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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.


Toddy Shop Gandhi

4 Oct

This is a translation of a blog post from noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s blog.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


11Last September 30th, I had gone to Vaikkom on a cinema related work.  My friend Madhupal and producer Sukumar were with me.  While returning, when wondering where to have lunch, Sukumar called up his friend Nandakumar to inquire.  Nandakumar suggested a toddy shop in a town called CherpuCherpu is the town where actor Mammooty was born.

We inquired and found out the toddy shop.  Situated on the banks of the Vemband river, it was built with palm leaves.  But it had several sections; even small rooms for sitting and drinking in privacy; and halls.  It was late afternoon when we reached.  Hence, there were no toddy drinkers.  Most of them had come for lunch.  Since Madhupal was a popular actor as well, our welcome was royal.

Steamed tapioca, appam.  Along with beef fry, fried pork, ayyakoora fish curry, saalai fish curry, fried karimeen, crab fry and oyster fry… they kept on serving us.  Sukumar is a gourmet, one might even say, an exponent of food. Toddy accompanied all this.

I hadn’t had such tasty fare in recent times.  Each dish was at its classical best.  All meat was fresh and tender.  The fish tasted as if it were taken directly from water.  Subdued spices.  Good coconut oil.  Sukumar said none of the dishes was old.  There was not a refrigerator on the premises.

We sought out the cook, embraced him in appreciation and then left.  Only an expert cook can correctly prepare beef fry.  If it is overcooked, it is coal; if undercooked, it is fiber.   Pork is complicated in a different way.  If undercooked, it is inedible. If overcooked, it melts.   These were cooked as if they were cooked for gods.

The reason is that in Cherpu, those who come to this shop are locals.  Even if the quality dips a little, they won’t come the next day.  One look at the shop indicated that it is used to milling crowds.  ‘They have shut down more than half the bars, sir.  Hence large crowds come here.  In the evening, four or five folk singers are here. If you can wait, I will ask them to come here immediately’, said the shop owner.  ‘No, we have to leave’, I said. ‘They also perform mimicry and comedy, sir’.   The shop was very clean as well.

It was a cultural center of that town.  Good drink, good food, good entertainment.  Drink acquires meaning only when it is associated with entertainment.  Tamilnadu’s TASMAC shops are repulsive places.  Always filled with bad tempers.   The food sold there can be burnt only by the spirits sold there.  Mostly left-overs from other places are reheated and sold near TASMAC.

There are places in Chennai where drink is a high class entertainment.   But it would cost at least five thousand rupees to even visit those places.  For a poor man, drink is a major torture, a vise in which he has been trapped.  The government seizes him, unclasps his waist belt and steals his earnings.  He is stuck with the chemicals given in return by the government.

I think toddy shops like this one is are not harmful in any sense.  A center of entertainment which is affordable to even a poor man.  Toddy doesn’t make anyone so ill that he cannot work anymore.  It doesn’t give one a blind drunken stupor.  Even a stomach full of toddy doesn’t empty one’s pockets.  A bottle of toddy was 25 rupees.  Even if one drinks all night, one cannot drink for two hundred rupees.

A major percentage of the money given for toddy reaches the farmer directly.  It forms the basis of the Keralite village economy.  In Andhra and Kerala, toddy is the major drink.  But in Tamilnadu, where there are three times as many palm trees and where a special ‘palm economy’ had existed, toddy is banned.   Molasses from sugarcane are procured, converted to spirit and sold with a government stamp.  The enormous revenues from it go to capitalists and politicians.

Since it has dry lands, Tamilnadu’s palms are of a high quality.   Such toddy is matched only be a few places in Rayalaseema.  Kerala’s toddy is extracted from coconut trees.  It doesn’t have the mild sweetness and scent of palm toddy.  In the last decade, a drying disesase called mandari affected Kerala’s coconut trees and coconut production was almost brought to a standstill.   But for toddy, Kerala’s farmers would have committed suicide.  The bar restrictions of today are further helpful to them.


We spoke as we travelled.  I told them about Gandhi’s toddy shop agitation.  It occurred to me that Gandhians today, if they hadn’t taken Gandhism as a rigid religious belief system, should support toddy.  It is rural produce.  It is consumed locally.  Its trade can only be done on a small scale. It is against centralized, super-profiteering organizations.  It is favorable to agriculture. It is an excellent substitute for the chemical spirits that are produced through large industry and sold for obscene profits. 

Madhupal asked what would Gandhi have said about eating beef.  Gandhi spoke all his life against the killing of cows.  But he would not have for even an instant agreed to it as a form of oppression by the majority over a minority, in the form of regulations laid by a government.   In the system that he proposed, all minorities were to retain complete freedom.   That was his rama-rajya.

I consider the beef ban brought by a few state governments as violence by the government and the mindsets that arise in its support as fascist.  I hope that a multicultural land like India will uproot and discard fascism.

Hence, I dedicate this day (Gandhi’s birthday) to that toddy shop.  In my mind, I think I have had lunch with Gandhi there.

The Untilled land

3 Aug

On the news today, a young girl was shouting at tv channel microphones that unless the government paid compensation of 30 lakh rupees to a girl killed in a bus accident, protests by a hundred-odd students would continue. The news item ended with the protestors dispersing after officials promised compensation.

In the next news item, student protestors from Pachiyappa’s college were shown pelting stones at a TASMAC shop. A burly policeman in plain clothes was beating the hell out of a rather skinny student who had ran out of luck.

On another channel, MDMK leader Vaiko was exhorting students ‘to come out of college classrooms to the streets to break TASMAC shops’. ‘Not a single shop should be spared!’ he said.

The striking similarity across all three news items was the unflinching certainty of those involved that the judiciary or the due democratic process of government has no chance of seeing the light of the day here.

The first case – a court in any country where democratic ideals have taken roots, like the USA would have quickly ruled imposing penalties on the transport authority without getting hundreds of people working up under the midday sun.

The second case of stone-pelting students – a healthy public debate aided by a free press and judicial steps by social activists could have kept a check on the liquor-industrial complex (viz. the TN government?) without students having to step back in history to violence, which was how disagreements between folks were settled in the medieval ages.

A leader of an reasonably experienced political party exhorts students to violence, eschewing both peaceful democractic demonstrations and the law of the land. He is a lawyer-politican, and he apparently has had enough of both. This betrays a complete distrust of the due process of law and political engagement. One cannot blame him though – he once spent 180 days in jail without any chargesheet by the ruling government.


India is at a crossroads. We may be the world’s largest democracy, but a democratic civil society is yet to take root in our tropical soil. The last political person who tilled this land was Gandhi.   


13 Jun

This is a translation of a blog post from noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s blog.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


Questioner: (Why do my friends label as ‘Hindutva’ anything about Hindu traditions. Like references in Vishnupuram.  What exactly do these people call as ‘Hindutva’?)

Dear Sankar,

A repetition though.

A small historical sketch. India was a thriving civilization in lifestyle, art and science. Like China, Egypt and Greece. Nobody can refute this. But a steady decline started in this grand tradition from the 12th century onwards. The attacks on India from outside destroyed its structure.

Grand civilizations move towards their destruction in their natural course of progression. This is because advancement in culture takes it towards plurality. Each of its constituents will grow individually. These components that grow will be contradictory to each other. At that level, it will no longer be a singular, strong warring society. They will be defeated by some fierce, unitary society which has a less advanced culture.

A stagnation of seven hundred years. After that, a renaissance began in the eighteenth century. The reason was English education. Contact with Europe. They call it Indian renaissance / Hindu renaissance. Hindu reformist movements such as Brahmo samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, Narayaguru movement, Vallalaar movement etc. were formed. India’s ancient culture was rediscovered. It was defined anew.

This renaissance blossomed into the Indian war for independence. India obtained freedom. This grand movement yielded fruits such as Tagore, Bharathi, Kuvembu, Kumaranaasan, Premchand, Manik Bandopadhyay, Sivaram Karanth, Pudhumai Pithan, Tarashankar Banerjee and a hundred other luminaries.

At that time, there was a grand dream. To take forward India’s tradition of wisdom, science and philosophy from the point where it had been cut off and on par with modern world’s intellectual discourse. It was repeatedly spoken about in the nineteenth century. There were two faces to Indian renaissance. To imbibe the best cultural aspects of Europe and to develop the various sections of Indian culture.

But after Independence, an important change happened in the world view of Indians. Though moulded by the Indian Independence movement, Nehru, who had no faith in the Indian tradition of wisdom and who blindly worshipped European traditions, became the Prime Minister. Having witnessed the great famines of India first-hand, eradication of poverty alone seemed important to him. He designed the education systems and thinking required to achieve this particular objective. Also, the major religious riots and the resultant animosities intimidated them. They planned to separate education from religion.

The education system created by Nehru and his close associates like Mahalanobis, P. N. Haksar kept aside anything related to Indian traditions as related to religion. If any country has created an education system that doesn’t teach even a single word of its philosphical traditions (one of the grandest in the world) to its students, it has to be India. There is no parallel to this before or since in human history. An entirely European education system became the common, public education system here. An education that could feed became the only education here.

During the British rule, the hatred towards Indian traditions and Hindu traditions in the Indian intellectual space was systematically planned and developed. During the Independence movement, this was restricted due to sentiments that prevailed at that time. After freedom, our modern education fed it and increased it to enormous proportions. Almost every educational institution and cultural department was filled with those who despised India and Hindu traditions.

In the 1970s, when the fear arose that India could become a strong nation, [Strategists like Chester Bowles record this fear. India’s nuclear tests and attempts to become a regional power were also reasons] global powers started an indirect war against India in the intellectual space.

Hence any thought process against Indian unity started receiving lots of money. Anybody who had an anti-India stance flourished with funds. They alone received grants, travel opportunities, awards and international recognition. Anybody who spoke even slightly in favor of Indian and Hindu traditions was ostracised without a single exception.

Since it was believed that Indian unity was a result of the Hindu religion, foreign powers maintained the practice of denouncing and defaming the Hindu religion almost as a major industry. The sheer opposition to being Indian and Hindu was an impregnable force amongst our intelligentsia, media and education. It still continues. It created thought processes and beliefs that reach the youth of today as single sentences. They believe that repeating them makes them appear as a modern and forward thinking person.

On the other hand, in 1925 Hindutva politics began in India. It was an attempt to gather the sentiments created by Indian national renaissance and Hindu religious renaissance as a politcal force. After the Muslim League was formed and Islamism became a political force, Hindu religious politics began as its response . It grew gradually through the mistakes of the Congress. By the 1980’s it became a potent political force and has captured power today.

Hindutva reduces the Hindu religion to a singular identity and gather popular support through that. It has no relation to the Hindu tradition of wisdom, Hindu philosophical traditions and the Hindu religion. Hindu traditions are pluralistic in nature. They grew and evolve by conflicting with each other. But opponents of Hinduism and India have constantly claimed that the politics of Hindutva and the Hindu traditions are one and the same. It has to be considered as an attempt to defame, marginalize and destroy the Hindu traditions.

This is the background. As a writer, I have a deep faith in the Hindu tradition of wisdom. I come from the Vedanta school of philosophy of Narayana Guru. In terms of philosophy, I agree with the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. I express them in my writings. I think that if thoughts and literature that are based on Hindu and Indian traditions grow and extend, it would be a great bounty for world civilization. This was the dream of Vivekananda, Tagore and Bharathi as well.

I am a modern writer. Hence I do not put forth belief systems. I analyze, dissect and argue. Moreover, I dream through the imprints that these traditions have given me. Through those dreams, I reach the depths of my tradition’s inner mind. I present them through the language of my times. I am the contemporary extension to a civilisation and literary movement that are several thousand years old. I consider myself as a continuation in the line from Kamban, Kalidasan and Bharathi.

As a Hindu, I am not an enemy of any religion. I try to attach everything to myself. As a nationalist, I accept the secular India that Gandhi proposed. In my India, everyone else shares the same space as Hindus.

The haters of Hinduism and India cannot accept me due to their politics of hate. They cannot understand me either. They can engage with me only through defamation, malice and bitterness. They can talk about Hindu traditions, Hindu wisdom and Indian nationalism only after branding it as Hindutva politics. That is their plan of action. They have been appointed for that purpose. And they are paid for that as well.

Those who read my creations know what I am writing. It is not religiousness. It is not even religion. It is modern thought and literature that is written standing as a contiguous point in line with a grand civilization. My readers are those who understand that. I do not worry about those who do not understand my writings. The smoke created by the propaganda of Hindu and Indian opponents will disperse. Then, I will be known as a writer who approached and advanced this civilization critically.

– J

————— Mark Zuckerberg’s East India Company

21 Apr

Mark Zuckerberg’s sudden passion for the upliftment of the masses to the benefits of connectivity and access to the enlightening services of Facebook is not merely to ‘include’ everyone in the Internet.  The undeniable fact is that he personally stands to benefit from the ‘inclusion’ of millions of young users who sign up for Facebook.

“With respect to the benefits which the British government actually confers on the people of India, and that those benefits have been uniformly progressive, there hardly appears to be an dissentient opinion. Let them consider whether the consecutive improvements which have taken place in the internal policy of that state, and which have succeeded each other with a rapidity scarcely precedented in the social history of mankind, could possibly have been brought to pass, if the grand operator of reform had been a living subject bound with a lifeless carcase…”1

– Right Hon. Charles Grant, President of the Board of Commissioners for the affairs of India, 1831

“This is why we created, our effort to connect the whole world. By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries, offers free access in local languages to basic internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging. lowers the cost of accessing the internet and raises the awareness of the internet’s value. It helps include everyone in the world’s opportunities.”

– Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer, Facebook, 2015

Both the illustrious gentlemen whose quotes appear above have something in common.  While they cry for the world’s poor and the downtrodden with philanthropic fervor, they shrewdly fail to mention a salient fact: that they personally stand to gain immensely from the monopoly which they attempt to foist under the garb of philanthrophy. 

El_Peligro_de_FacebookDuring the early 1800s, the East India question was a much debated topic in Britain and the crux of the debate was whether to confer monopoly trading rights in India to the East India Company or, as some proponents of free trade argued, to allow other mercantile companies from Britain to trade with India.   Charles Grant argued that considering the immense social benefits that British India enjoyed through the ‘grand operator of reform’ viz. the East India Company, and as an organ of the British government augmenting the British military with its own sepoys, the Company should be allowed to freely trade in India as a monopoly.

The Right Hon. Charles Grant served as Chairman of the British East India Company (also as a member of the British parliament).  His vigorous arguments in favor of restricting free trade to India and granting monopoly to the ships of the East India Company was not because of the benefits conferred on Indians as his speeches would indicate.  The simple truth was that he stood to personally gain from the profits of the East India Company.

Mark Zuckerberg’s sudden passion for the upliftment of the masses to the benefits of connectivity and access to the enlightening services of Facebook is not merely to ‘include’ everyone in the Internet.  The undeniable fact is that he personally stands to benefit from the ‘inclusion’ of millions of young users who sign up for Facebook. India is too huge and promising a market for Facebook to waffle about with notions like ‘net neutrality’ in 2015 (as ‘free trade’ was to the EIC in the 1800s).  

Edmund Burke once lamented the excesses of young officers of the East India Company: “(East India Company officers) drink the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it, and as they are full grown in fortune long before they are ripe in principle, neither Nature nor reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for remedy of the excesses of their premature power.”2

Had Burke lived in 2015, there is little doubt whom he would have addressed these words to. 

1  Source: “The Views and Opinions of Some Eminent and Enlightened Members of the Present Board of Control”, London: James Ridgway, Piccadilly, 1831

2  Source: “On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters of Edmund Burke”, ed. David Bromwich, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000

Written by: Gokul

Gandhi’s Dress

2 Nov

This is a translation of a blog post from noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s blog.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


Two events are widely known. Gandhi came to London in the summer of 1931 to attend the second Round Table Conference and secondly, he met the British emperor George V. There were strict dress codes and protocol for meeting the British Emperor. Gandhi had changed over to his traditional dress much before then. He had started wearing the simple dress of an India peasant. He never changed his dress code anywhere.

Before he left for London, an American journalist asked him ‘Would you change your attire before going to meet the British emperor?’ Gandhi replied ‘No, it would be disrespectful to meet him in any other dress. Because such dress would be inappropriate for me.’

After the meeting a reported asked Gandhi if he didn’t feel ashamed to stand in front of the Emperor in his simple dress. ‘Why should I feel ashamed? The Emperor was wearing enough clothes for the both of us.’ said Gandhi.

There are few political thinkers who understood the power of symbols in politics. The best symbol of what Gandhi stood for, was his dress and appearance. He appeared as one among the crores of half-starved farmers in India. Two possibilities opened up out of this. India’s poor people saw him as one of them. They judged him as one who understood their misery.

This understanding should be judged in the context of India’s historical background. Till then, we had a feudal societal setup;  monarchy. The rulers were born in royal lineage, army commanders and warriors. Later when the British rule took over, the authority of administrators rose. It was the authority of the educated classes. They too were largely separated from the common people and out of reach for them.

The early leaders of Congress came from the upper educated classes. They came from wealthy families. They were successful lawyers or traders. They were as distant from the commoners as the monarchs and rulers before them. The advent of Gandhi bridged this gaping chasm successfully. Through this alone did the Indian freedom struggle become truly a movement of the people.

When Gandhi came to the Calcutta Congress Conference fresh from his South African Satyagraha experience, he didn’t see common people there. The true citizens of India – poor farmers were not there. There were only educated upper and middle classes. All speeches were delivered in English. They were conducted very formally in accordance with British traditions. Gandhi has written very critically about these useless conferences.

In that conference, Gandhi got all of two minutes to speak. Before he delivered the first few sentences of his resolution, they passed it by clapping in agreement. Even in the small duration, Gandhi delivered his message. He placed his message deliberately before them by wearing his traditional Gujarati national turban. His shifting to a half dhoti and shawl later was the next step.

Through his dress, Gandhi told the poor people in India that the Congress was no longer the party of educated upper class people. He participated in political conferences in that dress. He conducted agitations that lead the nation. He went to meet the Viceroy. He signed historic political agreements. That somebody in a half-dhoti and shawl can do all these things was in itself inconceivable till then in Indian history. Gandhi’s half-dhoti is how Indian democracy was born.

In another way, his dress stood as a direct symbol of how India was exploited to outsiders. During Gandhi’s salt satyagraha, media from around the world keenly observed him. America’s Time magazine sported him on its cover twice within ten months. Through hundreds of photographs that were published of him in magazines, Gandhi reached the Europeans. He was in his ‘half-naked’ dress in all of them. There was no need for a campaign tool to illustrate that India was being exploited, other than his appearance. His appearance spoke more to the European conscience than Gandhi himself did.

Another fact to note is that throughout Europe, Christian organizations arranged campaigns against Gandhi’s struggle. Gandhi wanted to go to Rome and meet the Pope in 1931 when he went to the Round Table Conference. Even though he requested for an appointment, Pope Pius XI refused to meet him. The media wrote that Gandhi was refused an appointment since he refused to follow the dress code stipulated for meeting the Pope. It lead to criticism against the Pope from around the world.

But researchers going through the Vatican documents later found out that it was not the only reason why the Pope refused to meet Gandhi. A researcher, Peter Gonsalves has written extensively about this. The Pope was presented with some secret reports from his advisors. Cardinal Eugene Baselli (who later became the Pope) wrote a comment that is significant. There was a warning that Gandhi was against Roman Catholics’ interests in India.

[This Pope, Pius XII was accused of silence during Hitler’s genocide to protect his own interests in Germany and other European countries. A play ‘The Deputy’ based on him is famous. I have written an essay ‘Paava Mounam’ on it. ]

Gandhi always celebrated Christian spiritual values. He tried to make them part of his life. But he criticized religious conversion undertaken as a political campaign. He said that it was against spirituality. The catholic leadership saw this as indicative of Gandhi’s Hindu fundamentalist outlook. Archbishop Panirselvam, who attended the Round Table conference as a representative of the Catholics said that if India became independent, it would become a Hindu nation and the benefits and assistance that the Catholics receive under British rule will be stopped. The Pope accepted this observation. Hence he refused to meet Gandhi.

The most important reason for the success of Gandhi’s struggle was that he brought it to the attention of the world. He had won the support of the moderates in Europe and America. The American media hugely supported events like the Salt Satyagraha. To decimate that support, the British-aligned forces followed two methods. One, to show that Gandhi’s struggle was innately violent. His non-cooperation and breaking the law were widely portrayed as violent. Secondly, to show him as against Christianity.

Gandhi’s appearance stood up against both of this two forms of propaganda. It showed him as a supported of the poor people. Several Europeans even considered him an uneducated villager. Even magazines that supported him called him ‘naïve’. His appearance made him look like one of the Christian saints of former times. What needed several thousand words to convey, Gandhi said with his dress.

The two statements from Gandhi when he went to meet the British Emperor clearly show his mindset. Gandhi says that his dress is natural to him. He says that he is his dress. His next statement is subtler. Saying that the Emperor is wearing his dress too, made him the exploited India and the Emperor as the exploiting British empire. The photographs of him and the Emperor were alone sufficient to establish that India was being exploited by Britain. When they were published, they told the world what Gandhi and the Congress wanted to tell the world.

I was reading Gandhi’s ‘Experiments with Truth’. I noticed the starting point of Gandhi’s politics with dress in it. In the sixteenth chapter, under the heading ‘Lord Curzon’s Durbar’, Gandhi writes about the experience of meeting Indian princes who came for the government assembly under Lord Curzon, when he was staying in a lodge called the India Club in Calcutta. In his own style, he briefly narrates it and moves on.

Gandhis notices that maharajahs who normally wear dhotis and shirts, wear tall and shiny boots that come up to the knees and pants what fit into them, when they appear for the Durbar. As he studied in London, he knows that it is the uniform of the servants in the British royal palace. He speaks to the maharajahs. Then he realizes that they know it too.

Only we know our unfortunate state. The  dishonor we endure to protect our wealth and titles, only we know’ says a maharajah. ‘Even so, should you wear this pants and boots that only servants wear?’ asks Gandhi. ‘Do you see any difference between us and them?’ replies the maharajah sadly.

Yes, this was the starting point for the politics of attire. Gandhi’s dress was a revolt against the British colonial mindset which dressed up Indian maharajahs in servant’s attire and made them stand among them. Gandhi went to the Viceroy’s assembly dressed in a single cloth and a shawl. By then he had organized the entire Indian nation behind him. Through his dress, Gandhi told the British mindset, ‘You have to treat me an equal and hold talks with me. I dare you to refuse’. ‘You can dress up Indian princes as servants. But you have to treat the Indian peasant as your equal’.

 There arose a situation that the British Emperor had to meet Gandhi. He had to relax his protocol. Because Gandhi was not a person. He was a nation. Churchill was furious when he came to know that; that the British crown jewel was disrespected. The Emperor’s side said ‘In British history, never before was the dress protocol relaxed. Never will be again. This is an exception.’

It was a turning point in Britain’s colonial history. The Emperor was a symbol of the feudal setup. A symbol of monarchy. Gandhi was a symbol of the fledgling era of democracy. A symbol of the power of the people. One stood for hegemony, another for right. It was a historical moment in world history when Gandhi stood before the Emperor. It is a significant point in the history of democracy.

Gandhi didn’t stay in the special hotels that were arranged for the attendees of the Round Table Conference. From his ship, he went directly to the quarters of the washermen who came to welcome him at the port. In the harsh winter of Britain, he went in his half naked attire and stood in front of the British Emperor. He treated the Emperor as his equal. At that moment, India’s injured self-respect would have held its head high. In the dark rooms of palaces, several maharajahs would have smiled in tears.

Gandhi was not one who considered anyone below him. Hence he didn’t treat anyone as above him either. But at that moment, as a historical personage, he towered above others. Who is that George V? Where is that Pope Pius XI? They are mere pebbles that lie in the depths of history today. Gandhi is history; a towering peak.

There is a statute of the Buddha returning home after Enlightenment, in a museum in Mathura. Yashoda, Sudhodhana, elephants, the palace roof and the entire city would be below the knee level of Buddha. In the summer of 1931, Gandhi would have stooped low to speak to the Emperor who stood to the height of his feet – in his own gentle style.