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June - July 2009

Political News

Without Fear or Favour: Comments on Current Issues

by Satjit Singh

Breaking India’s political borders – the unspoken role of the BJP

Recently I have received a numerous emails from friends and relatives lambasting secularism in India, many of these are from middle class, well educated people who, when I last knew them well, would recoil at the thought of being anything but liberal secularists. It would appear that India’s new-found economic status has coincided with a strong assertive Hindu mentality; this is ironic really, because Hinduism is rooted in the liberal tradition. However, putting aside the obvious religious arguments for and against Hindutva, I would suggest that there is a bigger issue. The issue for me is the sustainability of India as a single political entity.

Those with a keen sense of history will note that even at the height of the Mughal empire or when Ashoka ruled, political borders did not include large parts of what is currently India. This nation has always been a ‘commonwealth of states’. Emperor Akbar’s writ did not run in the Deccan; it was only the British who managed to unify these princely states into one political entity. With the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), all this has changed.

The sickening spectacle of a leading politician (L.K. Advani) on a ‘rath yatra’, wreaking destruction upon a mosque, lingers.

Until the VP Singh government (with the exception of the short-lived Janata Party experiment in the late 1970s), India was governed at a federal level by one party i.e. the Congress. Many state governments too belonged to the Congress, although there tended to be a local party either in opposition or, occasionally, even ruling the state. What India lacked then was a proper two-party system. Whilst there were a few national parties e.g. the Communists, the Jana Sangh (a forerunner of the latter day BJP) and the Swatantrata Party, none of these were strong enough to form governments at the Centre. The first change came when the BJP supported V.P. Singh to form the government and not long after, pulled the rug, to further its political agenda.

Decisions are made on the basis of what I refer to as a ‘Minimum Minimum Programme’, preventing India from achieving its true potential.

The ascent of the BJP has coincided with another unfortunate phenomenon – the rise of regionalism. Most states have two or three regional parties, often based along caste or other similar narrow lines. Consequently, national parties have found it difficult, not only to win state elections, but also to win parliamentary seats from these states. The unwieldy coalitions of the past decade are a direct result of this, condemning India to weak government where decisions are made on the basis of little programme masquerading as ‘Minimum Common Programme’. This has prevented India from achieving its true potential. I suggest that the BJP has not just been complicit, it has actively contributed directly to this state of affairs by calling it ‘Coalition Dharma’.

Growing up in India, amongst my circle it was unacceptable to even ‘think religion’. Practising one’s faith was done within the confines of one’s home and within the walls of a building designated as a place of worship. It was definitely not to spill into personal or political relationships. Once this pact was broken, the floodgates of division were opened. Why stop at religious divisions, why not regional divisions, or indeed caste or linguistic divisions? For as long as one sort of division is acceptable, another one will be as well. The increase in the number of states during the past decade is, what the management gurus would call, a telling key performance indicator!

My fear, and I hope it is unfounded, is that it will lead to the break-up of India as we know it. Regional pulls are often one tug away from secession. Already, the writ of the central government does not run everywhere in the country. If that be so, what is the point of being governed as part of a federal structure? The BJP has unleashed an illiberal strain of Hinduism which plays well with those who seek to divide India along religious, regional and other lines. If unchecked, as a matter of urgency, I believe that in the latter part of this century, India will not survive its current political borders. The break-up of India is on the cards and the BJP and those who support it will have driven this agenda; ironic really from a party, which seeks to unify India under one banner.

Sorry Mrs Thatcher, you were four thousand years too late

The Hindu caste system is held responsible for so many of Indian society’s ills. By operating as one based on birth, not worth, it denies millions the opportunities that would otherwise be available to them. We have all seen at first hand, how the system is used in India to oppress large sections of society; Gandhi was so incensed by this maltreatment that he took up this issue and referred to the ‘lower castes’ as Harijans, meaning children of God. In contrast in the UK during the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher boasted that she had created a meritocracy where none existed. A person’s destiny was no longer determined by birth; what they did in their lives decided what would happen to them. After all, she was the most unlikely Tory Leader – a woman and one brought up living above her grocer father’s shop. She was held up as a role model for the rest of the world; Britain’s own version of ‘from log cabin to the White House’. Thatcherism claimed to have consigned a similar system based on one’s birth, to the dust heap of history; by contrast, the caste system is thriving in India and amongst Indians more generally.

Intrigued about why such an ancient system like Hinduism, generally held up as an example of what is good and wise, had conspired to hold people back, I decided to investigate further. I found that ancient Hindu society had indeed been divided along caste lines: Brahmins who were priests and scholars; Kshatriyas, the warrior class and from whom the Kings descended; Vaishyas who were businessmen and finally, Shudras, the working classes. It had all the classic ingredients of a society which was anything but meritocratic; with just one difference. The caste system was profession- based and not grounded in birth. It was possible to change one’s caste by changing one’s profession. For example, one could be born in a businessman’s or a Shudra’s family; however studying to be a priest or a scholar, would make one a Brahmin; joining the army would mean that the same person became a Kshatriya….. We all know that Hindu surnames are caste-based. A clear example that the caste system was biased towards one’s deeds, not birth can be seen from the use of surnames: Mr Dwivedi was someone who had read two Vedas, Mr Trivedi, three and Mr Chaturvedi, four Vedas - a true meritocracy. It would surprise me if most Mr. Chaturvedis could even name the four Vedas – defeating the very purpose of the system!

Of course, like all systems, this was prone to corruption. As we have seen in other parts of the world, Europe being a prime example, the Church and the State came together and colluded to cement their positions. The State needed the Church to give the religious sanction and credibility to its governance, whilst the Church looked to the military might of the State to enforce its religious authority. Truly a marriage made in heaven! For the Church and State, substitute the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. In order to cement their positions, they decreed that caste was by birth, effectively ruling out the social mobility that had previously characterised Hindu society.

Of course, no system can operate without money. Churches and governments throughout history have always raided various sources to fund the spread of religion and various military campaigns. That is where the Vaishyas or the businessmen came into their own. By funding the ambitions of the Church and State, these Vaishyas guaranteed themselves a seat at the table. Again, we can see modern day parallels where political parities are increasingly funded by businessmen, who in turn demand a say in policy making. It is no accident that in the UK, the Tory party is so Eurosceptic; most of its funders are of that ilk. Similarly, Labour party funding by Unions has meant that the government has been unable to implement parts of its reform agenda.

The only caste not accounted for above, is the Shudras. Because of the unholy (!) alliance above, this group was left out in the cold. After all, the ruling triumvirate needs someone to rule! Making the caste, birth rather than profession-based, meant that this group was consigned to remaining at the bottom of the heap.

As a result of what the caste system has come to be, as opposed to what was envisaged, Hindus act in one of two ways. One set is very aggressive in enforcing it, partly to garner their vote banks or to bolster their own positions generally. The liberals by contrast, are embarrassed and defensive and consequently, critical of the system. I would suggest that both responses are misplaced and are rooted in ignorance of what the system was designed to do, i.e. create a meritocratic society. The aggressive ones need to realise that their perceived higher caste status is incorrectly assumed by them to be according to the Hindu religion and that if anything, oppressing others on the basis of their birth i.e. something over which they have no control, is ironically, the most unHindu-like of behaviours. Similarly, the liberals too, whilst being well-meaning, need to realise that they are being apologetic for the wrong thing. They should stop apologising for the caste system; instead they should use their liberal attitude and ability to articulate, to find ways to return the Hindu caste system to its roots by practising its inherent meritocracy.

Sorry Mrs Thatcher, you may think you invented meritocracy, but you were four thousand years too late!

Damian Green – the wider issues

The news that Tory MP Damian Green, who was arrested as part of an inquiry over Home Office leaks, will not face charges, has been largely welcomed. The Crown Prosecution Service said that there was "insufficient evidence" to bring a court case against the shadow immigration minister. His arrest had provoked indignation from politicians and journalists alike. It is easy to see where they are coming from. Mr. Green is by all accounts, a decent man; however in this din, we should not lose sight of some basics.

Firstly, politicians are not above the law. If the civil servant accused of leaking is under the cosh, then on the basis that the receiver of stolen goods is as guilty as the one who stole them, it was right to investigate Mr Green. The righteous indignation feigned by politicians and worse still, journalists, wears rather thin. The cross-party outrage just shows how far and deep the practice of ‘receiving leaks’ runs. Interestingly, letters to the Editor in the Times shortly after Mr Green’s arrest were more critical of politicians than the police. Politicians feel that the normal rules of society and the law do not apply to them; it is time that they realised that those who frame the laws of the land, have a duty to uphold them.

Secondly, much was being made at the time of the manner in which the police conducted the raids and the arrest. I recall, not many months ago, the previous Prime Minister being subjected to the same. Indeed, one of his aides was subjected to a dawn raid. Interestingly, as the dawn raid happened to a non-politician, the outrage so much on display now, was absent. The police may sometimes be heavy-handed and over-the-top; however, a consistent application of the law is vital, if confidence in the law enforcement agencies is to be maintained. Politicians feel that the normal rules of society and the law do not apply to them.

Finally, and I will lay myself open to charges of poor taste, but I need to bring up the case of David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence official, whose suicide led to the establishment of the Hutton inquiry. It is not considered good form to talk ill of the dead, but am I the only one to think that a senior civil servant who is signatory to the Officials Secrets Act and who is trusted with Government secrets, should not leak? If he felt that he did not agree with government policy, he could have done the honourable thing and resigned and then take his concerns public. Undermining the government, especially when it was at war, by leaking is dishonourable at least, possibly an act of treason. Hailing from an army family, I find it difficult to accept such behaviour. What was most appalling was seeing the likes of Michael Howard and others painting Kelly as some sort of wronged hero. Using a dead man for political purposes – now that is what I would regard as very poor taste.

Politics is the art of the possible and all governments have to make compromises to move forward. It is the job of a responsible opposition and the press to expose governments where they are in breach of their duties to the electorate. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made in difficult circumstances; carping from those whose have never needed to make them is neither helpful nor in the national interest.

Returning to Mr. Green, whilst I am happy that he will not be charged, we may have sent an inadvertent message to politicians – the law does not apply to them. It also says to disgruntled and politically motivated civil servants that they too are not bound by any rules. Surely, none of us believe in this state of affairs.

Time to leave our ghettos

The UK is a richer place for the variety of ethnic groups who have contributed in so many ways to making this country such a great one to live in. The ‘host’ Brits have bent backwards to make immigrants feel welcome and comfortable. Coming to live in the UK was a choice for most of us. In this country, we are free to practice our religion and there is no dearth (I think that there are too many, but that is another issue) of temples and mosques etc here. I fear however, that we have not always made the effort to integrate. That process has not been helped by British liberals who have gone out of their way so that we do not have to change at all. This is true in many aspects of our lives; in particular learning English.

Government resources are used to poor effect in publishing every leaflet in 50 or more different languages and hiring interpreters. This is expensive and results in difficult choices about other public services. It also means that people do not bother to learn the language. I appreciate that some people are too old or too uneducated to learn English. However, these people live in families where others speak English; we need to put the onus on families to play their part. Most of us come from cultures where looking after family is the norm; interestingly, we become rather selective about which of our ‘legacy’ cultural norms we insist on following in Britain!

Most immigrants have been here for over 20 years and many of them for considerably longer; it is time to phase out special dispensations. Immigrants want to be treated as equal members of society; prolonging these ‘privileges’ will not only continue the dependency culture, but also make us feel inadequate.

As naturalised Brits, we need to ensure that we not only play our part in society but also are loyal to the UK. This is of course, easier said than done, but it would help if there was not such a defensive, almost apologetic attitude about being British. We need to have a more positive approach to teaching British history and celebrating it in schools. I am not advocating extreme nationalism and jingoism, both of which I find abhorrent, but inculcating pride in this great country that we have chosen to make our home. Otherwise, I fear, the BNP may fill the vacuum that the mainstream political parties have created.

‘Diversity’ has become an industry in the UK and it only helps the self-serving. All this needs dismantling. It creates understandable resentment in the ‘host’ population and if they do not find the mainstream parties addressing their legitimate concerns, they will turn to fringe parties. That, as we know, can have undesirable consequences.

A lot of the issues that we face currently have their origins in so many immigrants not feeling, and therefore not behaving, British. There are a lot of reasons for it, but allowing them to lead parallel lives will make things worse not better. For too long now, both major parties have, understandably kept clear of anything that may have even a hint of ‘race’ about it. I do believe that the time has come to tackle this issue of integration head on. Pandering will harm the very people that we are trying to help, as they will continue to be isolated from mainstream British society.

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