to sustain it.

Our current government is only interested in disciplining the people of India (Read: lower caste and class, and the minority) and not encouraging them much (indirectly) to have an access to education or a career.

The government is only curbing the original and unique intellect of students so that this kind of protest (chaos, as you called it) should never happen anywhere. The more you people will try to discipline us, the more we will create chaos, until and unless you realise and understand the inherent discipline amidst the chaos.

Till date, very few people have spoken properly about caste. Ambedkar could do so long ago. One needs to understand caste fully and then talk. It is only then that the problem will be clearer.

Let me tell you in short what caste is. Caste is an epidemic; it only kills, is vast and the sufferer dies with no control over the situation at all. The caste system is based on nothing else but exploitation and oppression. It is disgraceful and is devoid of anything to do with humanity. And there can be only one reason to study or understand caste, which is how to demolish the entire system from its very roots. It needs to be killed, not nurtured.

And before I take your leave, your prescription on understanding caste is wrong as you have wrongly diagnosed the disease. – Ankhi Mukherjee

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The two factors that prevent India from having an honest discussion about caste


The suicide of a Dalit student in Hyderabad is another reminder that political correctness gags and free speech suffocates any real conversations on the problem.

Devdutt Pattanaik  · Jan 21, 2016 · 11:30 am


In the beginning there was nature: a world of predators and prey, of pecking orders, of packs and herds and hives, but no oppressor or oppressed. To survive in this world, you had to be strong or smart. Opinion did not matter here, only survival. It was a world without intellectuals.

Then came human culture, born out of human intellect. We domesticated fire, water, plants and animals, and even humans, with rules and rituals. We gave ourselves meaning and agenda through stories.

According to one story, with culture came contract. But there was a breach of contract resulting in oppression, with some communities cornering wealth, power and knowledge and using it to dominate the rest.

There is hope that one day the contract will be restored, that there will be a fair redistribution of wealth, power and knowledge that will satisfy all. That day is yet to come. Maybe a revolution will accelerate the process. The revolution may be inspired either by a messiah, a messenger of god, or by a rational scientific leader.

This story influences Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even communism.
There is another story. It influences Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, and even capitalism. In this story, there is no oppression in the world – only hierarchy. Hierarchies of wealth, power and knowledge result from the animal instinct to compete and dominate, which humans have been unable to shake off.

While awareness of animal nature with intent to outgrow it prevents exploitation, blindsighting it creates tension. Any attempt to overturn the prevailing hierarchy will only create chaos and end up creating just another hierarchy. Hierarchies are inescapable and eternal. Those who cannot handle the hierarchy need to step out, either physically like an indifferent monk, or psychologically, like a detached yet engaged householder.

Understanding the problem
Caste, as an idea, emerges from the second story. But people are explaining it and seeking solutions for it, from the first story. There is a vast epistemological gap as pointed out by Bernard Cohn in Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge and SN Balagangadhara in Heathen in his Blindness. It is like trying to understand and solve the problems of football using the rules of cricket. However, we rarely acknowledge this gap. We don’t want to, or we can’t. And there are two reasons for this: free speech and political correctness.

Free speech was designed to help critics of a system speak out freely, to get unheard voices to be heard. But it ended up enabling the majority to drown the voices of the minority. Political correctness was designed to protect the oppressed from violent language. But it has ended up gagging the powerful, building silent resentment and even turning many moderates into extremists.

Today, no member of the privileged castes can speak about caste. If a person tries to understand or explain it, he/she is accused of justifying it, or of being defensive, and apologetic. If a person condemns caste, he/she is accused of appropriating the movement for his/her career growth.

Likewise, if a member of the unprivileged castes says anything good about Hinduism, or engages with it positively, he/she could end up being seen as a traitor. And if he/she says anything bad about Hinduism, he/she will end up being admired by a few radical academicians, but also hounded by Hindutva radicals as "anti-national".

People on every side are being storm-tossed. So while politicians get their votes, academicians get their doctorates, and media get their debates, caste remains the least understood problem of India, trapped in epistemological limbo. When a disease is wrongly diagnosed, the prescription can never be right.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why BR Ambedkar's three warnings in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly resonate even today

 Republic Day

On November 25, 1949, he spoke of the need to give up the grammar of anarchy, to avoid hero-worship, and to work towards a social – not just a political – democracy.

BR Ambedkar  · Today · 02:30 pm

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Excerpts from the speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949

On 26th January 1950, India will be an independent country. What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain her independence or will she lose it again? This is the first thought that comes to my mind. It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future.

What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people.

In the invasion of Sindh by Mahommed-Bin-Kasim, the military commanders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mahommed-Bin-Kasim and refused to fight on the side of their King. It was Jaichand who invited Mahommed Gohri to invade India and fight against Prithvi Raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki Kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Moghul Emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh Rulers, Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh Kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the event as silent spectators.

Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is deepened by the realisation of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.

On the 26th of January 1950, India would be a democratic country in the sense that India from that day would have a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The same thought comes to my mind. What would happen to her democratic Constitution? Will she be able to maintain it or will she lose it again? This is the second thought that comes to my mind and makes me as anxious as the first.

Democratic system

It is not that India did not know what is Democracy. There was a time when India was studded with republics, and even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited. They were never absolute. It is not that India did not know Parliaments or parliamentary procedure.

A study of the Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas discloses that not only there were Parliaments – for the Sanghas were nothing but Parliaments – but the Sanghas knew and observed all the rules of parliamentary procedure known to modern times. They had rules regarding seating arrangements, rules regarding Motions, Resolutions, Quorum, Whip, Counting of Votes, Voting by Ballot, Censure Motion, Regularisation, Res Judicata, etc. Although these rules of parliamentary procedure were applied by the Buddha to the meetings of the Sanghas, he must have borrowed them from the rules of the Political Assemblies functioning in the country in his time.

This democratic system India lost. Will she lose it a second time? I do not know. But it is quite possible in a country like India – where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new – there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.

Three warnings

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do?

The first thing
in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions”. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.

Social democracy

What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.

Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.

We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty.

On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which is Assembly has to laboriously built up.

The second thing we are wanting in is recognition of the principle of fraternity.
What does fraternity mean? Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians – of Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life. It is a difficult thing to achieve. How difficult it is, can be realised from the story related by James Bryce in his volume on American Commonwealth about the United States of America.

The story is – I propose to recount it in the words of Bryce himself:

    “Some years ago the American Protestant Episcopal Church was occupied at its triennial Convention in revising its liturgy. It was thought desirable to introduce among the short sentence prayers a prayer for the whole people, and an eminent New England divine proposed the words `O Lord, bless our nation’. Accepted one afternoon, on the spur of the moment, the sentence was brought up next day for reconsideration, when so many objections were raised by the laity to the word nation’ as importing too definite a recognition of national unity, that it was dropped, and instead there were adopted the words `O Lord, bless these United States.”

There was so little solidarity in the USA at the time when this incident occurred that the people of America did not think that they were a nation. If the people of the United States could not feel that they were a nation, how difficult it is for Indians to think that they are a nation?

A great delusion

I remember the days when politically minded Indians, resented the expression “the people of India”. They preferred the expression “the Indian nation.” I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us. For then only we shall realise the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realising the goal. The realisation of this goal is going to be very difficult – far more difficult than it has been in the United States. The United States has no caste problem. In India there are castes. The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.

These are my reflections about the tasks that lie ahead of us. They may not be very pleasant to some. But there can be no gainsaying that political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of a few and the many are only beasts of burden, but also beasts of prey. This monopoly has not merely deprived them of their chance of betterment, it has sapped them of what may be called the significance of life. These down-trodden classes are tired of being governed. They are impatient to govern themselves. This urge for self-realisation in the down-trodden classes must no be allowed to devolve into a class struggle or class war. It would lead to a division of the House. That would indeed be a day of disaster. For, as has been well said by Abraham Lincoln, a House divided against itself cannot stand very long. Therefore the sooner room is made for the realisation of their aspiration, the better for the few, the better for the country, the better for the maintenance for its independence and the better for the continuance of its democratic structure. This can only be done by the establishment of equality and fraternity in all spheres of life. That is why I have laid so much stresses on them.

I do not wish to weary the House any further. Independence is no doubt a matter of joy. But let us not forget that this independence has thrown on us great responsibilities. By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. There is great danger of things going wrong. Times are fast changing. People including our own are being moved by new ideologies. They are getting tired of Government by the people. They are prepared to have Governments for the people and are indifferent whether it is Government of the people and by the people. If we wish to preserve the Constitution in which we have sought to enshrine the principle of Government of the people, for the people and by the people, let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path and which induce people to prefer Government for the people to Government by the people, nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. That is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Why the attempt to deny Dalit status to Rohith Vemula is a shocking ignorance of the law


Or a deliberate misrepresentation. Apart from being extremely undignified, it is indicative of the high stakes involved.

Anup Surendranath  · Today · 07:30 pm


The political pressure arising out of Rohith Vemula’s suicide is evident from the wide range of unsavoury responses we have seen over the last few days. Amongst the worst of those responses has been the attempt to deny Rohith Vemula his Scheduled Caste status after his death.

One of the arguments being put forth to not treat Rohith Vemula’s suicide as a Dalit issue is that he cannot be considered a Dalit in the first place.

Apart from being extremely undignified, it is a response that demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the law.

The argument is that since his father belonged to the Vaddera caste (Other Backward Classes or OBC in Andhra Pradesh) and his mother to the Mala caste (Scheduled Caste or SC in Andhra Pradesh), Rohith Vemula takes on the caste of his father and not his mother.

That argument reflects an extremely problematic position in Hindu personal law that has long been abandoned by the constitutional jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court in the context of determining social disadvantage.

Judicial discourse

The judicial discourse on determining caste status arising out of inter-caste marriages is now well-settled but has followed two trajectories in the past. However, for the purposes of establishing social disadvantage, neither of those two trajectories endorsed the position in Hindu personal law that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage assumed the caste of the father.

These questions have come to the Supreme Court in circumstances where an individual’s membership in a beneficiary group has been under challenge under a variety of circumstances relating to reservations in representative bodies, education and public employment.

In adjudicating these disputed claims about caste status arising out of inter-caste marriages, the Supreme Court early on in cases like Chatturbhuj Jasani (1954) and Jahan Ara Jaipal Singh (1972) adopted an approach that focused on the assimilation of the concerned person within the beneficiary group and her acceptance by other members of the beneficiary group.

It will be noted that even within this approach the Supreme Court refused to adhere to the rule that the person assumes the caste of her father.

The Supreme Court started doubting the above approach in Valsamma Paul (1996) while still upholding the position that the father/ husband’s caste in an inter-caste marriage could not automatically determine caste status of the child/ wife.

The disagreement with the approach developed in Jasani and Jahan Ara was over the role attributed to assimilation within the beneficiary group and the acceptance of the concerned person within that group. In Valsamma Paul, the Supreme Court took the view that the relevant consideration would be the life experience of the individual.

However, the decision in Valsamma Paul was by a two-judge bench whereas the decisions in Jasani and Jahan Ara were by three-judge benches. The approach that considered the life experience of the individual as the determinative factor received the approval for a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Sobha Devi (2005). In a decision from January 2012, the Supreme Court settled the position in favour of the approach in Valsamma Paul.

The Supreme Court in Rameshbhai Naika (2012) was confronted with a judgment from the Gujarat High Court that upheld the decision of a local authority to cancel the appellant’s Scheduled Tribe’s certificate on the ground that the appellant had to necessarily inherit his father’s forward caste status and not his mother’s Scheduled Tribe status.

The Supreme Court held that a mechanical application of the position in Hindu personal law that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage inherits the caste of the father is constitutionally invalid as far as determining beneficiaries of reservations is concerned. In the context of inter-caste marriages, the court took the view that it must be the individual experience that must be established to determine the membership in a beneficiary group.

Missing the point

Similarly in Rohith Vemula’s case the argument that he was not a Dalit based on his father’s OBC status misses the entire point of the constitutional jurisprudence that the court has attempted to develop.

When dealing with inter-caste marriages, the Supreme Court has adopted the sensible constitutional position that a mechanical application of Hindu personal law cannot determine social disadvantage. It is futile and incorrect to argue that Rohith Vemula’s caste status is determined by his father’s caste.

The attempt to misrepresent the constitutional position on this issue is indicative of the stakes involved.

As a society we collectively failed in protecting his dignity in life and the least we can now do is to zealously guard his dignity in death.

Anup Surendranath’s doctoral work at the University of Oxford was on reservation policies in India and he currently teaches constitutional law at National Law University, Delhi. The legal issue in this article was discussed in an earlier blog post on ‘Law and Other Things’ in January 2012.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Rohith Vemula's suicide: A missing conversation

Ankur Bhardwaj | New Delhi Jan 22, 2016 12:40 PM IST


Social fronts and students organisation members take part in a candle march protest over the death of Rohit Vemula in Nagpur of Maharashtra. Photo: PTI

Rohith Vemula’s suicide has sent our politics into convulsion and has once again brought to fore the deep social fault-lines that criss-cross our society. Often masked, these divisions have always existed deep under. Through constitutionally mandated means -- aided by political participation -- the Indian Republic has sought to paper over the rumbling of these tectonic plates. Whether it has succeeded or failed depends on how you look at it.

The government’s response has been to brush aside the casteist underpinnings of this issue. HRD minister, Smriti Irani, was at pains to deflect attention by suggesting that it was not a Dalits versus non-Dalits issue. A report in the Indian Express today highlights, how her deputies in the ministry -- one of whom is a Dalit -- have gone silent on the matter. This has only highlighted how important conversations around Dalit issues are ignored in attempts to tide over a crisis.

The old debates of merit versus reservations, upper caste versus lower caste, privilege versus social justice have once again surfaced. What is at the heart of such breakdowns in our society, especially in our schools, colleges and universities? Why is our youth taking such pitched positions on these matters?

What causes these conflagrations in educational institutes and among the youth now?

At the heart of it, these disputes among our youth in our educational institutions represent a questioning of the status-quo. It represents how Dalit or Tribal youth question the status-quo they have inherited in the form of a rigid, discriminatory social order. It represents a pushing of existing boundaries by every new generation. It represents an assertion of their equality and a consciousness of their rights.

This in itself represents a success of the republic that in 1950 decided to enshrine equality in the constitution in its attempt to fix centuries of oppression. To remove social stigma, to ensure equitable growth, to ensure the new Republic’s sustenance and to reform the society, reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes were introduced. This important feature continues till this day as Indian society has not reformed at the pace at which it was expected to, as Rohith Vemula’s suicide clearly demonstrates.

On the other hand, we have a questioning of the status-quo by those from privileged castes. It represents a curious mix of casteism and entitlement but it also represents a questioning of the social order that has been bequeathed to them by the republic’s founders. It partly represents a lack of awareness and therefore understanding of the reasons this order was created in 1950. This questioning of the status-quo should also be welcomed.

This mutual resistance coupled with entrenched power equations that are clearly tilted against the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes leads to social flare-ups.
The fuse that leads to these flare-ups is made up of multiple layers, each different from the other and each requiring careful parsing

The challenge here is to understand that broad-brushing all questioning as assertion of caste superiority or entitlement is useless and lazy while the broad-brushing of assertion of rights by Dalits as usurpation of merit is disingenuous and lacks comprehension of dalit or tribal victimisation.

What do these conflagrations lead to?

Pitched battles with no common ground for frank, free and civil conversations is now the norm when it comes to public discourse and battles over reservations in jobs and educational institutions are no different.

On one hand we have a side which is rightly asserting its right to equality and claiming its rightful place in the society and on the other we have a side whose new generations wallow in victimhood and deprivation, unaware of the roots of the debate.

A distinct lack of awareness of how sections of a society we live in have been deprived of opportunity and life (often a bullheaded and vicious lack of acknowledgement of such deprivation) is then met by an equally obstinate lack of acknowledgement of this grouse.

To acknowledge the existence of this grouse itself becomes a reason for another pitched battle. Hectoring activism speaks to strong victimhood and no honest conversation is held that can help one side even acknowledge the other’s point of view.

How to reduce the scope of these flare-ups?

The solution to these flare-ups is then found in the age old Indian method of letting the issue die, biding time till the next one arrives on the scene.

Rohith Vemula’s case is not an exception, it is rather the norm but despite so many battles being fought, solutions or even discussions are hard to come by. Why is it so hard for the so-called upper castes to understand the legitimacy of the social justice mechanism?

A 20 year old born in 1995 in a privileged caste or class or gender who has neither been exposed to the Constituent Assembly debates, nor the discourse centred around Mandal commission and whose idea of merit is the percentage of marks scored in an exam, will find it hard to comprehend the concept of social justice.

In his political consciousness, reservations are electoral sops often extricated through collective agitation, sometimes even by the undeserving. Reservations then become a cart in which everyone tries to get  a stake but nobody wants to question.

With no window into dalit history either at school or college and no portrayal of dalit struggles in popular culture, this exposure to the realities of caste oppression is completely absent.

For political or social activists, it would be useful to understand that reservations or the existing mechanisms of social justice are not holy cows to not be questioned. The status-quo, as created over decades since 1950, will be questioned; by every generation and more strongly than before. This questioning needs to be countered through conversations and often accommodation rather than through hectoring and self-righteousness.

While the republic has a responsibility to ensure social reforms and equality, it also has a need to ensure generations don’t get alienated by feeling ignored and uncared for, however improbable the cause. For this young republic’s sake, it is important that we don’t ignore these conversations and don’t create any more holy cows.

In his death, Rohith Vemula has given us an opportunity to start this important conversation and take it to schools, colleges and universities. Let us have this debate in right earnest and let the two sides talk to each other, rather than talk down or past each other.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Is this dead tiger our new Confederate flag?

By Sandy Garossino in Opinion | January 19th 2016

 Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, with his wife in Bengal, 1903

The Bengal Lounge is a genteel cousin of the Confederate Flag

A tempest is brewing at High Tea on Canada's southwestern tip, at the edge of the wide Pacific Ocean (next stop, Japan). A Vancouver real estate czar wants to close a bar and there’s a ferocious hullabaloo about it, with petitions and the whole nine yards.

All of this is happening in Victoria, B.C, the provincial capital named for the empire’s 19th century regent. The smallish city has two primary functions: to be the seat of government and attract tourists as a kind of "Ye Olde Victorian Theme Parke.” Which works like a charm. Gently nestled in the calm protected harbour lies the jewel in the city's crown; the storied Empress Hotel, built in 1908 and named for the monarch’s title as Empress of India.

And inside the Empress Hotel sits the Bengal Lounge, a mock-Churchillian mens-clubby watering hole romanticizing a mythical British Raj that never was. It's a version that Queen Victoria herself would probably have trouble with. Even the legendary Bengal tiger skin mounted above the crackling hearth is a counterfeit. That Thailand tiger didn't spend a minute of its abruptly foreshortened life under the Raj.

While the name sounds grand, the Bengal Lounge isn't "olde" at all, but was introduced during a 1960’s update to its previous incarnation as the Coronet Room, long after Indian independence.

Yet peel back local nostalgia, and the Bengal Lounge isn't just an innocent throwback to a bygone age, but a genteel cousin of the Confederate flag, the Washington Redskins and the Whitesboro town seal. Except it’s not even our past.

British Columbians in the 1960's, who lived about as far away from India as it's possible to get, might be forgiven for spicing up their local scene with some exotic flavour. But time marches on, and to anyone familiar with British India, the name 'Bengal' in that context is virtually synonymous with ghastly war atrocity and plunder so obscene that it hastened the end of the Raj itself.

"If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

"If food is so scarce, why hasn't Gandhi died yet?" countered Winston Churchill to the desperate pleas of India’s Viceroy as the catastrophic 1943-44 Bengal Famine unfolded. Killing over 3 million, the famine was induced by Churchill's diversion and stockpiling of Indian grains to wartime England and Europe.

The prime minister knew full well why the "nauseating... half-naked fakir" Gandhi hadn't died, because he'd had him locked up for two years.


Millions of others weren’t so lucky. The Bengal Famine was no accidental mismanagement, but an indefensible choice. Knowing that untold numbers were starving in Bengal, Churchill continued to insist that India export rice to Europe for the war effort, and even blocked efforts by the international community to send aid.

Leopold Avery, his secretary of state for India wrote of the disaster, "Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country."

In Churchill’s Secret War, which documents the famine, journalist Madhusree Mukerjee describes Bengal's agony:

    “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”

    “No one had the strength to perform rites… Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages… Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters,”

Churchill steeled himself to withstand the suffering of Indians by despising them at a distance: “I hate Indians,” he said. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” As for Bengalis, he said, "The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

 Child victim of the Bengal famine.

Despite his contempt, Churchill wasn’t too proud to send for some 2.6 million Indian soldiers to defend the Empire, just as over a million had served in World War I. Almost 150,000 were killed in both conflicts. Forgotten by history, some 10,000 Indian lads lie beneath the poppies in Flanders Fields. More than Canadians.

British Indian Army soldiers in World War 2

The sight of well-fed British troops in India during the Bengal Famine was too much for Jawaharlal Nehru, the man destined to become the nation's first prime minister. The Bengal Famine, he said, was “the final judgment on British rule in India.”

Three years later, the English would be gone.
Indian Muslim was Queen Victoria's closest confidante

As for Queen Victoria, in whose honour the Bengal Room purportedly stands, she never set foot in the country, but instead brought it to England. While Winston Churchill was still in short pants, Victoria loved India as passionately as she defied the British racism and caste system he came to represent. Victoria spoke and wrote Hindi and Urdu. As the writer Shrabani Basu documents in her meticulously researched book, Victoria and Abdul, the queen was tutored daily by her private secretary and closest confidante, an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim.

Victoria built him a cottage at Balmoral that you can rent today. She showered him with medals and honours, introduced curries and Indian customs to the court, and filled her residences with Indian and Muslim servants and soldiers. Indian and Middle-Eastern themed theatricals were regularly performed by members of the household staff, outfitted in full traditional garb.

 Victoria with her Indian honour guard left, and private secretary Abdul Karim, right.

Naturally, all this drove the court and royal family nuts. Seething with resentment, they figured the queen was off her rocker, manipulated by a scheming foreign low-life. For her part, Victoria wasn’t having any of it. She’d taken enough of their chin-wagging over her love for the working class Scottish servant John Brown, whose ring she wore to her grave. She wasn’t going to take it over Karim.

The household might have tolerated Abdul Karim's presence had he been a prince or maharajah rather than what he was: a low-born clerk from Agra.

In the end, Karim's class was his greatest offence against decency. Hours after Victoria's funeral, the new King Edward VII ordered his home raided and all her letters and photographs burnt in a bonfire. Karim was summarily dismissed, and he and his family were expelled from England for the remainder of their lives.

Yet in her private life Victoria exuded an egalitarian sensibility that's the antithesis of the disastrous Churchillian values embodied by the Bengal Lounge. If the former Empress of India were alive today, she would probably ask the good people of Victoria to let the place sail into the history books like the Raj itself.

On a summer’s evening, the Empress Hotel is a glorious place to watch the sun set.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The (Still) Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe

Was the famous author killed from a beating? From carbon monoxide poisoning? From alcohol withdrawal? Here are the top nine theories


 Like his life's work, Edgar Allan Poe's death remains shrouded in mystery. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

By Natasha Geiling
October 7, 2014

It was raining in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, but that didn't stop Joseph W. Walker, a compositor for the Baltimore Sun, from heading out to Gunner's Hall, a public house bustling with activity. It was Election Day, and Gunner's Hall served as a pop-up polling location for the 4th Ward polls. When Walker arrived at Gunner's Hall, he found a man, delirious and dressed in shabby second-hand clothes, lying in the gutter. The man was semi-conscious, and unable to move, but as Walker approached the him, he discovered something unexpected: the man was Edgar Allan Poe. Worried about the health of the addled poet, Walker stopped and asked Poe if he had any acquaintances in Baltimore that might be able to help him. Poe gave Walker the name of Joseph E. Snodgrass, a magazine editor with some medical training. Immediately, Walker penned Snodgrass a letter asking for help.

Baltimore City, Oct. 3, 1849
Dear Sir,

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan's 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

On September 27—almost a week earlier—Poe had left Richmond, Virginia bound for Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems for Mrs. St. Leon Loud, a minor figure in American poetry at the time. When Walker found Poe in delirious disarray outside of the polling place, it was the first anyone had heard or seen of the poet since his departure from Richmond. Poe never made it to Philadelphia to attend to his editing business. Nor did he ever make it back to New York, where he had been living, to escort his aunt back to Richmond for his impending wedding. Poe was never to leave Baltimore, where he launched his career in the early 19th- century, again—and in the four days between Walker finding Poe outside the public house and Poe's death on October 7, he never regained enough consciousness to explain how he had come to be found, in soiled clothes not his own, incoherent on the streets. Instead, Poe spent his final days wavering between fits of delirium, gripped by visual hallucinations. The night before his death, according to his attending physician Dr. John J. Moran, Poe repeatedly called out for "Reynolds"—a figure who, to this day, remains a mystery.

Poe's death—shrouded in mystery—seems ripped directly from the pages of one of his own works. He had spent years crafting a careful image of a man inspired by adventure and fascinated with enigmas—a poet, a detective, an author, a world traveler who fought in the Greek War of Independence and was held prisoner in Russia. But though his death certificate listed the cause of death as phrenitis, or swelling of the brain, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death have led many to speculate about the true cause of Poe's demise. "Maybe it’s fitting that since he invented the detective story," says Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, "he left us with a real-life mystery."

1. Beating

In 1867, one of the first theories to deviate from either phrenitis or alcohol was published by biographer E. Oakes Smith in her article "Autobiographic Notes: Edgar Allan Poe." "At the instigation of a woman, " Smith writes, "who considered herself injured by him, he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a ruffian who knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries. It is well known that a brain fever followed. . . ." Other accounts also mention "ruffians" who had beaten Poe senseless before his death. As Eugene Didier wrote in his 1872 article, "The Grave of Poe," that while in Baltimore, Poe ran into some friends from West Point, who prevailed upon him to join them for drinks. Poe, unable to handle liquor, became madly drunk after a single glass of champagne, after which he left his friends to wander the streets. In his drunken state, he "was robbed and beaten by ruffians, and left insensible in the street all night."

2. Cooping

Others believe that Poe fell victim to a practice known as cooping, a method of voter fraud practiced by gangs in the 19th century where an unsuspecting victim would be kidnapped, disguised and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times under multiple disguised identities. Voter fraud was extremely common in Baltimore around the mid 1800s, and the polling site where Walker found the disheveled Poe was a known place that coopers brought their victims. The fact that Poe was found delirious on election day, then, is no coincidence.

Over the years, the cooping theory has come to be one of the more widely accepted explanations for Poe's strange demeanor before his death. Before Prohibition, voters were given alcohol after voting as a sort of reward; had Poe been forced to vote multiple times in a cooping scheme, that might explain his semi-conscious, ragged state. 

Around the late 1870s, Poe's biographer J.H. Ingram received several letters that blamed Poe's death on a cooping scheme. A letter from William Hand Browne, a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins, explains that "the general belief here is, that Poe was seized by one of these gangs, (his death happening just at election-time; an election for sheriff took place on Oct. 4th), 'cooped,' stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted, and then turned adrift to die."

3. Alcohol

"A lot of the ideas that have come up over the years have centered around the fact that Poe couldn’t handle alcohol," says Semtner. "It has been documented that after a glass of wine he was staggering drunk. His sister had the same problem; it seems to be something hereditary."

Months before his death, Poe became a vocal member of the temperance movement, eschewing alcohol, which he'd struggled with all his life. Biographer Susan Archer Talley Weiss recalls, in her biography "The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe," an event, toward the end of Poe's time in Richmond, that might be relevant to theorists that prefer a "death by drinking" demise for Poe. Poe had fallen ill in Richmond, and after making a somewhat miraculous recovery, was told by his attending physician that "another such attack would prove fatal." According to Weiss, Poe replied that "if people would not tempt him, he would not fall," suggesting that the first illness was brought on by a bout of drinking.

Those around Poe during his finals days seem convinced that the author did, indeed, fall into that temptation, drinking himself to death. As his close friend J. P. Kennedy wrote on October 10, 1949: "On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the effects of a debauch. . . . He fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle, which it was said he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital. Poor Poe! . . . A bright but unsteady light has been awfully quenched."

Though the theory that Poe's drinking lead to his death fails to explain his five-day disappearance, or his second-hand clothes on October 3, it was nonetheless a popular theory propagated by Snodgrass after Poe's death. Snodgrass, a member of the temperance movement, gave lectures across the country, blaming Poe's death on binge drinking. Modern science, however, has thrown a wrench into Snodgrasses talking points: samples of Poe's hair from after his death show low levels of lead, explains Semtner, which is an indication that Poe remained faithful to his vow of sobriety up until his demise.

4. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

In 1999, public health researcher Albert Donnay argued that Poe's death was a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from coal gas that was used for indoor lighting during the 19th century. Donnay took clippings of Poe's hair and tested them for certain heavy metals that would be able to reveal the presence of coal gas. The test was inconclusive, leading biographers and historians to largely discredit Donnay's theory.

5. Heavy Metal Poisoning

While Donnay's test didn't reveal levels of heavy metal consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning, the tests did reveal elevated levels of mercury in Poe's system months before his death. According to Semtner, Poe's mercury levels were most likely elevated as a result of a cholera epidemic he'd been exposed to in July of 1849, while in Philadelphia. Poe's doctor prescribed calomel, or mercury chloride. Mercury poisoning, Semtner says, could help explain some of Poe's hallucinations and delirium before his death. However, the levels of mercury found in Poe's hair, even at their highest, are still 30 times below the level consistent with mercury poisoning.

6. Rabies

In 1996, Dr. R. Michael Benitez was participating in a clinical pathologic conference where doctors are given patients, along with a list of symptoms, and instructed to diagnose and compare with other doctors as well as the written record. The symptoms of the anonymous patient E.P., "a writer from Richmond" were clear: E.P. had succumbed to rabies. According to E.P.'s supervising physician, Dr. J.J. Moran, E.P. had been admitted to a hospital due to "lethargy and confusion." Once admitted, E.P.'s condition began a rapid downward spiral: shortly, the patient was exhibiting delirium, visual hallucinations, wide variations in pulse rate and rapid, shallow breathing. Within four days—the median length of survival after the onset of serious rabies symptoms—E.P. was dead.

E.P., Benitez soon found out, wasn't just any author from Richmond. It was Poe whose death the Maryland cardiologist had diagnosed as a clear case of rabies, a fairly common virus in the 19th century. Running counter to any prevailing theories at the time, Benitez's diagnosis ran in the September 1996 issue of the Maryland Medical Journal. As Benitez pointed out in his article, without DNA evidence, it's impossible to say with 100 percent certainty that Poe succumbed to the rabies virus. There are a few kinks in the theory, including no evidence of hydrophobia (those afflicted with rabies develop a fear of water, Poe was reported to have been drinking water at the hospital until his death) nor any evidence of an animal bite (though some with rabies don't remember being bitten by an animal). Still, at the time of the article's publication, Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House Museum in Baltimore, agreed with Benitez's diagnosis. "This is the first time since Poe died that a medical person looked at Poe's death without any preconceived notions," Jerome told the Chicago Tribune in October of 1996. "If he knew it was Edgar Allan Poe, he'd think, 'Oh yeah, drugs, alcohol,' and that would influence his decision. Dr. Benitez had no agenda."

7. Brain Tumor

One of the most recent theories about Poe's death suggests that the author succumbed to a brain tumor, which influenced his behavior before his death. When Poe died, he was buried, rather unceremoniously, in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore graveyard. Twenty-six years later, a statue was erected, honoring Poe, near the graveyard's entrance. Poe's coffin was dug up, and his remains exhumed, in order to be moved to the new place of honor. But more than two decades of buried decay had not been kind to Poe's coffin—or the corpse within it—and the apparatus fell apart as workers tried to move it from one part of the graveyard to another. Little remained of Poe's body, but one worker did remark on a strange feature of Poe's skull: a mass rolling around inside. Newspapers of the day claimed that the clump was Poe's brain, shriveled yet intact after almost three decades in the ground.

We know, today, that the mass could not be Poe's brain, which is one of the first parts of the body to rot after death. But Matthew Pearl, an American author who wrote a novel about Poe's death, was nonetheless intrigued by this clump. He contacted a forensic pathologist, who told him that while the clump couldn't be a brain, it could be a brain tumor, which can calcify after death into hard masses. 

According to Semtner, Pearl isn't the only person to believe Poe suffered from a brain tumor: a New York physician once told Poe that he had a lesion on his brain that caused his adverse reactions to alcohol. 

8. Flu

A far less sinister theory suggests that Poe merely succumbed to the flu—which might have turned into deadly pneumonia—on this deathbed. As Semtner explains, in the days leading up to Poe's departure from Richmond, the author visited a physician, complaining of illness. "His last night in town, he was very sick, and his [soon-to-be] wife noted that he had a weak pulse, a fever, and she didn’t think he should take the journey to Philadelphia," says Semtner. "He visited a doctor, and the doctor also told him not to travel, that he was too sick." According to newspaper reports from the time, it was raining in Baltimore when Poe was there—which Semtner thinks could explain why Poe was found in clothes not his own. "The cold and the rain exasperated the flu he already had," says Semtner, "and maybe that eventually lead to pneumonia. The high fever might account for his hallucinations and his confusion."

9. Murder

In his 2000 book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, author John Evangelist Walsh presents yet another theory about Poe's death: that Poe was murdered by the brothers of his wealthy fiancée, Elmira Shelton. Using evidence from newspapers, letters and memoirs, Walsh argues that Poe actually made it to Philadelphia, where he was ambushed by Shelton's three brothers, who warned Poe against marrying their sister. Frightened by the experience, Poe disguised himself in new clothes (accounting for, in Walsh's mind, his second-hand clothing) and hid in Philadelphia for nearly a week, before heading back to Richmond to marry Shelton. Shelton's brothers intercepted Poe in Baltimore, Walsh postulates, beat him, and forced him to drink whiskey, which they knew would send Poe into a deathly sickness. Walsh's theory has gained little traction among Poe historians—or book reviewers; Edwin J. Barton, in a review for the journal American Literature, called Walsh's story "only plausible, not wholly persuasive." "Midnight Dreary is interesting and entertaining," he concluded, "but its value to literary scholars is limited and oblique."


For Semtner, however, none of the theories fully explain Poe's curious end. "I've never been completely convinced of any one theory, and I believe Poe's cause of death resulted from a combination of factors," he says. "His attending physician is our best source of evidence. If he recorded on the mortality schedule that Poe died of phrenitis, Poe was most likely suffering from encephalitis or meningitis, either of which might explain his symptoms." 

Source: smithsoniamag