Saturday, March 24, 2007

cricket....a game? or...?

This "Black Saturday" I am back, blogging about something I feel must be said, especially in the context of India's loss against Sri Lanka in the last league match of the first round of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007. First, I admit I am more than just disappointed at India's dismal performance in the tournament. Second, I personally think that Bangladesh deserved the victory against India in the first match. After all, they played well. And after all, India were the underdogs when they won the Cup in 1983. Every cricketing team comes of age at some point in time. And this World Cup, it was Bangladesh's turn.

This said, one would do well to remember that cricket is a sport. It must be treated as such. My happiness does not hinge on the fluctuating fortunes of the Indian cricket team. India's loss, while certainly disheartening, is far from being the most serious thing to worry about in today's world. The loss of the Indian team in a game, is just that, a loss in a game where the better team prevails. It is not the end of the world, nor is it a matter of life and death, except maybe for the betting mafia that makes money off it.

This is precisely why the behaviour of the average Indian cricket fan not only baffles, but also greatly saddens me. Why do we have to vandalise Dhoni's property because he was out for a duck in one match of one tournament? Why do we either deify or demonise our players? There are no shades of grey in our approach to them. They are either omnipotent, all-conquering gods, or they are the ultimate representation of evil and must be done away with. Are they not human too? Do they not deserve to be treated as such?

Another issue that must be addressed is the magnitude of the loss and its repurcussions on the cricketing world. One Economic Times article suggested that the team must pack its bags and bow out of international cricket altogether. This suggestion is both unfair and premature. It is one tournament. Not the end of the world. The very same "analysts" suggested, with great enthusiasm that India were well on their way to winning the Cup for the first time in 24 years, after resounding victories in the warm-up matches. Has the world changed so drastically in a fortnight that the Men in Blue must pack up and hang their boots, and possibly look for alternative careers as lorry drivers and cooks, as one email forward suggested of the Pakistani team? Oh cmon guys!! Its a game. And let us treat it as such.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Democracy in Ancient India - Myth or Reality?

I had my first class with Christophe Jaffrelot, the ultra-famous India specialist of Sciences Po on Thursday. The first thing that struck me in the class was the utter lack of participation. Indeed, it is not Jaffrelot's fault that the students did not ask him any questions. What drew my attention was the fact that throughout the 2 hour-long class, students listened with rapt attention to every word he uttered, not daring to iterrupt once, not daring to question his evidently extensive knowledge on the Indian freedom struggle. I, for one, was not exactly the most impressed. While his knowledge of the freedom struggle is certainly extensive, it does not exceed that of a masters student in Indian history. I do not know how many people I must be scandalising by saying what I am, but I do know that studying India requires much more than just knowledge of its history.

This brings me to the topic of the day. Why was India alone is choosing democracy as the form of government when the tens of other newly-independent countries wavered between democracy and autocracy throughout their independent history? Is it the will of the INC? What is it that makes democracy tick in India? The answers provided by Jaffrelot were unsatisfactory, to put it mildly. He claimed that there was an internalisation of democracy in the psyche of the people that led to the successful establishment of a democratic regime in post-colonial India. I do not object to the theory per se, but the western attitude that assumes that democracy is an import from the west and a colonial legacy does disturb me quite a bit.

Jaffrelot, for all his expert knowledge on India, seems to ridicule Indian claims that democracy was indeed practised for centuries before the coming of the Turks. He claims it is an attempt to make something inherently foreign more acceptable to the people of the land. Whether India has any semblance of democracy or not in the pre-colonial era is open to question. I do not claim to be an expert in Indian history, but there is archeological evidence of the ballot in many parts of the Chola kingdom of the 10th and 11th centuries AD. In addition, the concept of non-monarchical, republican governments existed in ancient India well before the advent of modern democracy in Europe. For evidence, go to http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/histdem/indiadem.htm.

This paper by Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University, is revealing and unbiased. He is not Indian and has no personal interest in claiming that India did indeed have republics before the Europeans discovered it. While I admit that the republics are not really democracies in the modern sense of the word, it does by no means, diminish the importance of its existence in Ancient India. If only Kshatriya men were allowed to participate in the village councils in India, only the landed and rich feudal lords were allowed to vote in elections in all of Europe until the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, a cursory glance at the history of France, supposedly the mother of democracy, will reveal the blatant and violent repression of the rights of the landless labour class until the French Revolution of 1789. Even after the Revolution, France underwent periods of violent and brutal regime changes until the establishment of the fifth republic at the end of the Second World War. This history is, by no means, a shameful one. It merely shows that every country needs time to grow and mature into a full-fledged democracy based on the respect of human rights and on universal adult franchise.

Faulting India for having a system that resembled democracy only remotely by modern standards is not only unjust, but also reflects the double standards of the occidentals. I am perhaps scathing in my criticism of western attitudes but I find it appalling that anything that does not conform to the Europe-centred conception of a Westphalian nation-state is automatically rejected as worthless. While studying the political institutions of a country, one must take into account its cultural heritage and local traditions before passing a value judgement on its history. I do not deny that the caste system is a bad thing. But, to say that Indian Republics were not democracies because they allowed only male members of the Kshatriya caste to participate is unfair. It would do good for western analysts to remember that India is one of the few countries that chose to become a democracy without even stopping to consider other forms of government. It would also do to remember that the most liberal western democracies have never had women heads of state. The United States is a case in point. Nor have these democracies ever had a member of a minority assume positions of power and importance, the Afro-Americans in the US and Arab immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, India has elected both women and minorities to responsible positions in government.

To conclude, I think the western world would do a lot better if they just stopped being so judgemental about another's culture and heritage. After all, all that belongs to the west is not necessarily good, just as all that is third-world is not necessarily bad.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The idea of India? Or is it ideas?

Yesterday, I got home quite late. And realised I did not have access to the internet because I had forgotten to pay. Might I add, that I cannot get to sleep unless I read something. And, I did what people have done for centuries before the advent of the internet. I took out a book, yes, a real book. For those who have forgotten what that looks like, it is mde of paper and bound together with glue. ;-)

The book I got out to read was entitled, "L'Idée de l'Inde" by renowned Indian sociologist, Sunil Khilnani. As I read bits and pieces, I desperately wished I had the English version, that I had so intelligently left in my cupboard back home in India. However, the book was too interesting to ditch. I did not get through the book, indeed I did not read even one page, because my thoughts were drawn towards another, in my opinion, more interesting book on the same subject. This one is "India: From Midnight to the Millennium" by Shashi Tharoor.

I was reading the introduction when I found myself wondering what Tharoor would have to say today, on the same subjects. If he were to rewrite the book, how would it change? He enumerates four major issues that confronted India at the dawn of the new millennium. The bread-vs-freedom debate, the centralisation-vs-federalism debate, the pluralism-vs-fundamentalism debate and the coca-colonisation debate.

Now...this sets me thinking, not about the questions themselves, but about whether these questions continue to be relevant 7 years hence. Let's first take the bread-freedom debate. Honestly, do we really set that much store by freedom, as it stands? The generation that knew an enslaved India is slowly disappearing. We, the citizens of the future have never known how it is to not be free. Indeed, the GenX does not even know how life was pre-internet. So, do we really care about losing freedom? Is it even possible? Why would any other country want to politically conquer India and thus take charge of its billion-strong population? Surely, it makes no sense any more.

Next, is the centralisation-federalism debate. Is it even a debate any more? I thought India was inexorably and irreversibly on its way to becoming a federal state. Devolution of power is not a debate any more. It is a necessity. Especially since we are a billion in number. Third, the pluralism question. Many may argue that the rise of the BJP is in fact a sign of the rise of fundamentalism. But, I beg to differ. India is plural. No one political party, or even a group of parties, or even still the people of India themselves, can change that. The fact remains that, as Tharoor clearly demonstrates, India can only be spoken of in the plural. It has always been, and will remain as far as I can envisage, a plural country. What more can you expect of a country with 18 official languages and thousands of dialects? Then, is the question of globalisation. It is not even a question any more. While globalisation in India has been gradual, it is far from stagnant. India has too much to lose from protectionism and a lot to gain from liberalisation.

Having said that, I think the real challenges come from within. India must sustain the astounding 9% growth rate it has experienced over the last few year. It must tackle the major problems of poverty, AIDS and population growth to achieve this. It must drastically improve its Human Development Index ranking from an abysmal 126 in 2006. These are what will give India the respect it deserves in the International community and not rhetoric. India is definitely a rising power, but to become a developed nation, more needs to be done.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

How is fish veg?

This post is about exactly what the title says. Since when did fish become a vegetarian dish? The last time I checked, fish belonged to the animal family. And unless it has changed zoological classifications overnight, there is no way in hell it can be considered a vegetarian dish. Why is it so difficult for people to comprehend that some people in this world can do perfectly well without eating fish, meat or anything that comes from killing an animal? On thursday, exhausted from the day's classes, I walked into a café and asked for anything that did not contain meat or fish. And....voilà!! The lady at the counter, appearing to be very pleased with herself, proposed prawns, adding that it was delicious the way they made it!


Well....what can i say? I politely refused, explaining that I do not eat anything that comes from killing an animal, all the time struggling to keep the exasperation out of my voice. And she tells me, intelligently might I add, that she is not sure whether prawns can be considered animals! They are shelled creatures apparently, that do not satisfy the requirements of being an animal. The last thing I wanted to do that night, at 9 30 pm was to give her a lesson on zoology and the classification of animals. So I smiled sweetly, all the while wanting to throttle her, and said that I would settle for a good old crêpe with chocolate sauce. At least that is vegetarian. Aaaargh! People!!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cricket World Cup 2007

The ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 will start in 15 days. I have never been a great cricket fan, or a fan of any sport for that matter. But, I do like to stay in touch with the fluctuating fortunes of the Indian cricket team, especially during the World Cup campaign. I suppsoe it all started with the 1996 World Cup. There was unprecendented hype about it given the rather recent entry of cable television and the increasing stakes in television broadcast. And with that particular World Cup campaign started my on and off love affair with international cricket.

Now, let me make it clear that I am rather ignorant about statistics, history, or even the general knowledge about cricket. I do know the basic rules of the game but my knowledge ends there. I do not pretend to be able to give a blow-by-blow, over-by-over account of any match. Honestly, I never thought I would get desperate to meet a person, anyone who knows and enjoys cricket. I came across the official site of the ICC World Cup 2007 quite by accident a week ago. And since then, I have been hooked! I tried talking to my friends here about it...but...they do not seem interested in the least about Indian cricket team's fate over the next few weeks. :-(

A friend of mine, in a general discussion over a cup of coffee, made a revealing comment. How do you sit in front of the television and follow the game obsessively for a solid 7 hours, she asked me. Good question. Except that have never thought about my cricket watching pursuits seriously enough to ask myself this question. Indeed, many a cricket-loving Indian would be shocked, even scandalised by the idea that someone can consider watching a match a waste of time. I don't have to go too far to cite an example. Anand is one such person. I remember many a student skiving off classes to watch a cricket match, during my teaching stint at the Alliance Française. I would enter class at 4 pm on a Sunday. Believe me, it is not easy to get out of home on a weekend to teach French. So, as I was saying, I would enter class on a Sunday evening. And wait. Period. I would wait for nearly 20 minutes to have about 5 students in my class, so I can start. The 6th or the 7th student would trot into class reluctantly about an hour later. On the whole, the class strength would be about 25% of the total. That should be enough to prove that cricket-watching is not merely a hobby, but a sacred duty for some.

It is astounding how Britain and France can be geographically so close to one another and yet so far apart culturally. The British cricket-culture is a case in point. While the whole of France was obsessively following the FIFA World Cup about 8 months ago, very few even know that the Cricket World Cup is going to happen shortly in the West Indies. Worse still, they don't understand just why an Indian would be so obsessed with her cricket team and its prospects of becoming World Champions 2007. Dare I ask the same question about the French football team? Dare I ask why the Zidane head butt made the headlines in practically every newspaper worth its salt? And dare I ask why the police had to use tear gas to disperse a particularly violent crowd at the railway station near my place when France lost to Italy?

No, because football is sacred to the French. Just like cricket is to the Indians. A sign of cultural differences and colonial heritage I suppose. Still, I cannot imagine how life would have been if India had been a French colony instead of a British one. Would be be a soccer-crazy nation? Or a rugby-crazy one maybe? Any answers are welcome!