Monday, July 14, 2014

Priorities of the New BJP Government

This weekend brought us a troika of stories indicating the drift of the new BJP government in India.

One is an interview with the new director of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, in Outlook Magazine. Another was a story in the Washington Post about the funding for the proposed statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, which if and when it is completed will be the tallest statue in the world. And a third was a surprising and thought-provoking story about the causes of malnutrition in India in the New York Times.

 1. In Praise of Eurocentrism (sort of)

Here are some choice quotes from the with the new director of the ICHR, and my brief responses:

"We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths." (link)
Yes we can, and there's no embarrassment in doing so. All great religions are founded on myths. The word "mythology" doesn't suggest truth or falsehood, it suggests a narrative framework. The Hindu right's obsession with the word "myth" has always puzzled me.
There is a certain view that the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are myths. I don’t see them as myths because they were written at a certain point of time in history. They are important sources of information in the way we write history. What we write today may become an important source of information for the fut­ure in the future. When analysed, of course, they could be declared to be true or false. History is not static. It belongs to the people, it’s made by the people. Similarly, the Ram­ayana is true for people...it’s in the collective memory of generations of Indians. We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths. Myths are from a western perspective.

What does that mean?
For us, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.(link)

This is one of the strangest ideas to have emerged from the Hindu right's approach to ancient India. Instead of studying the culture from which these stories emerged (which some scholars have done and are doing), and instead of dwelling on the valuable moral insights contained in these texts (i.e., the concept of Dharma; the question of the meaning and significance of taking action...), the approach is to end all intelligent conversation by suggesting that they are somehow literally true.

In the past, when I debated Hindu nationalists on Sepia Mutiny and elsewhere, the response to this would inevitably be: "but many Christians in the west believe in the literal truth of the Bible!" My response is simple: they shouldn't.
"Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything." (link)
This is also nonsense. There is plenty of material evidence available related to ancient Indian civilization. We should use what we have. There are also admittedly gaps in what we have, and many questions that historians cannot comprehensively answer. But we shouldn't just make stuff up, as Yellapragada Sudershan Rao suggests we do.
"For the last 60 years, our writing and understanding of history has been influenced by the West. Indian research has been far too dependent on the West to write its own history." (link)

If the alternative to Eurocentrism is this guy, I would rather throw out "postcolonialism" entirely and declare myself a proud Eurocentric.

2. The Tallest Statue in the World.

Narendra Modi is planning to build the world's tallest statue. Dubbed the "Statue of Unity," the figure to be represented is not Mahatma Gandhi. It isn't Nehru. Or Ambedkar. It isn't a figure from Hindu Mythology. It's Sardar Vallabhai Patel.

A 600 foot statue, at a total likely cost of $400 million. As of now, only $34 million have actually been budgeted to build it. How much does India spend on, say, the education of young girls? It turns out, about half as much:
As the Associated Press notes, the budget allocated more money for the statue than for women’s safety programs (1.5 billion rupees/$25 million) or the education of young girls (1 billion rupees/$16.5 million).

Those numbers say a lot about where Modi's priorities are.

All I can say is this: The taller the statue, the bigger the noise when it's knocked over.

3. The ongoing Sanitation crisis. 

It's long been a puzzle as to why India, far from the poorest country in the world, has far more malnourished children than the poorest countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, Somali, and Zimbabwe). The answer is outdoor defecation:
Two years ago, Unicef, the World Health Organization and the World Bank released a major report on child malnutrition that focused entirely on a lack of food. Sanitation was not mentioned. Now, Unicef officials and those from other major charitable organizations said in interviews that they believe that poor sanitation may cause more than half of the world’s stunting problem.

“Our realization about the connection between stunting and sanitation is just emerging,” said Sue Coates, chief of water, sanitation and hygiene at Unicef India. “At this point, it is still just an hypothesis, but it is an incredibly exciting and important one because of its potential impact.”

This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from theDemocratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting afflicts 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families. (link)
On the one hand, this story might be seen as depressing given the overwhelming numbers and the fact that we are still talking about it (Mohandas Gandhi was talking about toilets back in 1925). That said, if there were people running India who actually had their priorities straight, this could be a fixable problem. My guess is that you could make a significant dent in the sanitation crisis for less than the cost of that completely superfluous and obscenely unnecessary statue of the president of the Indian National Congress in 1934.  

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