Sumit Sarkar 2.0

sumitwithbookProf. Sumit Sarkar is not keeping well for last many months, I hear.

He published his latest book Modern Times a couple of years ago. It was initially supposed to be just an update over his 1983 classic Modern India but he felt that the original book is ‘thoroughly dated’ and thus couldn’t be updated. He instead is bringing out a two-volume set titled Modern Times. The first was published in around 2015 and the second one is awaited.

Reading both the books (1983 and the latest one), it seems that his writing is still as terse as it was then, but has lost that bit of sharpness. It was unforgettable when he called Gen. Dyer as ‘the butcher of Jallianwallah’, and Churchill as ‘pigheaded’ or Gandhi in 1942 being ‘in uniquely militant mood’. Although very prose, it has a kind of embedded liveliness into it. The new book is still dense but the sharpness seems to have matured now.

Significantly, it’s a difficult read because he seems to have a specific reader in mind who is fairly familiar with the debates on-going in the discipline. Back in 1983, he was enamoured by the subaltern school, which was relatively new. Back then, there was not much debate on ideology and Foucauldian analysis was not in vogue. Saidian methods were yet to touch modern Indian history. Modernity was still modern, so to say. Today, the subaltern group doesn’t exist, it’s splintered and its members went into different directions. Sumit Sarkar himself later seems to have decried demise of the subaltern in subaltern. Prof. Sarkar also quips the random and loose usage of post-modern and critical theories in the latest book.

One important development is the theoretical awareness of the narrative. The olden times, the narrative books were different and the books dealing with references and methods were written separately for a select few. Now the situation is changed for there is an awakening that the narrative can’t be separated from theory. Prof. Sarkar has done good justice to it. It’s a rare skill to find a powerful narrative which is theoretically informed and yet not boring.

modern-india-400x400-imadxngmxdmy6cnfIn between the two books (the intervening ~30 years), there were many developments in the field of history. New Cambridge series appeared. Sociology became much more sophisticated and active into history. Gender and caste studies exploded. Apart from peasants, tribals and workers, many other sections, aspect, regions and era started receiving due attention. Many history departments in India either became defunct or substandard. Except in few cases, the American academia became extremely active and powerful in not only doing latest research but also setting the tone. There were some other indigenous developments too.

The 1980s was the time when environmental history started as an academic discipline in India – thanks to the pioneering work of people like Ram Guha and Madhav Gadgil. That has been largely incorporated into the mainstream of modern India now. Back then there was scanty research available on North East India. It hardly existed in the books. Now that some substantial body of work has evolved due to labours of some hardworking individuals, it’s poised to be integrated into the mainstream narrative. Same is the case with legal history – which was back then studied either by law fraternity or only for the sake of understanding the evolution of administration, a dab topic considered back then. Sociologists have done immense work on the legal aspect of modern India and that work is now well integrated into the main narrative, which is getting amply reflected into Sarkar’s new book.

Also, the correlation between what was happening in Europe or the world over and in India is better brought into the narrative. Back then, it was mostly about London politics or European wars but the horizons are expanded today. Many more connected points between global happening and Indian developments are suggested.

Culture, back then, was thought as either bourgeoisie phenomenon or reflection of production relationships. Marxist historians thus gave very less importance to those aspects compared to the politics and state which were considered as the central issues of interest. (It’s surprising not least because Marxist activists were the ones at the forefront of the folk theatre with IPTA) That issue has been gladly resolved now that copious amount of work is done on music, architecture, dance, painting, drama, novels etc. Prof. Sarkar has also attempted to include those aspects. His chapters on print culture, Hindustani classical music and urbanisation are superbly written. This shift in the focus away from state and politics is well summed up in the change of title itself – from Modern India to Modern Times.


Also, the old had sharp dates – 1885 to 1947. Today it’s realised that both the events – the formation of Congress (1885) and freedom with partition (1947) don’t really represent as sharp breaks as were thought of earlier. Significance doesn’t mean discontinuities, especially in history. The new book thus talks about a period from the 1880s to 1950s.

Sarkar is a historians’ historian and thus the book is totally unreadable for a layman (as was the previous one). Although it’s full of jargon and requires some time to comprehend, if one has read the earlier book, it becomes easy. It’s a highly dense book, with huge data habitually compressed into a few lines. Also, at many places, instead of enunciating his arguments separately, he brings forth those forth through the facts. Getting used to his style takes some time as well as efforts.

His influence has been immense. He never flinches from taking sides, his words are precise. If we notice the two important interventions in modern Indian history textbook writing in the last decade, these are undoubtedly by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Ishita Banerjee-Dubey. Both confessedly give a huge credit to Prof. Sarkar.

I am not a Marxist by a far shot (and there indeed are some places where I do disagree with his conclusions). Yet, Prof Sarkar’s is one of the most rigorous books I have ever read. I also prefer him over some other historians like late Bipan Chandra whose books are not as good or deep but are (unfortunately) famous I suspect primarily because of simple (or rather simplistic) writing.

The second volume is still awaited. I hope Durga Maa gives him enough power and life to complete it soon.



Medium is the Message

For quite a while I was thinking about restarting the blog. But then I thought I shouldn’t. The thoughts kept swinging….  who reads it anyway nowadays? Facebook and Twitter have almost killed the blog-world. A few of my friends doggedly stay out there on the front, carrying the mast of blogging on their broad shoulders through the wilderness but some of them are too late into this once-beautiful world of blog while others are resigned from within.

derridaDoes this always happen? That the change in platform changes the content? Or the reader? And eventually the writer? I know that dreadful phrase of Derrida – ‘medium is the message’. It sounds too empty isn’t it? Hollowness surrounds it. The idea that the form itself is the content and outside of the form there is no separate content is really very grotesque. It’s beyond ‘normal’ existentialist notions. There are some people who say that its similar to shunyavad of Nagarjun (that Dhamma is empty). I don’t know that. All I know is that it’s pretty dreadful.

It also implies that there is no srijan/creation beyond mere transformation. What does an artist do then? And what does a reader perceive? Both are standing in their own orthogonal planes. Perhaps intersecting somewhere, with shared experiences or outlook. But mostly separate. Their’s may be a shared orthography but not necessarily a shared ontology.

Long time ago, Indian languages were undergoing modernisation, accepting new forms of expression like novel, European-style drama, new kind of poetry, travelogues, history writing, dictionaries.. It was not a mere change in form of expression but the new spirit of age. That spirit couldn’t be expressed in traditional formats. Even before that when the Portuguese missionaries brought the printing press or the Turks brought the commonplace use of paper, there must have been such fundamental changes in readership and authorship and also in the content. Enlightenment ideas became prominent in the 18th century Europe because of both the reading revolution and printing revolution which together helped extend the private middle class sphere and make it into secular, independent public sphere. Or so says Habermas. Partha Chatterji has regionalised this theory in Indian context. Whatever.

Simple fact seems that the technological shocks are going to rock the world of reading and writing more and more often. Each platform will signify an era or a generation – not only of technology but of people. Because not all the content flows seamlessly from old to new platform. Content generation is a continuous process and people get stuck to their own platform. Yahoo, for example, is still used very much by many 30-something old Americans. Similar is the story of hotmail and rediff. People in 20s use gmail more often than not. Technology perhaps changes people but not endlessly. Old habits die hard. People adapt to something fast but then later prefer to grow old with it, or they find it hard perhaps to keep adapting all the time. This happens not only because they lost their mental agility to keep changing but there is another reason to it. Their type of content is stuck in one or two platforms and it doesn’t get migrated to the new platforms completely. New platforms create their own new content which may not content these older people…:)

Anyhow. It appears that now platforms change faster than people do. The changes are so fast that many people outlive changes in formats and platforms. All this has kind of degraded the idea of content and has put more premium on the method or form. Form is the new God. Content is just something that tags along, or rather limps along. Medium has indeed become a message. Because there is no substantial message besides anyway.

आँखो देखी – Psychological/Philosophical Review

Its a fantastic movie. That’s the one line summary of all that is about to follow.

I watched it a few months ago and then watched it many times since then. After watching it for the first time, I stayed awake in the bed until early in the morning, could not sleep. Some remote feeling of uneasiness pervaded throughout the night. Every subsequent attempt at watching the film simply deepens that feeling. People here on Quora are trying to make the sense of it from psychological perspective. Although it is very difficult to capture an audio-visual experience in words, here is my take.

(Spoiler alert – don’t read ahead if you are yet to watch the movie. You can watch the trailer here.)


IMDB introduces the movie thus – “Ankhon Dekhi centers around Raje Bauji, played by Sanjay Mishra who, after a dramatic incident, decides that he will only believe what he sees with his eyes.” Ostensibly, its a movie of an old town, 50-odd years old person from a lower middle class in Delhi called Bauji. Someone may think of it as a twisted comical story of mid-life crisis. It is not. Its also not a story of his family, though it appears like one. The film is rich in allegorical meanings, symbolic and metaphorical interpretations – intended or unintended by Rajat Kapoor. We can only guess.

Coming to the main quest of Bauji – epiphany of truth being only experiential, at least insofar as personal belief system is concerned, I wonder how come no one talked about the concept of education by John Dewey in the context of this movie. His idea of experiential learning and socialisation are directly reflected into bauji’s quest of truth (but in a very comic-yet-serious way). When Bauji goes to the school to find out why his bhatija has failed the maths paper, he quizzes the math teacher with questions about parallel lines meeting at infinity. The math teacher himself has accepted this truth as given, without interrogation. His irritation, though very funny, shows the uneasiness one would experience if faced with inconvenience of having to think about the mundane things in very un-mundane way. (I actually of thought of Kabir’s ulatbansi here). Later in the movie, the teacher is happy that he could understand the real meaning of probability while playing teen-patti, a real life experience. Rajat Kapoor seems to be trying to bring out the meaning by subverting what is given/assumed/received and thus forcing us to think critically, albeit in a manner which is not pedantic/didactic. Here he succeeds in making full use of the film as an idiom. Some people might think that Bauji is just another avatar of an archetypal wise-fool. May be. But the movie is much more than that.

To me, the character of Chacha (Kapoor), the younger brother, represents an alter-ego of Bauji (Mishra). The development of Bauji’s inner struggle is inextricably linked with the trajectory of his relationship with Chacha on the outside. There is this concept called anomie, which is a condition in which an individual becomes free-floating, cut-off from the society in term of values and emotional bond. It is said to be one reason for suicides. Was Bauji experiencing that condition? What could have triggered that? The more Bauji tries to cut himself off from the received wisdom, closer gets the coterie of random people around him. Coterie’s coming closer and younger brother’s going away happen simultaneously, as if only to reinforce the same point. In the end when Bauji cuts the coterie abruptly off, Chacha comes back and the man-mutao between them is over. Both these things are correlated to Bauji’s intellectual/psychological arc of development. As if to emphasise that the journey is now over, internal struggle is conquered and calmness pervades. Whether or not Rajat Kapoor had all this in mind, we never know.

At another level, it is also a story of a lower middle class family trying to eke out its living in congested urban place. Its struggle is to create a meaning for itself in an urban social context. The film becomes overtly philosophical in a serious way only fleetingly. Take the scene of a train at hill station, in the end. The comment of a life being a mere sum of sequential experiences both good and bad goes very beautifully with the scene of a moving train in the woods. Apparently, Rajat Kapoor is strongly influenced by existentialist school of thought, but not in a very gloomy way. Although the marriage of Rita and dil-jamai of the two brothers are the happy things, the suicide in the end leaves a viewer with a deep sense of disillusionment, if not depression.

The movie is full of many subtle and not-so-subtle comments on society. The way the coterie around Bauji comments, reflects and reacts to Bauji over the whole trajectory of the storyline is one example of it. Class relations, power-structure inside family, expected gender roles – everything is there. Rajat Kapoor also has a good eye for satire – take for example a comic character of Ajju’s father or the gadbad at the marriage ceremony in the end. As if to suggest its irrelevance, or might I say irreverence?

Picturisation of Delhi 6 – its houses, alleys, schools and temples, its people and shops, its winter mornings and summer afternoons – as if the part of the city is a living character in the movie. About the music, its wonderful, apt and very enjoyable.

A good movie director is like a good chef, irrespective of intent and efforts, there has to be that additional X-factor without which the whole dinner might fail. Rajat Kapoor indeed has succeeded in creating a wonderful dish full of all the rasas. I just wish I could congratulate him for creating this wonderful movie one day.

Arunachal Diaries – 9

Let’s finish the last leg of the Christianity in the NE region before turning our focus onto the RSS and its sister organisations’ work.

Pooja in the living room.
Pooja posing for a photo in the Father’s living room.

Father Tommy is a clever and imaginative person. He understands the popular psyche well. From Mithun Gate on the highway, the winding road reaches the Church about a km inside – with the bell tower standing tall. All along the road, he has erected many panels depicting Christian legends and myths in mural-form at regular intervals. On days like the Good Friday and other such occasions, local tribal people take this route after the Mass – one by one garlanding the panels – dancing and singing, playing traditional drums in a procession. This has become a kind of a ritual now and has been around for 20 odd years. The road is also unofficially named after Mother Mary. Nowadays Indians seem to have learnt such things – palpable and ritualistic – putting exclusive claim on physical, as if marking their territoriality. This is not the characteristic of Abrahmic religions alone anymore. Such things are put to use by clever persons imaginatively. All that it takes is some social as well as aesthetic understanding of religion and human psyche. And obviously – the persistence, being routed in locality for long enough that the people forget the time before your arrival.

If one thinks, such kind of pradakshina is not actually a Christian practice. Starting from circumambulatory paths around stupas and then Hindu temples, it was also adopted by Sufi saints in the dargahs of their walis and pirs (they call it tawaaf). But this adoption is not an isolated example. There was a huge debate amongst the early Jesuits in India about the strategies to be adopted for conversion (Source – Sumit Sarkar). There emerged two schools. One stressing puritanical approach of religion while other trying to modify the European mores to suit Indian customs by adopting Indian ways – like niranjan and dhoop in front of god’s image, writing pious hymns in Indian metrical styles, adopting local language for mass etc. Puritanical faction opposed such dilution tooth and nail and even filed a complaint with the Vatican or whichever their higher-ups were. How that debate shaped up I don’t know but the later approach sounds logical to me. More than religion, it’s always about a community, a parish. If something new is to be inserted in a pre-existing society, it must morph itself into a form recognizable + palatable to cause minimum disruption.

Minanath, Nikhl, Vineet, Pooja with the Bell.
Minanath, Nikhil, Vineet, Pooja with the Bell. Photo gratuitously taken by the Father.

I was actually a little hesitant to open up the topic of conversion. But Ashishiji had no such qualms. He innocuously asked with all the innocent curiosity of the world on his face whether it’s true that the fathers are monetarily compensated for bringing people into their Church’s fold. Father Tommy was surprisingly free and frank. He neither looked hurt not angry, as if he was expecting this sort of question all the while. After a small pause he said that these are two different issues. Catholic Church, he said, certainly doesn’t encourage any such malpractice because belief in a faith can’t be bought. However they do believe in active conversion. Secondly, he said, there’re some ‘fringe Churches’ of other denominations bringing bad name to the Christianity as a whole damaging its reputation. He then voluntarily started talking about then-in-news ghar wapsi phenomenon. His argument in nutshell was that ghar wapsi is wrong and painful. However, the NE tribes don’t have any religion of their own. Their customs are backward, uncivil. It’s the duty of his Church to help them. And in the process if they choose to become Christian, it can’t be termed as ‘conversion’ because they lack any religion to start with. So, it’s a free market (his words) – all religions should come here and try to convert as many of them as possible. Whoever is better at it will get the most. The spirit of competition..!

I was aghast. I had thought of all people, he would have some respect for native tribal culture and belief system. For all his likeability and affability, he also had some streaks of dogmatism. But he was unabashedly open about his view and was very firm on his stance with all the logical arguments ready. I kind of liked it. His problem was that the tribals who are actually SC are denied the benefits of that status once they convert to Christianity. He wished that tribals should be able to keep the both statuses – SC and Religious minority benefits. Such dual-benefits are opposed from many other quarters. The arguments from both the sides are in public and the debate goes on.

The other people we came in contact with threw some light on not-so-nefarious activities. Kangir bhai said that the strategy adopted by Churches is not generally so much of a monetary allurement as it may cause a backlash sometime somewhere. There are other intelligent ways too. One example was a conversion of the woman in a house first. For some reason which I failed to understand, tribal women are easy to convert. And once they are converted, over time they bring the whole family along with. Women are thus always targeted. There must be some sociological and psychological reason to it, if at all it’s true. Second method he said was building huge and imposing churches in small bastis even if a person or two get converted. A single person in some remote basti actually doesn’t need such huge church and neither can he afford to build one. But he is requested to give some piece of land (as in Arunachal, outsiders can’t own it) on which in a short time a church with all the amenities and facilities is erected. Slowly, over a decade or so, the whole basti comes around. After all, no one gives them facility of any kind in their remote bastis, government hardly reaches there and the local church thus becomes a symbol of strength as well as provider of social services. It becomes the locus of community activity. Nagaland model of ‘communitisation’ is a well known now. There, so strong is their control over the local community and ground-level knowledge so upto-date that even the Government of India runs many of the social sector schemes through the churches for better targeting and reducing leakage. On the darker side however, this gives the church manipulating power and instances of denying government scheme benefits as punishment to those families missing on Sunday mass are not unknown.

The Church of Nyokom Lapang
The Church of Nyokom Lapang

The RSS people moan over the supposed money the church receives from outside. They often compare the suvidha a pracharak gets with those available to father to draw the point home. Whatever that may be. As elsewhere, here too Church is involved in social service as well as conversion. It finally boils down to the motivations and inclinations of individual members of the denomination and thus sweeping generalisations must be avoided. The last thing I would talk here is in the praise of Catholics. This is such a determined and devoted community. Simply see the number of fathers they produce, number of educational and health institutions they run and compare it with their population in India (less than 2%). And they have been doing it for a long time. In the name of religious service if not nation’s service; but it helps the nation nonetheless.

To be continued…
(Next – RSS in Arunachal)

Arunachal Diaries – 8

That was perhaps obvious of any organised religion. Following on…

Father Tommy was a very cordial, suave old uncle-type person. He initially appeared reluctant to give us an audience, agreed only when we approached him via one of his regular Church-attendees who was incidentally our student. He still seemed confused though as he could not gather why random people from far away Pune would want to talk to him. It could either be about Christianity or about Arunachal. Pune, you see, has a very notorious image outside and people coming herefrom are generally presumed to be of persuasion of some shade of right. This kind of suspicion follows by default and I have experienced it more than a few times in Delhi. Getting the Father to agree to talk was itself a difficult thing. But the challenge was to break the ice on good terms. More importantly, he mustn’t be allowed to treat us as ignorant beings and send us off by selling a stump speech as answer to any question – that would be a fruitless exercise with no new information or perspective added. We started with some seriously important questions on theology and social angle (from immanence of god to the use of contraceptives and his position on divorce) – aim being to persuade him of our noble intentions and also to set the level of talks. He slowly came around to believe in our sincerity. From Church in general we shifted gears to Arunachal later, the topic of our interest.

Our main concern was to understand contradiction between Catholic and tribal way of life. Catholics don’t like drinking and the tribals in Arunachal welcome everyone with apong (or raksi if you are in the influence zone of Nepal/Tibet) – may it be a random guest to their home or a child in the world – its a culturally-socially-ecologically sanctioned drink with some alcohol content – locally made. Catholics vehemently denounce the practice of polygamy and most certainly that of polyandry. Here in Arunachal, the picture is of rather free and loose relations – heterodoxy if one can call it so. How could he make the ethical-moral teachings of his faith palatable to such people and still attract them to the Sunday mass? Creating a community of faithful, I wonder, must be a daunting task.

He seems to have not worried much about these things. For him, the strategy was slow inculcation, step by step introduction of non-believers into the fold. It’s not easy to change the world-view in short time, he said. One has to be patient. And social change is the slowest of all. How can that be held against possibl religious change? I found his answer to be very true. Criminalising untouchability by Constitution does not make it disappear overnight. It takes time. The appraoch is peacemeal. Similarly, the introduction of Christianity can’t make sudden upheavel in their lives.

He then invited us to witness Sunday mass the next day. We were told that the mass is held three times – once in English, then in Hindi and at last in Nyishi – the language of locally dominant tribe. I remember that in the US when I was attending the alpha course on the bible at a semi-country parish-kind of place, there were many Chinese in our locality attending the meetings and for them all the instructions were issues in Mandarin in parallel. Its universally accepted trght that language is not only a medium of communication, but a whole culture in itself.

His said the main concern of the Church is service to the people and education is deemed as an efficient tool for moral upliftment. They have opened many churches and schools/colleges in last two and a half decades. Before that, Churches were forbidden from Arunachal. So, many churches sprang up in Assam dotting the border just across Arunachal, back in 1970s and 80s. The prospective and bright students would be sent to Shillong, the main NE centre with many convent establishments since the colonial times. This picture changed after 1990. In fact, the Church of Nyokom Lapang we were visiting was the first Catholic Church in Arunachal. Now more than a hundred Churches dot the region of around 30 km from Bandardeva-Lekhi-Naharlagun-Itanagar – the capital complex. This is obviously because of inter-denominational competition – may it be American Bapstistss or Lutherean or evangelical Pentacostals – each one trying to earn religious merit by winning more converts. So much so that they try to poach each other’s followers for which allegedly there is some material benefit. And the people too keep shifting from one Church to another for better luck… It’s difficult to ascertain the truth in such allegations but these are made by some people of other tribes regularly.

Father Tommy showing us his new project - a new school he was building - in the heart of the capital region. He then urged us to meet the Bishop once before leaving Arunachal.
Father Tommy showing us his new project – a new school he was building – in the heart of the capital region. He then urged us to meet the Bishop once before leaving Arunachal.

Not all the Christian education institutions are operated by the Church. There are wider philanthropic organisations within the whole netwrok like Don Bosco which run many schools/colleges. Unlike their counterparts in Maharashtra however, most of these schools are neither good enough nor reputed for their quality. Even suchlike dedicated people find it difficult to harness a talent in this remote and difficult region. (lets not think of the government services then) Nurturing educational institutions requires long, hard and patient leadership. It seems to be a common theme amongst the more analytical of locals to compare the output of students graduating from RK Mission School (Narottam Nagar/Alo) or VKV schools (Itanagar/Pasighat) with that of Don Bosco and other missionary schools – even the teachers from government colleges engage in this exercise to prove their point. And that point being that though VKV/RKM are relatively less endowed – their students are brighter and make better of their careers.

Not all fathers are probably equally dedicated. Some consider education as means to de-culturise the generation-next while some come across as sincere social workers. Our Father Tommy seems to have belonged to the second category. The college he conceptualised, started and groomed in his previous tenure at Ziro – Saint Claret College – of which he was the dean for many years also – has won all round praise for its quality delivery, even by the RSS people. (We will discuss the education sector in a separate article soon)

As the education sector first started in Pasighat – the region occupied by Adi tribe – these people got an advantage of early starter – by a generation or so. VKV was the first and thus today Adis are less affected by the conversion. And these people are in the various government posts and professional jobs. Nyishi people however, residing in the central part were benefited most by the missionary schools as their area was first opened to the Churches about little less than three decades ago. Today, most of the Nyishis are Christians. Nyishi tribe is also more populous and boasts of controlling the region around the newly settled capital – Itanagar. These people thus control the state politics to a large extent. The incumbent Congress CM – Nabam Tuki – belongs to Nyishi tribe and is a regular attendee of the Church manned by Father Tommy. One bench in the hall was carrying his name as a donor. There were a few names of other MLAs too. Churches thus have a very important role to play in community formation and also act as conduit of political influence.

To the people who are steeped in social custom, religion does not matter much as community ties very strong. They don’t care much about religious sanctions. Father does carry a lot of moral weight but he too can’t be seemed unreasonable. Tobom, a girl belonging to Galo tribe from Upper Siang – said she is a Christian and a child of her father’s second wife – without any regret or inhibition. These things are common and not contradictory for them. It doesn’t matter which religion they belong to as long as they are all Galos. This feels strange. Any expansionary religion acquires the folk colours and becomes regionalized in due course of time – the same story is being repeated here. However, the real issues are not these. These are apparently irreconcilable contradiction between allegience to geographically bounded nation-state and world-religions demanding supra-national affiliations – the issue of primacy in short. To many people, this difference is the real basis of the problem. To a liberal opinion nowadays, such exclusive nationalist viewpoint is abhorrent and unnecessarily bellicose, creating rifts. To a typical nationalists, on the contrary, other affiliations must be secondary to the primary relationship with a nation. They seem to think that when the chips are down and the push comes to shove – by dictat of zero-sum game – one has to be chosen over another. And the right choice is not automatic – it has to be nourished in peacetime.

To be continued…