Archive | May, 2016

Freedom of Speech, till whither?

22 May

This is a translation of an essay by noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul

In the Laboratory of Democracy (5)


I had gone to Malaysia with some friends a few years ago.  We saw the city of Penang and we planned to visit some Chinese places of worship en route to Kuala Lumpur. My friend,  Lawyer Krishnan had prepared an elaborate travel plan starting from India. When we told this to our Malaysian driver, he replied with alarm, ‘No sir, I will not come.  There is a highway from Penang to Malaysia, I will take that route alone.’  We asked him ‘Why?  The purpose of our trip is do  sight seeing in these areas, isn’t it?’.  He replied, ‘No, you have not applied for a permit for that’.

‘Ok fine, we will apply for a permit, how do we do that?’, we asked. The driver said we can apply for a permit at the tourist center in Malaysia.   We submitted the required documents and got the permit issued. Even then, the driver and his two Malaysian friends were panicky throughout the trip.  One of them spoke to several people managing the administration in Malaysia  over the phone, finally returned with relief and agreed to come with us.

‘What happened?’, I asked. He had spoken to somebody in the senior leadership of the Malaysian government and he had been advised by that office to make an entry of our passport numbers at all the places we were visiting and to write a note that they had merely accompanied us.

It was surprising. I asked him ‘Why are you so afraid?’.  ‘All the trips that we make get recorded somewhere or the other.  The question of why we deviated from the usual route can be asked anytime. We need to have documented proof as to why we did that.  It is dangerous otherwise’, the friend replied.

My friend Krishnan mumbled when our car started moving – ‘Sir, only now I realize what democracy really means’.  In India, we have travelled extensively.  Once, we started from Chennai, travelled eight thousand kilometers, went to Calcutta via Kashi and returned back to Chennai via Vishakapatnam.  When we were exiting Chennai, a cop stopped us and checked our driver’s license and sent us on our way.  When returning to Chennai around midnight, a cop stopped to inquire ‘Where are you coming from?’.  Not a single check and nowhere were we stopped in between during the trip.

Even these small checks are only in the last twenty years.  This awareness has started after the advent of terrorism.  In my youth, I have started from my home and roamed around for months across India and then returned.  Not once was I questioned.  As a complete stranger, I have visited new villages, stayed with people at their homes, took up jobs and eaten food and then started from there.  Welcoming strangers with hospitality and treating them as friends has been the culture of India.  Even today, this is the mentality in most Indian villages.  This mentality has been the bedrock of Indian democracy.

Having been born and brought up in a democratic country, we barely know what we have truly attained.  We do not realize that freedom of movement is a rare treasure that is guaranteed in our constitution.  Only when visiting our neighbouring countries that do not have democracy, we see how each and every individual is closely monitored by their governments.  We should have received a permit before we can make a public speech.  Each and word of our speech will be documented.  We should take responsibility for them.  Whenever we are questioned, we should explain them.

In several countries, we can be arrested anytime without any question.  In those countries, fear rests as an unbearable burden over each and every person. In Singapore, there is a national bird reserve. They had created a small forest and released lots of birds within it.  There is a huge net in the sky that covers the entire forest.  The birds can never fly out of the reserve.  Singapore’s democracy and freedom is just like that.  The sky is there; but it is out of limits.

There is no parallel in the entire world to the freedoms of speech, writing and thought that India has granted its citizens.  Even in countries like France, America which forged and gave democracy to us, they do not have freedoms equaling India’s.  Those who have visited those countries can understand this.   Once when I was in America, I mentioned ‘bomb blast’ in the midst of a conversation.  A friend nearby said with concern, ‘Please say gundu vedippu (bomb blast) in Tamil.  There could be recording devices anywhere. They will catch us for this very phrase and question us.’

This freedom has been granted to us by our political forebears. Any freedom is also a great responsibility.  A freedom is a rare tool as well.  It become meaningful when we use it to critique ourselves thoroughly and use it to improve ourselves.  

Our Indian society has multiple, complicated layers.  Only when we speak frankly about it will we realize what problems exist within us.  That is the reason our forefathers gave us the right to speak about anything.

This right is not a right to make speeches that causes self-destruction.  It is not the right to infiltrate us with enemies of our nation and society.

In India today, freedom of speech and expression is construed as the right to make speeches that destroy India.  This is nothing but a grave insult to the forefathers who gave us freedom of speech.  Nothing causes graver destruction than a right exercised irresponsibly.

The elections are upon us.  This is the time when all sorts of intellectual movements will take the stage and communicate their positions.   Every day we hear a new voice with an opinion.  It is essential that each and every one of them rings loudly.  The sound of multiple voices speaking is essentially democracy.  But if in their midst, if we find a voice that says ‘Death to India!  Death to Indian society!’, we should realize that we have not upheld freedom of speech, but have in fact thrust a sword into the hearts of the forefathers who granted us that freedom.


Why Democracy?

22 May

This is a translation of an essay by noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


In the Laboratory of Democracy (4)

In the many emails that I receive daily, a young reader once asked ‘What is the use of India’s freedom?  It is the British that laid railroads, built ports, set up police stations and courts, established law and order, connected the entire nation with communication networks and setup a robust administrative structure.  Had they continued, this country might have developed still further, isn’t it?   What did we get after freedom?  Corruption and exploitation everywhere. The British were far better than these corrupt people, isn’t it?’

Every three months, at least one young person ends up asking me something similar.  This is because, this is a common question that pervades our tea shops.  Whenever the topic of politics arises, atleast one elderly person would comment ‘The rule of the foreigner went and the rule of the looters came to replace it’ [the original Tamil text uses the words vellaikaaran (the white man) and kollaikaaran (looter), the alliterative effect unfortunately could not be preserved in the English translation].  But when we say this, we hardly consider history.  Those who comment with a sense of history are extremely rare among us.

What is the truth?  It is true that British rule was behind the aforesaid developments.  It is not the munificence of the British. It is the munificence of modern capitalism. It happened throughout the world around the same time.

But along with it, British rule caused unprecedented great famines in this country.  Even English historians have written extensively about this.  Amartya Sen has done research on these famines.  For twenty years from 1769, and another twenty years from 1837, great famines came over India.  Our forefathers have referred to them as ‘Thadhuvaruda panjam’.  There were other famines as well in between these two famines. The British have cleverly separated them into smaller famines naming them as the Bengal famine, the Deccan famine and recorded them in history.

The truth was that for a hundred and fifty years India was continuously in famine.  Before the advent of the British, there were smaller famines.  Never a great famine. It was the British rule that caused these great famines.  They have been proved by researchers as having been caused artificially.

The Indian mainland receives rainfall from monsoons. Whenever the monsoons fail, food shortage has been a common occurrence throughout generations.  Hence, there was a well known solution to handle these famines in India.  The solution was to migrate to places where food was available.

As India was a large country, whenever the east had a famine, the west would have a bumper harvest.  In both the ‘Thadhuvaruda panjams’ (famines), the western parts of India had a good harvest.  But Roy Moxham, a British researcher, records how this method of handling famine was brought to naught by British rule in his book ‘The Great Hedge of India’. This book was traslated into Tamil and was came out with my preface. In the 1750’s, the British constructed a fence from Orissa to Kashmir that split India vertically. It is one of the longest hedge of thorn bushes constructed across the world.  They constructed thousands of gates across this hedge, controlled the movement of cargo and collected toll tax.  Hence, a situation arose that the grains from western India couldn’t reach and help the famine conditions in eastern India.

Further, the British connected ports such as Vishakapatnam, Mumbai, Nagapattinam and Karaikal through railroads and exported grains grown here to other parts of the world under their dominion.  In those days, the British were engaged in hundreds of battlefronts across the world where they were fighting for world domination.  All the food requirements for that was met from here.  While people were succumbing to famine, food was being exported.  Today, researchers are documenting all of these. As a result of these famines, a third of the Indian population succumbed.

In the first of these famines, three crore people might have died; seven crores in the second.  An equal number set sail as refugees and settled all over the world, in Mauritius, New Zealand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Caribbean Isles.  In the places where they sought refuge, they died in scores due to communicable diseases.

No country in the world has been visited by such famines.  Never have so many people died like this as well. I have provided an extensive outline of this in my novel ‘Vellai Yanai’ (The White Elephant).  It is not a simple issue that millions of people died in famine in this modern age.  A man doesn’t die because of lack of food for one or two days. The soul will leave the body only when not even a single mouthful of food is available for a period of fifteen to twenty days.

By even British accounts, in Coimbatore alone, a single day saw twenty thousand corpses. Thirty thousand corpses were buried in Chennai in a single day.  Mostly women, children and the elderly.  Local bards have recorded the hunger deaths of those days under the name ‘Thadhuvaruda kummi’ (Lyrics of the Famine)

Even during the Indian freedom struggle, a great famine existed throughout India. Madhushree Mukherjee, a reseacher, has documented how the British Prime Minister, Churchill, attempted to derail the Indian war for independence through hunger.  Even in 1942, an estimated thirty thousand people perished in famine.

In 1947, India attained independence.  The same administrative setup.  A financial state that was worse than during British times.  There was barely a treasury for the government. The remaining assets had already been partitioned with a half apportioned to Pakistan. Nehru took charge as India’s prime minister. But not a single person was let to perish.  Nehru went around the world begging for alms and the grains received were converted into feeding troughs with porridge for the hungry to ensure that nobody died.  Jaiprakash Narayan, who is hailed as the ‘Hero of the Feeding Troughs’ ensured that not a single person died of famine in Bihar.

Nehru was able to convert India into a self-sufficient state in terms of food requirements within barely 25 years by constructing dams, increasing the area under agriculture and raising food production through the first five year plan.  Even today, hunger exists in India. But we never hear of somebody dying of hunger.  What we had before 1947 was an alien power. They were scarcely bothered when we perished in millions. They conducted grand festivities. They celebrated with huge feasts. After 1947, what came was our elected government – hence, when we suffered in famine, Nehru couldn’t sleep in his palatial PM’s residence.

This is the benefit we received out of our independence: I noticed a note in the library of the University of Brickley.  Nehru had written a letter to the state of California in supplication when India was suffering from famine.  They had collected money and sent it to us. In the note of thanks that Nehru sent them, he had written ‘We cannot repay you this money.  We are sending a few books in affection.  Please accept them.’

When I was reading that letter, an NRI next to me said ‘See sir – they are insulting us by framing our letters where we sought alms from them’.  I said, ‘Nehru didn’t seek alms for himself.  Not for his kin.  For his countrymen.  Should we not be proud that we had a leader who surrendered his self respect and begged for the reason that none of his countrymen should die of hunger?’  I couldn’t read that letter without tears in my eyes.

If you ask what we achieved through independence, it is this.   A government that worries about us and a leader who leads it.  If we lost such politicians, it is our fault. We are faulting our ancestors for our own incompetence and our lack of integrity.  This is stooping to a new low.

Who are the criminals?

21 May

This is a translation of an essay by noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


In the Laboratory of Democracy (3)

A few years ago, I was speaking with a person next to me in a bus. He complained that the legislative member elected from his constituency was a criminal by profession.  He was involved in several criminal cases.  He was settling disputes by force outside of the law.  He was well known for forgery in land and property cases.  My fellow traveller even said he had witnessed him getting ready for a fist fight in a dispute between him and another person. I asked him, ‘Doesn’t this mean that the majority of his constituents are criminals like him?’.  He asked angrily ‘How can we say that?  He has been elected by thousands of womenfolk.  They will never commit a criminal act in their lives.  They would not even mentally acquiesce to such an act.’

In general, the Tamil society by nature is against any sort of crime.  A senior police officer in my acquaintance once told me that India has the least ratio of police to population in the  entire world.  Almost 30,000:1, he said.

But considering the population, the density in which the population lives and the various caste-ethnic divisions he said that the number of crimes that occur here are very less. I asked him what the reason could be.  He replied ‘Crime is not controlled by the fear of policemen here.  The people naturally have a repulsion for criminal acts.  There is huge societal ostracization against those who steal and murder.  He cannot stay with his family any longer.  He cannot mix with his relatives and friends. He has enter the world of other criminals like him.  Only within there will his friendships and relationships happen henceforth.’

‘One only needs to show such a world to new criminal to easily catch them. Here, criminals live as a separate society.  Hence it is easy to monitor them.  That is the reason why criminal investigation happens so easily here.’, he said.

A society that rejects its criminals thus forcibly, why does it elect hardened criminals as its representatives?

My fellow passenger said ‘What can we do sir?  They are the ones nominated for our constituency by their parties.  If we want somebody we like to win as the chief minister at the state level, we have to vote for people like him.  Otherwise, somebody we dislike will end up as the chief minister. We vote for such criminals since we do not have a choice.’

Ok, why do these political parties nominate such criminals?  The first reason is that criminals have the proceeds from the crimes they have committed.  They have an organizational setup having selected other criminals like themselves.  In case of need, they have the ability to organize a riot or a hartal.  This is the second reason.  Lastly, they have the ability to indulge in corruption without any hindrance from conscience and pay tributes to the high command.

Hence, in order to create a change of governance at the center or the state, we are voting for criminals without a choice. Whenever a criminal wins elections, it becomes impossible for the honest to continue in politics.  This is because a honest person will find it very difficult to face a criminal in the political arena – he might even have to take to crime.

A criminal’s victory emboldens more of his tribe. They feel that their victory is not impossible too. They plan to hide their crimes better once politics and authority come in to their hands.  In the beginning, it was only in UP and Bihar that most of the elected representatives came from a criminal background.  After that, this trend has strengthened throughout India.  Today, Tamilnadu has become as much a sanctuary for criminals as UP or Bihar.

What is sorely needed is the sense that at no cost should a criminal get elected in our politics.  Even if it means that our vote will go waste, even if it means that somebody whom we liked will not come to power, we should resolve that at no cost should a criminal receive our vote.

Because we set a spectacularly bad example for our children by making a criminal succeed in politics. We destroy their faith in integrity and morals.  At some instance, they will lose faith in us and our traditions.

That day, after alighting from the bus in Madurai, when I was speaking with a friend, he related how he had been betrayed by his own offspring.  He possessed a significant piece of land and a huge house in his village.  His four sons had migrated to different cities.  They had planned to sell off the land and convert it into cash.  But he wanted to live in the house of his forefathers till his last days. He had toiled hard to educate his sons and send them to the city.

But his children put pressure on him in several ways.  At one point, they even said that they would not perform his funeral rites when he dies.  But he was resolute in his refusal.  They conspired together and forged his signature to sell off the house and the land without his knowledge.  He came to know one day when the buyer came to evict him.

He didn’t want to file a case against his own children.  He didn’t have the money or the clout to do that.  Hence, he migrated to Madurai with his remaining savings to live with his wife in a small house.  He burst into tears while narrating this story.   

My mind instantly connected my fellow traveller’s conversation with this incident.  We who elect persons who have no probity in public life into office and send them to legislative bodies, how can we expect our own children to behave with integrity and morals?  We are the ones who created the example for our children to follow.

Do we not indirectly teach those children that trickery and injustice are the paths to success?  Then how can we expect a righteous treatment from them?

At any cost, whatever party, religion or caste or background that he may belong to, we need the resolve that we shall never vote for a criminal.  This is the promise we make for our children and our grandchildren.

The Sign of an Individual

21 May

This is a translation of an essay by noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul

In the Laboratory of Democracy (2)

We can see several interesting details about the first Indian general elections of 1951-52 in Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ (published in Tamil by Kizhakku Pathippakam). The first general elections under the chief election commissioner was keenly observed by the entire world.

This was because, nowhere in the world had there been a general election of this magnitude. In fact, this was a significant event in the history of mankind.  Even today, Indian elections are events when the largest portion of the world’s population exercises its vote. The election commission had to face several challenges in conducting this election.  One, it had to create facilities to vote in thousands of villages which didn’t  have road connectivity, communication facility or other administrative facilities.  Government servants had to conduct elections there and carry the ballot boxes back to the counting stations.

In several places in the north east, they had to carry the ballot boxes over mules.  In some parts near the Himalayas, ballot boxes were lowered from helicopters.  When the elections were over, an American magazine applauded it as one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. But there was another significant challenge in the conduct of the general elections.

A significant percentage of the downtrodden masses of India who turned up to vote didn’t have an identity of their own.  Most of them didn’t even have a name. For example, in a village of the caste of the Mundas, everyone was named ‘Munda’.

Among them, they had named themselves ‘Short Munda’, ‘Tall Munda’, ‘Toothless Munda’, ‘Limping Munda’, ‘Handicapped Munda’ etc.  Everyone would state their caste name or their tribal name as their own.

Another point to note was that women didn’t have a name as their identity.  They were simply identified as somebody’s wife.  And this was among the upper castes.  One of the most significant tasks in front of the first election commission was to create a separate identity for those people. To assign a name to them and to bring them to the ballot box after informing them of their name.

It might be funny to think about this now.  But the concept of an individual has arisen significantly later in a long history/in the entire history of humankind.  In ancient ages, man lived in groups.  He had the name of his group or tribe for a name.  He barely had the consciousness of himself as a separate being.  He didn’t realize that he had likes and dislikes.  That he had thoughts and that he had the freedom to to do as he wished.

Even a century ago, even in our families, nobody had the freedom to take a simple decision about their own lives.   They were taking decisions as a body of people.  We call our times as the era of modern democracy.  We call the previous era as the era of agri-centric life.

In political science, it is called the era of feudalism.  In that era, only the rulers and the upper classes considered themselves as individuals.   All others considered themselves as groups.

But modern democracy is for individuals. It gives a ballot paper to everyone.  It says that one has to vote based on one’s independent decision.  Only when we vote after independent thought can true democracy thrive.

In fact, the concept of the individual arose first in countries in Europe.  The Christian religion considered individualistic thought as a sin.  It had organized the people as masses.  Independent thinkers rose there and took the concept of the individual to the common people, fighting against this religious hegemony.  After the advent of individual thought, democracy was born there as a result.  The system of individuals voting collectively to elect their government is called democracy.

After democracy came in India, it was through that system that the concept of the individual was born. It has been a half century since that happened.  But even today, we are not truly individuals.

We become individuals only when we cease to think as a caste, a religion, a race or a group but think as a single individual before voting.   Several of our democracy’s faults exist because of the fact that more than half the electorate in India even today do not think as individuals during elections.

We would never personally accept an MLA who usually wins through our elections. We would consider him as lacking morals, integrity and believing in violence.  But while voting, we vote from the perspective of a religion or a caste.  That is the reason why incompetent persons are elected here.

Jacques Lacan, a prominent psychoanalyst presented an important theory.  A baby doesn’t realize itself a self till around 18 months.  The baby considers itself a part of its mother’s body, as a part of those around it.  The baby starts thinking only after eighteen months. It starts identifying itself in a mirror.

Lacan calls it the ‘mirror-stage’.  After this, the journey we take is always an individual one.  We feel our joys alone, and our miseries alone.  We are even going to meet God alone.  Why is that we go as a crowd to the polling booth?

It is only when we individually think and decide and start casting our votes that deserving candidates will get votes. Casting votes along caste or religious lines or voting because ‘nowadays, everyone votes for him…’ – these are acts against democracy.


Morals in Democracy

20 May

This is a translation of an essay by noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


In the Laboratory of Democracy (1)

Thirty years ago, I got the chance to organize the papers of Dhanulinga Nadar, who was a Gandhian, a freedom fighter and who had a significant role in the creation of Kanyakumari district (of Tamilnadu).  At that time, in a private conversation I had asked him – ‘Sir, in your knowledge, which is the most significant event in the last 75 years of Indian history?  After pondering for a while with his head bent, contrary to anything that I had expected he would say, he replied ‘Voting by head count, young man’.

Though surprised, as he spoke further, I was amazed at the expanse into history his reply contained.

We start receiving Indian history from Rig Vedic times. We start receiving Tamil history from Sangam times. In the beginning, there were small tribal rulers. They merged with each other to form small kingdoms; some among them grew, became large empires and swallowed smaller kingdoms.

In Tamilnadu, the three empires were born.  Then came the invasion of the outsiders.  Throughout history, the rule of kings prevailed here. After the advent of the British, colonial rule.  Through the freedom struggle led by the Congress against colonial suppression, a modern democratic government was formed here.

In the 2500 year history that we know of, never before was a common man given the right to decide his government.  There was literally no connection between the people and authority.  The kings ruled from their capitals in large cities.   The villages were under the rule of village sabhas.  Castes were ruled by their leaders and the groups representing the ruler.

The kings collected toll tax on the highways.  They taxed the land through the village administration.  Other than that, there was nothing that the government did in return back to the people.  Villages that didn’t pay the taxes were ransacked.  The wealth of the people was looted through wars. Their savings were plundered during invasion from outsiders. The people were looted by each and every kingdom repeatedly.

Most of the time, the people barely knew whose subjects they were. They didn’t know from where and how the administration was being run. But their fate was determined by those kingdoms.  Throughout history, common people lived as slaves, were exploited, were killed in wars and perished in famines.

The pressure created by the democratic struggle led by the Congress against the British rule here brought modern democracy.

Through the compromise between the Congress and the British administration, in the 1920s, regional assemblies were formed and elections were held.  Even in areas like Travancore which were under the rule of kings, people’s committees were formed.

But all of these elections were ones in which only the taxpayers could vote. There was no role for the common man in these elections.  The first time in Indianhistory that a common man played any role in politics was during 1951-52, in the general elections here. It was in this election that the government under the leadership of Nehru, under the guidance of Gandhi brought in the system of universal adult franchise.

That is what Dhanulinga Nadar referred to as ‘Voting by headcount’. The same right to vote for the king as well as a beggar.  Voting rights for women. Voting rights for the homeless.  Voting rights for the tribes who never considered themselves as humankind.

In 1947, when we received the democratic right to vote, in a few European nations which were considered as the cradle of modernity, universal franchise was not in vogue.  For example, it was only in 1971 that Switzerland allowed its women to vote.

It was only after this that VIPs started visiting slums with folded hands.  They entered huts and witnessed how people lived within them.  They realized that they had to do something for those living in the streets.

There was born the thought that the Government was bounden in duty to its people. Even today, those who are discarded as useless for anything else gain in significance around election time. A 90-year old grandmother sleeping in the verandah is carried solicitously to the election booth.  In Indian history, universal adult franchise is undoubtedly a turning point.

Several countries around India received freedom around the same time as us.  Burma, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, China and Afghanistan.   But in none of these countries does complete democracy exist till today.  They merely have a fake democracy or a temporary democracy. All of these states have authoritarian governments.  We exist as a successful democracy in the world despite all our shortcomings.

Six years ago, when flying to Delhi, I happened to chat with a senior government official from Karnataka.  Seeing me reading a Kannada novel, he introduced himself.  He had served 20 years in Tamilnadu.  When recounting several memories to me, he mentioned that he was disgusted at the sight of Tamil women receiving money for votes.

I was shocked for a moment.  ‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.  ‘Tamil women are so particular about character and propriety.  Why is it that they do not feel it wrong to receive money from a stranger for something that is their basic right?’ he asked.  I couldn’t answer him.

‘In Tamilnadu, during elections, I have seen womenfolk from even educated families stand in the streets asking for money to vote.  I have seen mothers and wives prodding the hesitant menfolk to accept the money from within the houses. “Some random stranger giving us money?” – even this basic question of propriety doesn’t arise with them. I have been ashamed at that sight. Even in Andhra and Karnataka, money for votes does exist. But it is only the drunkards that accept them. Even they accept it abashedly, in secret.  Family women would refuse’, said that official.

After that, I didn’t feel like speaking.  But my arms and legs were shaking till the time we landed in Delhi.  We know that what that officer said is the absolute truth.  How do we permit our sisters, wives and mothers to accept the cash that some stranger proffers them with outstretched hands?

Why does it not strike us that this is a degeneration of high order?

This is selling out democracy to the highest bidder. Only when it starts occurring to us that this is a failure of our character, shall we gain the right to stand up in the eyes of our forefathers who presented us with this privilege of democracy.