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Archives for October 2010

How Churchill 'starved' India

Soutik Biswas | 15:50 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010


Victims of the famine in Bengal, 1943

It is 1943, the peak of the Second World War. The place is London. The British War Cabinet is holding meetings on a famine sweeping its troubled colony, India. Millions of natives mainly in eastern Bengal, are starving. Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, and Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, soon to be appointed the new viceroy of India, are deliberating how to ship more food to the colony. But the irascible Prime Minister Winston Churchill is coming in their way.

"Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in this country," writes Sir Wavell in his account of the meetings. Mr Amery is more direct. "Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country," he writes.

Some three million Indians died in the famine of 1943. The majority of the deaths were in Bengal. In a shocking new book, Churchill's Secret War, journalist Madhusree Mukherjee blames Mr Churchill's policies for being largely responsible for one of the worst famines in India's history. It is a gripping and scholarly investigation into what must count as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the Empire.

The scarcity, Mukherjee writes, was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use in the war theatres and consumption in Britain - India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as the famine set in. This would have kept nearly 400,000 people alive for a full year. Mr Churchill turned down fervent pleas to export food to India citing a shortage of ships - this when shiploads of Australian wheat, for example, would pass by India to be stored for future consumption in Europe. As imports dropped, prices shot up and hoarders made a killing. Mr Churchill also pushed a scorched earth policy - which went by the sinister name of Denial Policy - in coastal Bengal where the colonisers feared the Japanese would land. So authorities removed boats (the lifeline of the region) and the police destroyed and seized rice stocks.

Mukherjee tracks down some of the survivors of the famine and paints a chilling tale of the effects of hunger and deprivation. Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones. "No one had the strength to perform rites," a survivor tells Mukherjee. Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal's villages. The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. "Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters," writes Mukherjee.

Winston Churchill during the Second War

The famine ended at the end of the year when survivors harvested their rice crop. The first shipments of barley and wheat reached those in need only in November, by which time tens of thousands had already perished. Throughout the autumn of 1943, the United Kingdom's food and raw materials stockpile for its 47 million people - 14 million fewer than that of Bengal - swelled to 18.5m tonnes.

In the end, Mukherjee writes eloquently, it was "not so much racism as the imbalance of power inherent in the social Darwinian pyramid that explains why famine could be tolerated in India while bread rationing was regarded as an intolerable deprivation in wartime Britain". For colonial apologists, the book is essential reading. It is a terrifying account of how colonial rule is direly exploitative and, in this case, made worse by a man who made no bones of his contempt for India and its people.

India's changing sexual mores and the Supreme Court

Soutik Biswas | 13:41 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010


Indian couple in a park

What makes up a "domestic relationship" between a man and woman? Certainly not "merely spending weekends together or a one-night stand," according to India's Supreme Court. As if this truism was not enough, two senior judges remarked: "If a man has a keep [a crude term for a mistress] whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose or as a servant it would not in our opinion be a relationship in the nature of marriage."

The court got worked up over the definition of a "domestic relationship" - critics frowned at the language it had used in defining a mistress - after a school teacher appealed against a family court judgement asking him to pay 500 rupees ($11) maintenance money a month to a woman, with whom he had allegedly had an affair. The woman says she married the teacher. The teacher denies it, and says he was already married when he met her. Now the courts have to decide whether the teacher's relationship with the woman was a "domestic relationship" and whether she was eligible for maintenance.

That was not all. The court hinted that a domestic relationship, something akin to marriage even, would possibly suffice to define a "domestic relationship". In doing so, the judges even referred to some of the common tenets of the Common Law Marriage - borrowing from Wikipedia - followed in countries where such arrangements have legal status: the two must be of legal age of marriage and must have "voluntarily cohabited and held themselves out to the world as spouses for a significant period of time", among other things.

In a country where talking about sex and relationships largely remains taboo, it is interesting to see India's highest court debating relationship outside marriage. Marriage in India is intimately tied to sexuality. "It is almost if marriage laws exist to legalise sexuality, punish any deviation from legally sanctioned rules and, of course, to legitimise the children of the marriage," says lawyer Indira Jaisingh. The fact that the courts are according legitimacy to relationships outside marriage is welcome and shows they may be facing up to realities.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that a man and woman living together without marriage was not an offence, as some believed. "When two adults want to live together what is the offence? Does it amount to an offence?" the judges wondered. The observation was in response to a petition filed by an actress who had been accused in 22 criminal cases after she allegedly endorsed pre-marital sex in media interviews. Interestingly, the judges even invoked Krishna, the God of love, and his consort, Radha, who, according to legend, lived together. Last year, the court ruled that a man demanding a dowry from his partner in a live-in relationship could also be prosecuted under the country's anti-dowry laws.

The Supreme Court is only taking note of the fact that sexual mores and attitudes are changing. For a society that gave birth to some of the greatest texts on erotica - including the Kamasutra - Indians have long been squeamish about talking about sex and relationships. By contrast, India's classic erotic texts are explicit, matter of fact and non-judgemental about sex and relationships. The country has a highly evolved tradition in erotic temple sculptures and erotic texts on palm leaf. Many historians believe that the arrival of evangelical British colonials to cleanse the "dark land of heathens" dealt a blow to a "vision of the world that accommodated desire with such intensity and dignity". Later, Mahatma Gandhi himself opted for celibacy at the age of 36, telling the world that sexuality was "poisonous" and passion a "distortion". Equating sex with sin and desire with guilt has led to what social commentators say is a climate of "hypocritical morality".

But India is changing, and it is heartening to see that the highest court in the land is taking note of it, and speaking it's mind.

Is the free market improving lives of India's Dalits?

Soutik Biswas | 13:46 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010


A Dalit sweeper in Uttar Pradesh

Does free market drive social change? By rewarding talent and hard work, does it help bring down social barriers? More pertinently, has the unshackling of the Indian economy helped the country's untouchables, or Dalits, to forge ahead?

A group of economists and Dalit scholars led by Devesh Kapur at Pennsylvania University's Centre for the Advanced Study of India, believes so. India's 160 million Dalits are some of its most wretched citizens, because of an unforgiving and harsh caste hierarchy that condemns them to the bottom of the heap.

The study quizzed all Dalit households - more than 19,000 - in two clusters of villages in Azamgarh and Bulandshahar, two poor, backward districts in Uttar Pradesh state. Dalits were asked about their material and social conditions now and in 1990 when economic reforms were kicking off in India. The answers, says the study, provide proof of "substantial changes in a wide variety of social practices affecting Dalit well-being."

If you feel that 19,000 Dalit households in Uttar Pradesh are not a good enough sample for studying their conditions, think again. To put things into perspective, 32 million of India's estimated 160 million Dalits live in Uttar Pradesh alone.

But the very fact changes have happened to the lives of the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh is enough to excite sceptics. Let's look at some of the more striking findings:

1. Ownership of bicycles, fans, TV sets and mobile phones have increased by typically a third to half of the Dalit households surveyed.

A substantial improvement in housing: 64.4% and 94.6% of Dalits in the households surveyed in two districts now live in "pukka" (concrete) houses compared to 18% and 38.4% respectively in 1990.

3. Some interesting changes in grooming and dress - again, an assertion of social aspirations. Take, for example, toothpaste. Under 3% of Dalits used toothpaste in the surveyed households in 1990. In 2007, more than half of them in Azamgarh and over 80% in Bulandshahar used toothpaste. Up to 80% of Dalits in one cluster of villages use shampoo today, an 82% jump compared with 1990.

4. Key changes in eating habits. Consumption of pulses has gone up. More than 80% of the children in households surveyed in both districts are not being served the previous night's leftovers. More than 70% of the households use packaged salt. Up to 87% of the households in Azamgarh and more than half the households in Bulandshahar buy tomatoes.

Whether calorie intake has gone up substantially remains unclear. But respondents say that their food situation is "much better."

5. "Massive" changes in social practices within the community. Today almost all the households rent a car or jeep to take the groom's marriage party to the bride's village and bring the bride back to the groom's village, up from as low as 2.5% in Bulandshahar in 1990. More than 90% of them offer tea to visiting relatives.

Dalit man in India

6. The relationship between the Dalits and other castes is undergoing subtle, but important changes. These days more than 80% of Dalits are not seated separately at non-Dalit weddings of grooms in the village, compared with a little over 20% in 1990. In Azamgarh households nearly 90% of Dalit babies are now attended equally by government and non-Dalit midwives.

The traditional practice that only Dalits would lift dead animals of non-Dalits is dying out. In Azamgarh fewer than 1% of Dalits lift dead animals, compared with 19% in 1990, while in Bulandshahar only 5.3% do. More than 60% of Dalit children in the surveyed households go to school, as do well over half of the girl children.

7. Migration is driving a lot of changes in economic wellbeing. By 2007 fourth-fifths of Dalit households in the two village clusters had at least one family member who was a migrant worker, a professional or was in business. Half of the households in one village cluster, and 78% of households in the other had members who worked locally or had a small business. "Migration," says the study, "has been a powerful engine of Dalit empowerment."

Whether the market is reducing inequality remains a highly contentious point. My hunch is that political empowerment must have played a powerful role in many of the changes: the rise of Dalit politics coincided with the liberalisation of the economy. But the last word comes from the group of scholars behind the study: "No one would argue Dalits have achieved anything like equality, but it is certainly the case that many practices that reflected subordination and routine humiliation of Dalits have declined considerably." That, by itself, is a considerable triumph for India's wretched of the earth.

India's athletes redeem Commonwealth Games

Soutik Biswas | 14:24 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010


Krishna Poonia

It has been a magic time for India's fatalistic sports lovers. Its athletes have redeemed the Commonwealth Games with their finest performance ever, winning 38 gold medals and pushing India to the second place in the table. That's up two places from India's two previous games outings: a truly superlative performance. Away from the rising din of the Delhi games, India's cricket team routed the visiting Australians in a short Test series during the same period.

A rousing performance in an international sporting event can lift the spirits of a nation, and many say the Delhi games have done precisely that to India. Most of us - this writer included - felt that that the games were doomed because of the familiar taint of corruption and gross bungling. When a pedestrian bridge leading to the main stadium collapsed barely days before the opening, India's reputation touched its nadir and we thought it was all over.

It wasn't. India's athletes picked up the gauntlet, and how. Discuss thrower Krishna Poonia became the first Indian woman to win athletics gold at a Commonwealth Games, and the second Indian to win a Games track and field title, after Milkha Singh in 1958. The 4X400m women's relay team, led by Mandeep Kaur, outsped others to pick up gold. India had won nine track and field medals at the games since 1958. At Delhi, it picked up a dozen medals alone, including two gold. "It's unbelievable," India's best-known woman athlete PT Usha told reporters. "I've never seen some of the girls run like before."

Incidentally, many of India's sterling performances came from women, including badminton star Saina Nehwal, who picked up the badminton singles gold. Many of India's medal-winning women athletes came from the northern state of Haryana, which has some of the worst rates of female foeticide in the country. These girls can drive change in this benighted region better than the politicians.

That was not all. The once glorious field hockey team - undefeated in the Olympic Games between 1928 and 1956, winning six gold medals in succession - which has been on a comeback of sorts made it to the finals before being thrashed by Australia. (The team had returned empty handed from the three Commonwealth Games ever since hockey was introduced in 1998)

One hopes that India's apathetic sports officials will build on the success of its athletes and begin treating them better with more incentives, increased funding and improved infrastructure. The legacy of the Delhi games will depend on this alone. The expensive stadia and other state-of-the-art infrastructure could easily turn out to be white elephants, decaying away in neglect, if they are not used to showcase and train athletes regularly. Half of India's one billion population is under the age of 25. Can there be any other country in the world with such untapped sporting potential?

Saina Nehwal

It is tempting to suggest that India's success at the games have happened despite the system - even after the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, sports has remained mired in politics, nepotism, provincialism and corruption. Governments don't appear to be interested in nurturing sports seriously by tapping talent at the grassroots and setting up academies. Will the Delhi games help in ushering in a new sports culture in India?

There's still a lot of catching up to do, as sports writer Suresh Menon points out. One sobering example: the 100m track record in India is 10.3 seconds, achieved in 2005. Canadian Percy Williams clocked that record in 1930. So India trails by 75 years in that event. Or take China. Since 1984, India has won three Olympic medals. China has won 420. India's athletes have shown a lot of promise at Delhi, but it's still a long way to the top. Will the authorities now wake up - and do their job?

A toast to Very Very Special Laxman

Soutik Biswas | 16:37 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010


VVS Laxman

It is time to raise a toast, again, to Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman - also fondly called by his team mates and fans as Very Very Special Laxman - for wresting a stunning win from the jaws of defeat in the cricket Test against Australia at Mohali. India's slimmest ever victory, by one wicket, also reaffirmed how Test cricket remains the genuine article, the toughest contest that separates the men from the boys.

Monday's was a classic Laxman performance - the "stylist in strife" , as one commentator once called him, and match winner extraordinaire carrying off his job with customary aplomb.

He walks in with a runner, his back sore and wracked with spasms. Half his side is gone for 76 runs, chasing a target of 216 on a decaying track against a gritty, if unspectacular, Australian attack. Defiant, sinuous and brisk in his strokeplay, he keeps putting the runs on the board, losing partners quickly before he finds an unusually responsible batsman in bowler Ishant Sharma. He stays unbeaten with 73 and takes India over the line. And when one of the most closely fought games in Test cricket ends, he walks back with a big, disarming smile, as he often does after fetching India an impossible victory. It is no big deal.

Laxman belongs to what is popularly called the Fab Four of Indian cricket. If the genius of Sachin Tendulkar is its Paul McCartney, the iconoclasm and flamboyance of - the now retired - Saurav Ganguly its John Lennon. If the maestro of the backbeat, Rahul Dravid, is its Ringo Starr, then VVS must be its George Harrison, weaving some wondrous and beautiful innings that have held together some of India's best performances and his own.

Laxman is a cricketer's cricketer in many ways, and one of the greatest ever. Remember, he has an exalted place on Wisden's Top Ten batting performances of all time for his epic 281 against Australia in 2001, an innings of Cecil DeMille proportions against the strongest side in the world in the most adverse of circumstances. In that list, he is in the company of people like Donald Bradman and Brian Lara.

At his sublime best, says my friend and cricket journalist Sambit Bal, Laxman is a sight for gods. He is the sultan of silken stroke-play, a wristy batsman like no other. With VVS in full flow, the game reaches its glorious apogee. His performances move the severest commentators to poetry - a delirious Peter Roebuck once described a Laxman double hundred - against Australia, who else? - as a "glass of beer taken as the sun set across a pleasing landscape". In an age of fast-food cricket, Laxman is an elegant anachronism. A very very special one.

Commonwealth Games: A good beginning

Soutik Biswas | 06:07 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010


Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Delhi

I am not a great fan of opening ceremonies of global sporting events - I love the pyrotechnics and a few other bits, but the other nationalism-on-steroids spectacle and the unending procession of athletes leave me bored.

So, I loved the fireworks, and the kids splashing colours and painting hennaed hands, and a few other things in last evening's opening ceremony of the Delhi Commonwealth Games. With its dazzling lights, incessant - and jarring - drumming and a spectacular blimp hanging overhead in the hot Delhi sky, the show appeared to be a colourful mix of a Bollywood potboiler, a Delhi wedding, a U2 concert, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A show which, by all accounts, was liked by most, despite the vapid speeches and the interminably long length.

The foreign media, not surprisingly, is raving about the show. The Washington Post calls it an "epic opening ceremony". Sydney Morning Herald says: "Delhi's dazzling Commonwealth Games opening ceremony has won international praise and boosted the city's mood." The Guardian cooed that "the ceremony was - like the entire effort India has made for the games - monumental in its scale and expense". The Telegraph wondered: "No collapsing scenery or malfunctioning sound system. No fluffed lines, botched choreography or missed cues and not a single stray dog in sight. The preparations for the XIXth Commonwealth Games may have been an unmitigated disaster but India certainly knows how to put on a show."

In a way it also proves how low expectations were from India. If India cannot pull of a decent opening show and games after spending $6bn of taxpayers money, many would say, it should have no business to be even talking about itself as an emerging power. In the hyperbole over the opening ceremony, one should also remember that India's supposed "coming out party " as the media never tires of saying, has come at a price - shutting down Delhi, keeping children at home, driving out the poor, and hiding the urban squalor behind colourful games hoardings. Then there's the massive stink of corruption which needs to be investigated after the games is over.

These are some sobering thoughts, many believe, before we are caught again in the delusion of India Shining. Some of the early signs of this infectious fantasy are already on display. One commentator, Harsha Bhogle, crowed, "This is a fantastic opportunity to show how much India respects athletes." Really? India's athletes remain slaves to badly-run sports fiefdoms run by incompetent politicians. That's why a country of 1.2 billion people has only one individual gold medal in the history of the Olympics. A spectacular games can stun the world, but cannot hide the deformities and rot within. But, for the moment, let us wish the athletes godspeed and hope the rest of the games lives up to its opening.

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