I want to tell you a story today. A sprawling epic mess of a story which began with two histories intersecting awkwardly just over a hundred years ago in a small tribal village nestled in the dense forests of one of the richest mining regions of the world. It is the kind of story that has multiple obscure beginnings but no ending. The kind of story that evolves as an unending stream of good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters, accompanied by endless bewildering arguments about which chapters were good, and which ones were dumpster fires.
The first history is the one behind a board room struggle within the $100 billion Tata empire, which made headlines in the business press across the world in October. The second is the history behind a 500 million dollar corruption scandal known as the fodder scam, which first became public in 1996, and eventually led to a man named Lalu Prasad Yadav going to jail in 2013.
In 1904, those two histories intersected in that small tribal village which was about to become the modern city of Jamshedpur. I was born in Jamshedpur in 1974, just short of 42 years ago.
But this is not my story. Nor am I, perhaps, the best person to tell this story.
It is, however, as much mine to tell as anybody else’s, and when it comes to telling the story of history, that is often the only thing that matters. So I will tell you this story.
This is an Old World story, not an American story. So the backstories of current events, naturally, don’t range over years, decades, or even centuries. They range over millennia. And they are not written by winners or losers, because it is never quite clear who won and who lost. And because the stories never end, there is never a final accounting.
Settle in. This will take a while.
Our first history began somewhere around 900 AD amidst the ruins of the Sassanid empire of Persia, which had succumbed a couple of centuries earlier to Arab expansion. Somewhere in that dumpster fire, roughly 2200 miles west of our little tribal village, a stream of Zoroastrian families began leaving rather than staying and fighting. They headed east towards the coast of Gujarat, where they hoped to find asylum in a simpatico trader milieu.
Legend has it that the ruler of Gujarat declared that there was no room for immigrants, pointing to a pitcher of milk, full to the brim.
“The country is full,” he said.
The Zoroastrian priest leading the refugees responded by adding a pinch of sugar to the milk, which dissolved without causing the milk to spill over. That sweet little visa application earned them asylum.
Of course, they hadn’t really escaped their dumpster fire. The fight followed them to Gujarat within a century.
History is not geography. History can follow you across borders.
One does not simply exit history.
Our second history begins somewhere around the time of the death of Buddha, about 220 miles north of our small tribal village, and 70 miles north of where the Buddha attained enlightenment, in a city now called Patna. It was known as Pataliputra then, and served as the capital of a sequence of empires over the next thousand years: Magadhan, Mauryan, and Gupta. Lalu Yadav was the Chief Minister of the modern province of Bihar, with its capital at Patna, that occupies the territory that was once the inner core of those empires.
Our two stories intersect in 1904, because an entrepreneur named Jamsetji Tata, a descendant of those Persian immigrants from a millennium earlier, decided to set up the first steel plant of modern India in that little tribal village that would go on to become Jamshedpur, seat of a very different sort of empire, decidedly unlike either the Sassanid or Magadhan ones, the Tata industrial empire.
In 1993, I went to college in Bombay partly funded by a Tata scholarship, where I won a best actor award as a freshman in college, playing a Lalu Yadav inspired character in a satirical Hindi political play. In that play, which is in the form of an allegorical game of cricket, the batsman refuses to leave the batting crease after being declared out, standing his ground, despite the growing frustration of the hapless umpire.
In case the analogy is lost on you, politicians in India, like politicians everywhere, do not exactly like leaving office, and have a tendency to believe that the rules do not apply to them. And few played by that meta rule as well, and for as long, as Lalu Yadav.
One does not simply exit history. And sometimes, one simply does not want to. And sometimes one can make sure one does not have to.
This is the story of the past and future of the Yadavs and the Tatas, and the question of whether one can, in fact, simply exit history, during its dumpster-fire chapters.
In 326 BC, the prospect of war with Magadha helped dissuade the Macedonian adventurer Alexander from foraying deeper into India beyond Punjab. But the chaos he left behind in the northwest was one reason Magadha itself collapsed, felled by some obscure mix of palace intrigues and assassinations within the Nanda dynasty, and frontier adventuring by the usurper Chandragupta, who founded the Mauryan dynasty that replaced it. After that fell, power shifted briefly westwards for a few centuries to the Kushan empire (which had coalesced suddenly out of Chinese Central Asia and expanded into India), but then returned east, with the region peaking politically and culturally under the Gupta dynasty.
Then the decline began. Power shifted westwards for good, to what is now the Delhi region, never again to return, leaving Pataliputra as the decaying capital of an increasingly marginalized province.
And for nearly 1700 years, modulo minor ups and downs, that province declined.
Until finally it was reduced to a devastated zone of pure agrarian exploitation under the British, who inherited it in the form of a conveniently structured feudal province, optimally designed for extraction, from a dying Mughal empire. The British turned Bihar, along with neighboring Bengal, into a base of agricultural operations during the Opium Wars with China.
In the twentieth century, the ghost of Magadha became the modern Indian state of Bihar — the name derives from the word vihara, or Buddhist monastery. And Bihar, with the exception of the corporate township of Jamshedpur, became synonymous with the collapse of governance, deeply diseased organs of state, and the sort of entrenched, endemic, casteist and cronyist politics that makes the rest of India despair and occasionally fantasize about burning that fucking shit to the ground.
Bihar — named for a type of building designed for enlightenment-seeking — became the heart of darkness of modern India; the soul of its forgotten past. It is the bi in the sardonic term bimaru, an acronym for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, but also the Hindi word for diseased.
But Bihar was by consensus the absolute worst of the lot. Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan had a phrase: Thank God for Bihar.
Okay I made that one up.
How diseased? When I got my driver’s license in 1991, there was no driving test I could take. They were not really conducted, and there was no point taking a principled stand over the matter because nobody cared. You just paid the standard bribe, got your license, and got on with your life. And that sort of thing was just the tip of the iceberg visible to ordinary citizens.
When I got my passport a few years later at the Bombay passport office, I was literally stunned to find I could just go through the normal process, no bribes necessary, and actually get my passport on time. The officer who interviewed me for the mandatory police verification even offered me a cup of tea while he looked over my paperwork.
I left Jamshedpur for good in 1997, just 3 years before the final humiliating shrinkage of a once-grand empire. In 2000, less than a century after the Tata family triggered the Indian industrial revolution from Jamshedpur, the mineral-rich southern highlands around Jamshedpur broke away from Bihar as the autonomous province of Jharkhand.
The word Jharkhand translates to bush-land. In physical space, Jharkhand is just a hundred miles from the historic heart of Indian civilization. The town of Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, is just across the border from Jharkhand, along the highway from Jamshedpur to Patna. In semantic space though, Jharkhand could not be further away from vihara. In the Buddha’s time, the journey from the future Jamshedpur to Pataliputra must have felt like a journey from a wild frontier of darkness to the heart of an enlightened civilization. In my time, it felt like exactly the opposite. I only visited Patna once, and while I greatly enjoyed the hospitality of my friend and his family, and the delicious food they served me, I did not like the city at all.
Though I’ve always thought of myself as a Bihari, if you visit my Facebook profile now, you will see it says I am from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. I am happy to accept that minor origin myth even though the state didn’t exist when I lived there. It sounds way more bad-ass to say I am from bush-land, and maps are not territories after all.
I remember Bodhgaya well. Thirty years ago, in 1986, as a sixth grader, I visited Bodhgaya on a school trip. The city feels out of place, an island of bizarro ancient-globalization within an ocean of extreme modern provincialism. There is an impressive temple built by the Japanese. There are signs left behind by pilgrims from around the world, across time. Visitors, royal and humble, from Sri Lanka, Thailand, and places farther afield, have left signs of their historic relationships with Gaya.
At the heart of the town is the Mahabodhi temple, built around the Bodhi tree, supposedly a direct descendant of the original tree under which the Buddha sat in contemplation. If you want incongruities, here is one: the temple used to be run by Brahmin Hindu monks until 1949, when a half-century long agitation led by Sri Lankan Buddhists drove through some governance reform. The temple is now governed by a board that has 4 Buddhist and 4 Hindu members. The Buddha maintains his uneasy place in the Hindu pantheon as a possible 11th avatar of Vishnu, under certain heterodox interpretations.
The memory of the Buddha is cultural turf of the sort that is worth fighting over, and Indians of course, were fighting battles over cultural appropriation before they were cool. It is also turf that attracts actual violence. In 2013, ten small bombs exploded in the temple complex, injuring five. The attack was later attributed to the Indian Mujahideen group.
Just around 50 miles from Bodhgaya you find the ruins of Nalanda, founded in the 6th century BC, and possibly the oldest university in the world (there is a possibly older Buddhist university in Pakistan, at Takashashila, modern Taxila, but of course that was just a bunch of scholars hanging out together, what we would call a scholarly scene today, not a real university like Nalanda). It was where Chinese pilgrims headed in search of Buddhist scriptures. Also nearby is Rajgir — “house of the King” — the original capital of Magadha before the capital was moved to Pataliputra.
Jharkhand — the bush-land setting of our tribal village — has no such grand history or starring role in the grand narrative of India. For as long as the history of India history was the history of the agrarian empires of the Gangetic plains, highland regions did not matter a great deal. Nor did their tribal residents, living out their lives in a strange parallel history that evolved alongside the Hindu mainstream, like a largely neglected ecosystem of plugins around a software platform. No great empires could rise from the infertile scrubland. There were no pampered Prince Siddharthas leaving palaces in search of enlightenment, moved by the plight of the commoners.
In the sprawling mythology of India, tribals find almost no mention, barring a few startling examples like the story of Ekalavya, the archer.
The story is simple. The sage Dronacharya, instructor in the martial arts to the Pandava and Kaurava princes whose internecine conflict is the story known as the Mahabharata, once came upon Ekalavya, prince of a forest tribe, practicing archery in the forest — in front of a clay idol of Drona himself. The great sage immediately recognized that the young boy was an archery prodigy. Ekalavya, it was obvious, would surpass his own protege Arjuna, the Pandava hero of the Mahabharata, and become the greatest archer of his time. And of course, since the fates of nations would soon hang in the balance, with the reputation of Arjuna being a crucial factor, the sage grew anxious.
He asked Ekalavya about the clay idol, and the boy replied that since he could not expect to be a student of a great teacher of high-born princes, he was making do with the idol for inspiration. Drona reacted as only a teacher to elites could: he demanded that even as a teacher-by-clay-proxy (this was before royalties on YouTube videos), he was owed his guru dakshina, his teacher’s fee. The boy, naturally, was delighted to be so honored, and inquired what such a great teacher might want from a mere tribal princeling like himself.
Drona demanded that he cut off his thumb.
The tribal prince would not enter and muck up Indian history on his watch. The Kshatriya archery meritocracy had to be preserved, even if it meant pulling up the ladder behind Arjuna.
But in 1904 the discovery of rich iron ore and coal deposits in the bush-land meant the entry of the tribal peoples into mainstream history could no longer be delayed. Suddenly, the fate of Bihar, already a shrunken ghost of its storied imperial past, was no longer tied to its fertile plains. Instead, it became tied to its mineral-rich highlands. And the traditional political class of the northern Bihar plains, which had long since been sidelined by Delhi elites, saw an opportunity to rise again.
And rise again they did, politically dominating, for a century, the mineral-rich south from their agrarian political stronghold in the north. While the Tatas grew their empire of steel, buses and trucks out of Jamshedpur, they dealt not with the tribal leaders of the south, but with the agrarian-power-based politicians of the north.
And so it was for nearly 70 years, until the tribal peoples, drawing inspiration from the life of Birsa Munda, the tribal leader who fought the British during the independence struggle, began to agitate for statehood. The state of Jharkhand was born on Birsa Munda’s birthday in 2000.
Mahatma Gandhi might be the father of the nation in New Delhi, but in Jharkhand, that honor goes to Birsa Munda.
I grew up in the eighties as a ringside spectator of the Jharkhand struggle, secure within the corporate-civic fortress that was Jamshedpur, allied with neither farmers nor tribals. As the son of South Indian transplants in the north, with no particular roots north of the Vindhyas, my natural sympathies lay with the empire of the Tatas. And the Tatas were mainly concerned with the political struggle to the extent that it affected the creation of wealth from steel.
Don’t get me wrong. The Tatas in the eighties defined paternalistic corporatism far more than General Motors ever did. Not only did they run the town itself — through a special civic body known as a Notified Area Committee rather than a municipality — but they ran a vast network of social programs and agencies. At one point in the eighties, the marketing slogan for the company was Ispat bhi hum banate hain. We Also Make Steel.
But ultimately, the Tatas ran a business empire, not a political state.
The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha — Jharkhand Liberation Front — loomed large in my boyhood. It was the force behind Birsa Munda graffiti in public spaces. It was the vague threat of violence lurking just beyond the civilized borders of Jamshedpur, where we rarely ventured. It was the reason for occasional school closures. It was the reason for coal and iron ore supply chain disruptions to Tata Steel. Two terms we grew up with were rail roko (stop the trains) and chakka jaam (wheel-jam). Unlike the more familiar gheraos (encirclements of public administration buildings) and bandhs (simple business closures) that are also common in other parts of India, rail roko and chakka jaam are types of siege action specifically designed to disrupt industrial supply lines. They were the Google Bus protests of their time. They are a particular threat to large steel plants because blast furnaces must run continuously and a shutdown/restart of a blast furnace is a major matter.
Before I began to understand politics better, the JMM was, in my mind, a terrorist organization, indistinguishable from the Bodo and Gorkha separatists to the northeast, or the Pakistan-backed Khalistiani Sikhs and Kashmiri separatists in the west. The Hindu Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka were, of course, different. They were victims of Sinhala oppression. Until, that is, they turned into the villains who turned the Indian Army’s peace-keeping mission to Sri Lanka into the Indian dumpster fire of the late eighties. The interference of Sri Lankans in the politics of the Mahabodhi temple was an exception. In general, India has been the one to interfere in Sri Lanka, going back all the way to the Ramayana, which, shorn of mythological spin, is ultimately the story of Indian military adventurism in Sri Lanka. There are those who do not believe that Ravana, King of Lanka, was the villain of that story.
The mind of a teenager is interestingly uncritical. Adulthood and political change have a way of muddying the clarity with which one perceives political equations in youth. The Sikh and Sri Lankan separatist movements that dominated the newspapers when I was growing up have been laid to rest for now. The Gorkha and Bodo agitations led to some successful political legitimization and regional autonomy. Kashmir and the Maoist Naxalite movement remain the dumpster fires they were in my teen years.
In the judgment of history, teenage-me was wrong. The JMM were, relatively speaking, the good guys. Today, the JMM is a legitimate political party in the state of Jharkhand, no longer beholden to Bihari farmers for political representation. The Tatas deal with them now.
One does not exit history, but sometimes one can enter history, even if it is centuries later than one deserves to. Ekalavya may have sacrificed his thumb, a potential reputation as a great archer, and an opportunity for his people to enter the history books, all out of respect for an idolized teacher with feet of clay. But Birsa Munda and his followers did not.
If you think stories about tribal archers are for mythologies, think again. In 1992, a tribal archer named Limba Ram equalled an archery world record and won gold at the Asian Archery Championship. He missed a bronze at Barcelona by a single point.
In 1992, everybody in India loved Limba Ram for providing a rare moment of sporting glory to a medal-starved nation. In 1996, his career faltered and he became a Tata employee. In 2011, in a moment of surreal irony, Limba Ram, who had first been talent-scouted by a program named for Ekalavya, won India’s highest sporting award, the Arjuna award.
India’s highest award for coaching excellence, incidentally, is called the Dronacharya Award, after the man who had Ekalavya cut off his thumb to preserve the reputation of Arjuna.
Two colorful, larger-than-life public figures shaped my political coming of age, as I clued up and got woke, as it were, to the broader patterns of political life in Jamshedpur in the late 80s and early 90s.
One was of course, Lalu Prasad Yadav. He was, between 1990 and 2005, the Chief Minister (de jure and de facto between 1990 to 1997, de facto as puppet master during the tenure of his wife Rabri Devi from 1997 to 2005) of Bihar.
The other was Russi Mody, a Parsi, though not a scion of the Tata clan. He was, between the late 80s and early 90s, the Managing Director (this was before the term CEO gained currency) of Tata Steel. Since that was the flagship company of the Tata empire, he was also regarded as a likely next chairman of the Tata Group. He was also rumored to be gay, though this was never confirmed, and this figured in the rumors swirling around the succession battle.
Both Yadav and Mody were short, rotund, colorful, entertaining, and endearing clowns. Both were powerful, mesmerizing speakers, able to charm audiences in minutes. Yadav spoke in Hindi, with great wit, reaching into the dark, despairing depths of Bihari identity to ignite sparks of dignity and find votes, expertly playing the various demons of the past against each other, but always looking out for himself and his community, the Yadavs, first.
Mody spoke in English, excitedly painting visions of a future India that was modernizing far too slowly for his tastes. My father likes to tell a story about how in 1959, Mody, then a young manager, pranked his incoming cohort of trainee engineers — many of them teetotalers — by spiking orange juice with vodka at a party. That was Mody. He spiked the orange juice. He ate 16-egg breakfasts. He once accompanied Einstein on the piano. He claimed he could eat a hundred pani-puris at a go. We believed it.
I remember one speech, where Mody declared angrily, “the other day, I saw a miserable-looking maidservant sweeping the floor of a shop. Why? What can we do? The answer is obvious, get her a bloody vacuum cleaner.” If he were alive today, he’d probably have yelled, “Replace her with a Roomba!” Not because he would have wanted a poor woman to lose her job, but because he would have wanted a better one for her.
Mody felt deeply, and cared personally for the welfare of employees and non-employees alike within the Tata sphere of influence. He was a big part of the reason Tata Steel only also made steel. He was a living, daily presence at Tata Steel, where J. R. D. Tata, legendary chairman of the Tata group and the visionary empire builder behind its diversification into everything from buses and airlines to software, was a benign, distant, and laissez-faire presence.
Lalu’s speeches on the other hand, were memorable not for what he said, but how he said it. I won’t attempt to translate the rustic poetry of his presence on the Bihar political stage through the nineties into English, but in many ways, I owe some of whatever ear I have for language to him. I did not win my best actor prize with a Lalu impression by accident. During our school days, competing informally to see who could do the best Lalu impression was a thing. It still cracks me up that those who first noticed me in Bombay because of my performance did not realize I was a South Indian. I briefly enjoyed the nickname Bihari, until people caught on and transferred the nickname to an actual Bihari. My brief experiment in cultural appropriation only lasted a few days, but I am proud to this day of out-Bihari-ing my Bihari friends, if only for a few days.
On the surface, there was no contest. Lalu was the worst sort of venal politician, presiding over the systematic looting of the vast wealth of a rich region, and perpetuating a kind of political stasis that had already lasted nearly two millennia. Mody was the corporate messiah, steward of a single fragile thread of modernity and development, impatient with the glacial pace of politics, itching for change.
But behind their larger-than-life public personas, both men were presiding over dying empires of different sorts. Change would come, and it would be so rapid, neither would be able to deal.
If it seems like I’ve set up the northern farmers as the historic imperial oppressors of southern highlanders, think again. To non-Indians, Yadav is just another Indian-sounding name. To Indians, it locates, with great precision, a single thread within the confused tapestry that is Indian history, and a specific locus in the caste-and-creed intersectional matrix of Indian identity.
Yes, we were also doing intersectional identity matrices before they were cool. We called it varna pranali. The caste system.
Over the years, whenever Americans have asked me about caste, I’ve demurred, not because I am modest about what I know (I’m actually rather arrogant about how much I know), but because I am highly skeptical of Americans’ abilities to understand even if I explain. Or worse, I fear they will understand it so poorly that they will draw exactly the wrong parallels to race relations in the United States.
But here’s a small taste.
Who are the Yadavs? Are they oppressors or oppressed? Elites or commoners? Kings or peasants? Therein lies a tale within a tale within a tale.
The tribal peoples of Jharkhand, as you might imagine, benefit from some well-deserved structural preferences and affirmative action programs that might perhaps help address the inequities they have suffered over millennia. Most are, in the social justice parlance of modern Indian politics, Scheduled Tribes: ST.
Injustice and oppression, of course, are not limited to the marginal scrublands of empires, but have a place in the mainstream as well. And so the Indian political system also has a category called Scheduled Castes: SC. These are the Dalits, the oppressed, who rejected both Mahatma Gandhi and his patronizing label for them (Harijan, God’s people), and turned instead to B. R. Ambedkar, low-born architect of the Indian constitution, who encouraged them to convert to Buddhism.
Ambedkar was an idealist. One does not simply exit the caste system. Once you go intersectional, you do not go back.
For those of us growing up in late eighties India, the acronym SC/ST, rather than abstract textbook descriptions of the four varnas and the innumerable vertical divisions called jatis, was the lived reality of caste. To those of us vying to get into college, SC/ST meant just one thing: there were fewer seats in the open category that we — and of course we meant upper caste Hindus, real Indians — could compete for, in good colleges.
As thoughtless teenagers, we made crude SC/ST jokes. Here’s one: at a urinal in a government recruitment center, there is a line marked on the wall with the note, “if you can pee above this line, you get the job.”
Several inches below that line is another line, marked simply, “SC/ST.”
SC/ST: That was the lived reality of caste for me. Not some theoretical schema constructed out of a field trip to some backwoods village and a clumsy reading of the Manu Smriti in translation, delineating who is legally allowed to accept water from whom (the basis of a not-even-wrong classroom exercise used by an American anthropologist I know of, who teaches the sort of class on the Indian caste system that I wish didn’t exist, but I am enough of a free-speecher to acknowledge that it has a right to).
Until 1990 that is. Then a new acronym was appended: OBC. I was in the tenth grade then, and my classmates and I were just beginning to think about college.
The fragile coalition government of V. P. Singh in Delhi, hoping to consolidate its wobbly political base, tried to implement the 11-year-old recommendations of a body known as the Mandal Commission. Long story short, there was to be a vast expansion in affirmative action programs, with the addition of a third category known as OBCs: Other Backward Classes. Despite protests — including self-immolation by some desperate college aspirants — the measures gradually became a reality, and the scope of affirmative action programs did expand. And the scope for open competition for college seats and government jobs did shrink.
If you think the burden of student loans is bad, consider this: access to a college education in India is enough of a life-changing opportunity that prospective students are willing to set themselves alight if that access is threatened.
The Yadavs, as you might have guessed already, were an OBC, a classification that carves out an anthropologically and economically garbled, but politically advantageous, position for them in Indian society. But what are they really, you might ask, beyond members of a category in the greatest affirmative action program ever conceived?
In the mix of history and myth that goes into the making of an Indian identity, there is really no way to tell. It is a community that claims descent from the Yadava kingdoms of ancient India, ruled by a meta-dynasty founded by King Yadu. The Yadava kingdoms included Dwarka, the kingdom of Krishna, revealer of the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, colossus bestriding the events of the Mahabharata. On the strength of that claimed descent from King Yadu and Krishna, modern Yadavs aspire, socially, to Kshatriya status.
Which is odd, because the Mahabharata ends with the Yadavas being wiped out entirely, thanks to the curse of the desolated Gandhari, queen mother of the Kauravas, the losers of that great war.
She blamed Krishna of course, and his entire clan to boot. Krishna accepted her curse, though as an incarnation of Vishnu he had the power not to. And so all the Yadavas were dead within a half-century of the end of the Mahabharata war. Krishna himself died in a hunting accident, meditating in the forest, when a hunter mistook him for a deer and shot an arrow into his foot. And thus ended the 864,000 year long Dvapara Yuga, the third age of Hinduism. The death of Krishna marked the beginning of the fourth and last age in the cycle: Kaliyuga, the age of darkness, when history ends, then restarts once more in a new Satya Yuga, an age of truth.
We are, as Indians often like to observe in moments of fatalistic despair, in Kaliyuga, waiting for Kalki, tenth incarnation of Vishnu (if you don’t count the Buddha), to come and burn this fucking shit to the ground so we can start again.
Because one does not simply exit history, even if one is a God of gods. At best, one can reboot it.
The Mahabharata of course, is ultimately only a semi-fictionalized theory of India based on a freewheeling blend of history and myth. It is not historical fact. So at least a few Yadavas, it seems, survived the curse of Gandhari.
Gandhari incidentally, means, from Gandhar, modern Kandahar in Afghanistan. Chinese pilgrims used to stop there on their way to Bodhgaya, stopping to gawk at the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Gandhari’s brother Sakuni, the king of Gandhar, was the foreign meddler-in-chief who click-baited Yudhishtira into a rigged game of dice, thereby triggering the Mahabharata war.
Only fair I suppose, given how Indians meddled in Sri Lanka in the Ramayana. What goes around comes around. Karma, as culture-appropriating Westerners like to say, is a bitch.
So yes, we were also doing click-baiting, game-rigging and foreign-meddling before it was cool. So were the Greeks. So were the Persians. So were the Chinese. So were the Egyptians.
Assuming there is some basis in actual history, this was also the first recorded instance of an Afghan warlord meddling in Indian affairs, but of course, it wouldn’t be the last. You remember how the war that the Parsis fled followed them to Gujarat? That would be Mahmud of Ghazni, from Afghanistan. No sugar-in-the-milk-of-Gujarat he. He was pure marauder. Of course, they tell the story differently up north in Ghazni, about how he was a noble and wise ruler.
The story of Mahmud is not over yet. Today, the Hatf-III Ghaznavi is a nuclear-capable surface-to-surface ballistic missile built by Pakistan. It does not have much of a range: only about 320 km. But it can reach Gujarat.
The naming of missiles is not a particularly subtle art.
Back to the Yadavs though.
The Krishna of legend and perhaps history was not just the Yadava god-King of Dwarka (that’s in Gujarat too by the way, within the reach of Ghaznavi missiles). He was also an infant prince spirited away from the palace in the dead of the night to be raised as a cowherd, out of the reach of his scheming, throne-usurping, evil uncle Kamsa, whom he would eventually kill in adulthood. The tales of his bucolic years are to be found in the Bhagawat Purana.
Purana is also the modern Hindi word for old. This stuff is old. Silmarillion-old.
So who are the Yadavs, you might ask yet again, in exasperation, and why do they vote for buffoons like Lalu Prasad?
They are kings. And cowherds. And OBCs. A people who emerged from some obscure margins and entered the history books at the dawn of Kaliyuga, thousands of years before Birsa Munda corrected Ekalavya’s historic mistake in meekly cutting off his thumb.
Perhaps no Yadav in the recent history of India has so effectively channeled the historical-mythological memory of both Krishna the god-king, and Krishna the mischievous cowherd, as Lalu. At his chief ministerial residence in Patna, he maintained a barn full of livestock. The symbolism was not lost on his constituents, even as urban elites and standup comics made jokes.
The cow is, after all, the Sacred Gun of India: a powerful symbol, a marker of identity, an integral part of the economic history of the country, and perhaps most importantly, the focus of an entire area of modern law-making that makes no sense to non-Indians. Assault cows, for instance, are banned, but you are allowed to own hand cows, and buy up to 15 liters of milk at a time. The Second Amendment of the Indian Constitution says you cannot slaughter cows.
I kid. The Second Amendment of the Indian Constitution is actually about removing the upper population limit from the size of a parliamentary constituency, thereby creating some of the not-quite-proportional-representation characteristics of the American Electoral College scheme.
To return to cows and Yadavs, it is perhaps both ironic and appropriate that it was ultimately a scam involving fodder and equipment for huge herds of fictitious livestock that ended the career of Lalu Yadav.
Politically however, Yadav communities transitioned in the twentieth century, from an aspiring-Kshatriya “Forward Caste” to an OBC. Within the calculus of affirmative action, that was an advance. Within the logic of the caste system, it was a step down. Yes it is possible to move both up and down in a sufficiently complex scheme.
For politicians like Lalu, the declining power of the Congress Party at the center presented an opportunity to consolidate regional power, with a diverse coalition based on OBC solidarity. Of course, the Yadavs would be first among equals within that coalition.
To be forward caste, or FC, was viewed in the early 90s, as practically a liability. In the aftermath of the Mandal riots of 1991, many things happened. I still vividly remember a slogan from those years that distilled the essence of the zeitgeist, and still sends something of a chill down my spine.
Tilak, tarazu aur talwar; Inko maaro joote char
The tilak, the scales, the sword; Thrash them all with shoe-slaps four
The tilak is the forehead mark traditionally sported by Brahmins. Scales and swords symbolize, respectively, the Vaishya (trader), and Kshatriya (warrior) castes. Together, the three constitute the dvija, or twice-born, upper castes. The castes whose stories have historically been the stories of India itself. The tales of empire in the history books were their tales.
To be thrashed with shoes in India is to receive more than a beating. It is to receive a public humiliation. It is also a good way to figure out whether you’re going up or down in the intersectionality matrix. Hint: if somebody’s shoe is hitting your face, you’re probably below him in the scheme that matters.
As the power of the SC/ST/OBC coalition grew steadily through the late eighties and early nineties, consolidating in region after region, the FCs felt increasingly under siege in what they regarded as their own holy land. The history books said they were the heroes after all, so it had to be true. By 1991, between an economic crisis triggered by the fall of the wall, a rising tide of reactionary Hindu nationalism, and muscular new coalitions of Left-leaning regional parties vying for national power, India had turned into a tinder-box.
We called that tinder box Mandal-Mandir-Masjid. For the Mandal commission report, and for the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. The mandir — or temple — in question, was a historic temple in Ayodhya that had been razed in the 16th century by Babur, with a mosque being built over the ruins: the Babri Masjid — Mosque of Babur. And that forgotten temple, so the conservative Hindu narrative went, was no ordinary temple, it wasn’t just another temple razed by Muslim invaders. It was the temple built to consecrate the birthplace of Rama, god-king of Ayodhya, and hero of the Ramayana. Ram Janmabhoomi translates to birthplace of Rama.
Ayodhya, incidentally, is another bizarro-globalization city. The city of Ayuthayya in Thailand is named after it. There are other random connections to world history and geography I won’t go into.
For vast numbers of conservative Hindus, the half-century long political movement to reclaim the land and rebuild a temple had turned into the rallying cause that focused the energy of their reaction against the rise of the SC/ST/OBC coalition, but with a narrative that focused on Muslims in particular. The OBC coalition included Muslims too, many of whom belonged to lower castes that had, at one point or the other in the previous 500 years, converted en masse to Islam.
They had discovered of course, long before Ambedkar, that one does not simply exit the caste system with so trivial an act as religious conversion.
One can only enter the caste system. The Parsis, for instance, entered it as traders, the Seleucid Greeks as Kshatriyas. It is possible in India today to be a Brahmin Muslim or a Dalit Christian.
In the Hindu Nationalist narrative of the nineties, the overt threat was mujahideen spilling over into Kashmir after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, turning a domestic secessionist movement into an international dumpster fire, aided by the Pakistani ISI of course. For practical purposes though, it was the Indian Muslim population, as always, that ended up in the cross-hairs.
India, as outsiders seem to never appreciate, has the third largest Muslim population in the world. At 167 million, it is just about 10 million smaller than Pakistan’s. It would be a matter of grim satisfaction to most Indians, if India actually pulled ahead of Pakistan in that particular population race, taking the #2 position behind Indonesia.
And this is a reality with a thousand year history behind it, with its own good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters. It is not a situation that emerged suddenly in 1947 and is about to create an apocalyptic situation in 2016. This is one reason the idea of the India-Pakistan partition being viewed as a Hindu-Muslim partition feels so absurd.
But history is nothing if not the persistence of absurdities.
Of course, it helped that the conveniently inflatable “Islamic threat” helped consolidate a reaction against the entire uppity SC/ST/OBC matrix rising above its station. There are no real reasons and motivations in Indian politics. As with the rest of the world, politics in India is the art and science of the possible. You do what you can do. You spin the story whichever way you can spin it. The perception problem and the action problem need have no relation to each other, so long as you have solutions to both.
People daring to rise above their station to seek self-determination and dignity is, of course, a persistent theme in Indian history. There is a dizzying vocabulary that allows you to distinguish between subtle shades of uppitiness: jurrat, aukaat, akadna, khuddar, swavalamban, jagran. You get the point. If Pride and Prejudice had been an Indian novel, the title would have have been an essay in itself.
One does not simply rise above one’s station.
If Mandal-Mandir-Masjid was the name of the tinderbox, the spark that set it alight was a 1990 Rath Yatra — a cross-country chariot procession — led by BJP leader L. K. Advani.
The temple would be built, said Advani.
India would be great again, said Advani.
Mandal-Mandir-Masjid festered for two years, following Advani’s triumphant roadshow. The Right compared him to their favorite statesman, India’s Bismarckian post-Independence integrator, Sardar Vallabhai Patel. The Left of course, screamed itself hoarse at his divisive rhetoric, but didn’t really have a leg to stand on, given its commitment to the equally divisive Mandal Matrix.
Those two years saw a series of short-lived coalition governments.
Two years during which the Indian economy ran into a severe balance-of-payment crisis that required shipping bullion to London to get out of.
Two years during which the Sikh central banker and future Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, delivered a swift kick in the pants to the Indian economy, liberalizing it radically, practically overnight.
Two years during which Rajiv Gandhi, then in opposition, was assassinated by a Tamil terrorist for his role in the botched military peacekeeping mission to Sri Lanka, like his mother Indira was assassinated 7 years previously for her role in a similarly botched attempt to subdue the Khalistani (Sikh) separatist movement.
These two assassinations are worth a sidebar.
One of the saddest moments for many Indians who believed in the pluralist dream was when India’s favorite writer, the Sikh-but-agnostic Khushwant Singh, a fierce and diehard believer in Indian democracy, returned the Padma Bhushan, a high civilian award, in protest of Indira Gandhi’s botched policies in Punjab. Policies that resulted in, among other things, Operation Blue Star, a disastrous siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest place in Sikhdom, by the army. Singh’s faith in liberal pluralism was visibly shaken by the 1984 riots, which in turn shook the faith of anybody with literary ambitions or pluralist leanings in India.
I once heard him speak as a teenager. He was another short, rotund, colorful, entertaining, and endearing clown of a public figure who shaped my life. If I owe some of my ear for language to Lalu Yadav, I owe a good deal more to Khushwant Singh. How he could bear witness to the extraordinary traumas of Partition, and still find the drive to turn into a formidable man of letters, writing prolifically in English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, while maintaining a cheery, acerbically witty, and determinedly liberal and optimistic presence on the national political stage, remains a mystery to me.
One way to measure the trauma of 1984 is to count the number who died. Almost 8000 people died in the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Another way to measure the trauma is to simply say this: the events shook Khushwant Singh’s faith in democracy. His faith was eventually restored though, and he returned to his cheery, irreverent ways, and his undying faith in liberal democracies, till his death at the age of 99 in 2014. Khushwant Singh is an important reason why I have never been tempted by social conservatism in my life. If he could live through Partition — 2 million died — and the events of 1984, and not lose his faith in pluralist liberal democracy, I can fucking deal with the reactionary insanities of my lifetime.
While we’re on the Nehru-Gandhi familiy, a note on Rajiv Gandhi is in order here.
Rajiv Gandhi did not want to be Prime Minister. He was an airline pilot who wanted to continue flying planes. Political ambitions were for his younger brother, Sanjay, mastermind of possibly the worst abuses of civil rights — we’re talking forced sterilization as a population control measure here — in modern Indian history, during the Indira Emergency years of 1975-77. I was, of course, a baby then, with no memory of whatever was going on. My parents told me the trains ran on time, but I had to learn the rest on my own, later.
But Sanjay died. In a plane crash as it happens.
Sometimes you can exit history. And sometimes, that is a good thing.
His wife Maneka turned into one of India’s leading animal rights activists and environmentalists (perhaps as penance for Sanjay’s misdeeds, I like to think), but was better known for her visceral hatred of her mother-in-law and getting thrown out of Indira’s Prime Ministerial residence.
And so it was Reluctant Rajiv who became Prime Minister (defeating Maneka in Indira’s constituency of Amethi), riding a wave of sympathy after his mother’s assassination, as the third-generation leader of India from the Nehru-Gandhi family. He was, to put it mildly, not up to the task. Especially with Perestroika sweeping through India’s main ally, the USSR.
There is a term for good governance in India called Ram Rajya. The reign of Rama. The gold standard for good governance set by Rama in the Ramayana. And unlike Rama’s Sri Lankan adventure, Rajiv Gandhi’s Sri Lankan adventure ended disastrously, with the ignominious withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1990. Rajiv Rajya was not, to put it mildly, Ram Rajya. But poor man, he tried. He was younger than I am now when he became Prime Minister, so I cannot judge him too harshly. I’d have done far worse.
The successful return of Rama from his Sri Lankan mission is celebrated today as Diwali.
Rajiv’s mission is, of course, not celebrated. But the Sri Lankan Tamils did not forget. Or forgive. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991.
But enough about the Nehru-Gandhis, and back to Mandal-Mandir-Masjid.
In December 1992, while my classmates and I were spending a weekend hiking at a state park near Jamshedpur to celebrate our upcoming graduation, the Mandal-Mandir-Masjid tinder-box turned into the biggest dumpster of my young life, as Hindu nationalists stormed and demolished the Babri Masjid.
If memory serves me right, we cut our little trip short and returned post-haste to Jamshedpur, in a bus that had been anxiously dispatched to pick us up by the father of one of my classmates, a Muslim kid.
The father was a senior Tata executive. The bus that picked us up was a Tata bus.
Yes, this dumpster fire of a story somehow manages to involve the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Buddha, and missiles named after medieval Muslim conquerers ruining Persian immigrant dreams of a peaceful life of trade and prosperity.
If it seems like I am throwing in sidebar after random sidebar, well, it is my story to tell, and anything that makes your sense of history more complicated, I throw in. That’s how the Mahabharata turned into the longest epic in the world. We were doing feature creep before it was cool. And that is how this is turning into the longest post I have ever written. It is likely to weigh in at more than 14,000 words before I am done with it. Call it my Life, the Universe, and Everything 42nd birthday gift to myself.
But it is my story to tell. As much mine as anybody else’s at any rate.
Did I mention that India also has a nuclear-capable ballistic missile arsenal? That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that development of the arsenal was the life work of Abdul Kalam, father of the missile program, and future president of India under the Hindu nationalist BJP government. Not to be confused with Abdul Qadir Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program.
Kalam was Muslim, but something of a Hinduphile. When I briefly worked as a summer intern at a defense robotics laboratory in Bangalore in 1996, I learned that Kalam was sometimes so Hindu, his colleagues jokingly called him Abdul Kalam Iyer. The surname Iyer is traditionally used by South Indian Saivites.
Krishna and Rama, two incarnations of Vishnu, are in this story, so we might as well drag Siva in. The missiles built under Kalam’s leadership, incidentally, were named Agni and Prithvi: Fire and Earth. Somewhat less provocative than marauding warlord names. Another missile, the hypersonic cruise missile co-developed with Russia, is called Brahmos, after the rivers Brahmaputra and Moskva. Brahma of course, completes the Hindu trinity. The river though, has its source in the Tibetan plateau in China, which is also home to Mount Kailasa, the mythical abode of Siva.
Every year, the Chinese government allows a few Hindu pilgrims to make the pilgrimage to Mount Kailasa. One must preserve the niceties even as one points one’s nuclear missiles at one another. The Tibetan Buddhist refugees of course, stay put in India, gloomily continuing their political movement in exile, out of Dharmasala. I assume they sometimes go hang around Bodhgaya when they are not hawking things to Israeli backpackers on the post-traumatic hashish trail.
They left Tibet in the fifties, at this point, there have been multiple generations of refugee Tibetans born in India. But they haven’t exited the history of Tibet yet.
As my friends and I finished up high school and began the complex process of navigating the SC/ST/OBC matrix to a seat in a good college, the dumpster fire had begun burning in earnest.
An estimated 2000 people died in the communal riots that followed immediately after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In January 1993, about 900 people died in riots in Bombay in January. And in March, a series of powerful bomb blasts — orchestrated by Dawood Ibrahim, the infamous Bombay mafia don — rocked the city. An important line had been crossed — both the Bombay underworld, and the police force that it faced, had joined the brewing communal wars of post-liberalization India. On opposite sides for the most part. The Bombay underworld, which had historically been surprisingly secular, was increasingly dominated by Muslim gangs, while the police force was increasingly dominated by Hindu Right-wing sympathizers, especially in the ranks of the non-officer constabulary.
The events of 1989-93 had three major effects.
First, in state after state, SC/ST/OBC and minority leaders rose to power, while the main national party, the Congress, slowly began losing ground, leading to five years of murky coalition politics in Delhi. The decline had started during the enormously abusive Emergency years under Indira Gandhi, accelerated after her assassination in 1984, and became effectively irreversible after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. After nearly half a century of a strong central government, largely a holdover from the independence movement, the centripetal forces had kicked in, and India had begun to revert to its more natural federal political structure.
Young India has no memory of the Indira days, which is probably a good thing. There are not many good things to remember. Salman Rushdie portrayed her as a witch in Midnight’s Children for a good reason. My own memories of the Indira years are dim. I was 10 when she was assassinated, a fourth-grader. The main thing I remember was being sent home from school early that day, and reading about anti-Sikh riots through the country in the aftermath. I still remember the headline in the newspaper the day after her assassination: Mrs. Gandhi Shot Dead. Nation Wounded. Wounded indeed. Did I mention that perhaps 8000 Sikhs died in the vicious retaliation?
Second, during the same period, the modern Indian Right emerged, in the form of what is known as the Sangh Parivar — literally The Family of Societies. The term refers to the interlocking set of political and social organizations — the BJP, the RSS, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena — that constitute the Hindu Right. The political rehabilitation of the Sangh Parivar had been 40 years in the making, after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist in 1948. Between the sudden influx of battle-hardened mujahideen into the Kashmir after the fall of the Wall, the rise of the SC/ST/OBC regional power matrix, and the energizing effect of the Babri demolition, the moment was ripe for a reactionary consolidation of the forward castes.
The ups and downs of the Right are reflected in the fortunes of the Marathi play, Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy, (“I, Nathuram Godse, Speak”), which enacts the defense plea of Gandhi’s assassin, and lays out his justifications. It has been performed, criticized, banned, performed again, banned again, in a confusing history pitting free speech against sacred memories, since 1989.
Shiv in Shiv Sena, incidentally, is not a direct reference to Siva. Instead, it is a reference to Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire that helped destroy the Mughal Empire and along with the Punjab (Sikh) and Mysore (Muslim) kingdoms, provided much of the resistance to the colonizing British.
The third thing that happened due to the events of 1989-93, was the economic reprogramming of India between 1993 and 1996 at the hands of Manmohan Singh, finance minister under P. V. Narasimha Rao. As a result, the Indian economy slowly opened up and began to accelerate.
It was this last force that would rock the Tata empire and end the career of Lalu Yadav.
From one point of view, the political career of Lalu Yadav was a case of history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The grand tragedy of the 1700-year decline following the Gupta empire turned into the farce of post-Independence Bihar politics. Lalu Yadav was, indeed, at least a king, if not an emperor. You do not orchestrate 500 million dollar scams if you’re not at least a king. But what sort of king was he? Of what sort of kingdom?
In the pre-liberalization, half-assed socialist economy of India, Lalu was the living embodiment of a bit of Hindi doggerel.
Andher Nagari, Chaupat Raja,
taka ser bhaji, taka ser khaja,
This loosely translates to,
The City of Darkness ruled by King Ruinous,
Vegetables at a dollar a pound, dates at a dollar a pound
The lines are taken from a folktale about a boy who goes, against the advice of his guru, to a city seemingly full of opportunity — and certainly Pataliputra must once have been full of real opportunity — only to have a series of misfortunes befall him due to the economy-bankrupting insanities of the king. Among the more interesting plot elements is the one suggested by the second line: everything, whether scarce or abundant, costs the same, thanks to the economy-as-a-dollar-store insanity of King Ruinous.
Price distortion in pre-liberalization Bihar was not quite that bad, but it was bad.
Rampant corruption and clientelism determined prices, not factors of production or supply and demand. A simple example: even in Jamshedpur, the island of good governance, as a privileged middle class kid in a corporate cocoon of security and working civic infrastructure, I grew up with routine load-shedding, power cuts and water supply outages. The rest of Bihar? It was easier to count the hours when you had power and water, rather than the hours you didn’t.
That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that Bihar fundamentally ought to have been an electricity and water surplus state. The situation was entirely due to massive mismanagement and freeloading by an entire universe of petty crony capitalists stealing free power from the grid. Not to power a lamp here or an air conditioner there, but to run entire factories.
Taka ser bhaji, taka ser khaja indeed.
That was Lalu’s Bihar in a nutshell. Four decades of socialist policies, combined with a slowly sprawling affirmative action program that managed to combine the worst of British bureaucracy and the Indian caste system, conspired to create a condition where the market, effectively, had no meaning. Creating, in this instance, a literal heart of darkness. It wasn’t until I moved to Bombay that I learned that largely uninterrupted power supply was actually possible. Until I acclimated to Bombay, my more urbane local friends tended to view me as yet another barbarian Bihari, with only a slight concession made for the Jamshedpur credentials. My catholic school education allowed me to fit in easily, and I was obviously no dehati (rural rube), but I was certainly not like those worldly and sophisticated Bombay and Delhi people in 1993.
Lalu was a man who, in one breath (and I’m paraphrasing here), promised to make Bihar Magadha again, and in the next breath, ensured with a wink and a joke, that divisive, caste-based politics would continue for ever, making that promise impossible. At best, the Yadavs and their allies would slowly clamber up a rung or two in the original jungle gym of intersectionality, still seeking Kshatriya status while retaining OBC protections.
The prospect of Lalu wielding power as Prime Minister in Delhi — a very real possibility in those days of unwieldy coalitions — was the stuff of urban elite nightmares.
The heart of the heart of darkness in pre-liberalization Bihar was probably the city of Dhanbad, the capital of the coal mining district from which Tata Steel and other steel plants acquired their coking coal. It was, and largely remains, a region effectively run by a politically connected mafia operating within a sclerotic regulatory regime. The gangs of the region were the focus of the acclaimed 2-part movie, Gangs of Wasseypur.
The director of that movie, Anurag Kashyap, also produced another movie, Udaan (Flight), a coming-of-age movie about a young college dropout who returns home to Jamshedpur to work at his abusive father’s small foundry, and then schemes his way out to Bombay, sneaking out in the dead of night with his young half-brother.
Dozens of such small-scale industrial businesses, built around the heart of the Tata empire, still define the landscape of Jharkhand. Thanks to my father’s job as a senior Tata Steel engineering manager, my school years were littered with random visits to mines and factories small and large. The red glow of slag dumping defined the evening skies. Train trips meant glimpses of coal and ore trains winding their way into town in bulk wagons, and finished steel products making their way out of town on flatbeds.
My life in Jamshedpur wasn’t the stifling one portrayed in Udaan of course. I have many great memories of my childhood there, though I haven’t been back since 1997.
Still, in 1993, I was glad to wing it the hell out of Lalu’s little dumpster fire of a mini-empire, and head westward to Bombay.
As it would turn out, the soul of Indian industry winged it out with me. The eclipse of Tata Steel as the flagship of the Tata empire had already begun. It was already becoming clear that the future of the Tatas would be shaped by a much younger Tata company based out of Bombay: Tata Consultancy Services.
In August, 1993, five months after the Dawood-Ibrahim bomb blasts, I landed in Bombay to begin college at IIT Bombay, armed with my Tata scholarship — the Russi Mody scholarship. I was something of a type: a steel-kid type. Back then, you see, the steel cities of India — Jamshedpur, Bhilai, Bokaro, and several others — were known for one thing: punching dramatically above their weight class when it came to college-prep.
Large numbers of us steel kids slogged and punched our way through the infamous JEE — the Joint Entrance Exam — to gain admission into the IITs. Back then there were only six of them, and they rose, like the highest Himalayan peaks, above the murky and confused lower strata of Indian universities. Because you see, the IITs were meritocratic institutions. They were subject to the affirmative action programs of course, but like elites everywhere, the Indian elites take care of themselves first. They made sure the IITs were treated in exceptional ways, with weaker affirmative action requirements. And the aggressive — and expensive — test-prep culture, layered on top of the private, English-medium education, both of which only the middle class could afford, did the rest.
Mandal was for the poors. Mandir-Masjid was for our conservative parents. Us brash kids coming of age in liberalizing India, looking down on old-fashioned and ill-paid steel plant jobs, and eyeing those lucrative software jobs squashing Y2K bugs? We had hitched our wagons to a very different M: Merit.
This was a confusing time to be a liberal, atheist, Brahmin kid in India, aspiring to be the next Khushwant Singh. To align with the emerging post-Gandhi/Nehru Left coalition of SC/ST/OBC and Muslims was to side with the dark forces of Andher Nagari. The events of 1989-93, marked by extreme political uncertainty, a succession of short-lived coalition governments, and political alliances so ideologically bizarre nobody could take them seriously, had destroyed all faith in that direction. But they had left the country with the center permanently weakened, and the states permanently strengthened.
But equally, to side with the Hindu nationalists was to feed a different set of dark forces and a different kind of Andher Nagari. A side obsessed with the scars of ancient history, the wounded pride of eight hundred years of Islamic rule, and above all, the future prospects of the natural stars of the story of India, the upper caste Hindus.
Fortunately for the sanity of those of us trying to get through our engineering coursework, 1993-1997 turned out to be a period of relative calm within a stormy decade. The Hindu nationalist right gathered strength slowly, but surely. Bombay was a stronghold for the Shiv Sena, and by 1995 it pushed through the name change that turned the city into Mumbai, via some dubious etymological reasoning. I was born in Bihar, but my janmabhoomi is now in Jharkhand. I started out as a freshman at IIT Bombay, but I graduated a senior at IIT Mumbai. Those were small paperwork annoyances compared to the senseless slaughters that had come before, and were still to come.
Another part of the story of the rise of the Right during those years was the Encounter Squad, formally known as the Mumbai Police Detection Unit, which met the threat of the increasingly explosive — and terror-linked — Mumbai underworld with a growing culture of extra-judicial killings by the Hindu-leaning police. In a macabre spectacle, several police officers established fearsome reputations as “encounter specialists” (so called because the killings of suspected gang members and terrorists took place through the device of staged “encounters,” strictly legal and above-board, which means no encounter specialist has ever gone to prison for a killing; #KhakiLivesMatter).
The most famous encounter specialist was sub-inspector Daya Nayak, who joined the Mumbai police in 1995 and racked up 83 kills in a remarkably short period. Of course there’s a Bollywood angle here. You don’t think real-life semi-vigilante Mumbai cops killing suspected gang members and terrorists in staged encounters would be ignored, do you?
Daya Nayak’s career was the basis of the Hindi movie Ab Tak Chappan: So Far, Fifty-Six. Someday, I should make a list of Hindi movies that are actually good.
To be a poor young Muslim teenager from the slums of Mumbai in the 90s was to come of age with encounter specialists eyeing you speculatively, gangs courting you, and respectable middle class people being scared of you.
To be a poor Hindu teenager from Jharkhand — let’s call him Ekalavya why not — was to watch the English-speaking kids from middle class neighborhoods work their way through JEE preparations and head off to college, while you got sucked into the millennia-old intersectional matrix of caste governed by the likes of Lalu Yadav.
Instituting the scholarship that paid for half my IIT years was one of the last expansive social welfare acts of Russi Mody before he was forced out of the Tata empire. It was an ugly succession struggle during which Ratan Tata was appointed successor to the ailing J. R. D. Tata in 1991. But it was, ultimately, the right move.
Because Mody, you see, only also made steel. Under his successor, J. J. Irani — another Parsi as the name suggests — the company got back into the business of making steel first. In an even more consequential development, Irani was succeeded by B. Muthuraman, the first non-Parsi head of Tata Steel.
It wasn’t just the Yadavs who took care of their own. The Parsis did too. We in Jamshedpur didn’t mind though. We just joked about it. We called it parsiality. As business empires run by close-knit business communities in India go, we thought the Tatas were much better than most. It was certainly better to be a citizen of the Tata empire than, say, the Ambani or Birla empires.
Under Irani and Muthuraman, in a bold era of leaning-out and international expansion, Tata Steel went from a bloated, inefficient company, no better than its public-sector competitors, to being the lowest-cost steelmaker in the world. It then went on a buying spree abroad and turned itself into one of the largest steelmakers in the world.
But money isn’t everything. The bragging rights that come with the words like global aren’t everything.
The soul of the Tata empire will always be steel and buses to my parents’ generation, but the real soul of Tata today is of course computing. As software began eating the world, Tata Consulting Services, rather than Tata Steel, came to define the empire.
Few of my old friends are left in Jamshedpur, though my parents still visit on occasion, for reunions with all those friends who were at the vodka-spiked orange juice party.
Bihar’s fortunes began to turn around slowly after the Lalu years. The current Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, is no saint, but he is no Chaupat Raja either, and Bihar itself is showing signs of awakening from darkness. It may not be Andher Nagari much longer. The Ekalavyas are getting hold of smartphones now, seeking out better Dronas to learn from.
After hitting its nadir of ineffectiveness and failure in the early 90s, the SC/ST/OBC coalition went into a longish eclipse during the rise of the Sangh Parivar, but then began to make a comeback. In 2015, the Nitish Kumar led Left coalition delivered a stunning defeat to the BJP — which had been growing complacent in the wake of Narendra Modi’s rise — and put Bihar right back on the political map, where it has always belonged, even if not as the center.
One does not simply exit history. Nor does one ever win or lose it for good.
If you’re wondering, by the way, why Narendra the Hindu Nationalist, and Russi the Progressive Parsi, share a last name (modulo spelling), it is because Modi means Grocer. Gujarati last names are often the names of trades, and when Parsi sugar dissolved into Gujarati milk, it was more than an act of political refuge seeking and social integration. It was also an act of business integration.
A recent viral YouTube video made me reflect on another part of the tale of Andher Nagari, Chaupat Raja. In the original tale, it is not just the King Ruinous who is insane. The citizens too are deeply, disturbingly insane, trapped in a false consciousness so powerful, they think they are living in glorious times. Taka ser bhaji, taka ser khaja. What’s not to like?
Are Biharis like the clueless and asleep citizens of Andher Nagari?
No they are not. They are, to borrow a recently coined Americanism, woke. Not just woke, but the most woke people on the planet. They invented wokeness. The peculiar, self-deprecating swagger and sardonic wit of the Woke Bihari has held out against the depredations of politics for millennia, but the Bihari has not yet exited history. In 2016, as always, your Woke Bihari is alive to grim political realities, and capable of being darkly amused by them. Not fooled at all by the insincere bullshit spun by politicians, but capable of ironically weaving it into his own political consciousness anyway, as a source of strength.
The Woke Bihari shines through in a video (worth a listen if you know Hindi) a friend passed on to me recently. Ostensibly it is a bit of fun trash-talk directed at Pakistanis, in the context of the current chapter in the unending history of India-Pakistan tensions. But it is as much sardonic commentary on India’s own internal state as it is an attempt to toss half-friendly insults at Pakistan. Here’s my translation.
Bihari’s Number by Manoj Yadav
However big your population might be over there
Listen, our weakling vegetarians alone outnumber you
Whatever stockpile of bombs and ammunition you might have
That much, our kids buy in percussion caps for their toy guns
As much blood as there is in your entire population
That much blood, mosquitos suck out of us every year
Whatever the size of your annual budget, hear me
That much a mere police chief takes in as bribes
Whatever high and mighty words you might speak
Words like that, here our stray dogs bark out
Whatever smoke your factories may belch out
That much smoke our holy men puff out their pipes
Your words will never be the equal of ours
This we aver firmly today in our throw down
For as much as you might eat in dal and roti
That much, we Biharis spit out in tobacco
If Baba Ramadev1 went over to Pakistan
All Pakistan would turn into enthralled disciplines
And if Atal Behari2 went over
Hina Rabbani3 would be in a pickle
If Uma, Jayalalitha or Mayawati4 went there
Pakistan would be left friendless in the whole world
And if Lalu Yadav, along with Rabri, went over there
All of Islamabad would turn into a buffalo barn
One does not simply exit history, but if one stays woke enough, for long enough, making art along the way, sometimes one can level up, when things like smartphones with video cameras come along.
In 1997, I graduated from IIT Mumbai with a degree in mechanical engineering and a scholarship to the University of Michigan. I went back to Jamshedpur for one last visit, then hopped on a plane in Calcutta, and winged it to the United States for graduate school in aerospace engineering.
It was the first time I had ever flown on a plane, but it was my second udaan.
The four years had been a period of spectacular luck for us IITians of the 1993-97 cohort. We had enjoyed a stable political condition, an economy that was picking up momentum, and a culture that was rapidly liberalizing and integrating with the global economy. We could watch TV shows we never had access to before. We had books we couldn’t get before — back in the eighties American books were too expensive for most of us to own, and the selections in libraries were not the best. The affordable and quality books came from the Soviet-era Mir publishers. If you talk to Indians my age, you will find, for English speakers, a weirdly exaggerated awareness of, and fondness for, Russian literature.
We had the Internet! My first glimpse of the Internet had come by way of another quick internship at a defense-funded lab at IIT Bombay in the summer of 1994. That sealed the deal for me. I was just 19, but that glimpse of a wider world beyond, through USENET and Lynx, ensured that I would work to get out of India and into the wider world, by any means necessary. It took me 3 more years, but in my head, by 1994, I was already gone.
Only the computer science students generally had access to the Internet then, and a friend had wangled me that unpaid internship at a lab in the computer science department. But by 1996, we all had access. Where students of bygone eras had to send paper-mail letters seeking scholarships to American faculty, my friends and I had email. But not just the clunky, metered email students had had a couple of years previously, limited to rather pricey paid lots of 50 outbounds for Rs. 300. No, we had Hotmail, we could spam as many American professors as we liked.
Poor struggling genius Ramanujan. It’s a miracle he got as lucky as he did. If G. H. Hardy hadn’t opened that letter in 1913 on the eve of World War I, he’d have lived and died in obscurity in Madras. Now Chennai.
Us non-geniuses in 1997 though, didn’t need miracles. With unlimited email, we had the Law of Large Spammy Numbers on our side.
If I remember correctly, my profile in the annual hostel magazine of 1997 noted, “Gurra [that was my nickname], refused to interview for any jobs, and was a walking nbd [IIT slang for “nervous breakdown”], until his scholarship came through. Then he was all smiles.”
That was the effect the Internet had on me. Where my classmates took “safety” jobs at Tata Motors and Infosys, in case they didn’t get scholarships abroad, I burned my bridges and waited for an email from an American professor. Any professor. Exit or bust.
With the Internet, the world at large had entered Indian history, but more exciting for us, India was entering world history. And not just us elite, middle-class, Forward Caste kids riding our first-class tickets into world history via English educations, the IITs, and full scholarships to the United States. These were the Y2K years. The infamous bodyshop years, with Infosys and TCS hiring engineering graduates as fast as they could, from any and all colleges, from all sorts of social strata, leading to a great, confused melee that began muddying social boundaries too much for even Indians, past masters at massively parallel intersectionality matrix computations, to keep up.
One does not simply exit the caste system, but one can sure as hell scramble it beyond recognition and render it unusable by having software and urban modernity eat it. This, incidentally, has been the single most positive development I’ve witnessed in my life. If software can eat the Indian caste system, it can eat anything.
And that would be a good thing.
In 1996, the coalition government of Narasimha Rao, which had piloted the precarious Indian economy into the post-Soviet neoliberal economic order, wobbled. After a couple of forgettable and short-lived Prime Ministers who lasted only a few months each, in 1998, after nearly a decade of consolidation of the Hindu Right, the BJP finally came to power at the center.
L. K. Advani had become too tainted by his role in the Mandir-Masjid events of 1990-92, so a soft-spoken, gentle and sweet old man named Atal Behari Vajpayee — who features in Manoj Yadav’s poem — became Prime Minister. He was a veteran parliamentarian. He gave great speeches. He was a noted Hindi poet.
And barely a couple of months into his administration, India conducted its first nuclear tests since 1974. I learned of the news sitting in a basement lab of the Aerospace Engineering department at the University of Michigan. A fellow Indian student and I stared at each other with dropped jaws. Getting our next visa was not going to be fun (mine got held up for an extra week in 2004, in part because of the nuclear tests, and because I was doing AFOSR-funded research).
The 1974 tests had been called Operation Smiling Buddha. In the run-up to the 1998 elections, during which the BJP had promised to induct nuclear weapons operationally, I recall one newspaper headline that read something like Will the Buddha Smile Again?
But the 1998 tests were not named for the Buddha. Instead the code name for the tests was Operation Shakti. Shakti means power.
The most powerful signal sent by the tests was not demonstration of nuclear capability. Everybody had known about that since 1974. The signal that actually shocked the world at large, and the United States in particular, was that US intelligence agencies had failed to anticipate the tests, and trigger diplomatic pressure to prevent them, despite the possibility of tests being openly telegraphed by election rhetoric. It took a certain amount of cloak-and-dagger sneaking around between passes of America spy satellites to pull it off, but it was hardly difficult. Avoiding global surveillance infrastructure is not actually as hard as it might seem. You don’t need a professional military and intelligence establishment to do it. Afghani Taliban manage to do it all the time.
The tests had the desired effect of provoking Pakistan into taking the covers off its own covert nuclear program. Within weeks, Pakistan went overtly nuclear with its own tests. Within a year, aggressive Pakistani covert actions along the Kashmir border provoked open retaliation by the Indian military, and triggered a short, but tense war: the Kargil War of 1999. It also rapidly became clear that A. Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program, was also Nuclear Proliferator-in-Chief for the world at large.
Kargil was the first direct conflict between declared nuclear powers. Bill Clinton helped make sure it didn’t go nuclear.
The BJP-led coalition only lasted 13 months, before a regional party withdrew support, but then won by a landslide in the 1999 elections, on the strength of a triumphalist narrative based on the nuclear test and the Kargil victory. Vajpayee returned for another term.
But by 2004, the triumphalism had soured. Economic realities had come roaring back. The 2004 election campaign slogan of the BJP, India Shining, fell entirely flat, and Congress came roaring back to power, this time with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister.
In the interim, in Gujarat, a series of events had unfolded. First, a train carrying kar sevaks to the site of the demolished Babri Masjid — they intended to get started on the temple — was torched at Godhra. Though a group of Muslims was convicted for the incident, it is still unclear what exactly happened. But there is no doubt about what happened next. In the Hindu-Muslim riots that followed, over a thousand people died, the worst outbreak of communal violence in the decade since 1992-93.
Those events put the spotlight on Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat. While the debate continues about his exact actions — or rather non-actions — in the events, in the immediate aftermath of 2002, he was a political pariah. The word incidentally, is yet another gift of the caste system to the world. It means, in both English and Hindi, outcaste. He was, nevertheless, building up support.
The old guard leaders like Vajpayee and Advani — the latter’s own violence-fomenting past now firmly behind him in his new role as elder statesman in the Sardar Patel mould — were aghast at the rapid consolidation of the New Right around Modi.
And the Congress failed, yet again, to provide Ram Rajya over the next decade, with scam after scam undermining what remained of its credibility. Manmohan Singh had been an effective central banker and finance minister, but the timid, quiet technocrat could not handle the top job, and everybody knew it. He was merely the seat warmer for the heir apparent of the dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. Nehru had been a world statesman. His daughter Indira Gandhi had been a temperamental, scary authoritarian, and for a few years, an outright dictator. Rajiv Gandhi had been a reluctant but dutiful trooper who served out a forgettable tenure and died a tragic and meaningless death.
Rahul Gandhi. Well, the Congress tried. They really tried. But one can only bring one’s horse to history. One cannot make it enter.
Gandhi, as in “Nehru-Gandhi-dynasty”, incidentally, refers to Indira, not the Mahatma, and there is no relation there. Indira married a man named Feroz Gandhi, a Parsi Gandhi from Gujarat. One of the favorite conspiracy theories of the Indian Right is that Feroz was actually a Muslim who took the last name Gandhi and began passing for Parsi at some point before he married Indira.
India has had a few Muslim Presidents — the role is ceremonial in a Parliamentary democracy — but is probably not yet ready for a Muslim Prime Minister. Or a Muslim First Husband to a Hindu wife for that matter. But it can happen. Sikhs after all, went from military heroes to secessionist threat to saviors of the economy and the Prime Ministership within just a few decades.
But to return to our story, by 2014, the 2002 Gujarat riots were a distant memory. While the Congress had mismanaged spectacularly at the Center for a decade, Narendra Modi had built up an impressive record of effective administration in Gujarat.
So in 2014, when he, inevitably, became the BJP candidate for Prime Minister, he won on the basis of an aggressive campaign promising economic reforms and growth. The communal issues that he had ridden to power were notably absent in his campaigning. Like L. K. Advani a decade earlier, Modi had completed the transition from sectarian to nationalist, and remade himself, like Advani, in the image of Sardar Patel.
Gandhi (the Mahatma this time), Nehru, and Patel, the actually human founding fathers of independent India, were of course, very different people from the political archetypes they have come to represent in modern India. Today, they are merely masks to be worn for different occasions. The Gandhi mask for leveling empires with mass movements. The Patel mask for effective and strong domestic governance. The Nehru mask for grand visions and suave internationalism. Destroyer, Preserver, Creator. Siva, Vishnu, Brahma.
Narendra Modi wears all three masks effectively, while Rahul Gandhi manages to wear none of them at all. So not surprisingly, in 2014, Modi won by a landslide.
Lalu… well, at one point he was talked about as the outrageous, impossible candidate for Prime Minsistership. But canny though he was in wearing the various masks required to prevail in caste-ridden regional politics, he could not manage the Gandhi-Nehru-Patel masks needed for the national game. Beyond a brief stint as Railway Minister, and a role in crafting coalitions, he never made the grade for Prime Minister.
Modi however, could, and did. He made the transition from impossible, outrageous candidate, to inevitable, natural candidate that Lalu could not. I happened to be visiting India just before he came to power in 2014.
His campaign had a very memorable slogan: Ab ki Baar, Modi Sarkar. This time, a Modi administration.
The rising middle class, flexing its growing economic muscle, did not want to talk about 2002. They wanted to talk about 2014. Between shrugs and silences, the narrative had shifted. Of course, nobody wanted more terrible Hindu-Muslim riots yet again. Of course, this was about the economy, not Mandir and Masjid.
He’s been in office for two years now, but not a great deal has changed since then. Modi manages perceptions much better than any Indian leader in living memory, but managing realities is another thing altogether. But he has time, and that peculiar patience for the long game that is the mark of the most successful Indian politicians. Whether he is the Chaupat Raja of yet another Andher Nagari (though with a far firmer grip on the collective psyche than Lalu ever had), or the architect of India’s rise to superpower status, remains to be seen. And endlessly debated till the end of Kaliyuga.
Russi Mody died in 2014, having made his peace with Ratan Tata. He was his usual cheerfully optimistic self to the end. The aggressive expansion of Tata Steel ran into trouble, leading to a sudden boardroom war, the ouster of the Chairman, Cyrus Mistry, and the return of Ratan Tata at the helm of the empire. Recent Twitter conversations with Parsis who seem to be in the loop on what’s going on have drawn me viscerally back into the Tata world I thought I had left in 1993.
Lalu Yadav, who had been convicted by a special court in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, and sent briefly to the Birsa Munda Central Jail, was released on bail. But Nitish Kumar is doing well, and it is unlikely that Lalu will matter again. He might have left the cricket pitch for good this time.
In the last few months, Narendra Modi has orchestrated his own Smiling Buddha moment: a cross-border “surgical strike” on Pakistani terrorist camps last month, followed this week by a surprising move to remove large-denomination 500 and 1000 rupee notes from circulation, in part to combat the terrorism and crime, but mainly, the narrative goes, to clamp down on tax dodging. Tit-for-tat nuclear tests were a clumsy Cold War era signaling mechanism for doddering old men in the nineties. Military posturing today must involve special forces, social media optics, and currency games. Almost everybody seems to support Modi’s policies though. If this is Andher Nagari, Chaupat Raja, the false consciousness is holding up very well indeed. Much better than India is Indira, Indira is India did back in the early 80s. If it is not Andher Nagari, well, maybe this is a good thing.
In 2016, a group calling itself Hindus for Trump pulled together a campaign event, featuring a bizarre skit about Islamic terrorists attacking a Bollywood dance troupe, only to be saved by US Navy Seals.
In the wake of that event, which he attended, Trump ran probably the first campaign ad in the history of US elections featuring a candidate speaking Hindi. And the words Trump spoke in that ad, in awful Hindi, were not casually chosen: Ab ki Baar, Trump Sarkar. This time, a Trump administration. The words were borrowed from Narendra Modi, but only one name crossed my mind when I heard them: Lalu Yadav.
Cosmopolitanism may be in recession, but dog whistles from one nationalist to another can certainly cross borders.
While those ads were running on Indian television channels in the US, on the weekend before the election in Trump’s, New York City hosted its 2016 Marathon. The sponsor was Tata Consultancy Services.
One does not simply exit history. Come to think of it, one does not simply exit geography either.
Thanks to Sagar Dubey for forwarding me the Manoj Yadav video, and several young Indian friends who have helped me understand the contemporary realities of India.
1. Baba Ramdev is the latest in an unending series of influential Hindu spiritual leaders wielding enormous amounts of political influence.
2. Atal Behari Vajpayee, first BJP Prime Minister of India
3. This line is a bit ambiguous, but Rabbani Hina was the previous foreign minister of Pakistan. The first woman to hold the post, and one of the youngest important politicians in South Asia.
4. Uma Bharati, J. Jayalitha, and Mayawati are three influential woman politicians who rose to regional prominence in the 90s, and have had a significant impact on national politics. They are not known for being particularly liked by their peers.