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Jerusalem, Ayodhya and the God question

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (mosque) in Jerusalem. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

[I wrote this long read travel essay in 2018 after a vacation trip to Israel-Palestine.]

The streets of Jerusalem lay empty the day we landed there. It was 10 am. The winter sun peeked from in between the puffy, white clouds, but not a single person could be seen walking down the streets. The shutters of shops were shut.

“Is a curfew on here?” a co-passenger wondered aloud, as we stepped out of the sherut, a local shared taxi, hired from Tel Aviv.

“No. It’s Shabbat today. A weekly holiday for Israelis,” the driver replied.

I soon began explaining to my co-passenger how God created the world in six days and on the seventh day he decided to take rest, which is observed as Shabbat, the day of prayer and rest, by believers. The driver nodded in agreement.

“God made the world, alright, so he needed a break. But what did the people do to deserve this break?” my partner chuckled.

The driver nodded with a sheepish grin, “All we do is eat and sleep!”

*

With only places of worship open that Saturday morning, we decided to start our visit with the Sandemans Holy City Tour, offering an introduction to the three major faiths — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity —  that emerged here. The tour group assembled at the Jaffa Gate, part of an uneven wall encircling the Old City. Made of Palestinian limestone, also known as the ‘Jerusalem stone’, the wall shone like marble under the noon sun. It was the last week of December, just before Christmas, and as expected, a good number of tourists from all over the world had descended upon the city for a vacation.

We noticed how the number of armed police stationed at the Gate was disproportionately high, for, except the tour group, comprising mostly outsiders like us, there were few people around. Only a lone street vendor stood peddling baguettes and steamed corn in one corner.

“The Old City is where a large number of ‘P’s live, I think,” my partner whispered into my ear, glancing warily at the 50-odd security men wielding large sniper rifles. We had decided to use only code words for sensitive subjects (‘P’ for Palestine, for instance).

As part of the tour, we walked ‘from one epoch to another’, as Mahmoud Darwish describes the experience in the poem In Jerusalem. The tour guide, a young Jewish woman in her late 20s, started by narrating the story of how Israel came to be.

“Abraham, the first Jew, came to this place called Canaan and started having kids. One of his sons, Ishmael, became the forefather for the Arab nation, another one Isaac, became the forefather for the Jewish nation, and then, several generations later, came the Prophet Muhammad who was the last prophet for Islam. Isaac’s son Jacob became a favourite of God and God changed his name to Israel. Israel went on to have his own children, who grew and formed 12 tribes that became the state of Israel…”

The lady carried a copy of the Hebrew Bible from which she recounted these tales. As we walked through the Jaffa Gate into the narrow, winding streets of the Old City, she spoke of the kings of yore.

“King David (approx. 1000 BCE) had captured this place from the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe, and that is how the city of Jerusalem was created. David’s son King Solomon built the first Jewish temple, which was later destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. King Herod (74–4 BCE) was among the most important rulers of Jerusalem who left a wealth of monuments behind in the Judean region.”

Pointing to a tower that rose from among a group of buildings near the Jaffa Gate, she said, “That’s the Tower of David. King Herod built that. Herod had also renovated the structures that remained at the site of the First Temple and turned it into a grand monument.”

After walking for a while, we reached a flight of stairs. We made a short descent and assembled at the landing to catch a glimpse of the view beyond. A pale, silver dome was visible from here, and beyond it rose a small hill. “That’s the Al-Aqsa mosque. And beyond it is the Mount of Olives. Jesus is known to have preached there.”

[ME]: “Do olive trees grow there?”

[GUIDE]: “There used to be plenty of olive trees over there but now we only have graves, as you can see…There is a belief that both Jesus and Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven at this place. So now, there is a premium attached to having one’s grave there.”

Only the well-off and the influential could afford to buy their tickets to heaven by securing a burial place here, we learned. After descending the flight of stairs further, we reached a larger landing area. A golden dome glowing under the afternoon sun came into view. It rose from above a shrine made of blue marble with Islamic inscriptions etched under the dome. I gasped.

“And that is the Dome of the Rock. It was built at the site of the destroyed Second Jewish Temple,” the guide announced.

“The site where the mosque is located is also called the Temple Mount. It was here that the Second Jewish Temple was built (515 CE) until the Romans demolished it in 70CE. Only one wall remained of what used to be the Holy Temple of the Jews. This is the Western Wall.”

“They also call it the Wailing Wall, right?” one of the tourists chimed in.

“Yes, it is a site of mourning for us. But we don’t use that name,” the guide added.

It seemed as though the remark had touched a nerve. Later, I googled ‘wailing wall’ to learn that the part of the Wall which the Jews used for prayer and mourning was only a tiny portion (about 58 m.) of the western retaining wall of the originally destroyed Second Jewish Temple, which is 485 m. long. There is a dispute going on between Israel and Palestine regarding how much of the Wall each gets to keep as a part of the settlement. The guide mentioned none of that.

[PARTNER]: “The Romans did such a shoddy job of demolishing the temple. Why did they leave this wall behind?”

I returned him a glare. Luckily, no one around us understood Tamil. The security at the entrance to the Temple Mount was heavy. Men and women queued separately; coats, watches, cameras, and shoes had to be removed and run through a scanner, and each of us had to walk through a metal detector gate at the checkpoint. After we got through, my partner continued. “Imagine, if there was no Wall, there would have been no fight either…”

It reminded me of a line from Robert Frost’s poem: “Something there’s that doesn’t love a wall…”

The guide pulled out an architectural map from her bag. One page had a tracing paper sketched with the original layout of the Second Jewish Temple, which she laid on top of a page with the current outline of the Temple Mount as it stood now.

“Here, you can see how this place actually looked when the Temple stood here. And this, here, is the Wall that you see before you now,” she explained. She also distributed small paper bits so we could write our prayers or wishes on them. “The paper bits are collected regularly and scattered on the Mount of Olives. We believe your message reaches the heavens from there.”

I took a paper bit, scribbled my own little wish, and pushed it into a gap in the Western Wall, besides the hundreds of bits posted by others.

Clueless as to what the ritual observed here was, I simply stood and watched other women at prayer (men and women had separate prayer sections). Away from the Wall was a bookshelf containing copies of the Hebrew Bible. Some sat down and read out passages from the book, while others leaned towards the Wall, with a hand placed on it, eyes locked in prayer. Some kissed the wall. No one wailed really.

The Temple Mount complex beyond the Western Wall was closed on account of Shabbat. Only Muslims could enter into the Al-Aqsa mosque for prayer on a Saturday. The guide suggested we take the tunnel at the exit and explore the Old City beyond.

We went through another round of security checks. What we did not know, and the guide did not tell us was that this was the entry into East Jerusalem, considered to be an “occupied territory”. Most shops here had name boards in Arabic, so we recognised that this ought to be a Muslim neighbourhood. We stopped briefly at a local eatery for lunch. It offered the usual Middle Eastern fare of shawarma, kebabs or hummus, and falafel wrapped in pita bread. We decided to check out the bakery next door, instead. The warm and welcoming smell of freshly baked bread wafting out of the store pulled us in. We got ourselves thick, round flatbread pieces, each slathered with a generous amount of Za’atar paste (a mix of thyme, oregano, and sesame seeds). It was delicious!

A few quick turns from there, and we got to the Via Dolorosa.

[GUIDE]: “This was the path that Jesus is believed to have walked carrying the cross on his shoulder.”

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

There were nine stations on the path, each marked with a commemorative disc on the wall. There were 14 stations in total, the last five fell inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the path concluded. We stopped at every station and the guide read out stories from the Bible recounting particular events that had occurred at each spot. At Station 5, for instance, Jesus is believed to have collapsed under the weight of the cross, and a man named Simon came to help him carry the cross. Pointing at a dent on the wall, the guide announced: “That mark you see on the wall came from Jesus resting his hand there.” Some devout Christians in our group immediately recited a quick prayer with their hands placed on the wall.

The path concluded at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built in 337 CE by Empress Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, the church looked deceptively small from the outside.

Jesus was crucified here, the guide said, and his body was placed on a stone slab to be embalmed by his followers. As we entered the Church, we saw several women bent over the Stone of Anointing, praying fervently. We bent low and touched the stone, eyes closed in veneration. In one corner of the Stone, people lit candles. Several lamps hung above the slab.

Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected from the dead here, the guide said. After a quick tour of the upper floor where the site of crucifixion called the Golgotha was located, we began to walk towards the Zion Gate. The Room of the Last Supper, where Jesus was believed to have dined with his disciples before the crucifixion, was located in a small room near the Gate on the second floor above the Tomb of David (whether King David is actually buried there is disputed).

[GUIDE]: “Have you seen the painting by Leonardo Da Vinci on the last supper? Actually, the real Biblical event itself was nothing fancy as the painting depicts. That was a work of imagination. Actually, the supper was a rather simple affair. This is where he is supposed to have turned water into wine…”

We also stopped briefly at a square in the Jewish quarter where the Hurva synagogue stood. It was a 19th-century monument and didn’t look particularly busy, though on Shabbat one would have expected many Jews to visit it.

The tour concluded at the Jaffa Gate. On our way back to the hotel, I told my partner how it was so unfortunate that all these religions had emerged from the same root but had led to so much division and strife between the followers. The Israel-Palestine conflict was just one big and ugly family dispute. Even within these religions, there was little unity. Earlier that week, I had unsuccessfully tried to book an online entry pass for the Bethlehem midnight mass happening at the Church of Nativity on Christmas eve. Only Christians were eligible I figured, but once I clicked on the drop-down menu of the Church’s ticketing website, it showed at least 20 different Church denominations to choose from, as only those were eligible for a pass…

*

As evening fell and the hour of Shabbat ended, the city returned to life. In the part of Jerusalem where we were staying — at Allenby Square near the Chords bridge — I saw no Arabs around. We observed with interest the attire of the Jewish men on the streets. One could not especially miss the tall, black hats. They reminded me of the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter movies. And the older men all looked like Dumbledore, sporting long, white beards. Some were dressed in flowy robes, but most were uniformly dressed in black trousers and white shirts, with black overcoats. We spotted some men donning long, curled sidelocks that dropped from the temples on either side above the ears, and some others wore the kippah (skull caps) emblazoned with the Star of David.

On Sunday, we explored modern-day Jerusalem, including its more recent and troubled history, after Israel was established as a separate state in 1948. We returned to the Old City this time to listen to Munir Nusseibeh, a human rights lawyer and academic at the Al-Quds University. I had the good fortune of meeting this portly man with a schoolboy’s charm when he had visited my university — SOAS, University of London — to give a talk on the forceful expulsion of Palestinians from their family homes in east Jerusalem.

Meandering through the bazaars of the Old City, we reached Nusseibeh’s office at the Community Action Centre, a non-profit, community rights-based centre established by Al-Quds University in 1999. There were two Muslim women in his cabin, seeking advice on some property disputes with Israeli settlers as we walked in. We spoke after they left.

Nusseibeh’s office at the Community Action Centre in East Jerusalem. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT.

[ME]: “I have a doubt. Is this part of the city, a part of Israel?”

[MUNIR]: “Well, Israel likes to think that this is part of their state. But for Palestinians like myself, this is Palestinian land. You are right now in east Jerusalem, an occupied territory.”

He showed us the green dotted line on Google maps, that showed where West Jerusalem ended, and East Jerusalem began. This was based on the 1949 Armistice Line that was drawn after a settlement was reached between Israel and its neighbours.

[PARTNER]: “So, do you carry an Israeli passport or a Palestinian one?”

[MUNIR]: “I have none, I’m stateless! What Israel gives us is a residence permit. It allows us to stay here but offers no citizenship rights. Even that can be revoked if the court pronounced that you were not “loyal” to the Israeli state or your actual “centre of life” was somewhere else. The emphasis on loyalty towards Israel forces Palestinians to acknowledge its aggressor as its ruler, though that is against the accepted conventions of international law. There are about 3, 50, 000 Palestinians living in this sort of stateless existence in occupied Jerusalem…”

At SOAS, Nusseibeh spoke about several of his clients who had been thrown out of their homes on flimsy grounds by the court, and the houses were then seized by Jewish settlers from outside. He could help some clients win their cases by helping them to establish through utility bills, etc. that their centre of life was in Jerusalem, but not all of them were fortunate. Nusseibeh’s brother too had to get tourist visas for his daughters so they could come to Jerusalem from the U.S., despite being born here.

[MUNIR]: “In 1948, when the British were ruling us, you know the British always like to leave problems behind… when they were dividing your country (India), they were dividing ours as well… At that time, the Palestinian Jews were 12% of the population. After the end of the mandate, they were 30%. The Zionist movement demanded a separate Jewish state. It could have been settled quite simply. Palestine offered that once it is declared as an independent state, Jews could be citizens. But the British brought the UN in, and at the end of the resolution they created separate Jewish and Arab states. This led to a war between the Arabs and the Jews. By the end of this war, Israel was established but they couldn’t occupy West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The Jordanian army fought very hard in this place.”

He also told us how the division of the Old City into Muslim, Jewish, and Christian quarters was a largely British invention. Before the British arrived, these three communities lived together in mixed neighbourhoods, unlike what we find today. After the Naqba of 1948, more than half of the Palestinian Arabs were expelled from the city. The refugee crisis it created continues to date.

Palestine’s experience with British colonialism was similar to India’s. Our country too was split into two — India and Pakistan —  before the colonial ruler departed, and the strife between them continues till date, though I must note that India has treated its Muslims far better than Israel, thanks to the secular policy promoted by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Sadly, that culture is now changing with a right-wing party in power in India, under whom hate crimes against Muslim minorities have visibly spiked.

After meeting Nusseibeh, we headed towards the Temple Mount to take a peek into the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The security here was heavier than what we had seen at the Jaffa Gate earlier. Nusseibeh warned us that it was a disputed site with Jews claiming their right to pray there leading to communal tensions. Luckily for us, everything was peaceful that day.

The Muslims consider the mosque as the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. The story goes that the Prophet Muhammad arrived here from Mecca, riding on a magical horse, during the ‘Night Journey’ described in the Quran, and ascended to heaven thereafter. The belief that this site is the same place mentioned in the Quran rests on an interpretation of the term ‘the farthest place of worship’ contained in the relevant verse.

As non-Muslims, we couldn’t enter the mosque or the Dome of the Rock. So we just walked around the complex once, took some pictures, and left. I later learned that both the Al -Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock were constructed between the years 691–705 CE when the Umayyad Caliphate was in power in this region, with their capital based in Damascus, Syria.

My partner drew my attention to stories that the Jews were likely to demolish the mosque and the shrine, because these stood at the site of the Second Temple and make way for the construction of a third Jewish temple there. I read a news report in The Jerusalem Post which described a 2018 incident in which a 200 kg. ashlar (stone masonry unit) got dislodged from the Western Wall and came crashing into the mosque complex arousing fears among Palestinians that the Israeli authorities were seeking to destroy the mosque. This immediately reminded me of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition in India, in which Hindu kar sevaks brought down a 16th-century mosque built in the honour of Mughal emperor Babur in Ayodhya, claiming that a temple dedicated to the Hindu God Rama commemorating his place of birth stood on that very spot before. The demolition sparked communal riots in different parts of India claiming around 2000 lives.

An Indian historian Vikram Sampath wrote an article comparing Israel’s desire to build the Jewish temple and the Hindu right-wing demands for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, associating both these impulses with the desire for cultural assertion and revival of the Jewish and the Hindu peoples. But such a comparison would be deeply flawed. While the historicity of the Second Temple and its demolition under the Romans is less suspect, several historians have outrightly rejected or questioned the claims that a temple ever existed beneath the Babri Masjid.  The story of Lord Rama itself — narrated in the Hindu epic Ramayana — belongs in the realm of mythology. Jewish scholars admit that the Second Temple period is not as well documented in comparison with later periods. They rely on literary sources — such as “anonymous works that imitate or seek to interpret the Bible and were preserved by later Christian works by known authors writing in Greek, such as the 1st-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria and the historian Flavius Josephus; the assemblage of texts discovered in the caves of the Judaean Desert, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls; and other sources” (Weitzman and DeBold, 2016). This evidence, along with archaeological evidence from Jerusalem, Masada, and other sites, has allowed scholars to reconstruct a picture of Jewish history and culture during the Second Temple period. However, in the case of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, little evidence of this sort is available.

A German archaeologist named Alois Anton Führer had recorded in an 1889 Archaeological Survey of India publication titled The Sharqi Architecture of Jaunpur that “Babar’s Masjid at Ayodhya was built in A.H. 930, or A.D. 1523, by Mir Khan, on the very spot where the old temple of Janmasthanam of Ramachandra was standing.” But Führer’s scholarship is suspect. The man was disgraced and expelled from archaeological services later in his career. Hindu right-wing groups, backed by the current ruling party in India, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have used such sources as well as locally produced narratives to lend credence to the demand for building a Ram temple in Ayodhya. A group of historians from the Jawaharlal Nehru University have noted in a 1989 pamphlet titled The Political Abuse of History that the British invented this lie (about the existence of a temple) to divide and rule India and that no sources independent of the British one and available before the 19th century can be accessed to confirm the claim. In the same document, the group of historians also state that available archaeological evidence reveals that the earliest settlements in the region around present-day Ayodhya dates back to about the eighth century BC and were of a rudimentary nature, while the Valmiki’s Ramayana dates his birth to the “Tretha Yuga, that is thousands of years before the Kali Yuga, which is supposed to begin in 3102 BC”. Archaeologists, thus, believe the story of Rama and his place of birth lie outside of the limits of archaeology! In 2003, the Archaeological Survey of India submitted a report in the Indian court that its excavations found distinctive features of a 10th-century temple underneath the demolition site, but questions were raised regarding its credibility. Some scholars have also argued that the original Ayodhya mentioned in the Ramayana stands somewhere in present-day Afghanistan and not in the Uttar Pradesh town where it is now believed to be! Belgian orientalist Koenraad Elst, who is sympathetic to the cause of Hindu nationalism, has challenged this thesis. Ultimately, the truth itself remains buried in the sands of time and it is beyond our means to fathom its depths. What can, however, be stated with certainty is that making such claims serves a definite political end. In his Commission of Inquiry Report 2009, on the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan notes how the act of demolition of the Babri Masjid “were directed for or to acquire political power and thereby achieve politically desirable results.” Over a decade later, Liberhan’s words rang true as the BJP and the Hindu right-wing groups began their clamour for a Ram temple again ahead of the general elections in India in April-May 2019. After the BJP was re-elected to power, the Supreme Court of India passed a verdict in favour of constructing the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya in November 2019.

*

Travelling across Nazareth and the Galilee region on the third day of our tour, I was again confronted with this anxiety surrounding popular belief and its basis (or lack of it) in history. Only this time, the guide for our tour group, an elderly and petite Jewish woman with a reading glass perched on her nose, was more honest about the veracity of the stories she was narrating. In fact, she began with a careful disclaimer: “Everything I am saying is speculation!”

Our first stop was the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth that was built in 1969. “This is where Mary is believed to have conceived Jesus,” the guide announced. She requested one of us to read out the relevant passages from the Bible. I volunteered. It was the Gospel of Matthew from the New Testament. The story goes that an angel named Gabriel visited Mary and told her that God would perform a miracle and she would bear a son named Jesus who would save people from their sins. In the basement was a sunken grotto that represented the original cave home of Mary. Next to the Church stood a smaller church dedicated to Joseph, Mary’s husband. The guide continued: “There is also this story about the angel visiting Joseph in his dream and asking him to accept Mary as his wife.” The church marked the site of a carpentry shop, where Jesus is believed to have helped his father as a young boy.

[PARTNER] (to me): “Isn’t this ‘Virgin’ birth story similar to tales in Ramayana and Mahabharata of how sons were born through miracle potions and suchlike?”

[ME]: “Yes, it does sound similar…”

[PARTNER]: “But most Hindus would admit that these are just ‘stories,’ the Christians believe it all actually happened, right?”

[ME]: “Errrm. I think so!”

The exchange prompted me to ask the guide as to what evidence was there to prove the historicity of Jesus Christ. The guide was a bit perplexed. She may have hesitated because there were many devout Christians in the tour group, and it was Christmas the next day.

[GUIDE]: “You know most of what we know about the life of Jesus is through stories that people told about him. The gospels were written more than 50 years after the historical date of Jesus’ death, believed to be 33 CE. Historical evidence is limited.”

She added that in Capernaum and nearby places like Migdal, excavations had been made to locate the places where Jesus is believed to have preached. Our next stop was one such site of excavation in Capernaum, where the ruins of an ancient synagogue were discovered in 1838. Jesus is believed to have prayed here. As a practicing Jew, he probably read the Torah.

Next to this synagogue was a chapel with a glass floor, below which was believed to be the house of Peter, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus.

[GUIDE]: You know there is this story in the Bible, where a disabled man is lowered from a hole in the roof of a crowded house that Jesus was visiting so he could be healed? It is believed this is the house where the incident took place…

Beyond the synagogue complex, sprawled the Sea of Galilee. White mist covered the lake’s placid waters and the sun shone brightly, making us all squint. Before the guide could open her mouth, I offered:

“And here is where Jesus is believed to have walked on water??”

The guide smiled. “Probably. It is a big lake you see, hard to say exactly where he might have done that…”

We made our final stop at the Yardenit baptismal site on the Jordan River. The original site Qasr-el-Yahud, where Jesus was believed to have been baptised by John, was in another location, but it had been closed due to excavation work there. A number of our tour group members changed into white robes and went in for a ‘holy dip’, while we waited by the viewing gallery along the river.

Back in Jerusalem that evening, we prepared for our midnight trip to Bethlehem. Despite all my scepticism about religion and its claims of historicity, the midnight mass at the Church of Nativity was something I genuinely looked forward to. I was going to celebrate Christmas at Jesus’s very birthplace! We booked a bus ride with Abraham Tours. Bethlehem is in Palestine, and we were unsure if entering back into Jerusalem might be a problem, but the tour operator assured us that it would be taken care of. Though we did not have passes to enter the Church, we could view the festivities from the Church square right outside, where most visitors would stand.

The guide, who accompanied us, bore an uncanny resemblance to the popular image of Jesus that we see in pictures. I turned to my partner.

[ME]: Remember the story we heard at the Golgotha about the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death?

[PARTNER]: Yes…

[ME]: I think I just spotted him!

[PARTNER] (taking a hard look at the tour guide and then turning to me): Shhhh…

We both burst into laughter. The man had shaggy, long hair. Thick moustache and beard grown long. And the contours of his face were so similar to the popular image of Jesus, we couldn’t help joking about it.

The ride to Bethlehem took a little over an hour. On the way, we saw the Wall separating Israel from Palestine, the West Bank Barrier. As soon as the bus crossed over to the Palestinian side, we knew we were in a different place. At the Bethlehem bus station, small shop owners crowded around us trying to convince us to buy Christmas gifts. The place itself bore signs of impoverishment.

At a Christian rock concert in Bethlehem. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

We had visited the Vatican in 2017, and we couldn’t help noticing how poor in comparison to the Vatican, with its Renaissance frescoes and air of grandeur, Bethlehem looked. I was almost beginning to feel convinced how the place perhaps reflected the true spirit of Jesus Christ, who stood by the side of the poor and the suffering, which the ostentatious corridors of the Vatican belied. Only till I got to the Church. As we entered the Church square, a Christian rock concert greeted us. The music was so loud that we decided to get away and explore the narrow by-lanes of Bethlehem until it was time for the mass to start. We returned at around 11.30 pm and found ourselves a good spot in the square from where we could view the televised broadcast of the rituals taking place inside the Church. Meanwhile, some of the esteemed guests - the VIP pass holders, I suppose - arrived in expensive Jaguars and Rolls-Royces for the ceremony. The TV screen had low volume. There were no singing of carols or celebratory ringing of church bells, just a pastor uttering something on the dais, relayed on a TV screen outside the Church, of which we could not hear a single word!

My feet began to hurt from walking in the Galilee tour the whole day and now standing outside the Church for three hours!

[ME]: Let’s go back and find the bus and just wait there. Enough of this!

Back at the bus station, we ran into Jesus Guide. His name was Joseph, and yes, we were not the first ones to think that he looked like Christ.

[JOSEPH] (with an awkward laugh when we told him): I get that a lot!

*

Back in London, I did some digging up in the British Library and found books both defending - The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders (1993), How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman (2014) -  and contesting -  On the historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier (2014), the accepted Biblical narrative of the story of Jesus Christ. In the end, I was not convinced either way, but some of the stories, such as surrounding Jesus’ birth and resurrection, did appear to have in it an element of fantasy. Carrier rightly questions the repeated assertion of Biblical scholars that just because there is no evidence that people doubted the existence of Jesus in the distant past, his story must have been true. An assumption when continuously repeated cannot constitute the truth…

Throughout my time in Israel, I came across narratives - of war, of past humiliation, of assumptions of cultural superiority - that had been constructed to assert claims from time to time. In Masada, we heard one such narrative -  of Jewish pride and assertion. Our tour guide was a young Jewish man, born in Israel, but with a Romanian and Syrian ancestry. He asserted that he was a true Israeli. On our way to Masada, an ancient fortress and archaeological site perched 1500 feet above the Dead Sea, the guide told us stories of how the Jews had faced repeated persecution in Europe even before the Holocaust. This compelled the Jews to seek a land that was entirely theirs so they could lead a life without persecution.

On the second day of our tour, we had visited the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem that documented the story of the Holocaust. Nothing can justify the torture and abuse that Nazi Germany had unleashed upon the Jews. However, a small piece of information in one of the displays got me thinking about how anti-Semitism was not a 19th-century phenomenon though the term probably originated then. A display on the history of the persecution of Jews noted, and I quote:

“Anti-Semitism has its origins in Christianity”.

The spread of Christianity as a faith, and the consequent hatred that came to be directed against the Jews (held responsible for the murder of Jesus), was what had originally led to the rise of anti-Semitism. This revelation about the origin of anti-Semitism made me think about how blind adherence to any belief of any sort can be dangerous. Because it imposes upon us the need to reject everything else; our beliefs harden into a dogma that allows us to then justify anything and everything done under its name. As much as Christianity was culpable for early feelings of hatred towards the Jews, the unquestioning belief of present-day Israeli Jews about their own cultural and intellectual superiority - as the ‘God’s Chosen People’ -  has allowed them to justify the oppression of millions of Palestinian Arabs today.

A timeline of Jewish history as shown by the guide in Masada. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT.

[GUIDE]: “Masada is an important place for us because it symbolises the Jewish quest for national identity and pride. Especially after the Holocaust, Jews did a lot of self-searching. Then they found this old site here at the fortress by the Dead Sea, where the Jewish revolt against the Romans took place between 66 and 73 AD. During this event over 1000 Jewish people living in this fortress committed suicide. They did this to avoid capture at the hands of the Romans. You know, we Jews think we are superior to other people. We couldn’t stand the idea of being under other people’s rule. Masada symbolises the Jewish quest for freedom. There were two periods in history when the Jews ruled here - the Hasmonean period in 167 BCE, and after all those years now after 1948, when we made Israel as ours.”

He continued, “You know every time I come to Masada, I ask my group members to think about the value of freedom. What does freedom mean to you? How would you define it?”

*

In London, I met a Palestinian girl who had spent all her life growing up in a refugee camp in Hebron. I asked her this question, about freedom, and this is what she had to say:

“You know… this camp where I come from is very crowded… something like 10, 000 people squeezed into a tiny space of 0.4 sq. km. There are no facilities like good roads or spaces for recreation. In fact, we cannot even open the windows of our tiny homes to let fresh air in, because it is so crowded and dirty outside… My parents are from Gaza. They got displaced during the Naqba in 1948 and ended up in this camp. Living in that camp means that every time I leave the West Bank, I have to go through different checkpoints. There are surveillance towers watching over us all the time. I studied at an American university in Jerusalem. It sometimes took so long to reach the university, after getting stuck at different checkpoints, that my whole day was wasted. One of my uncles was shot dead by the military because he took part in a protest in which Palestinian refugees threw stones at the Israeli military officers. This was after many Palestinians had been killed in an attack in Gaza. A main road passes by in front of our camp. You never know when violence may break out there. I got a scholarship to study in London, but till the last minute, I couldn’t be sure I’d get a visa, thanks to my uncertain citizenship status… To travel out of Palestine, I have to take a round-about flight of seven hours to Jordan and fly out from there, because Tel Aviv that is only an hour away will not let us enter inside easily. When I think about freedom, I think about the freedom to feel safe. My family and I have spent entire nights sleepless, worrying about Israeli forces barging into our homes and taking a loved one away on some charge or the other. I have cousins, one 18 and another 16, in jail… Six years ago, for the first time in my life, I saw the Mediterranean sea, on a school trip.”

“Being by the sea, under the open, blue sky, that was freedom…”

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Should governments allow citizens to end up as guinea pigs for global Internet corporations?

Interview with Louis Pouzin, a pioneer of the Internet and recipient of the Chevalier of Légion d’Honneur, the highest civilian decoration of the French government
French computer scientist Louis Pouzin. Photo: Wikimedia

[First published in The Hindu dated September 2014]

Louis Pouzin is recognised for his contributions to the protocols that make up the fundamental architecture of the Internet. Most of his career has been devoted to the design and implementation of computer systems, most notably the CYCLADES computer network and its datagram-based packet-switching network, a model later adopted by the Internet as Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)/Internet Protocol (IP). Apart from the Chevalier of Légion d’Honneur, Mr. Pouzin, 83, was the lone Frenchman among American awardees of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, given to the inventors of Internet technology in its inaugural year, 2013.

Ahead of the ninth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) from September 2-5 in Istanbul, Mr. Pouzin shared his concerns regarding the monopoly enjoyed by the U.S. government and American corporations over the Internet and the need for democratising what is essentially a global commons. Excerpts from an interview, over Skype, with Vidya Venkat.

What are the key concerns you would be discussing at the IGF?

As of today, the Internet is controlled predominantly by the U.S. Their technological and military concerns heavily influence Internet governance policy. Unfortunately, the Brazil Netmundial convened in April, 2014, with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), following objections raised by [Brazilian] President Dilma Rousseff to the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on her government, only handed us a non-binding agreement on surveillance and privacy-related concerns. So the demand for an Internet bill of rights is growing loud. This will have to lay out what Internet can and cannot do. Key government actors must sign the agreement making it binding on them. The main issue pertaining to technological dominance and thereby control of the network itself has to be challenged and a bill of rights must aim to address these concerns.

What is the way forward if the U.S. dominance has to be challenged?

Today, China and Russia are capable of challenging U.S. dominance. Despite being a strong commercial power, China has not deployed Internet technology across the world. The Chinese have good infrastructure but they use U.S. Domain Naming System, which is a basic component of the functioning of the Internet. One good thing is because they use the Chinese language for domain registration, it limits access to outsiders in some way.

Continue reading “Should governments allow citizens to end up as guinea pigs for global Internet corporations?”
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What a Himalayan trek taught me about perseverance

The Bhagirathi emerging from the Himalayas. As seen at Gangotri National Park. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

[First published in The Hindu, MetroPlus dated Aug 26, 2016.]

My sole climbing feat before I set out on a high-altitude trek of 14,000 feet in the Himalayas was climbing a 50-feet-tall water tank in Puducherry. And that too nine years ago. I often recollected, with an odd mix of amusement and shame, how my knees got wobblier as I ascended the rusty rungs of the tank’s metal ladder, thanks to bouts of intense acrophobia… That is why, when folks at home greeted my brave decision to scale the Himalayas with stares of disbelief, it did not seem out of place.

And then there was the gruelling fitness regimen to boot…

An online group for aspiring trekkers recommended an hour’s exercise every day, which included both cardio and strength training, for a minimum of three months. “You think you can do that?” my mother asked, glancing furtively at the muffin top that I have been trying to get rid of for over two years now…

Continue reading “What a Himalayan trek taught me about perseverance”
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Farm laws’ repeal: In India, democracy isn’t dead

Farmers gesture as they block a national highway during a protest against farm bills passed by India’s parliament, in Shambhu in the northern state of Punjab, India, September 25, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Friday’s announcement on repealing the new farm laws in India affirms how no government, irrespective of the strength of its mandate, can afford to disregard voices of people emerging from the ground.

Vidya Venkat

[First published in The Wire on November 20, 2021.]

Narendra Modi’s announcement on Friday repealing the three new farm laws is proof that democracy is still alive and kicking in India. The laws had resulted in widespread protests from farmers congregating on the borders of the national capital since August 2020. The decision, which comes a few months before the state assembly elections due in the ‘grain bowl’ state of Punjab and the politically significant Uttar Pradesh, is proof that sustained public pressure on policy issues cannot be ignored by any government notwithstanding its might in Parliament.

Commentators on Indian politics have expressed fears that the country’s democratic credentials are slowly eroding ever since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party formed a majority government and returned with a stronger mandate in 2019. The fear is not misplaced as the government has demonstrated high-handed tactics in its handling  of the farmer protests and other such acts critical of the government, to suppress dissent. The framing of sedition charges against journalists reporting the farmer’s protests on January 26 via social media, on a day when, ironically, the nation was celebrating its founding as a democratic republic was perhaps a particularly low point during the struggle. Hundreds of farmers also lost their lives while braving rough conditions.

Continue reading “Farm laws’ repeal: In India, democracy isn’t dead”
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On the idea of ‘the people’

[First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, October-December, 2020]

am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.

The title of political theorist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee’s latest book invokes an imagery of the masses as described by Sandburg’s poem of the same title. But the book is not about those people per se, but an exploration rather of the phrase. Summoned by many a political aspirant on the election campaign dais, ‘the people’ is an ambiguous construct after all, whose constituency keeps shifting depending on the expediency of the moment of its invocation.

What Chatterjee does in this book is to trace a history of the idea of “the people”, providing an overview of the rise of populist politics, focussing, largely on the Indian experience. He draws amply upon the works of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau in the process, demonstrating the manner in which the meanings conveyed through the phrase have shifted since the end of the Second World War, and also prescribing ways in which a counterhegemonic strategy could be devised to address the current crisis of liberal democracy. Based on the Ruth Benedict lecture series he delivered at Columbia University in 2018, this book builds upon the academic’s previous oeuvre on nationalism and colonial history that foregrounded the postcolonial experience of southern nations. Chatterjee contends that “various features that are characteristic of democracies in Africa or Asia are now being seen in Europe and the United States because of underlying structural relations that have long tied metropolitan centers to their colonial and postcolonial peripheries” (preface). His central argument is that while in the West, populism emerged as a result of the contraction of the integral state, in India, it has been a survival tactic for political parties expanding along with the reach of the state.

Read the rest of the essay here: https://www.academia.edu/44754168/On_the_idea_of_the_people

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India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy

In late August, I filed an RTI application seeking various details of the charitable trust under which the PM-CARES Fund had been registered, and which state regulatory authority was monitoring the trust. But I was refused information on the grounds that the fund was not a public authority.

Vidya Venkat, SOAS, University of London

Since India overtook Brazil in September to become the country with the second largest number of coronavirus cases in the world (after the US), the response of the government of Narendra Modi has come under even tighter scrutiny.

In late March, Prime Minister Modi announced the formation of a special fund to address the emergency situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Called the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM-CARES Fund), it has attracted controversy right from the start.

According to its official website, the fund was set up to collect donations from India and abroad to “undertake and support relief or assistance of any kind relating to a public health emergency or any other kind of emergency”. The website says the fund will provide financial assistance and grants to affected populations.

But the prime minister’s office has refused to provide exact details of donations made to the fund or make public decisions about how the donations are being used.

Several information seekers, including me, have tried to use India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, which facilitates access to government files and records, to find out more details about the fund. We have been blocked, with a number of requests for information turned down by Modi’s office on the grounds that the fund is a public charitable trust and not a “public authority” as defined under the RTI act.

Continue reading “India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy”
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Green Revolution architect M.S. Swaminathan talks about the crisis in Indian agriculture

Unfortunately, all policies today are related to corporate powers. What about food security and 50 crore farmers?

MSSWAMINATHAN
M.S. Swaminathan. Photo: The Hindu

First published in The Hindu dated August 16, 2017 

It is 11 years since agronomist M.S. Swaminathan handed over his recommendations for improving the state of agriculture in India to the former United Progressive Alliance government, at the height of the Vidarbha farmer suicides crisis, but they are still to be implemented. To address the agrarian crisis and farmers’ unrest across the country, he urged the government to take steps to secure farmers’ income. As India marks 50 years of the Green Revolution this year, the architect of the movement tells VIDYA VENKAT sustainability is the greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture. Excerpts:

The greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture 50 years back was achieving self-sufficiency in food grain production. What is the greatest challenge today?

There are two major challenges before Indian agriculture today: ecological and economical. The conservation of our basic agricultural assets such as land, water, and biodiversity is a major challenge. How to make agriculture sustainable is the challenge. Increasing productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm is the need of the hour. In Punjab, and in other Green Revolution States, the water table has gone down and become saline. Further, during the Green Revolution the population was about 400-500 million; now it is 1,300 million and it is predicted to be 1.5 billion by 2030. The growing population pressure has made it pertinent to increase crop yield.

Also, the economics of farming will have to be made profitable to address the current situation. We have to devise ways to lower the cost of production and reduce the risks involved in agriculture such as pests, pathogens, and weeds. Today, the expected return in agriculture is adverse to farmers. That’s why they are unable to repay loans. Addressing the ecological challenge requires more technology while the economics requires more public policy interventions. In my 2006 report, I had recommended a formula for calculating Minimum Support Price, C2+50% (50% more than the weighted average cost of production, classified as C2 by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices). This would raise the current MSP and has now become the clamour of farmers and the nightmare of policymakers.

The NDA government has said it wants to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. But they haven’t implemented the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission Report that you submitted to the UPA government in 2006.

Yes. All kinds of excuses have been given by governments for not implementing this recommendation like food price inflation. But the question is, do the farmers of this country, who constitute nearly half of the working population, also not need to eat? The government is willing to pay Seventh Pay Commission salaries to insulate government servants from inflation, but they cannot provide a higher income for farmers to improve their lot? If you really look at what is happening now, farm loan waivers are posing a bigger burden on the government exchequer compared to what higher pay for farm produce will incur. But the government is not prepared to give the ₹20,000 crore or so for farmers by way of higher MSP. In 2009, the UPA government gave ₹72,000 crore as farm loan waiver, but no government is prepared to take long-term steps to ensure the economic viability of farming.

Continue reading “Green Revolution architect M.S. Swaminathan talks about the crisis in Indian agriculture”

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Thirty years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Bhopal gas tragedy victims slapping a picture of Warren Anderson. Photo: The Hindu

[First published in The Hindu dated Nov. 2, 2014]

Come December, it will be 30 years since the Bhopal gas tragedy occurred. The leakage of the deadly methyl isocyanate gas from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) factory in Bhopal went down in history as one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. But after all these years, has anything changed in India with regard to adoption of environmental safeguards before promoting industries and related projects? More important, what is the fate of the victims of polluting industries?

Tragedy continues

According to a January 2013 report of the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, the soil and groundwater within 3.5 kilometres from the UCC factory site is contaminated with cancer- and birth defect-causing chemicals. “The contamination of soil and groundwater actually predates the disaster,” says activist Satinath Sarangi, who has fought for the cause of gas leak survivors.

“From 1969 to 1977, Union Carbide used to dump its toxic wastes at 21 spots, most of them unlined pits, inside the 68-acre factory premises. Despite 17 agencies, including government and non-governmental organisations, carrying out studies over the past two decades, a comprehensive plan for remediation of the soil and groundwater has not been prepared,” he says.

On Friday, October 31, when the news of Warren Anderson’s death spread across Bhopal, survivors of the tragedy got together to spit on a photograph of the former UCC CEO, the first accused in the case and a fugitive from justice. Survivors are unhappy with the court proceedings and compensation. “While over 25,000 people have died in the disaster, the government has paid compensation for only 5,295 deaths. The government acknowledged in June 2010 that the compensation it accepted from Union Carbide was indeed inadequate. Following this, both the Central and State governments have filed curative petitions in the Supreme Court seeking additional compensation of $1.2 billion,” Mr. Sarangi says.

Rashida Bee, president, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, says three generations of gas leak victims have suffered, with their children being born with disabilities but little was done by the government to help victims and to give medical assistance to their families. Through the Chingari Punarvaas Kendra, run by Ms. Bee and her survivor friends, nearly 750 children are now being treated with the money that came with the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004.

Continue reading “Thirty years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy”
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Interview: Amitav Ghosh on climate change

AMITAV.G
Amitav Ghosh. Photo: The Hindu

“We have set in motion chains of causality whose ends we cannot see”

[First published in The Hindu Books page dated July 17, 2016]

It was happening. We knew that at the back of our minds, yet we continued to ignore it, until one fine day it came to claim our lives… Climate change — the upsetting of weather patterns across the world — forms the core concern of Amitav Ghosh’s latest work of non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. It is dealt with a touch of Márquezian magical realism as Ghosh speaks about the inevitability of the very real ecological disaster unfolding in our midst, so familiar yet unfathomably fantastic in its proportions. The book, parts of which were delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015, not only raises crucial questions about our lack of intellectual engagement with this natural phenomenon but also calls for a radical dismantling of the Enlightenment-era hubris possessed by mankind, which sees “nature” as something outside of man.

In a freewheeling conversation in New Delhi, where he is a writer-in-Residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Ghosh acknowledges that within Western academia, and particularly at the University of Chicago where he delivered the lectures, there is a strong awareness and interest in climate change and the Anthropocene, the current era in which human activity has dominated the planet. How human-induced climate change affects our history, thought and consciousness are major questions they are grappling with. But this cannot make up for the conspicuous absence of discussions on climate change in works of literature and art, he points out.

Continue reading “Interview: Amitav Ghosh on climate change”

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Shadow Power

BOOK REVIEW

emergency chronicles

[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jan.-Mar. 2019]

On January 26, 2019, India observed its 70th year as a constitutional republic. The country celebrated the Constitution of India as a document that empowers Indian citizens to chart their own path to progress, in which their rights (‘Fundamental Rights’) are upheld and their development is guaranteed through the state (‘Directive Principles of State Policy’). However, historian Gyan Prakash urges us to revisit that moment in which this document came into being, compelling us to recognise its troubled legacy. While most analyses of India’s 21-month period of Emergency, starting in June 1975, attribute its occurrence to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian and strong-arm tactics as a political leader, in his latest book, Prakash makes a departure from this personality-centred analysis, arguing that Mrs. Gandhi’s “perfidy alone cannot explain the perversion of a system of law and politics” as witnessed during the Emergency, and that “historical forces were at work”. The framers of the Constitution left us with such a strong state that it could deprive citizens of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms at the slightest hint of any threat. And that is what, he argues, exactly happened during the Emergency.

 

State of exception

Drawing upon the idea of a ‘state of exception’ developed by political theorist Carl Schmitt and later, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the author explains how the paradoxical “lawful suspension of the law” was written into the Constitution of India adopted in 1950, as its chief architect B.R. Ambedkar felt that the system of constitutional democracy had to prevail over the culture of street protests. Therefore, if and when the state was faced with a threat, it could suspend the law to assume control over a situation. Now that the foreign ruler had left India, and the people were choosing their own government, it was only fair that the state was thus empowered, the framers of the Constitution thought.

Ambedkar’s exhortation that we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution after attaining Independence led him to put in place rules that in the hands of an authoritarian government could turn into a nightmare for citizens. In chapter 2, where the author discusses the framing of the Constitution in detail, he notes how once the nationalists were in power in India following the departure of the British, “they felt no qualms about incorporating the arsenal of executive powers granted by the colonial law”. Ambedkar justified copying a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935, which retained vast executive powers with the British ruling class at the time of its adoption, saying “there is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing”. The colonial-era Indian penal code of 1860 was also retained, which included section 124A on sedition, used to quell dissent in colonial India.

Continue reading “Shadow Power”

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Gitanjali – A Poet’s Prayer

[I had originally written this essay in 2005 for a class on ‘Indian Writing in English’ as an undergraduate student of English Literature at Madras Christian College. The essay is an attempt at an original interpretation of Tagore’s collection of poems ‘Gitanjali’, which fetched him the Nobel Prize in Literature. I am republishing this from my old blog here as a tribute to Tagore on his 159th birth anniversary.]

GITANJALI

There is a distinctly spiritual flavour to the verses of Gitanjali. Going through them, anyone is capable of getting transported into -what in poetic idiom is often referred to as- ‘poetic heaven’. As Yeats too had expressed, in his introduction to the Gitanjali, the verses depict a poetic world that can only be dreamt of by most of us. There is an other-worldly feel to it. These words can only be uttered by a person who has transcended the physical world to explore what lies beyond it. But isn’t that what every poet wishes to achieve? Gitanjali is labeled as ‘religious’ poetry by critics, but to Tagore, these verses were just poetry and it is these classic poetic qualities of Gitanjali that are dealt with presently.

Even a lay reader with no feel for poetry will be able to recognise, how these verses, though framed in the simplest of vocabulary, manage to articulate thoughts and feelings of the highest order. To comprehend them may not be possible for all. Such is the talent of Tagore and such is his inspiration. In Gitanjali, I see a poet’s gratitude finding expression. Every single utterance of the poet is soaked in this gratitude felt towards that Supreme Being without whose will, a poet would never have been born. The very fact that God has appointed him to accomplish a poet’s task is elevating. And when the recesses of a poet’s mind, impregnated with divine feelings, reach the state of maturity, it is but a moment’s labour for a poem to be born through the channel of language.

To a true poet, every poem comes as a blessing granted after numerous prayers have been offered at the altar of the Supreme Being. Gitanjali is an embodiment of these several prayers that the poet has offered at the feet of the divine giver of inspiration. While praying, we do not always plead for something, sometimes we praise our God and sometimes we just share our sorrows and joys as if talking to a friend. At other times, we simply meditate in order to compose our minds. Prayers are a means to achieve inner harmony. The quality of poetry depends upon the intensity of this prayer. Tagore’s Gitanjali is evidently a prayer, a poet’s prayer, and manifests in itself that harmony which the poet has experienced.

Continue reading “Gitanjali – A Poet’s Prayer”

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A divided bench

0_50255465._SY475_Taking up ten forgotten cases, a writer explains how the judiciary in India has at times been ‘more executive-minded than the executive’

[Book Review first published in The Hindu ]

At a time when faith in the independence of the judiciary in India has diminished, Chintan Chandrachud provides us with a historical perspective on the uneven legacy of the courts in his new book. He elaborates the course of decision-making in ten ‘forgotten cases’ that may have faded from public memory but left an indelible imprint on the course of justice in India, nonetheless. 

Lost opportunities

With the apex court entering its seventieth year in 2020, the book is timely in its critical assessment of the functioning of the courts. Unlike commemorative volumes, this book demonstrates how the court has not always risen to the occasion to safeguard us from the “indiscretions and misadventures of Parliament and the government”.

Continue reading “A divided bench”

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Mortar and pestle

Mortar-and-Pestle

Thank you, Amma,

for buying me a mortar and pestle

when we went shopping one day,

soon after my marriage.

 

Among my vivid childhood memories

are watching you pound

that mixture of rice and skinned black gram,

soaked overnight,

on a large granite mortar

placed on the floor of our house in Calcutta.

 

How you would be at it for hours!

 

I recall

how the sound of the pestle

scraping against the mortar

dissolved into the sound

of the clanky Khaitan ceiling fan

that would never run fast enough

to dry those beads of sweat

running down your forehead.

 

Only, I was too young

to understand back then

that you were grinding grief.

 

© Vidya Venkat (2020)

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Pottery lesson

pottery

The first lesson in making pottery

Is: be willing to get your hands dirty.

‘Cos when you place that clay mound

At the centre of the spinning-wheel,

Then wet your palms to wrap them around,

The slurry splatters on you.

And at times, with fingers placed gently,

As you drag and pull inwardly,

The mound comes undone,

Collapsing into a lump.

But, if you get past this stage,

And your mound is still in place,

The task of centering can make

The clay go out of shape.

 

Three attempts and I give up.

My instructor says,

“No one’s made their perfect pot

As soon as they set out.”

In the potter’s hut, I find on display

A collection of odd pots:

Some cracked outside,

Some charred inside,

No ode-worthy Keatsian urns.

“I sell the good ones,

And keep the odd ones

In honour of the endeavour.”

 

(This poem is inspired by the memory of attending a pottery making session at DakshinaChitra museum in Chennai many years ago.)

 

© Vidya Venkat (2020)

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सूखी पाती

dryleaf

कभी सूखी पाती से पूछना उस ऊंची डाली का छोह।
बिछड़ कर पीले होने पर वो हरियाली का मोह।

तन सूखा है मन सूखा है पर जीवित उसकी आशा है।
पड़ी हुई है गुमसुम सी पर याद अभी तक ताज़ा है।

© Vidya Venkat (2006)

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Another freedom struggle

812ikVREopL

[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jul.-Sep. 2018]

It is ordinary people who often make history yet historians typically focus only on the victors and the leaders associated with popular social mobilisations. That is the reason why Magsaysay Award-winning social activist Aruna Roy decided to narrate the story of how ordinary people from the fringes of society – daily wage labourers, marginal farmers and small shopkeepers – in rural Rajasthan helped shape the demand for and saw through the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation in India. During the Chennai leg of the promotional tour of The RTI Story: Power to the People the former bureaucrat-turned-activist told me that her main purpose in putting this book together was to give credit where it was due: to celebrate the common men and women who had participated in the nearly two decade-long struggle to get the RTI law passed. It also explains why Roy has not claimed solo authorship for the book but jointly with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) Collective, the civil society organisation she co-founded with activist Nikhil Dey and trade unionist Shankar Singh in 1987. As the narrators state in their Introduction, “The RTI narrative is a celebration of ordinary people and their immense contribution to strengthening the pillars of democratic justice in modern India.”

Read the full review HERE

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Reclaiming the Republic

[Essay published on the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day in Economic & Political Weekly]

republicmain
Picture credit: EPW

On the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day, it is worth considering how the very foundational idea of a republic, in which supreme power is held by the people, is at risk despite free and fair elections. To arrive at that argument, this article delineates the historical trajectory of India’s Right to Information movement as arising out of the need to address the unfinished agenda of democratisation since independence. It then discusses how the movement has strengthened oppositional politics by expanding the terrain for political participation and has also empowered individual citizens in their struggles to claim their entitlements from the state. By resisting scrutiny under the Right to Information Act and attempting to dilute the law’s empowering potential, political representatives and bureaucrats are subverting democracy itself. 

Read the full essay here:

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The farmer’s ‘mann ki baat’

farmer oped
The father of a farmer in Haryana, Bijender Mor, who committed suicide, holds up the picture of the son with his wife. Picture credit: Vidya Venkat (The Hindu)

[First published in The Hindu dated May 13, 2015]

Everybody has an opinion on farmers these days. Be it politicians, policymakers, editors or economists. In fact, ever since the Parliament reconvened for the Budget session on April 20, the deteriorating condition of farmers has clearly dominated discussions. But even as the issue of agrarian crisis, farmer suicides (especially after >Gajendra Singh’s suicide in a New Delhi rally) and the controversial land Bill rocked Parliament, one question nobody asked was: what did the farmer have to say?

As the >Budget session was on, during a visit to Haryana this correspondent noticed how farmers had a strong sense of pride; the shame and guilt attached to the act of taking one’s own life meant they would rather die in the privacy of their fields. One such case was that of Bijender Mor, a Jat farmer, all of 27 years, from Baroda village in Sonepat district. Unlike Gajendra Singh, he consumed pesticide in his field and left no suicide note behind. Mounds of wheat piled up in the corner by the wall greeted my eyes when I entered his house. “It is of no use to anyone. This year’s harvest is of such low quality, that we cannot even use the grains to feed ourselves, forget selling it in the mandi,” his mother said. On March 9, Bijender went to check whether his 20-acre wheat field had not been destroyed by the rains, which arrived unexpectedly. He went late in the afternoon and never returned. And this is not the only instance of farmers dying across the country, either by committing suicide or from heart attacks following the shock of rabi crop loss.

Continue reading “The farmer’s ‘mann ki baat’”

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The ‘good’ elephant and the ‘bad’ elephant

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Picture credit: Vidya Venkat

[First published in The Hindu thREAD on Jan. 22, 2016]

Here’s the tragic part about being born as an elephant. Sure, you may get to eat a whole lot of food and grow into a 3,000-kilo giant, but if your fate is to be ordered about by a puny human, how are you supposed to feel about that? Happy?

Taking a joyride atop an elephant (that costs a hundred rupees per head) at Dubare Elephant Camp in Coorg, I observe the scrawny animal course the walkway as its mahout periodically pokes it with a sharp metal rod. Halfway through the ride, the mahout rewards it with a roll of dried grass for its obedience. After we get off the elephant’s back, my mother buys a dozen bananas and gives it to the mahout in the hope that it would land up in the creature’s belly. Whether it truly does, we never know.

A short drive away from the Dubare elephant camp lives Karnataka’s state-appointed honorary wildlife warden Nirad Muthanna. Muthanna is strictly against the taming of wild elephants in such camps. “Their place is in the jungle, not in these circus grounds,” he says. Situated in the midst of coffee plantations, Muthanna’s house overlooks the Cauvery river, beyond which stretches the Dubare Forest where sightings of wild elephants and tigers are fairly common.

Sitting by the riverside, we discussed the dilemmas foisted on these animals by us humans. He recounts an anecdote from 2014 to make me understand why peaceful animals like elephants have learnt to be suspicious of — or even hate — human beings over the years.

Continue reading “The ‘good’ elephant and the ‘bad’ elephant”
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India: government continues to suppress citizens’ right to information ahead of election

conversation image
Picture credit: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

[Republished in leading Indian news sites: Scroll and Quartz]

Back in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ascended to power in India, it did so on the promise of running an open government accountable to its citizens that would eliminate corruption. But nearly five years later, and with an election due between March and May, the track record of Narendra Modi’s government on upholding citizens’ right to information has raised doubts about its commitment to accountability.

The BJP’s predecessors, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by the Indian National Congress party, were instrumental in passing the Right to Information (RTI) law in 2005. Its aim was to undo the culture of bureaucratic secrecy encouraged by the colonial Official Secrets Act of 1923.

For the first time, the law compelled government departments to provide official information in the form of records or documents to citizens when specific requests were made. This helped to expose corruption in government as state authorities could no longer hide information on the way they made decisions or spent taxpayer’s money. The exposés contributed to the UPA government’s political downfall at the 2014 elections.

Yet, ever since the RTI law was passed, successive governments have sought to suppress it one way or another. In recent years, public authorities affiliated to the central government have denied information to citizens under the law on matters of vital public interest.

Continue reading “India: government continues to suppress citizens’ right to information ahead of election”

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Fall

Picture credit: Sharath Kuchi/Flickr

The sky remains silent:
A witness to the winds growing wild.
Rain beats the suspended particles of dust to ground.
Leaves on tree tops get drenched.
Life seems to come back
As if with a sudden throb of the heart.
And two broken twigs, each in their own world,
Lie miles apart.

**

The end of a leaflet briefly touches
As it topples from the top of a tree,
And I take a look at the sovereign duchess
Who had once been so prime and so green.
There is she fallen, now yellow and rotten,
Trodden by careless feet.
There will she perish with but longing alive
As the season of summer retreats…

**

Branches of trees stand out bare
With only a leaf or two that stare.
The beat of my lone heart echoes within,
Stirring the void of the sullen self.
Moments and memories frozen like mist,
Hang above me; heavy is the air.
Summer is past, now winter’s to come
Nothing remains but for despair…

**

Look at the sky now.
Painted with shades of grey,
Even this inanimate sky mourns
The departure of innate beauty
From human hearts.
Save these precious teardrops
From heaven and drench
Your parched souls…

© Vidya Venkat (2006)

Published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata.

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Bashar al-Assad must be brought to justice, says brave Syrian journalist

(First published in The Hindu Sunday magazine dated Nov. 18, 2018)

kholoud_mag3

Her hazel eyes have witnessed utmost suffering. Yet Kholoud Waleed remains stoic as she narrates the story of how her world turned upside down in March 2011, when the Syrian people started an uprising against the country’s dictatorial regime led by Bashar al-Assad. An English teacher in a high school in Darayya, near Damascus, at that time, Waleed witnessed the school being shut down as the regime saw the children studying there as a threat.

“The boys from our school used to hold demonstrations against the government. They wrote graffiti on the school walls demanding the fall of the government. After shutting the school down, many of the children were arrested and tortured by the Army,” she recounts calmly. Her youngest brother, who was a student there, had to drop out as a result. But what happened at the same time in Dara’a, in southwestern Syria, near the Jordan border, jolted her completely. “Twelve children, all under the age of 13, were tortured and two of them killed by the regime for writing wall graffiti against the regime. One of them, 12-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, was falsely accused of raping the Army General’s wife and shot dead,” she continues, anger welling in her eyes.

This was the precise moment when public rage exploded in Syria. In the city of Hama, for instance, half a million citizens demonstrated on the streets demanding change. In May, 2012, Waleed’s brother was picked up by the Army for voicing opinions in favour of the Arab Spring in college.

“They arrested my brother-in-law as well for holding opinions against the regime. As of today, there is no way for us to confirm whether they are dead or alive…”

 Continue reading “Bashar al-Assad must be brought to justice, says brave Syrian journalist”

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Mahmood Mamdani on the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy

[First published in The Hindu dated Jan. 15, 2015]

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The Charlie Hebdo Jan 14, 2015 cartoon. Picture credit: Wikipedia

Back with a Prophet Mohammed cartoon on its cover, Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, has resolved to take on Islamic fundamentalists, after a terror attack on its office premises in Paris last Wednesday claimed the lives of 10 staff members including that of its editor, Stephane Charbonnier. In an interview to Vidya Venkat, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, author of ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror’, explained the difference between critiquing a religion and ridiculing it, and why it is one thing to oppose censorship and quite another thing to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity. Edited excerpts:

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, there is widespread condemnation of Islam itself. George Packer, in his New Yorker article, for example, had held Islam and its tenets and those believing in them responsible for the attacks. Are we misdiagnosing the problem here?

In my view, George Packer’s is a knee-jerk response. It fails to recognise what is new about the Charlie Hebdo killings. The information we have so far suggests that it was a paramilitary operation. Though carried out by a local unit, decentralised in both planning and execution, the attack was strategised and sanctioned from headquarters. The killings need to be seen as a strategic and organised military attack. As such, it is different from the kind of grassroots demonstrations we have seen in the past, such as in responses to the Danish Cartoons.

Proponents of the Charlie Hebdo brand of humour and satire see the need to share and endorse the culture of “free speech”. Your view?

I support the right to free speech as part of a right of dissent. But that does not mean that I support every particular exercise of free speech or dissent.

Continue reading “Mahmood Mamdani on the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy”

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A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015

[A shorter version of this appeared in The Hindu’s op-ed pages on Jan 4, 2016]

 

The lesson from Paris 2015 is this: until world powers don’t stop digging black gold out of the bellies of Iraq, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the convoluted webs of violence, terror and climate change, will continue to keep us trapped in the times to come

 

 

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Bullet holes in the wall at Bataclan, Paris terror attack site

New Year is the time for making resolutions, for turning back on the year that went by and reflecting on what lessons could be learnt from the past so we do not repeat our mistakes. Last year, Paris witnessed one of the worst terror attacks, besides those in Beirut and Baghdad. It also saw the climate change agreement being finalised. Could the latter be an answer to the former?

The thought had originally struck me while I was standing outside the Bataclan café in Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, staring at the bullet holes on the walls of the building at the site of the November 13 terror attack by Islamic State (IS) terrorists. It was the last week of November, and I was in the city to attend the UN climate summit – the 21st Conference of Parties (CoP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – where heads of states of over a hundred UN member countries were working out a deal to save the earth from the climate catastrophe.

Continue reading “A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015”

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Trapped lives

trafficking 1
Picture sourced from flickr.com for representational purposes only.

(This is an account of a meeting I had back in 2009 with women trafficked from Bangladesh)

Bina* is not sure if she should be happy about the birth of her son. She sits staring at the 15-days-old child wriggling in her arms, leaning against a wall in a dimly lit room of the Government Vigilance Home in Mylapore, Chennai where she has been kept for the last eight months.

The woman, trafficked from a poverty stricken village in Bangladesh, was caught in a raid conducted by the Anti-vice squad of the police in a lodge in suburban Chennai. She says she had been brought to India by a broker in her village who promised to get her a job as a maid.

There are several others like her at this Home, who crossed the porous border between India and Bangladesh, mostly unwittingly, in the hope of finding a job that would help them survive and landed up instead in brothels and shady lodges in Indian metros.

Sheela*, the mother of two children, says an agent had convinced her family to send her to Dhaka to work as a maid. But this woman was first taken to Kolkata, then to Bangalore and finally to Chennai, where this broker, on whom she was completely dependent for everything, including food, would make her attend as many as 20 clients in a day.

Continue reading “Trapped lives”

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Between Gandhi and Hitler

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Social activist Anna Hazare observing a fast at Jantar Mantar in 2011 in Delhi as a mark of protest against corruption

The dust raised by the “Indian spring” is yet to settle and Mukul Sharma’s book ‘Green and Saffron’, recently published by Permanent Black, has arrived to raise another storm. An entire chapter in this book has been devoted to a careful exposition of the politics behind the Gandhian leading India’s much-watched anti-corruption movement – Anna Hazare. Though the book itself is a larger thesis exploring the linkages between environmental politics and Hindu nationalism in India, its unique selling point has been an account of the environmental movement in Ralegan Siddhi, Maharashtra, from where Hazare started his anti-corruption crusade.

The ‘Bharat mata’ (Mother India) symbol in front of which Hazare famously sat during his April 2011 fast-unto-death demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill to fight corruption in India, had already stirred doubts regarding the political affiliations of the movement. The evidence of support from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres further clouded the secular credentials of the movement. Though Sharma’s book does not provide any obvious evidence of an open affiliation between the Hazare camp and right-wing political parties, it shows how a movement rooted in an authoritarian, traditional, Hindu ethos comes to occupy a common epistemological space with the Hindutva ideology, thus helping to reinforce it.

If Gandhi was infamous for his sexual experiments, Anna will be remembered for his chillingly disciplinarian tactics.

Continue reading “Between Gandhi and Hitler”

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The birdwatcher

bar headed geese
Bar-headed geese. Picture credit: Flickr

One winter morning in 1968, on one of his weekend ‘birding’ trips, an unsuspecting Theodore Baskaran was crouching by the bund of the Devarayan Lake near Tiruchirapalli, when a skein of bar-headed geese emerged from the skies. Dropping their wings, they landed on the placid waters of the lake, a few meters from where he was.

A fledgling birdwatcher since his college days, Baskaran could recognise them immediately. They were rare visitors to South India, coming in search of food from snow-bound Ladakh. Today, at 66, after more than four decades of bird watching, the retired civil servant recalls this encounter with a feeling close to awe. “Looking at those lovely geese while I was all by myself was a spiritual experience,” he says.

Continue reading “The birdwatcher”

Unicorn and the stars

Artwork by my nephew Aniruddha (7)

What is the distance between the earth and the stars?”

My five-year-old nephew asks, wide-eyed.

The rocking horse in his bedtime story book

Summons a unicorn and goes wherever it wishes.

I want to ride on that horse and get to the stars.

I want to ask amma why she went away so far…

[When my sister passed away in February, I told my nephews that she is a star now.]