Thursday, September 13, 2007

Critique of Sanjeev Sabhloks book "Breaking Free of Nehru"

I read “Breaking Free of Nehru”, Sabhlok’s book on overthrowing Nehru’s legacy. Definitely, we have outlived the socialist policies of Nehru and some of his ideas of rectifying historical discrimination by punishing current generations.

However in defense of Nehru, I would like to point out that at the time of Independence, India was in an abysmal state of poverty. We were not able to feed ourselves and we really had no large industries. Our manufacturing capabilities had been eroded by the British and even in agriculture, we were basically managing on subsistence farming. So one does have to credit Nehru for ushering in the green revolution whereby we were able to get agricultural surpluses such that today, we can provide a diet of at least 2000 calories to every Indian (although I understand that is has gone down recently with reverses in productivity).

In industry, while free market capitalism as espoused by Sabhlok is the ideal, it does not simply come into existence without concomitant financial resources and technological know-how. At the time of Independence we were cash poor and we really did not have many of the large industries in place. Also, the western countries were not exactly falling over themselves to help us—they were quite condescending of our national aspirations. In fact Russia was one of the few countries to respect our desire to be a nation and give us the necessary technology not only in major industries like steel etc. but also in our defense industries. Let us also not forget that Nehru was trying to urbanize India and remove her masses from dependence on land and farming and trying to employ her people in various productive endeavors. While we may laugh at the notion of a government wanting to make bread and cloth and other varieties of consumer goods, this for Nehru served as means to employ more people. So while we need not preserve such socialist ideas, let us give the poor man (Nehru) some credit.

Secondly with reference to using a punishing caste based reservation system to right the wrongs of the past, we do need some kind of affirmative action to give opportunities to backward classes. While we need not narrowly define backwardness by caste distinctions alone, we do need to recognize that some people continue to suffer because of the social structures that are in place.

There were a couple of areas where I found Sabhlok’s conclusions disingenuous and sometimes dangerous.

One of the key areas that Mr. Sablok feels that we should not meddle is the concept of a Uniform Civil Code which according to him if we create a uniform civil code “it would amount to an insidious way of imposing majority rule in a democracy: pure mobocracy. Either way, the whole thing of a UCC is incompatible with the tenets of freedom and democracy and must be scrapped.”

I found this statement extremely dishonest and hypocritical for two reasons: 1) the country that he extols for having a free society (the USA) has a uniform civil code (same laws for all regardless of religious affiliation and based mostly on Judaeo-Christian principles) and 2) that he himself resides in a country with a uniform civil code (Australia)

Now neither of these countries could be called a mobocrasy. So are we to understand that democracy, which itself is defined as rule by majority, will only become mobocracy if it follows Hindu principles?

In principle, all religions in India have their personal laws codified through an act of parliament, except the Muslims, whose personal laws are based on the Shari at. Now in a secular country, where there is a separation of government and religious institutions, is it not wrong to privilege the religious beliefs of one group alone. The Hindu law is not based on Hindu religious principles. It is based on commonly agreed concepts of fairness and justice. So why are the Muslims exempt from that? This contradiction in Sabhlok’s argument is especially glaring since he argues for the primacy of fairness and justice for all as the foundation for civil society.

The second, more disturbing conclusion of Mr. Sabhlok, in his blue print for a new constitution was the following recommendation.

“People in any geographical part of India can ask to form a new country if they are not happy with being part of India, through a 95% referendum in that part of India, with at least 90% of the people voting. Violence from the proponents of the new state will nullify the referendum”

This is an extremely dangerous proposal for two reasons. Firstly, every single group in India will want a state of their own and we could find ourselves splintered into a hundred pieces.

Secondly, either we believe in pluralism whereby individual and group differences do not constitute a reasonable reason to break away from the nation, or we don’t believe it.

He talks about India becoming more prosperous and thereby attracting more immigrants, the same way Australia does. However, he fails to take into account that both Australia and the United States have an underlying culture that forces and encourages certain conformity. Thus, most Indians who migrate there do change their behaviors to fit in with the society. For example, most immigrants to the USA celebrate Thanksgiving in their own way (often involving a turkey) and many non Christians have a Christmas tree during Christmas and don’t mind singing Christmas carols etc. So outwardly, the US, even though it is a plural society, is in fact Christian. Thus, the state can insist that people recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools etc. If Indians in India were to insist on using the US as an example, then everyone would have to sing Vande Mataram. (This would probably be opposed by Sabhlok as infringing on personal freedom).

Lastly, we need to recognize that we do have a great many freedoms in India. Before tinkering with the Indian Constitution, let us seriously examine it and figure out whether it can be rescued merely by reinterpreting its words rather than changing them.


Sanjeev said...

Dear Subadra

Thanks for reading my book. Yours is my first review. Please accept my grateful thanks and appreciation. I am pleased that you at least partially agree with me. I think that is a very promising start.

I will use your valuable comments as feedback while revising the book for (hopefully) the last time in September-October. (I probably will need one more revision if I get more feedback from other readers over the next two months).

The following that I am writing is not a defensive piece of writing, but a preliminary attempt to make more clear what I perhaps didn’t, adequately, make clear in the book. Please let me know if my suggested approaches below meet your requirements and address your concerns. If not I’ll keep working on the book till all its kinks are ironed out. I’d like to have informed discussion on the book, and so I need to ensure that I keep refining it till I get it just right.

(Please ignore typos/ grammar in this post, since I’ve knocked up this in about 40 minutes and have a very busy week ahead.)

Re: socialism: “In industry, while free market capitalism as espoused by Sabhlok is the ideal, it does not simply come into existence without concomitant financial resources and technological know-how. … while we need not preserve such socialist ideas, let us give the poor man (Nehru) some credit “

My approach: Throughout the book I have highlighted that the book is not about abandoning Nehru’s aspirations for India – which are equally yours and mine – but his way of achieving those things. At many places in the book I give credit to Nehru as a great fighter for India’s independence, and for many other things he did or believed in. I will add some of the points you have made, while revising the book, so I don’t appear to be a ‘mean’ fellow.

But I’m afraid we perhaps shouldn’t give him credit for having taken us on the path to freedom (and consequently to health, education, wealth and power). I suggest his path was problematic and that we recognise it was so, more particularly from the angle of freedom. Nehru rejected freedom consciously, in favour of his version of socialism which was derived from Soviet planning and the Fabians’ arguments.

Having said that, I am glad that you agree we don’t need to preserve Nehru’s socialist ideas, for that is the essence of what I am talking about.

If you then agree that we do have the financial resources and technological know-how today to deliver a modern system of governance to India, then let us do it at least now and not wait two more generations of illiterate poor people grow up in India. I trust I have your agreement on this approach.

Re: reservations: You have mentioned “we do need to recognize that some people continue to suffer because of the social structures that are in place.”

My approach: I couldn’t agree with you more on this. I have emphasised three things in relation to this, to be simultaneously put in place while getting rid of reservations:

(a) Equality of opportunity is critical to the mix of solutions. Poverty must go (I have suggested a clear method for eliminating it within four years). Education of high quality to year 12 or age 18, whichever comes first, must be provided to every child who wishes to study. This will ease the lot of the socially disadvantaged by a factor of thousand, in comparison to the improper concept of reservations.

(b) Equality of opportunity legislation, which will punish people severely for indulging in any form of blatant discrimination, whether in the public or private sectors of the economy, must be enacted and rigorously enforced.

(c) Finally, the job of social change belongs to the free society and to social reformers within the society, like you or me. I have suggested effective and economical ways to eliminate racism and social deprivation of all sorts from society. However, I have highlighted that this is the role of individuals, not government.

Re: UCC:

My approach: I agree with you that I shouldn’t be making ‘hard’ statements of the sort you have cited. I will get such statement removed in the next revision – and of course if the book ever gets formally published, I’m sure the editors will help me to iron out any such things. I plan to make the next revision more conversational and less strident.

On the contents of the matter, I fully understand the perspective you are coming from, and have in fact argued that such concerns have an underlying basis. But I have also argued that the solution to such concerns is not the UCC, but a much more nuanced approach, based on freedom.

My deduction from first principles is that the UCC is not a good policy based on the fundamental arguments of freedom. For if we can’t choose our religion and our way of marriage then something is wrong with our free society. But, of course, freedom is not license to hurt others in any way, and that is the key to the solution.

And so, I have outlined an alternative to the confrontational UCC approach that I believe alleviates your concerns (and mine) in relation to the underlying issues, while ensuring the primacy of individual freedom: In particular I have proposed the following two things:

a) One, certain accountabilities can be brought within a framework of minimum standards of civilisation – below which actions can unequivocally be deemed to be criminal. Should that be decided upon, there will be no further dispute about uniformity, for all citizens will be held accountable to the same minimum standard.

b) Two, in addition, a society can also enact minimum ethical standards on personal relationships like marriage.

I trust I have at least some agreement from you on this suggested approach.

By the way, when you cite Australia or US law, I’d like to suggest that I do not consider the West to be free; it is only partially, and relatively, free. I have said so quite clearly in chapter 2. Their laws are therefore not a role model for me though I do cite some examples from their methods here and there. In general, though, everything I have suggested has been derived ab initio, from ground up, from an analysis of the concept of freedom. I suggest we need to go well beyond the West in our levels of freedom in India if we aspire to genuine greatness.

Re: secession:
My approach: Once again this conclusion and suggestion is based on the arguments of freedom. If we want India to be a free nation, and not a coercive nation that holds on to its boundaries by force, then we must have a discussion of secession in our Constitution. We don’t want to treat any person as a beast to be forced into our way of thinking or to live in our country at the point of a gun.

Every good constitution, which is a voluntary social contract signed by individuals who agree voluntarily to form the nation (they actually do so if there is a referendum every 30 years as I have suggested), must have a clause on secession, even though this is a novel idea today.

I am, once again talking of principles, and I suggest we don’t worry if the principles take us into new territory of thought. The freedom to think means the freedom to imagine what freedom will look like, not today, but ten thousand years from now.

I am suggesting principles and solutions in the book by looking into the future where India will lead by its great vision and regard for each individual on this planet (provided the individual wishes to live by non-violence and democracy). Without sounding melodramatic, I am suggesting we dream of an India to which people from all over the so-called West will line up in queues to migrate.

Paradoxically, as we all know, the approach of democratic secession will always have the opposite effect. The surprising thing about democracy and free choice is that it fosters reasoned debate and respect for each individual. And so, no one will ever splinter from India if they are permitted to debate and persuade others. As you have pointed out by citing my text, the benchmark I have set is very high – virtually no movement can aspire or achieve it easily. Finally, the requirement that “Violence from the proponents of the new state will nullify the referendum” ensures that people are respected and not killed by terrorists hell bent on disrespecting us and our lives.

A practical example of this already exists - the referendum a few years ago in Canada on secession of one of its large areas. The democratic referendum failed – but it was democratic even though I suspect it did not have anywhere near the stringent conditions I have proposed.

Re: Conformity: You suggest: “both Australia and the United States have an underlying culture that forces and encourages certain conformity.”

My approach: I am afraid I only very partially agree with you on this. The conformity here is with the law. It is not a cultural conformity.

For the 5 years I lived in the USA and the 7 years I have lived here in Australia I haven’t celebrated any religious festival personally – and that is exactly what I did, personally, in India. I have no religion. But I always participate here – and participated in India too – in any celebration of any religion or culture. I’m game for any excuse to meet people, have an occasion to reaffirm our togetherness, and to party (and to get a holiday).

I agree that Christmas and Easter are the only state-sanctioned religious holidays in these countries, and there is no doubt that these are primarily Christian countries. (Thanksgiving, as you are aware, is a secular and non-religious holiday only found in USA, in thanksgiving to the (red) Indians who saved the first American mission from starvation.)

But that, I suggest, will end, sooner than later. Already, people here don’t call these holidays Christmas holidays, but ‘end-of-year’ holidays. Over time I suspect these will become optional as more people of non-Christian faith migrate to these countries.

Apart from the Christmas and Easter holidays, though, there is no ‘conformity’ worth the name in these much more free societies than India. However, as I said, if people give me a free holiday, I don’t complain, and if they put up a nice show of lights, I enjoy it, just a I enjoy the Deepawali.

Once again, though, I don’t really compare India with the West in any way. I must hark back to the ideal of freedom. Our job is therefore to think and highlight the requirements of freedom and tolerance, and to point out the vision of the great future that lies ahead of India if we follow this path. Whether the West meets our high standards of the future is the business of the West; we don’t look to them as role models. We aspire to deliver on our own dreams, Tagore’s dreams, Vivekananda’s dreams.

I’ve got to stop now. But will be happy for further discussion.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

B Shantanu said...

Subadra: I had a quick look at your review of Sanjeev's book (and also Sanjeev's response). I broadly agree with the points you have made especially with regards affirmative action, Uniform Civil Code.

I have also read Sanjeev's response ...and I believe that we have positions on these issues that are closer than they might appear to be- which means there is hope for a broader consensus.

The one issue on which I am strongly in favour of your position is the reference to secession in Sanjeev's book.

Since I agree with your concerns, instead of highlighting them once again, let me, instead, examine Sanjeev's response to it.

I can understand where Sanjeev is coming from - but I am afraid the idea is utopian - for where does one stop? At what point does it become unfeasible to let further sub-division happen.

Sanjeev suggests that "the approach of democratic secession will always have the opposite effect" - I am not so sure. The underlying assumption about the maturity of people - and their respect for core values and freedom of thought is difficult to substantiate - one certainly does not see that in the discourses and discussions on these issues in India and I cannot think of any current political leaders who has the maturity and the vision to engage in this discussion.

I am afraid that in the current scneario, if people are allowed to splinter, they will find plenty of "leaders" willing to lead them in doing just that.

The benchmark is high - but it is the principle which I (and I think you too, Subadra) find dangerous. Finally, the caveat of "Violence from the proponents of the new state will nullify the referendum” is difficult to enforce - and leaves on on a slippery slope.

I have not read more about the example in Canada - so I will not comment on it...but will await further comments from you and Sanjeev

Sanjeev said...

Dear Shantanu

Thanks for posting a comment in response to my comment. Let me say that a provision of the sort I have suggested for the new Indian constitution is relatively new in human history, as it continues to evolve from its primitive tribal phase towards civilisation. But not all new things are dangerous.

Sometimes new ideas sound bad because we imagine the worst. That is natural, but maybe we need to think again, maybe after a generation or two. In my view, the idea I have proposed is definitely not dangerous, but liberating; it is life-sustaining. It revolves around democracy, not the gun.

Interestingly, I just checked info on the Quebec referendum on Wikipaedia and find that my proposed conditions for secession are overly harsh. I might even review my very stringent proposal in the light of actions from more free societies to make it less onerous.

click here for info on the Quebec referendum at Wiki.

A small additional comment: I believe that this issue of a clause for secession in the Indian constitution is perhaps one of the smallest parts of my book, which is focused on new and modern governance, and towards the eradication of poverty, squalour, and corruption.

If we agree on the rest of my book, then this very small thing can remain as my proposal which no one adopts! Indeed I'd be pleased beyond imagination if even 20% of what I am suggesting is adopted.

In my mind I am writing in freedom and wide open thinking of the potential that lies ahead of India - 10,000 years hence, not necessarily for the India of today. So ideas such as this must be raised, irrespective of whether anyone adopts them.


Subadra said...

Thank you Sanjeev and Shantanu for going through the review.
Yes , I think we are all in agreement on tossing out socialism completely. Let the government get on with the task of protecting the public good and refraining from making bread, cloth, steel and other commodities. The government should probably also get out of higher education and focus only on primary (K-12) schools in underserved areas.

The few differences of opinion I have with Sanjeev are the following:
1. While the idea of each group within a nation being ruled by their own set of laws (according to their religious beliefs) sounds ideal, it is far from so. Embracing multiculturalism to this extent is really quite suicidal. (Please take a look at what is happening in England where a substantial portion of the Muslim population wants everyone to live by the Shar’ia laws. ) I truly believe that without a Uniform Civil Code, we are endangering ourselves to being splintered further.

2. The idea of people willingly living together in harmony with no force is something that the United States has now, in the 21st century. Please let us remember that they fought a civil war in order to do so—it was not automatic. Thus, allowing any group to secede from the Republic will cause further problems for India. India will, in fact, cease to exist.

3. The third difference of opinion lies with the very notion of public property and land. Who does the land of India belong to? Does it merely belong to those who squat on it, or does it belong to all Indians? Do the waters of the Ganges belong to me also as an Indian, or do they only belong to those in Benares or wherever the Ganges flows? Do the North-eastern states also belong to you and me or only to the people living there and to more than a few illegal immigrants from Bangladesh? How all Indians answer these questions will determine if India remains intact in the future.

Sanjeev said...

Dear Subadra,

Thanks for accepting a big chunk of my message - as I said I'd be very pleased even if I add the smallest of value to the debates to reform India.

You have raised matters which I will take on board in my next revision (I've already started it) and hopefully respond in a constructive manner that you can at least live with, if not accept. I don't expect and nor should it be necessary, for anyone to agree to everything someone else says.

At this stage, can I thank you once again for your review, and request you to please consider passing on a link to my book to as many of your friends as possible (and ask them to do the same) so I can get as much feedback as possible. I will attempt to address all feedback in my next two revisions before getting the book printed and distributed in India.

Comments at sabhlok AT yahoo DOT com, please. Please also let your friends know that I am aware of issues with language and presentation in the current version, which will surely get better with each revision.



Suresh said...

I have had the privilege of helping in the editorial revision of Sanjeev's book before it was recently submitted for publication. I can affirm that all the concerns raised by Subhadra and Shantanu (and Capt Pullat elsewhere) have been taken on board by Sanjeev in a very competent and convincing manner. I do hope this book will receive the widest readership, especially the young, in India. My major concern is how does the message of the book percolate to the vast majority which does not read such books, especially in the English medium. It will be wonderful if the book generates a discussion in the TV channels which possibly have a wider appeal? I would be very grateful for suggestions in this regard.