The Other India: Realities of an Emerging Power


Edited by: Rajesh Chakrabarti

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    Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.

    (One of his last notes written in 1948)


    Since I was a boy in Tibet, I have regarded India with great respect and admiration. India may be the only country whose civilization and culture have survived intact from their first beginnings. It is a civilization that has given rise to a long series of great teachers endowed with both human intelligence and a sense of responsibility towards the community. Consequently, a rich and sophisticated philosophy of non-violence, tolerance and pluralism has flourished here.

    Swami Agnivesh, who it has been my privilege to know and meet on many occasions, is a contemporary exemplar of these ancient values. He is someone who doesn't simply hold fast to his principles, but whose practical turn of mind moves him to take whatever opportunity he can to put them into effect. He has been unflinching in his work to improve the lot of the underprivileged and downtrodden, especially bonded labourers and child labourers, and has been vocal in his support for equal rights for women, such as their right to education and to read scripture. His work to foster inter-religious harmony is reflected in the respect in which he is held by the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, Bahai, and Jewish communities in this country. He has also stood firm in his resolve to create peace and defeat terrorism by engaging in dialogue and cementing the bonds of friendship.

    I'm sure the essays and reflections that many of his friends and supporters from a wide range of backgrounds have contributed to this volume to celebrate his 70th birthday will serve as an inspiration to others to emulate his compassion in action. I am very happy to have this opportunity to add my own congratulations and prayers for his continued long life, good health and for the fulfilment of all his virtuous wishes.

    May 25, 2009


    This book started off as an effort to felicitate Swami Agnivesh and emerged as a document on contemporary India viewed through the prism of spi-rituality and socio-economic justice. My gratitude goes out, first and foremost, to the authors who enthusiastically accepted my invitation and devoted time and effort out of their grueling schedules to make this book possible in a timely manner.

    I am indebted to P.S. Ashok, Bhargav Kali and Sesha Sai Ram for their much needed assistance. Sugata Ghosh at Sage supported the project from quite an early stage and his encouragement and inputs have been crucial in improving it. Elina Majumdar was much more than the commissioning editor for this volume. She even conducted interviews personally to make some of the chapters possible. Suffice to say, without her help, this book would not have been possible on time. Many people, too numerous to enlist individually, read parts of the manuscript and provided valuable comments. I am grateful to all of them.

    I alone remain responsible for the errors and shortcomings that have doubtless survived the best efforts on the part of all of us. The success of this endeavor would lie in the degree to which we have accomplished the twin objectives of this volume—to celebrate Swami Agnivesh's life and work and to shed light on an increasingly marginalized reality of India.

    Indian School of Business, Hyderabad


    Why Read This Book?

    This is an ambitious book. It tries to do two things at the same time—celebrate the life and work so far of a very special individual, the Indian spiritual leader and social activist Swami Agnivesh, and capture the reality of a remarkable country, India.

    On the occasion of Swami Agnivesh reaching the age of 70, several eminent Indians (and one from abroad) bring together their reflections on today's India as well as on the major issues that continue to shape, unite and divide society and polity in India and elsewhere. The contributors constitute an eclectic group—leading figures in contemporary science, art, economics, and sociology; together with eminent journalists, environmentalists, social entrepreneurs and activists (including several Magsaysay Award winners), a politician, a former bureaucrat, a former chief executive officer (CEO) of a major Indian company, a former Chief Justice of India and a Supreme Court judge, a retired chief of the Indian navy, and finally, spiritual leaders of several faiths.

    In each case, the account is a result of decades of observation and thought at the highest level about one or more facets of India and the issues shaping them. In many cases, it is a result of direct field experience of socio-political activism and developmental initiatives. These voices are fiercely independent and exceedingly unique. They are connected perhaps only by their personal regard for Swami Agnivesh and, sometimes, in their participation in campaigns and struggles that have been co-terminus with his own. There has been no attempt by the editor to assign specific topics to authors, though expectedly, most authors have stayed close to their primary area of activity. The final result is, therefore, an assortment of independent narratives, not the expansion of pre-planned manifesto. The goal is to capture the Indian reality from as many angles as possible to approximate a 360-degree view of a maddeningly complex subject.

    But why another book on India? Bestsellers on India have proliferated in recent years. The current economic slowdown, notwithstanding, as the Indian economic growth story jostles for shelf space with that of China's, Indians finally bask in their long-awaited place in the global limelight, with confidence brimming over as India is widely touted as a world power in the decades to come. The effect is evident, whether it is at the Oscars or the Bookers or the Pulitzers. The accounts are varied as well. At the risk of overgeneralization, one may say that the fictions generally focus on the lives at or below the middle-class level while the non-fictional accounts chronicle the economic transformation of an increasingly liberalized and globalized India. This book brings forth something unique—perspectives of thinkers and grassroot activists on the Indian socio-economic reality. It spans several major issues and dimensions of society, and through completely independent lenses, captured by different observers, portrays the Indian reality. It focuses on issues that matter to the lives of the masses. It talks of an India yards away and yet miles apart from the India of glass and steel high-rises and air-conditioned schools, glistening malls, and multiplexes, fashion shows, Bollywood, and T20 cricket.

    In matters of narrative and style, this volume is as eclectic as its author list. Chapters that seek to argue their cases using hard facts and figures sit next to highly personal accounts and images. Dispassionate analysis of history and contemporary forces alternate with straight-from-the-heart narratives of grassroot activists. Candid despair shares space with uplifting stories of collective action bringing about real change. There has been minimal attempt on the editor's part to bring uniformity of discourse. We believe the variety in expression and tonality adds to, rather than distracts from, the collage about India that we are trying to depict.

    Collectively, the authors take the view that celebrating Swami Agnivesh means celebrating the values he has lived and fought for. Broadly speaking, Swamiji's struggles have included fighting for the underprivileged, be it in caste hierarchy, across gender divide, or among economic classes; fighting against obscurantism, superstition, and dogma in religion, particularly the Hindu faith; fighting for an inclusive society, resisting the forces of communalism in India as well narrow-minded nationalism around the world. These are the values and concerns that inspire the perspectives we present in this volume. Loosely speaking, the common attempt, if any, is, to turn the “spotlight on the ‘lost and the least’,” to use Reverend Valson Thampu's words.

    In the decades since Independence, India has accomplished much to be proud of. Despite repeated forecasts to the contrary in the early decades, she has held together politically as a nation, no mean achievement for a people as diverse as hers. Even more, she has remained a functioning democracy despite warts and an interruption notwithstanding, a rare accomplishment among former colonies. She has literary, artistic, and scientific accomplishments to her credit; her entrepreneurs have worked wonders at home and abroad, her sportsmen have won global acclaim as have a few of her world-class institutions of learning and research. She has not waged wars of aggression in the last 60 years and has largely played a positive role in the geo-political sphere. In the spiritual domain, her ancient wisdom continues to inspire millions at home and thousands abroad. Some of the social ills that have plagued her from time immemorial have been partially alleviated through forward-looking legislation and persistent political struggle. The seemingly immovable Indian society has responded slowly but positively over the years.

    Without taking away from any of these accomplishments, it is important, and indeed necessary, to point out that a lot remains to be done, particularly in the areas of social and economic justice and that dangerous forces—some ideologically committed to a divisive model of India, others threatening the economic and ecological sustainability through unbridled pursuit of limitless personal and collective greed—have to be guarded against in several spheres. This book is not an indictment of everything that has happened, intended or otherwise, in India in the last few decades, nor is it an invitation to a collective groan fest. Even the greatest cynic cannot deny that progress has taken place, and though its fruits have arguably gone disproportionately to the rich and upper-classes, some “trickle-down”—both economic and political—and empowerment have undeniably occurred. On the other hand, the pace and extent of this “trickle-down” would hardly satisfy even the most uncritical observer. We draw attention to issues that continue to affect and threaten the lives of many Indians, and in some cases, more substantially those of the underdogs.

    Given the nature of Swami Agnivesh's work, as well as the facet of reality we focus here, there will be inconvenient and sometimes alarming revelations on the journey through this book. One must take them with the right attitude. Self-awareness is as critical for development for a nation, as it is for an individual. Inconvenient truths, therefore, do not denigrate a great nation; they show a path to even greater accomplishments.

    Before proceeding further, a word of caution is in order. The views expressed here are only those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions held in the specific matters by either Swami Agnivesh or the editor or even all the authors collectively. However, the overarching concerns that drive these pieces resonate with Swamiji's own values and, hopefully, will connect with those of the readers as well.

    We now take a look at the life and works of the person who inspired this volume—Swami Agnivesh. An outline of the rest of the book follows, thematically connecting the individual chapters.

    Swami Agnivesh

    Swami Agnivesh was born Vepa Shyam Rao on September 21, 1939 in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family of Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh. He lost his father at the age of four. He was brought up by his maternal grandfather who in turn was the grandson of the Diwan of a princely state called Shakti, now in Chhattisgarh. He gained degrees in Law and Commerce, became a lecturer in management at the reputed St Xavier's College in Kolkata and for a while practiced law as a junior to Sabyasachi Mukherji for a while who later became the Chief Justice of India. In his student days, he had come in contact with the progressive ideals of the Arya Samaj and began a life-long relationship with it. Restless in leading the life of an academic and lawyer, and impatient at the continuance of social and economic injustice and superstition in the name of faith around him, he finally plunged into political and social activism at a young age, leaving Kolkata for Haryana, that became the platform for his action for decades to come. It was the magnetic pull of Swami Indravesh, a great scholar–activist of Haryana, which brought about a radical transformation within him.

    In 1968, he became a full-time worker at the Arya Samaj, and two years later, embraced sanyas, renouncing worldly possessions and relationships and becoming, in the process, Swami Agnivesh. But renunciation never meant escapism for Swamiji. On the day of his sanyas, he co-founded a political party with Swami Indravesh, the Arya Sabha, to work for political order. This party was founded on Arya Samaj principles which, as he spells out in his 1974 book Vaidik Samajvad (Vedic Socialism), rejects the lopsided materialism of both capitalism and communism in favor of “social spirituality”. Over the years, Swamiji has been influenced by the thoughts and writings of thinkers as diverse as Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Gandhiji and Karl Marx. Social and economic justice and faith inspired by spirituality as opposed to superstition have remained the foundations of his philosophy.

    Swamiji's political life started with the struggle for Haryana's fair share as it was emerging as a state separated from Punjab. A fiery orator, he was effective and inspirational right from the beginning, and his style of leading from the front soon brought him the taste of police brutality and landed him behind bars for several short spells. Together with Swami Indravesh, he spearheaded struggles for Total Prohibition in Haryana and for remunerative prices for farmers’ produce. Within a few short years, he found himself a part of “Total Revolution”—Jaiprakash Narayan's clarion call against the Indira Gandhi regime.

    Swamiji had to go underground when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in 1975 cracking down on opposition parties. Later, he was arrested with some of his colleagues and was jailed for 14 months. After the 1977 elections, which swept Indira Gandhi off from office, Agnivesh was elected to the Haryana State Legislative Assembly, and became the Education Minister in Bhajan Lal's Cabinet. However, it took him less than four months to become disillusioned. There was police firing in the Faridabad industrial township killing around 10 workers. Swamiji protested first in the Cabinet and later publicly demanded a judicial enquiry against his own government. He was asked to resign. He resigned and decided to devote all his energy and time to social justice movements. This is a brief history of Swamiji's direct political career so far as elected office is concerned, though neither his activism since then has been far from political action, nor are his positions apolitical. This has won him admirers across party lines among major politicians of the country.

    Parallel to his political journey, Swamiji's tireless social activism became his main area of work after he stepped down from ministership in Haryana. His very early marches through Haryana acquainted him with the havoc that liquor caused to the rural society and its economy, and he began fighting for abolishing liquor outlets early on. True to Gandhiji's principle of Antyodaya—the service of the most deprived—Swamiji took up the cause of bonded labor in the early 1980s, a struggle he is best known and respected for the world over. Destitute and virtually sold to slavery, this was a group of people arguably at the very bottom of India's socio-economic ladder; they did not even exist in public records. Slavery has always been illegal in India and abolition of bonded labor was heralded as a success of Emergency because of the promulgation of the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976. But the distance between “laws in books” and “law in action” has unfortunately been vast in India. The struggle—in courts of justice and dusty stone-quarries—was a long and uphill task. Arun Shourie chronicles this at length in his book Courts and their Judgments. The beginning was ominous enough. When he raised the issue with Haryana's Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, he was threatened with dire consequences, and soon, a case was registered against him as a Naxalite, on the charge of murdering an industrialist two years ago!

    Swamiji founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM or the Bonded Labour Liberation Front) in 1981, an organization he still heads as its chairperson. The campaign involved convincing courts and their commissioners of the status of bonded labor. The Supreme Court gave a landmark-ruling identifying any employee earning less than the statutorily fixed minimum wages as bonded labor. But that was hardly enough. The government failed to implement Supreme Court directives. Quarry-owners unleashed terror on the laborers with murder before the eyes of the police, and effectively shut them from formal inquiries. Swamiji himself was imprisoned at Rohtak in 1985. Years passed in conflicting court orders, repeated inquiry commissions and government inaction. Even now, the struggle continues. Over the years, BMM has secured the release of more than 1,72,000 Indian workers, and has helped create a number of trade unions, including the All India Brick Kiln Workers, the Stone Quarry Workers, and the Construction Workers. Working also at the international level, Swami Agnivesh has thrice been elected as Chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. As Justice P.N. Bhagwati, a former Chief Justice of India and noted Human Rights advocate, points out, “it was entirely (Swami Agnivesh's) initiative which truly brought (the plight of the bonded labor in India) into light.”

    Decades of tireless struggle by Swamiji has now brought media, public, and political attention to this practically “invisible” underclass in India, visible, indeed easy prey, only to their exploiters. Yet, Swami Agnivesh puts the number of child laborers in India (despite constitutional provisions) at 65 million even today. Some are in debt bondage or have been pledged by parents in return for financial advances; some are lured by procurers who promise bright prospects after training. Debabrata Bandopadhyay, one of the contributors in this volume, puts a quick estimate of the population of bonded labor even today at a staggering 90 million.

    Emancipation and rehabilitation of bonded labor, while perhaps the most sustained and prominent of Swamiji's campaigns, is by no means his only campaign. Over the years, he has participated in countless struggles, giving voice to the voiceless, advocating for the oppressed and the victims of injustice whether at the hands of the state or of prejudices and intolerance of sections of society. As Dr Manmohan Singh has aptly said, “There is no endeavor to enlarge social justice within the country and in the wider world in which Swami Agnivesh is not in the forefront…”

    Oppression of women remains a stigma in many parts of traditional India. In 1987, Swamiji led an 18-day long padyatra (march on foot) from Delhi to Deorala in Rajasthan to protest against the most gruesome incident of sati (the immolation of widows on their husband's funeral pyres) of a young widow. The march was stopped, and Swamiji was briefly put behind bars, but both received widespread, sympathetic coverage. The Indian Parliament later in that year enacted the Sati Prevention Act. Back in Delhi, he launched a campaign against female foeticide, which also resulted in legislation. Recently, he campaigned against the abortion of female fetuses through Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi—the states with most skewed sex ratios in India.

    The plight of the lower castes in India remains an area in need of sustained and intense social action. In 1988–89, Swamiji led a widely-covered movement to secure the traditionally barred entry of “untouchables” into Nathdwara temple, near Udaipur, Rajasthan. Again, he was arrested, but the action had a substantial impact on public opinion.

    All his life, Swamiji has fought against communalism and intolerance in the name of religion. In 1989, he led a multi-religious march from Delhi to Meerut to protest against and defuse communal violence that had claimed the lives of 45 Muslim youths. In 1999, concerned about escalating religious fundamentalism and obscurantism, he helped launch a multi-religious forum called Religions for Social Justice, which led a group of 55 religious leaders to the place where the Australian Christian missionary Graham Steines and his two sons were burned to death in their sleep by a group of rightwing Hindu bigots. In the wake of Gujarat riots of 2002, Swamiji organized a group of 72 eminent religious–social leaders who spent five days in the violence-affected areas of Gujarat and denounced the Hindu fundamentalist organizations and sectors responsible for the massacre. Swamiji launched the Adhyatma Jagaran Manch (Movement for Spiritual Awakening) to prevent the repetition of such genocide in states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. He was unequivocal in the condemnation of the “Hindutva” ideology, which, according to him, seeks to hijack Hinduism with disastrous prospects for all concerned.

    Over the years, Swamiji has participated in countless people's movements, namely, All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) movement in Assam, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini movement in Bihar, Shetkari Sangathana's and Bhartiya Kisan Union's struggles for farmers, Unorganized Labor struggle in Tamil Nadu, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and campaigned with women's movements against alcohol in both Andhra Pradesh and Haryana, winning total prohibition (though for a short period) in both states.

    More recently, he anchored a much-acclaimed multi-part series on television titled “Manthan” that brought together religious teachers from various faiths and debated on major social issues like women's rights and terrorism. It helped dispel several deep-rooted misconceptions of people about other faiths (and often their own) and highlighted the universal humanist aspect of all faiths as well as their relevance to society. He is currently involved in a major initiative, Sarva Dharma Sansad (Parliament of Religions) that seeks to set the stage for an atmosphere of cross-faith dialogue, harmony, and understanding in India based on a Common Minimum Program of Social Action. Time and again, he has raised his voice against the stereotyping of the association of Islam with terrorism. Never at rest, Swamiji has traveled to Kashmir at the peak of trouble in 2008 to counsel peace and dialogue and has been mediating between feuding Sikh groups of Dera Sachcha Sauda and Akal Takht.

    In economic matters, Swamiji has campaigned against naked consumerism that has gripped India today and the base form of globalization that uproots local people to reap profits for multinationals. Time and again, he has reminded us that India has always espoused globalization—indeed vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is a family) which is a timeless precept of India. And yet, today's globalization, if it remains a globalization of greed rather than of boundary-less understanding and compassion, is bound to have disastrous consequences.

    Recognition has come to him over the years in the form of several national and international awards including the Anti-Slavery International Award in London, 1990, the Freedom and Human Rights Award in Berne, 1994, and the Rajiv Gandhi Award for Communal Harmony and the Right Livelihood Award (the “alternative Nobel Prize”) from Sweden, 2004. A listing of campaigns and kudos, however impressive, (and the awards list but a minuscule part of the massive karmakanda Swamiji has been involved with) can hardly provide a glimpse of the person that animates these momentous actions; he is equally active and consistent between the dates and years included in the listing.

    The single attribute that seems to best capture the spirit of Swami Agnivesh is perhaps courage—in speech and in action. As Sadanand Menon recalls in his chapter in this volume—“… I saw him in action in the iron ore mining belt of Dalli Rajhara at the Bir Narain Jayanti organized by the Chattisgarh Shramik Mines Sangh during the days of Shankar Guha Niyogi. I have heard him address rural and urban audiences in Hindi, Telugu, Chattisgarhi, Haryanvi, and English. I have seen his fearless involvement on the streets of Delhi soon after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, when he went into the affected areas and faced rioting mobs bent upon murder and arson. I can safely say that but for him, some of us of the Nagarik Ekta Manch were sure to have been lynched by the mobs on that November day, in 1984, in Delhi.”

    Perhaps, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer captures the spirit of Swamiji best in the following words from his chapter in this volume—“Swami Agnivesh, the vibrant wonder of social and spiritual activism during our times, has devoted his total personality for the transformation of Indian society with a world vision and humanist mission. For him, spiritual nexus is a fraternal factor in bringing all true religions together. In his life, he breathes the truth of the words of Vivekananda, the volcanic sadhu—‘Religion is the manifestation of the divinity already in man’. Be you Hindu, Christian, or Muslim, you belong to humanity as a unity and must banish acrimony, antagonism and goddist conflicts in a dynamic camaraderie. The art of living and the science of being consistent in the realization of the higher being is latent in every person regardless of creed and community, race, religion, region, and the color of the skin. He stands for human liberties in their nobler dimension of free thought, free speech and free pursuit of happiness. Such is his social philosophy that he battled for every person's dignity and against humiliation, injustice, and starvation which afflict far more than a billion hungry people on the globe. His heart melts for all territories and traumatized people on our planet. He is a universal man and any subject that relates to governance of man has relevance to his ideology of liberation from slavery and deliverance from distress and disablement.”

    A Roadmap of the Rest of the Book

    India has always been the land of contradictions combining amazing cultural heights with widespread ignorance and superstition and nurturing the loftiest thoughts and humanitarian principles amidst millennia-long injustice and discrimination. The years since independence have been no different. India's tryst with destiny has yielded millions of unique paths—some to the doorsteps of prosperity and fulfillment, many lost in the quagmire of poverty, injustice, and violence.

    We start this book with a few—seven to be precise—sketches of India. They seek to describe the present Indian reality in the context of her recent history and the changes that have occurred largely since Independence, each focusing on a key dimension of Indian polity and the relevant trajectory of history.

    Tapan Mitra outlines the rifts that threaten India's unity. A rivalry for entitlement—the coveted Below Poverty Line (BPL) status—quickly opens up fissures in a village. Caste and religion have divided India for centuries—Churchill had famously doubted India's nationhood. New cracks have opened up post independence—about sovereignty in border areas, the disenfranchisement and resentment of the tribals hastily sucked into mainstream Indian society, and, finally, the class divide and its menacing face in the form of Maoist struggle that has quickly become India's biggest internal security threat. Can India survive these fissures? As a nation-state, probably yes, but the bigger question is would it be through naked state violence or through a process of consensus and inclusive nation-building with respect for the dissenters’ human rights?

    Violence, in its various forms, is the theme of Claude Alvares's take on the last hundred years of development history in India. Almost exactly a hundred years ago, Gandhiji had, with uncharacteristic harshness, rejected the Western developmental model as “satanic civilization” degrading family ties, denigrating the individual, and exploiting the planet beyond redemption. He had advocated nai taleem to have an education system that broke away from Macauley's model of education in India. Sadly, India chose to play safe, and accepted and adopted with remarkable readiness not just the Western model, but as is obvious in many Indian cities today, Western mores, much of what Gandhiji and Gandhians have warned against in no uncertain terms. These approaches have paid dividends to the privileged while its victims remain largely voiceless.

    Asghar Ali Engineer chronicles inter-faith relationship in post-independence India, pointing out that in the decades since independence the caste-, tongue-, and faith-based identities have actually swamped the Indianness of many. Our political system that encourages entitlements of groups or “vote-banks” has been responsible in a major way for this. While no party or group can be completely exonerated, a sustained campaign of intolerance and faith-based nationalism unleashed by the Sangh Parivar has gradually weakened the tolerant, secular fabric India had at Independence, something that had survived even the gory months of partition. Nevertheless, all hope is not lost and it is the multi-dimensionally fractured demographics of the country that provides the best chances for secularism to survive.

    Jatin Das takes us down the memory lane in an intensely personal account of history. He finds an India today desensitized to violence, obsessed with wealth and its flaunting, mindlessly aping the West with little awareness of India's own cultural history and its varied legacy. Education has, today, become solely skill-enhancing, with liberal arts practically snuffed out. He recalls how conversion of ethnic groups by missionaries in the North East have practically extinguished their rich tradition of handicrafts and how politicization of faith has made it difficult to follow cultural traditions without being branded with a Hindutva label.

    Freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental right of a democratic society. If the painter cannot paint, and the poet cannot compose without fear, a society is indeed destined for disaster. Sadanand Menon tells the story of the mobocracy of art criticism in today's India. How various groups and Senas, with tacit political support, take it upon themselves to restrict artistic freedom through violence, reminiscent of the Taliban or Nazi-era tactics. The harassment of Tasleema Nasreen in India and the banning of her books as well as that of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses point to the influence of such groups across faiths. Ironically, all this goes on while our major dailies increasingly take the form of tabloids with scantily-clad women in suggestive poses adorning the very front pages.

    The economic history of modern India, particularly the part of it that affects the now proverbial aam aadmi (common man) hinges crucially on her agricultural performance and growth. Providing sustenance to about 60 percent of India's population, agriculture now account for less than a fifth of her output and by some indications less than half of even her rural output. M.S. Swaminathan points out that today agriculture and food security are under threat, even in the heartland of the Green Revolution he once helped usher in. In this age of second highest growth rates in the world in India, only farmers with landholding exceeding four hectares can hope to have any savings at all. The twin forces of diversion of land to non-agricultural uses and unsustainable exploitation of groundwater and other natural resources threaten India's agricultural growth. It is imperative to take immediate steps to halt this process before it is too late.

    M.G.K. Menon highlights the two major concerns of India's and indeed the entire world's development approach—inclusion and sustainability. Consciousness of both these elements have been there in India for a long time and as for sustainability India has been one of the first countries to take it seriously in global forums beginning almost four decades ago. Nevertheless, we seem to have left unacceptably large masses of people on the wayside on our march to prosperity and, as a result, the environment has been a victim of the same march. Today, our machines literally crush millennia-old hills in just a matter of days. The Ghats of Maharashtra and Orissa stand today as ugly sights with their innards eaten away relentlessly by stone quarry contractors. What nature could not do in centuries, we are accomplishing in weeks—a far cry from chant of Atharva Veda—“What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over. Let me not hit thy vitals or thy heart.”

    These seven perspectives complete our overview of today's India. Unprompted by any overall script, they paint a picture of decadence, of mindless erosion of nature, cultural values, and of national identity itself. This is the story of the “other India,” a story often silenced by the cheerleading drums of T20 cricket and outshone by the glitter of India's swanky new city malls.

    India has always been an intensely religious country. Indeed, many commentators have pointed out that the demarcation between the sacred and the mundane is by and large a Western concept that has never quite found root in the Indian psyche. But, as all over the world, religion has different interpretations to different people and depending upon its particular connotation, it can either be the path to true freedom or the cause of much suffering.

    Reverend Valson Thampu and Sulak Sivaraksa provide their interpretations of faith and its relevance to society and social action. Reverend Thampu distinguishes between the God we seek to reach in our spiritual journey versus gods that are created to serve our opportune needs. Our journey to the first starts from our being social beings and demands our protest of every act of social injustice we witness. Striving for a just society or social action then, is not just not inconsistent with spiritual progress; it is in fact an essential step in the process. On the other hand, erecting false gods to serve our base needs leads to eternal strife. Sulak Sivaraksa points out that the central feature of religion is the realization of the unity of creation and the cessation of thinking of oneself as separate from it. When the false notion of separation goes, with it goes anger and violence. In an ultimate sense, this religious awakening, or internal transformation, is the only way to bring about world peace.

    Much of the world today, sadly, seems to follow the second kind of gods in Reverend Thampu's pantheon. Terrorism, wanton killing of innocent human lives purportedly in the name of faith, is the top national security concern in many countries, most certainly in India. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar analyzes the false and irrational dogmas and errors in identifying with narrow labels that seem to blind the terrorist's reason to drive him to carrying out patently anti-religious and often suicidal activities. The solution, he points out, lies in greater inter-faith dialogue and understanding and in a deeper understanding of one's true faith.

    It is not the terrorist alone who is blinded by false identifications. Delving into the intricacies of the modern psyche, Ashish Nandy reminds us to “be careful when choosing an enemy because, in the long run, you begin to resemble, perhaps not your enemy, but certainly as you see your enemy.” Given that we increasingly see the terrorist as the public enemy and stereotype him on the basis or our, usually limited, knowledge of history and context, in combating the terrorist we risk giving him the ultimate victory, molding ourselves in his shape. Jawed Naqvi highlights the definitional challenges terrorism throws up. The mind quickly latches on more easily to the one kind of terror and simplifies it to absurd details. For the average Indian Hindu, for instance, the border between the concepts of Muslim, Pakistan, and Terrorist are becoming increasingly blurred and it is easy to be labeled “friends of terrorists” today if one sympathizes with even victims of terrorism who happen to be Muslims.

    Terrorism—of the 9/11 or Mumbai massacre kind—is not the only outcome of a misunderstood religion or misplaced identity. Independent India has known too much communal carnage, and the deadly cocktail of narrow religious identity and electoral politics, that arguably reached its nadir with the collective terrorism in Gujarat 2002. In the years that followed, Narendra Modi has not only won elections in Gujarat twice, but is generally viewed to be the national leader in waiting for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a paragon of good governance and capitalist progress, heralded publicly as prime minister material by, among others, grateful business leaders. Father Cedric Prakash presents a report of the communal reality in today's “vibrant” Gujarat. Denial of justice to victims of the genocide, rejection of human rights, and a systematic abetment and promotion of intolerance of specific religious groups is the hallmark of Gandhi's Gujarat today—an image successfully overshadowed by the carefully cultivated myth of efficiency as measured by the alacrity of its administration's response to requests from big business.

    Worship of trees, animals, and rivers has a major role in most Indian faiths. Nevertheless, the systematic degradation of nature the world over today, which is extremely visibly in India itself, threatens the very ecological balance necessary for sustaining life in this planet. Vandana Shiva points out how corporate globalization is “rewriting our relationship with the earth and her species, alienating land, water, and biodiversity from local communities, transforming commons to commodities to be traded freely for profits.” She argues that the “dominant model of ‘economic development’ has in fact become anti-life” and that the economics of exclusion is breeding a politics of exclusion and a “monoculture of consumerism,” not just in India, but all over the world. Earth democracy, built around nature and life itself is the only solution. Medha Patkar relates how limitless greed for land has overtaken this ancient country of farmers. As the Satyam fiasco unraveled, the extent of corporate land-grabbing with the clear connivance of the political authorities began to emerge in all its stunning proportions. The developers and real estate companies routinely engorge at the free-for-all land-feast in the name of “affordable housing”. Special economic zones (SEZs) in many parts of India have served as nothing but excuses for granting common land for free or at a nominal price to connected parties. As incomes rise, so does the value of land, and a virtual gold rush for land ensues. In parallel, gigantic dams with little benefit to irrigation continue to be built, displacing people, flooding entire areas, causing silting that leads whole rivers like the Kosi to shift course. The traditional communities surviving on the common land and water resources are fighting a losing battle with the vested interests of the corporate–political combine. Their loss, sadly, also means the loss of our environmental balance.

    Along with the changes in our relationship with nature, changes have also come in our attitude and self-perception in the international sphere, particularly in our relationship with our neighbors. Sketching the history of Indo-Pak conflicts, particularly that involving Kashmir, Admiral Ramdas, former chief of the Indian Navy, points out how by going nuclear India committed a “grave strategic error” and surrendered its conventional military superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan. Our differences with Pakistan are expensive in terms of what they entail in the military budget, a fraction of which can solve many of the developmental needs of a country that is home to the largest population of poor people in the world. Even as the mighty United States of America (USA) admits to failure in cleaning the Afghan theatre of terrorist elements, the realization dawns that the response to terrorism lies more in the socio-economic sphere, not in military action. Sandeep Pandey argues that the conclusion of the Indo-US nuclear treaty may be a personal victory for Manmohan Singh, but it remains doubtful if India has gained much out of buying into a technology that developed nations are extremely reluctant to use themselves. The nuclear issue, both in military as well as in peaceful activities, appears to have eroded India's position as a harbinger of peace in the global arena and has resulted in loss of moral high ground.

    Justice has always been a complex issue in India. The century-old caste system continues to fragment Indian society and denies social justice to millions. Udit Raj points to the hypocrisy of the meritocracy argument that slows down the empowerment of lower castes in India. Acharya Satya Narayan Goenka points out to the patent injustice and baseless foundations of the caste system by narrating a few simple but moving arguments that Gautama Buddha provided two and half millennia ago.

    If social justice is scarce, so is economic justice. Six decades after Independence, one of the world's highest malnutrition rates remains a reality in India. Surendra Mohan holds the development model adopted by India responsible for this. Gandhian principles, while receiving periodic lip-service, have largely been ignored in shaping the priorities of the country and that has been responsible for a development process that bypasses the masses first and then reaches them through an indirect “trickle-down” rather than passing through them first. Arjun Sengupta narrates the state of affairs for the workers in India's unorganized sector—that employs over 90 percent of the labor force in India, and practically 100 percent of all new employment during the first half of the current decade. The level of deprivation of these workers and their vulnerability to exploitation is mind-boggling. While firing 10 employees in the formal sector can cause unions to bring a whole industry or city to a standstill, there is no collective bargaining option for over 90 percent of India's labor force that survives virtually at the brink of sustenance levels. In many parts of the country, minimum wages standards are routinely flouted. The poorest among them are the bonded laborers—destitute to the point of being virtually sold to slavery. Debabrata Bandopadhyay does a quick estimate to find out that as high as 90 million Indians are likely to be effectively bonded labor today, virtually in a state of destitution with no control over their work conditions. The scourge of child labor continues (as high as 65 million by some estimates) despite a law to stop it, just as bonded labor exists more than three decades after the law explicitly banning it. Justice Bhagwati avers that it is the duty of the state to provide the absolute basic necessities to everyone to honor human rights, an area where we are far short of target, with the bonded labor being one of the most visible examples of neglect.

    The continuation of widespread socio-economic deprivation and injustice after decades of Independence can be interpreted as misplaced priorities in the broad development agenda. It is also symptomatic of implementation issues at the ground level. While the business, big farmer–politician nexus is well understood, the diversity of the country and the resulting jam-lock of political agendas may actually ensure percolation of benefits to a large share of the population if the two pillars of governance—the civil services and the judiciary—resist overt political influence. Harsh Mander points out the challenges that a typical civil servant faces when he is served an unethical order. The Indian Civil Service unfortunately holds obedience way above conscience as a virtue for its civil servants. It is hardly surprising then that a majority of the bureaucracy crawls when politicians ask them to bend. The issue of independence of judiciary is equally important. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer argues against the notion that Supreme Court judges appointed by a collegium of judges would necessarily be more independent than those appointed by the Executive in consultation with the Chief Justice.

    It is in this setting of a fragmented society and unequal economy that social action becomes critical. It can sometimes provide solutions to problems that a myopic political system with vested interests of powerful lobbies and a subservient bureaucracy fail to deliver. Harsh Mander chronicles the successful campaign to win recognition of the “right to food” as a legal right from the courts through a public interest litigation (PIL) and how defying all the odds, this campaign has had actual effect in the form of mid-day meal to thousands of school going children. Rajendra Singh recalls the grass roots struggles of community self-help where a non-government organization (NGO) organizes villagers in Rajasthan completely outside the political and bureaucratic command-control system and time and again succeeded in tapping much-needed water in arid Rajasthan, something that waiting for government intervention through the political lobbying process would perhaps have taken ages to happen. Finally, Ela Bhatt relates the story of empowerment of one of the most vulnerable sections of society—women—through the organization of women's collectives. At the same time, she points out the challenges in the path of NGO-led efforts at development—“In a democratic country, it is natural that the poor and their organizations want the governments to remain on their side while they are struggling to come out of poverty. But the governments remain on their side only to an extent; only as long as the poor take their welfare and remain unorganized and obediently staying on their side of the economic barrier line. When the poor start gaining self-confidence to run their affairs at a scale that has potential to make a difference, the government power structures feel disturbed and try to crush such demands from women and poor.”

    The situation is not hopeless, nor are the remedies completely impossible for those whose situations need them the most. The impressive economic growth of recent years in India is evident in her glistening airports, highways, malls, and brand new cars. In contrast, the weak and the dispossessed—at least a third to half of her people—still have to wage their struggles of survival more often against the establishment and the socio-political system than with their support.

  • About the Editor and Contributors

    The Editor

    Rajesh Chakrabarti is on the Faculty of Finance at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, and is also a fellow of the Wharton Financial Institutions Center, USA and a columnist for the Financial Express. Prior to joining the Indian School of Business, he has taught in the USA, Canada, France, and India and has been a Visiting Scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank at Atlanta and at the India Development Foundation, Gurgaon. He has also worked at the Industrial Finance Corporation of India (IFCI), New Delhi. He has authored two books including the Financial Sector in India—Emerging Issues and published several scholarly articles in Economics, Finance, and Management journals and serves on the Review Board of an international journal on corporate governance. He is an alumnus of Presidency College, Kolkata and IIM Ahmedabad and has a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

    The Contributors

    Claude Alvares is a well-known environmentalist. He is the Director of the Goa Foundation, an environmental monitoring action group, and the editor of the Other India Press, an alternative publication base. He has authored and edited numerous books and won several awards.

    Justice P.N. Bhagwati, former Chief Justice of India, has pronounced several landmark judgments and was responsible for a number of reforms resulting in improving the access of vulnerable groups to justice. The most well-known of these reforms are the introduction of public interest litigation (PIL) and enlargement of the doctrine of locus standi to permit non-government organizations (NGOs) and other social action groups to initiate petitions before the Supreme Court and High Courts on behalf of disadvantaged persons whose human rights are violated. After retiring from the Supreme Court, he has been an advisor for the framing of the constitutions of several countries such as South Africa, Mongolia, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Cambodia. He is currently the chairman of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, and the Vice-Chairman and a member of the Human Rights Committee, and a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

    Debabrata Bandopadhyay, Executive Chairperson, Center for Social Development, was formerly Secretary to the Government of India in the ministries of finance and rural development. While serving in West Bengal he was mainly responsible for developing the methodology of and implementing the “Operation Barga” which became a model for land reforms in India. He has authored many scholarly articles in reputed national journals and newspapers.

    Ela R. Bhatt is the founder of Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), and one of the founding figures of the microfinance movement in India. Formerly a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, she is a respected leader in the spheres of labor, cooperative, women, and microfinance movements and has won several awards including the Padma Bhushan, the Right Livelihood Award, the Legionne d'Honor, and the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

    Jatin Das, one of the most prolific figurative painters, is also a graphic artist, sculptor, muralist, and a poet. Painting for close to five decades with more than 50 one-man exhibitions in India and abroad as well as several prominent artworks to his credit, he is also a founder-member of “The Poetry Society,” New Delhi. He has taught and lectured at several institutions and has been instrumental in setting up several institutions related to Indian handicrafts.

    Asghar Ali Engineer, a prominent Islamic scholar and activist for inter-faith harmony, has authored more than 40 books and many articles in various national and international journals, and is founding chairman of the Asian Muslim Action Network, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, and head of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism. He has been conferred with several awards, including the Communal Harmony Award and the Right Livelihood Award for his “strong commitment to promote values of co-existence and tolerance”.

    Acharya Satya Narayan Goenka, founder of the Vipassanā Research Institute has reintroduced the ancient technique of Vipassanā meditation to India and to the world from Burma. Vipassanā meditation centers have been established under his guidance in India, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, France, the UK, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, and other countries. He is a prolific orator, writer, and a poet.

    Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India is an eminent jurist, administrator, and orator. As a minister in the first communist ministry in India, he was assigned the departments of Home, Law, Jail, Electricity, Irrigation, and Social Welfare. After retiring from the Supreme Court, he has been active among the masses with his social and political reformation movements.

    Harsh Mander is a prominent human rights activist and author. He served the country in various positions as an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer and secured early retirement in protest after the 2002 Gujarat riots. His famous works include Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives and Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre.

    M.G.K. Menon is one the most eminent scientists and scientific policy makers in India. Currently Advisor to the Indian Space Reseach Organisation/Department of Space, Government of India, he has had a role in almost every facet of science and technology development in India during the past four decades, including nurturing the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Among his countless awards and recognitions, including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award, is an asteroid that is named after him.

    Sadanand Menon is a writer, columnist, photographer, and a stage lights designer. He is currently adjunct faculty at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, and a member, Governing Council, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla; member, Executive Council, Central Lalit Kala Academy; and an editorial adviser to Better Photography.

    Tapan Mitra, a former Managing Director of the Indian Aluminium Company and a former Chairman of Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Eastern Region, has been a professor, an NCC commander, a corporate executive, and a political activist. In the last role he has had some taste of police brutality. He has worked for over two decades with urban slum-dwellers as well as in rural areas. Today, his personal mission is to help weavers across Bengal increase their income.

    Surendra Mohan is an eminent socialist thinker and a political leader with rare integrity. With a political past going back to the Socialist Party of Ram Manohar Lohia, he became a General Secretary of the Janata Party during its heyday in the late 1970s. He is a former member of the Rajya Sabha and an ex-chairman of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission.

    Ashis Nandy is one of the leading social, cultural, and political critics. His field covers a vast area of thinking such as public conscience, political psychology, mass violence, nationalism, and culture. He has worked on cultures of knowledge, visions, and dialogues of civilizations. He won several awards including the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize. He was listed as one of the top 100 public intellectuals of the world by the magazine, Foreign Policy. He is currently a Senior Honorary Fellow of the Center for Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

    Jawed Naqvi is a noted Indian journalist and peace activist. He currently writes for the Karachi-based daily, Dawn. Mr Naqvi has reported for over three decades, mostly with foreign newspapers and wire agencies, often covering war-zones including those in Morocco, the Iran–Iraq war, Jaffna, and Kashmir. He undertook on cross-border journalism with the objective of correcting the distortions in journalism that have often contributed to creating mistrust among neighboring countries in South Asia and to create more space for peace, assurance, and understanding among these countries.

    Sandeep Pandey is a prominent social activist. He helped found Asha, the international student movement, in his student days at Berkeley, USA, and now leads the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), the largest network of grassroots people's movements in India. He has won several awards including the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.

    Medha Patkar is a prominent social activist, best known for her leadership in the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Her hunger-strike to protest against the decision of the authorities to raise the height of the Narmada Dam garnered international attention. A former faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she has authored several scholarly articles. Her works have been recognized with several awards including the Right Livelihood Award.

    Father Cedric Prakash, director of Prashant, an Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace, is a Jesuit priest and a human rights activist. He has been at the forefront of several issues related to human rights, very specially in the fight on behalf of the victims of the Gujarat Carnage of 2002. He is the recipient of several national and international awards which include the Kabir Puraskar for Communal Harmony from the President of India in 1996 and the Legion de Honneur from the Government of France in 2006.

    Udit Raj is a prominent Dalit activist and the founder of Indian Justice Party. A former Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer, he has been working for the welfare of the lower classes of Indian society.

    Admiral L. Ramdas, a former Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy, is a strong advocate of peaceful ways of resolving the many outstanding issues plaguing the two countries. His writings on Indo–Pak relations, nuclear matters, peace, and disarmament as well as his tireless efforts for the cause have had a wide impact and have been recognized by the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

    Arjun Sengupta is a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha); Chairman, National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector; Chairman, Inter-Governmental Working Group on the Right to Development, Human Rights Council, Geneva; and Chairman, Center for Development and Human Rights, New Delhi. A noted economist, he has held several distinguished positions in academia as well in the Government of India. Under his chairmanship, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector produced, in 2007, an extremely influential report on the work conditions in the unorganized sector.

    Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, often referred as “Gurudeva,” is a spiritual and humanitarian leader, with a truly global reach. He is the creator of the meditative technique, Sudarshan Kriya, and the founder of the international Art of Living Foundation which aims to relieve stress at an individual level, and to relieve disease and violence at a societal level. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is also a driving force behind the charitable organization, International Association for Human Values.

    Vandana Shiva is a physicist and an internationally acclaimed environmental activist. She is the author of over 300 papers in leading scientific and technical journals. Shiva participated in the non-violent Chipko movement. She is one of the leaders of the International Forum on Globalization, and a figure of the global solidarity movement known as the alter-globalization movement. She has won several awards including the Right Livelihood award.

    Rajendra Singh, the founder of the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh, is a well-known water conservationist. His efforts have had a major impact in conserving water and reaching it to farmers across arid Rajasthan. He has won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2001 for his pioneering work in water management.

    Sulak Sivaraksa, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and winner of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award in 1995 and the Millennium Gandhi Award in 2001, is also a prominent and outspoken Thai engaged Buddhist. Throughout his tumultuous life, he has courageously endured death threats, exile and grueling legal ordeals (including lese majeste charges)—and somehow he has thrived. Lawyer, teacher, scholar, and author of scores of books and monographs, he has become, in the words of Herbert Phillips, “a Thai institution, in a class by himself”.

    M.S. Swaminathan is an agriculture scientist, widely known as the “Father of the Green Revolution in India,” for his leadership and success in introducing and further developing high-yielding varieties of wheat in India. He is founder and Chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, leading the “Evergreen Revolution”. A strong advocate of sustainable development, he holds 58 honorary doctorates and has won numerous national and international awards, including being a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Italian Academy of Sciences.

    Reverend Valson Thampu, Principal, St Stephen's College, New Delhi, is an Indian Christian theologian, academician, and author. He is an ordained minister of the Church of North India (CNI) and has a strong interest in theological shift from religion to spirituality. He is the author of several books and writes regularly for journals and newspapers and has been a vocal campaigner for inter-faith harmony.

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