Sunday, September 27, 2009

Is the middle path the way to peace with Pakistan?

The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan are meeting today in New York to carry forward the peace dialogue begun at Sharm-el-Sheikh. India’s decision to meet has been prompted by Pakistan’s arrest of Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks. Many Indians feel cynical, however, about today’s meeting, especially after the disappointment at Sharm-el-Sheikh. Negotiating with a nation whose secret service might be plotting the next terrorist attack on you seems bizarre, but is there an alternative to the slow, maddening grind towards peace with our neighbour?

All of us dream of waking up one day to discover that the border between India and Pakistan had become as peaceful as the one between Canada and United States. It seems hopelessly romantic, but this is precisely what happened to France and Germany who were in perpetual conflict for 75 years. Now one cannot imagine these two European enemies ever going to war. If India and Pakistan could pull this off, we might even realize the vision of C. Rajagopalchari, who wanted the sub-continent to become re-unified into a peaceful confederation of nations like the European Union.

After the terrorist attack on Mumbai on 26/11, Indians were divided over how to respond. The hawks wanted to make a precision attack on the camps of Lashkar-e-Toiba. They modelled their strategy on Israel’s retaliation for the attack of its athletes in Munich. (You can watch it in the thriller, Munich, available on DVD.) The doves, on the other hand, advocated ahimsa, preferring to take the high moral ground and turn the other cheek. The third position was more circumspect and lay between these extremes. It is the policy which the Indian government has patiently pursued--providing dossiers of evidence to Pakistan, hoping that world pressure would force it to act against the terrorists. Will this frustratingly slow middle path reward us with lasting peace?

The Mahabharata seems to think so. Unique in engaging with the world of politics, the epic also had to wrestle with the same three positions. The first was the ‘amoral realism’ of Duryodhana, who believed that ‘might is right’ and when in doubt strike your enemy. At the other extreme was the idealistic position of the early Yudhishthira, who refused to follow Draupadi’s sensible advice, which was to gather an army and win back their kingdom stolen by the Kauravas in a rigged game of dice. The epic also adopted a pragmatic, middle path of negotiation, but when Duryodhana refused to part with the Pandavas’ rightful share, Yudhishthira had to declare war.

Mahabharata would thus reject the hawkish idea of a retaliatory strike against the terrorist camps in Pakistan--not for ideological reasons, but because it would only escalate the conflict. Israel’s many retaliatory strikes against Palestine have failed to ‘teach them a lesson’. It would also reject the dovish high moral ground of ahimsa because ‘turning the other cheek’ sends wrong signals to terrorists and the ISI. It would commend upright Manmohan Singh’s middle path of negotiation. But if negotiations fail, the Indian PM must be prepared to wield danda, ‘the rod of force’, just as Yudhishthira had to.

This pragmatic middle path is akin to the evolutionary principle of reciprocal altruism, which socio-biologists have made popular in recent decades--smile at the world but do not allow yourself to be exploited. Your first move should be of goodness, but if you are slapped, then you have to reciprocate and slap back. Many Indians believe that our government is not following this sensible advice. We are either too conciliatory or too scared of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Hence, Pakistan thinks us weak, and its secret service has no qualms in planning its next terrorist strike.

This is not entirely true. We may be unwilling to play ‘tit-for-tat’ but we have never compromised on our basic principles. Take Kashmir. Pakistan believes that peace with India depends on settling the Kashmir dispute, which is a doubtful proposition. India has held firmly that the answer to Kashmir lies in getting everyone to accept the line of control as the permanent border. It is true we have lost many historic opportunities to achieve this. Our best chance was after the Bangladesh War when we should have made it a condition at the Simla Conference for the exchange of Pakistani officers and soldiers.

As the bigger and more powerful nation India has to be more conciliatory. As the world’s second fastest growing economy, we cannot afford to be distracted by interminable ‘tit for tats’. Yes, Pakistan does drag us into a pit of identity politics, hobbles us at every step, and sidetracks us from our real destiny. This is all the more reason to accept the slow, hard and frustrating grind towards a negotiated peace. In the meantime, the best medicine is to try and ignore Pakistan.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Let’s protect workers, not jobs

Anyone travelling in India by air must have got a sinking feeling last week when the Congress leader, Sanjay Nirupam, demanded that Jet Airways be nationalized. He raised the spectre of the ugly days when Indian Airlines had a monopoly of the skies before 1991. This would have effectively turned Jet Airlines from one of the world’s best airlines to one of the worst. Naresh Goyal, Jet’s founder, on the other hand, was scared of his pilots forming a union because of his memory of the 1974 Air India pilots’ strike which started the decline and fall of Air India.

The trouble in Jet Airways began when some of its pilots wanted to form a union. The management said 'no', and sacked two of the leaders. In response, the other pilots went on ‘mass sick leave’, which left tens of thousands of passengers stranded, wondering who to blame for their undeserved suffering. This comes at a time when the aviation industry is going through very tough times and Jet Airways has reported a loss of over Rs.200 crore in the last quarter. The strike added another Rs 200 crores to its losses.

The Mumbai High Court ruled the strike illegal. After the dispute was settled last week end, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, refused to drop the charges against the pilots. Reflecting the angry public mood, he wanted to prosecute the pilots for contempt of court. “Employees of public utility services…cannot hold the public to ransom”, said the judge. The pilots’ lawyer argued, “Pilots are an emotional lot and have a sensitive task”. The judge countered, “Even doctors and judges have sensitive jobs”.

The right to form a union is part of every democracy but should pilots, who earn Rs 3-4 lakhs a month, be equated with down trodden labour? Should persons who perform essential services in public transport, military, police, and hospitals, be allowed to disrupt services? The judge obviously does not think so.

The Jet Airways affaire is an opportunity to revisit our archaic labour laws which hurt the interest of 90% of India’s employees while protecting an aristocracy like the pilots. Of course, labour laws are needed, but they should protect workers, not jobs. All governments try to prevent job losses but they never succeed. Companies have to survive in dynamic market conditions. In a downturn, orders are reduced from customers and the only choice before a company is to reduce its workforce or go bankrupt. Sensible countries, like those in Scandinavia, give employers the freedom to hire and lay-off workers based on market dynamics. They protect workers who lose jobs through a well designed safety net of unemployment insurance and re-training. .

India’s labour laws do the opposite—they protect jobs, not workers. They assume that a job is for a lifetime, and do not allow employers flexibility to lay-off workers in a downturn. Thus, Indian companies avoid hiring permanent employees, and 90% of India’s workers have ended up in the informal sector without any benefits or safety net. This is one of the reasons that the manufacturing sector has not become an engine of mass employment in India as it has in the Far East.

The answer is not to equate income security with job security. Let us begin by raising job retrenchment costs from the present15 days’ salary for every year worked to 45 or even 60 days. Second, amend Provident Fund rules so that employees can access their retirement accounts when they lose jobs. Third, raise the contribution to Provident Fund in order to provide a softer landing to job losers. Fourth, cover unemployed workers under a universal health insurance, such as the excellent RSBY (Rashtriya Swasth Bima Yojana). Finally, companies should pay for worker re-training and inflict pain on all employees before laying-off some—e.g. cut executive salaries by 50% (as Jet Airways has done) and worker salaries by 25%. Unions will object of course, but the reform of unions has to be part of the solution.

The Jet Airways strike has presented us with a mirror to look at our labour laws, showing how we deceive ourselves, thinking that we are protecting labour when we are only protecting an aristocracy like the pilots.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The dilemma of a liberal Hindu

With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs, says Gurcharan Das

I was born a Hindu, in a normal middle-class home. I went to an English-medium school where I got a modern education. Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hinduism. My father, however, took a different path. While studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly guru who inspired him with the possibility of direct union with God through meditation. The guru was a Radhasoami saint, who quoted vigorously from Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, Bulleh Shah and others from the bhakti and sufi traditions.

Growing up Hindu was a chaotically tolerant experience. My grandmother visited the Sikh gurudwara on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays; she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses by holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between, she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies when someone died or was born. Her dressing room was laden with the images of her gods, especially Ram and Krishna and she used to say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. My grandfather would laugh at her ways, but my pragmatic uncle thought that she had smartly taken out plenty of insurance so that someone up there would eventually listen.

I grew up in this atmosphere with a liberal attitude - that is a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for my tradition. Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends — from the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. Hindu nationalists have appropriated my past and made it into a political statement of Hindutva. Secularists have contempt for all forms of belief and they find it odd that I should cling to my Hindu past. Young, successful Indians, at the helm of our private and public enterprises, have no time or use for the classics of our ancient tradition.

A few years ago, I told my wife that I wanted to read the Mahabharata in its entirety. I explained that I had read the Western epics but not the Indian ones. She gave me a sceptical look, and said, “It’s a little late in the day to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?” To my chagrin, I became the subject of animated discussion at a dinner party soon after.

“So, what is this I hear about wanting to go away to read old books”, asked my hostess, “aren’t there any new ones?” She gave my wife a sympathetic look.

“Tell us, what you plan to read?” asked a retired civil servant who had once been a favourite of Indira Gandhi. He spoke casually as though he was referring to the features of a new Nokia phone. I admitted that I had been thinking of the Mahabharata.

“Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?”

I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to think that reading an epic was a political act. I was reminded of a casual remark by a Westernized woman in Chennai who said that she had always visited a Shiva temple near her home, but lately she had begun to hide this from her fiercely secular friends, who she feared might paint her in saffron.

With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit to being Hindu for fear they will be linked to the RSS. Liberal Christians and liberal Muslims abroad have had the same experience. Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists. Not only do they not believe in God, they actually hate God. As rationalists they can only see the dark side of religion -- intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism and cannot empathize with the everyday life of the common Indian for whom religion gives meaning to every moment. Secularists speak a language alien to the vast majority, so they are only able to condemn communal violence but not to stop it, as Mahatma Gandhi could, in East Bengal in 1947.

Part of the problem stems from ignorance. Our children do not grow up reading our ancient classics, certainly not with a critical mind as youth in the West read their works of literature and philosophy in school and college. In India, some get to know about epics from their grandmothers; others read the stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics or watch them in television serials.
If Italian children can read Dante’s Divine Comedy in school, English children can read Milton and Greek children can read the Illiad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? It is true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods and in particular that elusive divinity, Krishna, who is up to all kinds of devious activities. But so are Dante, Milton and Homer filled with God or gods?

I suspect Mahatma Gandhi would have understood my dilemma about teaching the Mahabharata in our schools. He instinctively grasped the place of the epic in an Indian life and he would have approved of what V S Sukthankar wrote: “The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it." The epic has given me great enjoyment in the past six years and I have become a Mahabharata addict. I feel sad that so many boys and girls in India are growing up rootless, and they will never have access to these forbidden fruits of pleasure.

As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each other’s beliefs as well as the atheism of non-believers. Hindu nationalists must resist hijacking our religious past and turning it into votes. Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India.