Our bane

An ancient evil returns
It always lurked behind the flimsy wall
We were trying to build
Pretending
That it was strong enough
To keep it out.

An ancient evil returns
It can only be destroyed when all of us forget
That it existed
Unyielding
To the old and new attractions
That keep it in.

Secular judges, religious matters and liberal values

Analysing policy issues concerning religion and the judiciary in the Indian republic is complicated

In today’s lead column in The Hindu I argue that India runs the risk of slipping into a “judiciopapist” order, wherein judges have power over matters of religion. In the context of a case before the Supreme Court concerning women’s right to enter traditionally puritanical male domain of Sabarimala temple in Kerala, I argue that “we should be wary of a judiciary that encroaches on more domains, even for causes we consider as desirable and good.” The article reasons that state intervention in religious norms not only create resistance and backlash, but weakens the incentives for endogenous reform to emerge from within religious communities.

“The caveats [circumscribing the domain of religion] are eating into the right [to freedom of religion]. More significant than the issue of whether women should be allowed entry into the Sabarimala temple is the question of whether secular judges ought to be the ones making that call.” [Reform, only left to the judiciary?]

From this, a few readers promptly arrived at the conclusion that I was in favour of rules keeping women out of the temple, and further—on the basis of an older tweet applauding a Supreme Court ruling against polygamy among Muslims—that I was chauvinistic right winger. Amusing as these labels are, an explanation will certainly help.

Is there a contradiction between my support for the Supreme Court rejecting polygamy and my concern over the Supreme Court deciding on Sabarimala entry rules? Well, only if you presume I oppose women’s entry into the Sabarimala. The value judgement on a decision is quite separate from the value judgement on the process by which the decision was taken. As I spell out in the article, it is better for social reform to emerge within society. The position is the same, whether it is temple, church or mosque entry; or whether it is temple elephant markings, polygamy or voluntary suicide.

However, if the Court is seized with a case, it is just as well that it upholds the constitutional values of liberty and equality. It would be a “good” decision if the court permits women entry into Sabarimala, just like it was a good decision to disallow polygamy. Even so, we should be worried that secular judges are making those religious calls.

Related Links: More this issue by Gautam Bhatia in The Hindu and IndConLawPhil blog; and a monograph by Ronojoy Sen on the Indian Supreme Court and secularism (pdf)

Terrorists, veto and the peace process

Terrorists should not be allowed to force us into talks either

After a terrorist attack on India in response to an Indian overture to resume dialogue with Pakistan, we often hear the argument that “terrorists should not be allowed a veto over the India-Pakistan peace process”. The assumption here is that the jihadi terrorists prefer a state of hostility and tension between the two countries, and that their objectives are different from those of the Pakistani government, which seeks peace. Ergo, New Delhi should announce that it will pursue “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue in order to frustrate the designs of the jihadis.

Now, there is some merit in signalling that terrorist attacks will not prevent the dialogue process, but for a different reason. A valid ground for continuing dialogue is if such a move will disincentivise the terrorists from attacking. Terrorists are likely to be so disincentivised if the assumption that their goal is to disrupt dialogue is valid. There is, however, little evidence for this.

Here’s an alternative assumption: that the jihadi groups are instruments of Pakistani policy, in a coordinated routine of good cop/bad cop. The military establishment uses the terrorists as “bad cops” so that New Delhi is pushed to engage and make concessions to the good cop, the Pakistani government. Under this assumption, a terrorist attack works to make New Delhi set aside previous Pakistani transgressions in the interests of the future, in order to “not allow the terrorists to succeed”.

This week’s Takshashila discussion document by Rohan Joshi and Pranay Kotasthane debunks the assumption that “terrorist groups are only loosely associated to some handlers in the Pakistan Army while a large section of the army wants peace with India”. Jihadi groups and the Pakistani military establishment are joined at the hip, and are against the existence of India. In the presence of clear links between the Pakistani army and the anti-India jihadi groups, the argument that the army favours dialogue while the jihadis don’t just doesn’t stand to reason. In the current case, Praveen Swami reports that the ISI revived the Jaish-e-Mohammed in the last few years.

So it is important not to pursue dialogue just because we assume that the jihadis are against it.

Related Link: What the Narendra Modi government ought to do about Pakistan in the light of the terrorist attack on Pathankot IAF base (in OPEN magazine).

Why India should not get into the fight against ISIS

The jihadi threat to India comes from Pakistan, not Syria.

Upon his return from the United States, defence minister has announced that India is prepared for an operation against ISIS under a UN resolution. He must have said this under pressure from Washington, for there it makes little sense for India to step into what is essentially a Middle Eastern problem.

The core of ISIS is not really interested in India, at least at this time. Its focus is on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and their neighbouring countries. Its attacks on European cities in pursuit of its core goals.

Sure, ISIS has announced a wilayah or province in the subcontinent, but that is as real as an ISIS province on the moon. It might be aspirational, it might help them in its propaganda to project itself as bigger than it is, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has far more to worry about for a long time before he can be interested in planting his flag somewhere in India. New Delhi will have enough time to prepare before ISIS decides to pay attention to conquering India. Till such time, it is in India’s interests to let the galaxy of powers currently involved in fighting the ISIS to do so, and to prevail.

What about Indians who are going to Syria to fight for the ISIS? Well, the best strategy is to hope that they don’t come back, and ensure that they are interrogated and charged if they do. This is the kind of work India’s intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities do, and ought to step up.

Finally, what about Islamists in India who wave the ISIS flag during protests? Shouldn’t we take them to be supporters of ISIS? Well, no. The ISIS flag is as much an inspirational totem to them as portraits of Khomeini, Arafat and bin Laden that used to be seen in their times. The effect is not unlike that of auto rickshaw driver gangs that organise themselves around portraits of movie stars. It is very unlikely that the said movie stars have any opinion on auto rickshaw fares and policies. For the drivers, though, the portraits are a totem to organise around and differentiate themselves from their counterparts. In the case of ISIS, police and intelligence agencies ought to identify individuals and groups claiming inspiration from it, and keep them under surveillance.

The primary jihadi threat to India still comes from Pakistan: the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups controlled by the Pakistani military establishment remain the principal threat. Few Western countries want to engage in seriously countering this threat, as it is not vital to their national interest. India, on the other hand, has no choice but to fight. It is important to concentrate on this project and not open unnecessary fronts in the Middle East.

Related Link: My colleague Rohan Joshi asks if a clash between ISIS and Jamaat-ud-Dawa is imminent.

Here we go again

Dialogue with Pakistan should be part of an overall strategy.

“What was being done as composite dialogue, and was later called the resumed dialogue, will now be called the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.” Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister [IE]

Given the history of the last fifteen years, it is hard to not be cynical about the re-initiation of the dialogue process with Pakistan. Governments engage, the Pakistani military and/or their jihadi proxies escalate violence in India and New Delhi is compelled to disengage. Time passes. Labels change. And the cycle repeats. The odds are that this round too will go the way of the previous ones. [See a previous post on the problem of talking to Pakistan]

What’s different this time? Well, this is perhaps the first time that the Indian government is indirectly engaging the Pakistani military leadership through, and alongside the Pakistani civilian government. Vajpayee engaged a Nawaz Sharif who was at loggerheads with the army, and a Musharraf who was a military dictator. Manmohan Singh engaged the same dictator and then Asif Zardari, a civilian president, who was out of the loop with the military establishment. When Narendra Modi first engaged Nawaz Sharif, the latter had already lost his hold on the military establishment. Now, with a recently retired general, Naseer Khan Janjua representing the army chief within the official setup as National Security Advisor, the Modi government will be talking to both the civilian and the military power centres at the same time.

If New Delhi could engage the Pakistani army directly, it would have been able to engage both power centres separately. Like the United States and China have shown, this has some tactical and transactional advantages. However, since New Delhi will not engage the Pakistan army, the current setup, with the army more involved in the process is better than it being not involved at all. What outcomes this will bring depends to a large extent on what the Pakistani military establishment chooses: it could replay the old records–which is what we should expect–and take us back to a new phase of the engagement-disengagement cycle.

The Modi government, like its predecessors, has decided to take the chance that “maybe, this time it will be different.” The only risk of this process is that Pakistan gets a little more rehabilitated in the international system, and take the pressure off its rulers on the issue of containing domestic and international terrorism. Also, the malevolent quarters of the Pakistani establishment might get emboldened to seize the opportunity and trigger violence in India. That is a risk that New Delhi must manage.

Of course, it is possible that the Pakistani military establishment might try a new routine and decide to lower tensions, both along the Line of Control and in terms of their jihadi proxies. This is unlikely because doing so would not only reduce its political salience, but put it along a path where its raison d’etre will be in question.

From New Delhi’s perspective, resuming dialogue — even the all-new comprehensive bilateral one — should be part of a overall strategy of its own desired outcome for Pakistan. [See an old post on talks and action bias]. This blog has argued that the containment and the eventual destruction of the military-jihadi complex is an essential part of that desired outcome. If dialogue can help achieve that, it is useful (as in February 2010). If not, well, we’ve seen this movie before.

On coercive majoritarianism

Why it is not about mere “intolerance”

Some of the most important issues in Indian political discourse are confused by wrong language: we either misuse certain terms or just frame the issues in inappropriate words. Secularism and communalism are instances of the former. The contemporary debate over “intolerance” is an example of the latter.

Acts over the past few years — from the killings of Narendra Dabolkar in 2013, to M M Kalburgi in Dharwad and Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri earlier this year — go beyond being acts of intolerance. Intolerance, both violent and non-violent, have been with us for a long time. As this blog has argued, competitive intolerance has been an instrument of asserting political power at least since the time of the Rajiv Gandhi government’s caving in on the issue of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and perhaps even before that. Every religious and sectarian community is guilty — from Catholic archbishops to Hindu acharyas, from Mullahs of various stripes to Sikh and Jain leaders. Competitive intolerance is of course, also asserted on caste lines in various parts of the country, as the Perumal Murugan case shows.

Intolerance is a big social problem in India’s evolution into a modern, cosmopolitan civilisation where there are not only people of various castes, creeds and ethnicities, but where they move and settle around on a historically unprecedented scale. Competitive intolerance must be tackled, and the best way to do that — as I have argued — is to uphold free speech and expression, which includes the right to offend, and come down heavily on those who resort to violence. Our politics is not there yet, but the path to reach such a state is available for the leaders who wish to use it.

What we are facing today is not competitive intolerance, but something much broader: coercive majoritarianism. Simply put, our society is witnessing an attempt to enforce the mores of the majority onto everyone else. Obviously, the mores are not clearly defined because of the huge variance in practice across the country. The majority itself is not clearly defined because it is contextual. There is a Hindu majority in India, a Marathi majority in Maharashtra, a Muslim majority in Srinagar or a caste-majority in a municipal ward. Majoritarianism is the imposition of the norms of these contextual majorities on everyone there. It is coercive because the government machinery in the context — from police to magistrates to legislators to ministers — side with the majority, at the cost of individual liberty. This is because the government officials are cut of the same cloth as the society they operate in, and have internalised legitimacy of tradition over that of the Constitution.

Coercive majoritarianism plays out on a national scale in the form of pushing popular Hindu agenda, like the cow slaughter and beef bans. This one issue unites more Hindus than any other in broad traditions of the religion. So it has a national impact — unlike say, caste lynchings and Khap panchayats, which are also instances of coercive majoritarianism but are limited to certain places. Another reason why coercive Hindu majoritarianism receives attention is, obviously, because the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are perceived as either representing or being sympathetic to it. The fact that prime minister chose not to comment on it, and at least initially allowed his cabinet colleagues and MPs to defend the violent mobs, further reinforced the perception that the government tolerates, if not condones, coercive Hindu majoritarianism. As the successful managers of Mr Modi’s campaign should know, once a public narrative and psychology is created, it gains a momentum of its own. Ergo, we find ourselves in the midst of coercive majoritarianism and the backlash against it.

Yet, it would be dangerously wrong to believe that Hindu majoritarianism is the only game in the country. Like competitive intolerance, majorities everywhere are trying to assert themselves by pushing their agenda onto everyone in their space. We see this in many states: Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Maharashtra, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. It is also happening in villages, towns and urban neighbourhoods, although we do not see it because the national media do not cover it. Everywhere there are trends of a social consciousness that seeks to respond to diversity and pluralism by imposing a majoritarian order. Democracy is offered as justification for this. But India is a republic in addition to being a democracy. This means that there are certain basic values — like individual liberty and fundamental rights — that cannot be pushed over because the majority of the population so desire.

Coercive majoritarianism is a dangerous trend because, like intolerance, it is competitive. It comes at the cost of individual liberty. Conversely, only the relentless defence of individual liberty and constitutional values can counter coercive majoritarianism of the current time. Unfortunately, few political parties and leaders can relied upon to fight majoritarianism, for the simple reason that siding with it is a easier route to power. Perhaps that explains why parliament is discussing “intolerance” rather than the real problem—coercive majoritarianism.

Modi in the Valley

There are lessons and reflections for Narendra Modi in Silicon Valley

This is the original English version of an op-ed published in Hindi, in Nai Dunia, Indore, today.

If California were an independent country, it would be one of India’s important trading partners: last year we imported more than $5.3 billion worth of goods from that state. While IT services exports catch most of the limelight, India also exports items like cashew nuts, coffee, tea, engine parts, metal screws, rice and vegetable extracts. California hosts more than 4,75,000 Indian-Americans and is deeply connected to our technology industry. Silicon Valley companies have invested heavily in India over the last twenty years, and their presence contributes to the livelihoods of several lakhs of people in India — from IT & BPO employees to the taxi drivers who drive them to work. So much is Bangalore’s technology sector connected to America’s that we like to joke that the traffic in the city is lighter during public holidays in the United States.

So there are very good reasons for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit California, instead of limiting himself to the usual New York-Washington circuit that India’s political leaders usually do. Reaching out personally to top investors and business leaders helps promote India as a destination for investments, where we are in competition with China, East Asia and Eastern Europe. Whatever may be the domestic criticisms of the “Digital India” initiative, it is a good calling card for the Indian prime minister as he engages the some of the world’s most influential technology leaders. His personal charisma and public speaking skills make him a fantastic salesman and marketer of the India story.

Also, unlike our own businesspeople, it is likely that foreign business leaders will be more straightforward in telling him why they find it hard to do business in India. The country will benefit from such candid feedback, especially if Mr Modi diligently follows up on it once he is back in New Delhi.

That, essentially, is the real problem. Even without Mr Modi visiting Silicon Valley, it is a well-known fact that India has the talent, the resources and the market to make it a potentially exciting destination for investment. Yet, much of this potential cannot be realised because of the government gets in the way. Complicated tax laws, for instance, raise costs of doing business, increase corruption and invite political rent-seeking. Poor contract enforcement is merely the tip of the iceberg of a pervasive lack of trust in society, which deters investors. Lack of attention to basic public services, like water, electricity, education, health and transportation shifts the costs onto the private sector. This not only raises costs for investors (and makes India more expensive a place to operate from than it should be) but also creates social divisions, because others do not have them. We all know the problems with land acquisition and labour reform.

Mr Modi can’t be unaware of these issues. In his interactions with investors, he would probably have reassured them that his government will address these challenges. While he might get away with these responses as this is his first visit, he might not receive a patient hearing the next time. In other words, he has staked his personal credibility on addressing the challenges faced by investors and he will now have to deliver on them. This is not easy because it is unclear if his government realises that the entire Delhi Straitjacket has to be removed from our economic lives, not mere tweaking at the margins. We have not seen any sign of that since the Modi government came to power. Worse, even as Mr Modi promotes Digital India, his government scores such shocking self-goals like the recent one concerning a very poorly drafted National Encryption Policy that it was forced to withdraw after strong public criticism. The Modi government has done nothing to repeal the horrible IT Rules (including the infamous Section 66A) that were introduced by the UPA government.

After the success of the visit, Mr Modi will have to pay attention to the essential task of economic reform. Whether to satisfy the aspirations of the domestic population or demands of foreign investors, the answer is the same: economic liberalisation on a much bigger scale than Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s in 1991.

While no one might have told him this, but Mr Modi would do well to reflect on why Silicon Valley creates companies like Google, Tesla or Facebook that have a global mindset. Most startups there begin with a plan to capture the global market. Their dreams are big. Of course, the ecosystem enables them to fulfil those dreams, but the big dream is the starting point. Most of our entrepreneurs in contrast, limit their dreams to the borders of our own country. The Delhi Straitjacket is partially responsible for this, but there is also a mindset problem, in that we are content to think within our “narrow domestic walls”. Elon Musk wants to transform the way the whole world travels. He wants to even transform the way humans travel to space. If there is something Mr Modi should learn from Silicon Valley is the need to unshackle our richest, most capable and most talented people to open their minds and push the envelope of human achievement.

Those who criticise Mr Modi for going on too many foreign trips miss the point, for his trips help raise India’s profile abroad. What we should discuss is whether his government delivers on the reforms necessary to meet the additional expectations he has created at home and abroad.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On freedom, constitutional balance & the dangers of majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day

— A good time to read and reflect on Tagore’s verse

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

— On freedom of religion

the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda. [More]

— On protecting liberty from democracy

we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty? That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. [More]

[divider]

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Independence Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

When should the government subsidise training filmmakers?

There is no case for government to subsidise FTII (and, for that matter, IITs and IIMs too)

One of the numerous controversies surrounding the Modi government’s appointments in the education sector revolves around a minor television actor being appointed the chairman of a government-run institute on the basis of his party, and perhaps ideological, affiliation. Students, alumni and many public commentators have opposed the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan on account of his weak acting credentials and lack of stature in the industry.

Mr Chauhan’s critics might be right. His defence — that he is being judged ahead of his performance — can also be taken at face value, not least in a country where “officially certified” graduates are unemployable, and great actors and film-makers need not necessarily be good administrators.It is not as if having great personalities running the film institute has prevented the Indian film industry from distinguishing itself through sheer mediocrity. Mr Chauhan does deserve a chance.

The Film and Television Institute of India is a government run institution. The elected government has the prerogative to appoint whoever it likes. If students and faculty do not like it, they can voice their protests, which the government ought to listen to. But if the government does not, or does not accept the criticism, then that should be the end of the matter. Students and faculty who cannot accept Mr Chauhan’s leadership can decide to quit. Whatever your politics, this is the right conduct in a republic. With apologies to John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, it is not the purpose of democracy to protect the people from the consequences of their electoral decisions.

However, the bigger issue is why is the Union government running a film institute and training actors and filmmakers with public funds? The economic argument is that the government can subsidise education that has large externalities, if there is an undersupply of such education. In other words, the reason to subsidise medical education (whether or not through government medical colleges) is that a doctor benefits society even when making money for herself. If there are too few doctors, there is a case for subsidising medical education. If there are too many of them, it doesn’t.

So do actors and filmmakers have large positive externalities? To the extent that entertainment is necessary for the well being of individuals and society, then it is possible to make a case that filmmaking ought to be supported with public funds. But are there too few actors? Are there insufficient incentives for the private sector to invest in filmmaking institutes? You could argue that a few decades ago, there was a need for government to subsidise Indian actors and filmmaking. It is difficult to argue that is the case today: the film industry was worth over $2 billion last year and almost produces more films than the United States, China and Japan (the next three biggest producers) combined. There are too many films. There are too many television channels. There is an oversupply of films, television programmes, actors and filmmakers. It makes no sense to subsidise film-making in this situation. Privatising the Film and Television Institute of India is a good idea, especially if it can use the autonomy to improve industry standards.

In a twitter conversation, a fimmaker retorted saying if government can run IITs and IIMs, then why not FTII? The answer really is that just like FTII, the government should get out of running IITs and IIMs too. Where there is need for government is in the running of 665 universities where around 30 million students are enrolled. All the IITs and IIMs together account for a mere 15000 students. The poorest student who secures admission to IITs or IIMs is likely to secure grants, scholarships or loans to pay her fees. On the other hand, the pure sciences, social sciences and arts need greater public funding because of the dismal state these disciplines are in. Universities represent education in its broadest sense, and has the broadest externalities — an educated population is in the public interest.

The debate on a few elite institutions is misplaced. The government ought to get out of running film, engineering, management and law institutes. There is no case for pouring scarce public funds in areas where there is a glut and where there are enough incentives for private provision.

Pakistans and talks

The problem with talking to Pakistan is that there are two of them

It’s happened again to yet another Indian prime minister. He’s decided to resume talks with the Pakistani government after the process had been halted due to Pakistani transgressions and bad faith. 

Now, there is sense in talking to the Pakistani government because that’s exactly what that country’s military-jihadi complex — and India’s irreconcilable adversary — does not want. In normal course of events denying the adversary the response he desires is good strategy. However, the problem in the case of Pakistan is that there are two ‘Pakistans’: the putative state (represented now by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and the military-jihadi complex that dominates the former.

Denying the military-jihadi complex what it desires means India sends a signal that it cannot punish transgressions, and allows Pakistan’s civilian government to raise its bottom lines. This risks India making incremental concessions each time without gaining anything in return. In other words, Pakistan has the ability to take by salami-slicing what it cannot achieve through war or negotiations.

What about not talking? This plays into the military-jihadi complex’s hands, which derives its own legitimacy and power by rallying all anti-India forces. In Pakistan’s domestic context, the army and the jihadi groups become more popular vis-a-vis the civilian government. Since the military-jihadi complex is irreconcilable and there is a chance that the civilian state is not, this is bad news from the Indian perspective. No surprises then, that the army and the Islamists will do whatever is possible to scuttle diplomacy.

In other words, India risks losing out on substantive issues by pursuing talks with Pakistan despite the latter’s hostility. If it does not do this, India risks strengthening its worst adversary on the other side. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. 

So how should New Delhi deal with this situation? Ignore it. Focus on economic growth.

What Pakistan does or doesn’t do is a minor variable in India’s growth story. Growth, on the other hand, is a major factor in India’s foreign and security policies. Putting Pakistan on the back burner (actually, keeping it in the refrigerator) is not only possible, but is necessary at this time. Just half-a-decade of high economic growth will transform the geopolitical context around Pakistan, enough to swing the negotiating environment in India’s favour. The more we wait, the better it will be for us.

Let Pakistan undergo its internal transformation. New Delhi can deal with the outcomes rather than engaging in a game where it loses out, no matter what it does.