Countdown by Amitav Gosh

During 1974 India conducted its first Nuclear explosions under the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi – Pokhran blasts, code name: Laughing Buddha. The country that pioneered the philosophy of Non-violence, found itself in the dilemma of justifying this destructive muse, with reasons and asseverations such as ‘for peaceful purposes’. In 1998, political coalition led by Hindu right wing under the leadership of BJP, tested five nuclear bombs within the third month of their coming into power- Pokhran II, codename : Operation Shakti. The nuclear tests were popular among middle class, who accepted the weapons of mass destruction into their mass popular culture, with respect; though there were people who refused to celebrate and raised their displeasure over time. The exaltations were rather short lived, for the very following month, Pakistan blasted six nuclear weapons at Chagai Hills, turning ‘the whole mountain white’. Within a year of these developments, India and Pakistan went to war over Kargil, leaving the whole subcontinent and the world under the fear of a possible nuclear holocaust.countdown

Amitav Gosh’s Countdown is more of a long essay than a short book, on the various reactions of nuclear tests at both India and Pakistan, among politicians, soldiers and activists. The book was published before Kargil War and therefore doesn’t account for the confrontations happened.

India’s nuclear programme had really little to do with defending the country, though already nuclear and occasionally hostile China was the cabinet’s excuse for Pokharan II. Paraphrasing one of the interview transcripts of the book, India had this inferiority complex, of being patronized by the colonial imperialism, and to prove herself internationally, she had to shout louder than anyone else. In simpler terms, Nuclear programme was more of a ‘global currency of self esteem’.

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After Pokhran II, AB Vajpayee, George Fernandez, APJ Abdul Kalam, K Subrahmanyam (from left to right)

Gosh had the opportunity to closely follow George Fernandez, who was the Defence Minister during Nuclear Tests on 1998 and Kargil war of 1999. Before going into the political view points, Gosh provides a small account of the farmers and nearby occupants of Pokhran after the 1974 tests. The grievances, ecological and biological impacts might seem minimum in comparison with the population, still the under address-ment and under coverage of same, is seriously disturbing. The strategic mastermind of Nuclear policies was K. Subrahmanyam, a civilian defence expert, and the advocate of nuclear power as the currency of global power logic. His logic was clear, global nuclear order is dictated by a hegemonic council of five nuclear nations(The recent Iran nuclear deal and North Korea confrontations are on similar lines), and India had to be a player than an object in that. Though regional threats from Pakistan and Chinese missile programs were immediate excuses, he visioned the Pokhran tests as a card for permanent seat in UN security councils and universal recognition. Looking back to it now from 2017, India has well achieved universal recognition, but not via the means Mr.Subrahmanyan envisioned(I must admit my personal views lining with his reluctant nuclear-ism and super power, though they are rendered useless in terms of war), and UN Security council is still an obsessive dream.

The reactions to the tests, though venerated outside, sparked antagonistic arguments in Parliament, even within the ruling coalition. Indian villages were being washed away in floods, one-third of population didn’t have proper access to drinking water, fifty percent lived under poverty, and Pakistan has been offering friendship in recent years under Nawaz Sherif; arguments went on.

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AB Vajpayee  and Nawaz Sherif during Lahore bilateral declaration

George Fernandez who himself belong to the right wing majority party by coalition, later admitted the lack of a political party of India, every party is either explicitly or in-explicitly propelled politically by the burning vote bank of sectarianism. Gosh speaks of him in reverence, as journeyman in the political wilderness, with no regional or caste based support. Neither bunker or fall out shelters were planned along side the nuclear tests, nor a long term policy. This existing adhoc-ism in Indian politics, where the leaders work around agendas for upcoming elections than long term objectives was visible in then economic policies as well; both of them failed later in elections. Gosh then takes readers to Siachin dispute between India and Pakistan and use it along with Nuclear policy to substantiates the lack of vision he been accusing above.

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Siachen : Worlds highest and most inhospitable battleground

Though a formal cease fire was established in 2003, Indian military still stations soldiers on Siachen Glacier, a no mans land where temperatures dip up to -50 or -50 degree centigrade. It is the highest and without any doubt the most hostile battleground on earth, as the territory is demarcated beyond the Line of Control(product of first Indo-Pak war,1948) at NJ9842, both India and Pakistan maintains military presence there. And to both parties, the biggest enemy is the weather, it is the biggest causality claimer as well. One of the motive behind Pakistan’s occupation of vacated Indian posts which triggering Kargil War, was a presumed Indian withdrawal of Siachen. It would be good for readers to remember the time of authors visit- after the nuclear test, well before Kargil. It was really heartfelt to read about those soldiers who were then stationed there, who Gosh claims to have never found to be using a denigratory epithet of any kind on their Pakistani counterparts. Coming from the age of youtube/facebook/quora comment section wars, where everyone is too eager to establish on their arrogance of nationalism, this gave me a refreshing perspective. I will list down the words of a soldier, from the book below, which does a better explanation.

‘Most of us here are from north India’, a bluntly spoken major said to me. ‘We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with South Indians or Bengalis.’

The point of mentioning Siachen are on two fronts, one a nuclear explosion there would melt everything and resulting flood would carry Pakistan away, the other is the immense amount of money that is being spend on Siachen stations. Like the nuclear programs, these too are solely matters of national prestige. The administrative structure that British left India with, is a structure that is designed to oppress, exploit and suppress people, Fernandez says. Nobody is interested in a disciplined growth, but adhoc-ism and temporary appeasements for their immediate future.

about one-tenth of the country’s entire defence budget. Pakistan’s costs are much lower but still substantial. The total cost of the Siachen conflict is probably of the same order of magnitude as that of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan combined. If the money spent on the glacier were to be divided up and handed out to the people of India and Pakistan, every household in both countries would be able to go out and buy a new cooking stove or a bicycle.

I have never been to Pakistan, but everyone who been to, were offered colouful cordial welcomes, except the personals at disputed territories and vice versa. Outside these conflicts, both sides got more in common than difference. We eat the same food, sing the same songs, watch the same movies, share the same history and the chance of an Indian and Pakistan being friends abroad is more likely than them with any other nationals. There are of course anomalies to this claim, mainly from the right extremists. Gosh’s experiences were more or less on the similar side, and the responses after Nuclear tensions weren’t any different, though it would be safe to keep in mind that this was the pre Kargil War times. His writing captures the economic anxiety at Pakistan, and the threat of Sharia law by a possible fifteenth amendment. And in general, Gosh argues and illustrates through his interviews that there was a greater realism in nuclear discussion there than in India. Being affected by the Cold War and Taliban, even ordinary Pakistani’s seemed well aware of the differences between weapons and icons. They saw nuclear weapons as instruments of mass destruction that pose a whole range of new threats, from political intimidation and blackmail to total annihilation.

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Kargil War 1999

“If you ask me, anything is a possibility between India and Pakistan. Because our policies are irrational. Our decision-making is ad hoc. We have been surrounded by disinformation about each other. We have a historical enmity. We have this whole emotionalism of jihad against each other — on our part it is jihad; on your part there is a lobby that will never accept the existence of Pakistan. We are fa tali s-tic nations who believe that whatever has happened — famine, accidents, drought — it is the will of God. We learn to accept every catastrophe. Our decision-making is done by a few opinion makers on both sides. It’s not the ordinary woman living in a village in Bihar whose voice is going to be heard, who is going to say, for God’s sake I don’t want this nuclear bomb, 1 want my cow and milk for my children. She is nowhere, she doesn’t figure anywhere. It worries me. It really worries me.” Asma Jahangir, Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist.

Gosh ends his book with a what-if nuclear holocaust scenario with scientific simulation. The geography of subcontinent will ensure the effects to entire region, in Nepal it would result in radioactive snow, the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan snow will become a radioactive reservoir, which will in turn affect all our Holy rivers, being the inception point of almost all of them. The immediate results would be far more catastrophic, which would wipe out almost everything that is required for even the reconstruction of a destroyed society. And neither side never answered the question of how to contain such a catastrophe. To give matters a perspective Gosh gives the example of Rangoon bombings, they never expected war at their doorstep and Calcutta located farther and safer from warzone, never any expected refugees at their doorstep.

I know, it is an overkill to write about a seemingly redundant old book, in the present era. But the strangest part is that, even after 18 years of publication, it is still somehow very relevant. Existing tensions between India and Pakistan, and the territorial and verbal annoyances from China shows the fallacies in the diplomacy of our subcontinent in general. And from election results and social media intellectuals, I would safely say that the ad hoc policies Gosh accuse in this book are working well, while real issues are easily sidelined without any coverage

 

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India Unbound by Gurcharan Das

india unboundThough India achieved political independence in 1947, it missed the liberalization bus of Asian Tigers and had to wait till 1991 to obtain some comparable economic independence. Gurcharan Das captures this economic journey in this autobiographical narrative, through his life and that of people around him. But in that ambitious effort, I found him to be doing more of a personal unbounding than that of India as a whole.

According to Das, the economic timeline of India went through a series of crests and troughs. And after the episode of disasters by ‘British Raj’, Independent India adopted a more inward looking import substituting anti foreign(mostly west) economic strategy. Gandhi distrusted technology, though not businessmen and wanted smaller companies over bigger corporations; Nehru on the other hand distrusted businessmen, not technology, and preferred public firms over private establishments. And they both were in full favour of local make over foreign. But in these efforts for embracing an egalitarian socialist slanted mixed economy, Indian was actually chaining her Industrial revolution to neo-colonialisation by its ill managed bureaucracy- ‘License Raj’. Das is both critical and optimistic in his political scrutiny, he respects our forefather’s wisdom of age, in regards with the events happening around the world. In fact, he compares it with the responses of neighbouring Asian Tigers(Taiwan, Korea, Singapore etc.) after global nationalism tide, and tries to defend the then unique Indian stand, which unlike the rest of East, had Democracy before Capitalism.

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Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru

Book works both as a memoir and a critical social investigation through variegated business narratives. A greater chunk of the first part is dedicated for exposure of India’s monopolistic public sector which seriously lacked autonomy of working. Industries Act of 1951 made it punishable by law to produce beyond granted capacity, and this over regulation of private enterprises further went into debarring of expansion via Indira’s MRTP of 1969. There was even an entry restriction up to 60 lakhs in Rupees, for certain selected small scale sectors, which did the ill effect of reducing incentives for technology and competition. These legislations pampered organized labour and discouraged foreign investment, there by effectively shutting down the ancient Indian prosperity tradition of export supplementation. Though unapologetic and critical, Das does acknowledges(with numbers) Second five year plan, Green revolution, White revolution and improvement in Indian savings and investments. And remote efforts for liberalization by Desai, Rajaji and Rajiv-Pitroda are also accounted with romantic reverence. But the ‘wage model’ economic slant, according to Das, was always overshadowed by political appeasements, which never followed the rule of demand and supply.

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Manmohan Singh and PVN Rao, architects of 1991

Balance of Payment crisis of 1991 by short term commercial borrowings of 1985 government, oil crisis, and many other complimenting reasons forced Narasimha Rao’s stop gap government to approach Bretton Woods for financial aid. This is where Das starts to actually breathe in the book, like he was personally strangulated by Fabian socialism and license raj till then. What follows is a celebration of Foreign Investment through statistics in dollars and numbers – reduced bank reserve ratios, reduced inflation, reduced duties, de-materialization of stocks, increased foreign deposit and borrowings and stuff. But these Rao-Manmohan-Verma reforms remained ‘soft’, for ‘ Inspection Raj’ still thrived and public sector bleeding, and lay offs followed the same old pattern. Das connects this Cabinet cripple-ment to ‘Elite to masses’ roots of Indian democracy, which will always has its vested interests in old legacies (Nehruvian-Gandhian socialism here).

The narrative is more gleeful towards the end, where he discusses the recent events through Sen’s take on ‘Identity’ and argumentative traditions. ‘Profit’ is no more a dirty word and ‘poverty’ isn’t divine either. The rise of consuming middle class is changing the mainland and diaspora, yet rising concerns are there in clashes of ‘modernity’ and ‘nationalism’. Though Author tries well not to be explicit, his right slant dominates his political scrutiny. And a general anxiety is visible on the the Hindutva movement gaining moment, which could bring back ‘License Raj’ under the pretense of so called ‘Nationalism’. At the start of the book, he argues that Brahmins of India love to chant in Sanskrit and rant in English, showing the class bias and theoretical preference over practical studies. Funny enough, it goes well with the later narrative of IT success, which could be and somehow is the flagship product of country. Anyway, he argues that the important change by this liberalization, privatization and globalisation(LPG) was people relying more on individualism than the hope on government to solve their problem.

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an average IT/ BPO section in Bangalore

I was expecting this book to go dense into economy, with real statistics and comparisons. But the read felt a bit blunt in that realm, though it had its appeasing traits. Also, by later portions of the book, in his looking over a whole generation narrative, author was unknowingly painting himself as an Omnipotent outside panel ‘Watcher’ like figure. I found this nonchalant stance, off putting and suggestive of fictitious embellishments, as opposed to the more sincere personal takes I adored at the start. Another uncomforting detail, or absence of detail, was the lack of demographic analysis, for India is very different in parts and any homogeneous analysis without considering the heterogeneity poses threats of absurd results.

This is a soft book on Indian economy that you can sit back and enjoy. And the best part about the conviction of his numbers are the treatment of reality through dreams and lives of people from partition to 21st century. Though Das has done his best to sound catholic, underlying narrative is still an ode to Capitalism.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This often debated and allegedly misattributed quote says a great deal about modern schools of free speech and tolerance. In this collection of essays, Nobel winning Economist Amartya Sen celebrates the long history of argumentative tradition in Indian subcontinent, and its contemporary relevance in often neglected modern cultural discussions.

Paraphrasing Sen himself, a defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive; and opening of the book is a research into the mentation of univocal messages of century old epics and history, by broader argumentative wisdom. Independent India became the first country in the non-Western world to choose a resolutely democratic constitution, though drawing heavily on what it had learned from institutional experiences in Europe and America, a great deal was drawn from its own tradition of public arguments and intellectual heterodoxy. Which according to Sen has kept democracy and coexistence of different political ideologies in check, unlike many other countries where democracy has intermittently made cameo appearances. The essay narrative is not trying to impart some sort of uniqueness in Indian history or to side-line democracy as a Western gift, but argues that the it becomes easier to impart and preserve democratic principles where traditions of public discussions exists, West and East alike. Sen then looks back into this tradition in ancient India, from, ‘Buddhist councils’ of Asoka in 3rd century BCE to Akbar’s 14th century ‘pursuit of reason’ and other royal sponsorships for practise of public reasoning. This historical analysis then goes into an unavoidable cliché that every book on India tends to overdo, celebration of subcontinent’s secularism- like how it has been home for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zorastrians, Bahas etc, inter cultural art, literature and music, traditions of Bhakti and Sufi, yada yada yada (no disrespect intended, just casual irritation out of repetition). But interestingly, Sen’s defence for this tolerance of diversity were ancient historical arguments in favour of richness of variation, need for interaction and mutual respect through dialogue.

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Akbar’s Durbar

This epistemological departure from orthodoxy provided a catholicity of approach in cultivation of observational science, allowing an interactive openness to Indian work involving both give and take, Sen argues. Though Indian texts majorly involve elaborate religious expositions, there are protracted defences in agnostic or atheistic writings as well. I absolutely adored and enjoyed author’s take on works by Aryabhatta and others in Astronomy and Mathematics, through writings of Iranian astronomer Alberuni and outsiders of the like, thus acknowledging global interactions as opposed to the extreme nationalistic view of indigenous sufficiency.

To celebrate India’s argumentative tradition it is important to distinguish popular philosophies of Hinduism from the fairly crude unique assertion of ‘Hindutva’, which is currently on political offer. The statistical argument of seeing India as a pre-eminent Hindu country (colonial narrative), according to author is a conceptual confusion, for our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance. The Hindutva political propaganda thrives on ‘historical guilt of Muslim conquerors’, by arbitrarily highlighting special chosen anecdotes, often as per convenience, of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus, aimed at generating desired anti-Muslim sentiment; and it undermines by far Indian secularism in broad current of social cultural or intellectual history. History of India, like every other part of world, does contain nightmarish elements, but it also involves people of dissimilar convictions coexisting peacefully in creative activities of literature, music, painting, jurisprudence etc. Sen argues, with much conviction, that India’s past is important for an adequate understanding of the capacious idea of India. He then destroys early BJP government’s ill efforts in rewriting history on NCERT text books and other similar propagandas in creating pseudo history that suites political motives, with well referenced research and scholarship; and compares this exclusive narrowness within the country as cultivated ignorance of a kupamanduka (well-frog).

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Tagore and Gandhi

Amartya Sen illustrates the argumentative tradition in modern day using Gandhi and Tagore, who had a relationship of great respect for each other while sharing completely contradicting viewpoints towards nationalism, education, economy and many more. Tagore called for appraisement of Western civilization in an open minded way, for he never saw India’s culture as fragile and in need of protection from Western influence. Author greatly discusses Tagore and ‘sovergnity of reasoning’ in a very delightful manner, and further compliments the same with later discussions on India’s aggregation of heterogeneity, using something this reader least expected- films of Satyajit Ray.

In lines with Said’s ‘Orientalism’, Sen classifies Occident approaches for understanding the Orient, especially India, into three distinct categories – exoticist, magisterial and curatorial. Greater chunk is the romantic narrative of first category, whose major focus is on the wondrous and strange aspects of the country. The ‘magisterial’ approach assimilates a sense of superiority and guardian-hood to its narrative, and wants to view the country as ‘a great scene of British action’. The third category, Sen argues to be relatively free of preconceptions, as it doesn’t rely on the exhibit value (exoticist) nor is weighted down by ruler’s priorities. He illustrates this catholic approach using Alberuni’s ‘Tariq-al-hind’ of early seventh century and the writings of later Chinese travellers, and the more modern works by dedicated scholars like William Jones. Author in fact uses these curatorial works to expose the fallacy of magisterial readings like the ones by James Mill, who wrote voluminous demeaning work without even visiting India for once. Consequences of ‘exotic’ approach are the hallowed position’ mysticism’ and ‘exoticism’ enjoys in Western understanding of India over the traditions in mathematics, science, logic, medicine etc. (specialists in the streams are an obvious exception here). Immediate response of this exotic admiration is the tendency of Indian writers to exaggerate the non-material and arcane aspects (spiritual), often disregarding the more rationalistic and analytic elements (material), thus selectively alienating India from a very substantial part of its past.

Chinese_Sources_of_Ancient_Indian_HistoryContemporary anthropological obsession is to classify world population into civilizations on religious grounds. Sen, dissects this phenomenon using historical closeness of India and China. Though Buddhism could be attributed as the initiator and catalyst for the ‘balance of trades’, the intercultural interactions in trigonometry, creative arts and linguistics weren’t always religion centric. The research provided in this realm is a fascinating read in history and extends to present day economics.

What follows then is a survey on Indian economics in retrospection with Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’. Though India has successfully avoided famines and abuse of coercive power in relative comparison, the ‘integrational’ and ‘institutional’ issues of class is a pertaining concern. Though data suggests handicaps in both ‘agency’ and ‘well-being’ in India and its neighbours, they collectively excel West in certain areas of woman participation like female heads of governments. Though no particular effort is being done in the book to explain this, the final concluding remark is a correlation between social achievements and greater voice of woman in that society. Observations are really interesting and contradictory to popular notions, since our general leaning is to connect everything with better access to education. Sen argues that, Fertility rate reduction in certain states like Kerala through consequential efforts of woman agency is often under looked, as we are eager to credit the coercive and brutal measures of China in the field.

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Kargil war (May 1999 – July 1999)

The essay that follows (India and the Bomb) discusses geopolitics of India and its relationship between China and Pakistan in relation with existing Nuclear Policy. It is a critique on the asymmetry created by overestimation of persuasive power of the bomb; which crippled India’s massive superiority in conventional forces against Pakistan (as seen during Kargil war) and elevated the role of China as a regional status quo power (US-China joint non-proliferation efforts of 1998).

Much of Sen’s discussions on reasoning as a strong source of hope and confidence, went over my head like an early morning lecture, thanks to the high philosophies by intellectuals whose name I am bound to mispronounce. The undisputed Western dominance of the world today has created a tendency to identify and define other cultures by their contrasts with contemporary Western culture. Common notion is to attribute the origin of values like ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ with West and that of ‘discipline’ and ‘order’ with East. There is often a dialectic of conferring identity by contrast, which though ideally should not, may sometime have a dampening effect on assimilation of values elsewhere than its area of confinement. Sen tries to break this culture specific aspect using historic examples from Asia and Africa. He offers words by Ashoka, Akbar and the likes in defence of India’s judicially guaranteed multiculturalism and constitutional secularism, with role of reasoning. I would like to quote Akbar criticizing Indian sages who preach ‘good deeds’ for favourable after death outcomes- “To me, it seems that in pursuit of virtue, the idea of death should not be thought of, so that without any hope or fear, one should practise simply because it is good”. When criticized for embracing the practise of smoking tobacco, as it is a European custom, Akbar ignored it on the ground that “we must not reject a thing that has been adopted by people of the world, merely because we cannot find it in our books; or how shall we progress?

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The final essays are more of an effort to understand the unique nature of ‘Secularism’ in India, with the arguments that are against it. Scepticism about Indian secularism is often argued in lines of non-existence of the same in ‘Hindu’ India, ‘pseudo-secularism’ by Muslim favouritism, absence of homogeneous identity criticism, rather dangerous Muslim sectarianism argument, Anti modernist argument like those who criticized Akbar and prevailing ‘Hindu country’ narrative. Sen compares the Indian status quo with those of its neighbours in terms of constitutional laws to counter argue these rhetorics, thereby illustrating the dangers of each. To explain the argument of secularism being a folly of modernism, he takes readers through the connection between calendars and culture, for functioning and utilization of calendars involve cultural sophistication and urbanity. Indian subcontinent can boast co-existence of at least six calendars in systematic use as per Whitaker Almanak; and all of them suggests distinct elements of basic structure, interconnections and constancies suggesting the existence of definitive identity despite heterodoxy. The concluding remarks in this book celebrates the basic idea of plurality in modern India, and ends with the complex subject of one’s identity, which often calls for ‘homogenization to hegemonize’. Identity is quintessentially a plural concept in India, If I may quote Sen himself, ‘While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either’.

Unlike contemporary books on India, which takes the matter casually, Sen’s writing is a bit high on the scholarly side with passing references and detailed footnotes. And I believe, this research is the fundamental difference between his optimistic take and Naipaul’s pessimistic vision of India, former looking the past for enlightenment and learning, while latter seeing it as a source and excuse for present to blame on. Also the essays in this compilation seems to have been formed over different time, occasions and narrative intentions, thus making some core substances slightly repetitive.

I would like to enhance the opening quote of this review with another stolen one as an end note, one undisputed this time, by 19th century Bengali reformist Ram Mohan Roy.

“just consider how terrible the day of your death will be.

Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back.”