Posted on 16-10-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs, India) by Rashtrakut

Pizza, burgers and other fast food are culprits too. These pearls of wisdom are delivered by a member of a Khap Panchayat, in the Indian state of Haryana.

India has been rocked by a series of publicized sexual assaults and honor killings in the past year. This has cast a bright spotlight on the Khaps, caste based village bodies, who are essentially India’s homegrown version of the Taliban. The Khaps have arrogated themselves judicial power independent of the Indian constitution and often wink at honor killings of eloping couples. They are a reactionary throwback for Indians unreconciled to modernity.

It is time the Indian state suppressed these thugs and Indian polity shunned their political enablers.

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Posted on 30-09-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs, History, India, Religion) by Rashtrakut

One Hundred and Forty Seven years after the dispute began, the Allahabad High Court rendered a Solomonic verdict designed to end a dispute that rocked and changed Indian politics over the last 25 years.  The court appears to have formalized the solution implemented by the British when riots first broke out over the controversial Babri Masjid.

The mosque was built on the orders of the first Mughal Emperor Babur on the site of either an old or existing Hindu temple that Hindus believed marked the birthplace of one of their prominent deities Ram.  The original British solution was to give both sides access to the site for worship.  Ninety years after the first attempt at a Solomonic compromise the issue flared up again in 1949 when idols were smuggled into the mosque  resulting in Indian government sealing the site.  The dispute picked up steam in 1984 and burst into Indian national consciousness when the Bharatiya Janata Party seized the issue to highlight simmering grievances of the Hindu majority.  The mosque was destroyed by a mob in 1992 resulting in riots across India.

Today’s decision split the site among three litigants (2 Hindu and 1 Muslim) and dismissed a couple of other cases.  The Sunni Waqf Board (which recieved the Muslim portion) has indicated it will appeal.  Given the political consensus rallying around this verdict it is likely that the Indian Supreme Court will uphold the decision.  With the troubled Commonwealth Games about to start, the Indian government must be breathing a sigh of relief at the calm that has greeted the verdict.  Oddly enough the street protests are occurring in neighboring Pakistan whose militants will add this to their litany of perceived grievances at the hands of India.

I am not surprised by the verdict.  It was the only way to resolve an intractable dispute.  But splitting the baby is not the solution for all such disputes in India in the future.  The Babri Masjid was not the only mosque built on the ruins of a Hindu temple.  However, the length of the dispute, the fact that the rights of Hindus to worship on the site had essentially been conceded in 1859, and the mosque being unused since 1949 were all special circumstances that made this verdict possible.  This will not be the case in other disputes.  At some point there has to be a statute of limitations for resolving medieval wrongs.  Hopefully with this verdict the statute has now run out.

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Jyoti Basu died this Sunday.  The nonagenarian had been ailing for some time.  The usual round of obituaries, paeans and critiques have poured in.  See here, here, here, here, here and here.  In 1977, the English educated Basu initiated the longest running elected rule by communists (which likely will draw to a close next year).  The common theme in the articles on Basu since his death generally refer to the following:

  • His unusual length of tenure,
  • The land reforms initiated in Bengal that broke the feudal hold on society,
  • His secular outlook that saw few religious riots on his watch,
  • And finally the historic moment in 1996 when he bowed to the command of his party’s politburo and turned down the prime minster’s job.

The more critical articles also refer to the industrial stagnation, if not regression, that occurred on his watch.

Basu in many ways is an overrated figure.  His importance is inflated by the collapse of all opposition parties in West Bengal, aided by the general unwillingness of the Congress party to challenge the reds on their home turf and the communists ruthless utilization of the instruments of state to quash dissent.  This is in stark contrast to the other communist bastion in Kerala, where Communist and Congress led coalitions alternate power with mind numbing regularity.

However, the untrammeled power Basu and his communist colleagues had locally, ultimately showcased the ideological bankruptcy and incompetence of the communist movement in India.

Land reform in Bengal was long overdue, and that early accomplishment marks the high water mark of communist rule in West Bengal.  Unlike Kerala, the other social indicators remain average.  The Bengali peasant is still poverty stricken, businesses have fled the state and Kolkata’s status as the cultural capital of India has long since been taken over by Mumbai.  The violent collapse of the communist party’s attempt to entice the Tata Motor Company to build a plant at Nandigram, symbolizes why businesses are not keen to enter Bengal.

The impact Basu would have had in the rejected prime ministership (he later cryptically referred to the rejection as a historic blunder) is also overrated.  Basu would have headed a ramshackle coalition united by the pursuit of power and a loathing of the Hindu nationalist Bharaitya Janata Party (subsequent events would show that many of the constituents of the coalitions valued power over their loathing of the BJP).  The coalition was supported from the outside by the just deposed Congress party which was smarting from its electoral humiliation and itching for the opportunity to force a new election.  It is hard to see how Basu’s tenure as prime minister would have been markedly different or longer than what actually transpired.  The BJP would have still made the necessary electoral adjustments and Basu’s mismanagement of West Bengal’s economy hardly supports the theory that any good governance on his part would have prevented the BJP’s ultimate rise to power.

The humbling of Bengal’s communists in India’s parliamentary elections last year has given rise to hope that their  33 year old grip on power may come to a close in the next state elections.  However, with the successor likely to be the mercurial populist Mamata Banerjee, it is hard to see West Bengal’s lot improving anytime soon.

Meanwhile, one of the last of India’s “gentlemanly” politicians of a bygone era has passed on, fortunate that he will not see the collapse of the creaky edifice he nurtured in West Bengal for so many years.

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Posted on 10-01-2010
Filed Under (India, Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

See previous post regarding the coin here.  The auction where that coin was listed closed last week and the coin with an estimate of $75,000 sold for $140,000 (presumably including auctioneers fees).  A rich price for a truly amazing historical coin.

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Posted on 30-12-2009
Filed Under (History, India, Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

The Indo-Scythian King Azes II is mostly known by his diverse coinage.  However, in the West and the Numismatic world he is often known by claims that he was on of the Three Kings/Wisemen/Magi who attended the birth of Jesus.  There is of course no evidence in the historical record to support this assertion and the historical Azes may not even have been alive at the time of the birth of Jesus.

Indo-Scythian Kingdom from Wikipedia

None of this has prevented (even reputed) coin dealers from attaching the relatively obscure Indo-Scythian King who ruled a loosely held kingdom across Northwestern India and Afghanistan (that crumbled shortly after his death) to the Nativity.  Given the tendency for price inflation of items connected to the Bible this has likely elevated the asking price for and interest in the coins of Azes II which are largely minted in the style of the Indo-Greeks.

Azes II Coin from Wikipedia

Silver coin of King Azes II (r.c. 35-12 BCE). Obv: King with coat of mail, on horse, holding a sceptre, with Greek royal headband. Greek legend ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΑΖΟΥ "The Great King of Kings Azes". Rev: Athena with shield and lance, making a hand gesture identical to the Buddhist vitarka mudra. Kharoshti legend MAHARAJASA RAJADIRAJASA MAHATASA AYASA "The Great King of Kings Azes". Buddhist triratna symbol in the left field.

Even if the three magi who visited Bethlehem were actually Kings, that one of them would be a central Asian nomad who abandoned his kingdom to travel across the hostile Parthian Empire to a small hamlet in an obscure corner of the world strains credulity. Read the rest of this entry »

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Indian authorities (with silent Bangladeshi cooperation) appear to have arrested the head of the United Liberation Front of Asom.  ULFA now appears a spent force and hopefully the mistakes of the past that gave rise to the insurgency will not be repeated.  While the Indian constitution explicitly protects minority religions, cultures and languages and the Indian government has generally not actively discriminated against minorities, India has been plagued by repeated insurgencies and secessionist movements along its periphery.  This was often created by excessive centralization in the aftermath of partition and particularly in the Indira Gandhi years.  The central government also repeatedly dismissed opposition governments in sensitive states like Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.  While this was also carried out in different parts of the country, needless to say states with large minority populations took umbrage.

The insurgency in Assam was different in that unlike Kashmir, Punjab or Nagaland the state is largely Hindu.  Assam, like Kashmir, has historically very much been a part of the Indian cultural mileu but due to geographical location was somewhat isolated on the periphery.  The name of the state itself comes from the Ahoms who conquered the ancient Indian region of Kamarupa.  While the Ahoms would defeat Mughal invasion attempts their civil war plagued kingdom was eventually conquered by Burma.  A few years later the British annexed Assam after the First Anglo-Burmese War.

Assam like Punjab saw its territory drastically reduced after independence when Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of the state.  Even now certain tribal gorups like the Bodos have agitated for their own states.  If this was a bruise to the Assamese ego, the Indian government made it worse.  Even though Assam contains most of India’s land based oil reserves the refineries (and the resulting jobs) were relocated to electorally more promising states.  From the 1970s illegal immigration from Bangladesh threatened the religious and demographic make up of Assam, a problem aggravated by unscrupulous politicians enrolling these politicians on the electoral rolls.  By the 1980s Assam was the site of a simmering insurgency.

Countries don’t often get a chance to fix repeated mistakes.  However, the decline of the Indian National Congress and the emergence of coalition politics at the national level in India has helped ease some of the regional unrest.  Article 356 of the Indian constitution that was repeatedly misused in the past has rarely been used in the last 15 years.  This has allowed Indian state governments to rise and fall on their own merits without New Delhi being used as a scape goat.  The decline of ULFA is an opportunity to finish the transition from the bullet to the ballot to resolve Assam’s problems.

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The Mughal Emperor Akbar is famous for his tolerance (including the repeal of the jizya on the non Muslim population) and his open encouragement of religious debate that resulted in an attempt to create a syncretic faith the Din-i-ilahi.  While browsing through the upcoming CNG Triton XIII auction, I stumbled across a numismatic example of this tolerance from this coin depicting the Hindu deity Ram and his consort Sita.

This is a fascinating coin on so many levels.  First, it is a rare numismatic representation of Ram and it is ironic that it appears on the coinage of a Muslim ruler. To the extent Hindu coinage represented deities, the goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) was the most popular choice (See here, here, here and here for examples).  Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and their consorts make their appearance on Vijayanagar coinage.  But Ram is a rare subject for Indian numismatics (after a quick search I found this coin for Akbar’s Vijayanagar contemporary Tirumala II but have not seen many more) and is more likely to show up on temple tokens.

Then there is the irony that Ram would be the subject matter of this coin.  Akbar’s grandfather Babur allegedly destroyed the temple built on the site of Ram’s birthplace.  A movement to correct this historical wrong has simmered for about 150 years until it burst on to the Indian political landscape in the 1980s.  The after effects are still felt today.

Finally there is the unusual presence of images on Muslim coins.  Since the religion eschews depictions of the human form, Islamic coinage has often relied on calligraphy and geometric forms (See here and here) to enhance the coinage.  Images appeared in transitional coinage like the Arab-Sassanian or the Arab-Byzantine variety or by Muhammad Bin Sam after his conquest of Delhi where he continued the gold coinage with Lakshmi for a while.  There were a few coins on horseback like the Seljuks or Iltumish (See coins 216 and 217 on page 14) of the Delhi Sultanate or the series by Seljuk Sultan Kaykhusraw II honoring his wife.

Akbar’s son and successor Jahangir would commission an equally fascinating (and as a result now widely forged) series of Zodiac coins.  But the open adoption of another deity in a non-transitional coin is unique in Islamic numismatics (indeed the incorporation of Jesus Christ on Byzantine coinage by Justinian II caused the caliph Abd al-Malik to commence the tradition of Islamic coinage largely bearing scripts).

A truly fascinating (and given the estimate, expensive) example how far Akbar’s theological discussions and disputations took him.

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Posted on 14-11-2009
Filed Under (Accident of History, History, India) by Rashtrakut

Fore previous posts in this category click here.

The next rumination in this series focuses on what I term as an accidental empire – Mughal Empire.  For the descendants of a bunch of Central Asian marauders, the Mughals have been indelibly entwined with the image of India.  From the Taj Mahal, to the Mughlai cuisine that is the staple of Indian restaurants across the world, to the loan word Mogul that has been incorporated into the English language the cultural influence of the Mughals survives to this day.

Yet the Mughals were in many ways an accident.  The survival of their Empires territorial integrity for so long is in marked contrast to their Timurid cousins.  The prevalence of polygamy and concubinage caused recurrent succession problems across most Islamic dynasties.  The Ottomans would solve this by a mass slaughter of the siblings of the new monarch (Mehmed III would notoriously commence his reign by executing 19 of his siblings).  After this blood letting almost brought the dynasty to an end following the death of Murad IV (his only surviving heir was his insane brother Ibrahim), the Ottomans would formalize the policy started by their father Ahmed I.  Henceforth princes would be locked in the Kafes (literally the Cage), a section of the harem where they were under surveillance and often with concubines too old to get pregnant, and the succession to the throne rotated through seniority.  While this stopped the blood letting, it eventually resulted in the succession of emasculated, unprepared and often psychologically disturbed men who oversaw the Ottoman Empire’s long decline.

The Timurids did things differently.  Traditionally each prince received an appanage to rule.  The obvious result was a fragmentation of authority and near constant fratricidal strife following the death of the founder of the house Timur-e-lang (Tamerlane).  Weakened by civil war, the fragmented Timurid states would be mopped up by the emerging Safavid Empire of Persia in the west and the Shaybanid Uzbeks from the east.  This pressure from both ends ultimately forced the founder of the Mughal dynasty Zahir ud din Muhammad Babur to abandon his dream of restoring Timur’s empire from Samarkand and head east where the disorder in the Delhi Sultanate under the incompetent Ibrahim Lodi opened up new venues of action.  Accidental opportunity #1 Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 28-10-2009
Filed Under (India, Religion) by Rashtrakut

A close family friend forwarded me the latest offering from Wendy Doniger on Hinduism.  I first became aware about the controversy surrounding the good professor during the dispute a few years ago regarding Professor Courtright’s book about Ganesha.  For a discussion of the academic analysis behind that particularly book see here.  The revelations of the incestuous peer review process in humanities academia (which is something I previously noticed in my education)  have soured my perceptions of humanities and social science academia.  There is already a critique of Doniger’s book by Aditi Banerjee on line. See here.

Doniger and her cohorts have the tedious tendency to dismiss all her critics as Hindutva fundamentalists.  However, the controversy surrounding their scholarship does raise some questions: (a) how appropriate is it to apply the social mores of today in reviewing books written thousands of years back rather than the cultural context of the time? (b) how effective is a peer review process when most of the reviewers are not practitioners of that religion, and (c) who gets to define a religion, its practitioners or academic scholars who openly admit they are not practitioners.

These are not straight forward questions and the answers in my opinion can come tinged in gray.  Research into Hinduism and provocative theories and research into Hinduism should be encouraged and the perspective of someone raised outside a cultural milieu can provide valuable insight or provide a thought provoking moment for practitioners.  The problem is that Hinduism academia in the United States is largely filled by non-practitioners and non-Indians.  Even with the best of intentions it very easy to miss cultural contexts in this isolated academic ivory tower.

However, the 1000 lb gorilla in the room is whether the mis-characterization of Hindu texts and beliefs (even if unintentional) will be used for propaganda purposes.  Post 9/11 we have already seen how selectively quoting verses from the Quran can be used to demonize a whole faith.  It will be naive to assume that the works of Doniger and Courtright are not been eagerly lapped up for aggressive missionary work in India.

Doniger’s book by its title indicates that it should not be used as an introduction to Hinduism.  An “alternative history” suggests a book written to advance a view-point or an agenda. However, Doniger’s high profile presence in American academia suggests that it will be used exactly for that purpose.   And that creates the risk that a work by an admitted non-practitioner whose scholarship has been questioned could become part of the academic curriculum in the United States.

Doniger’s book will generate the inevitable firestorm.  One hopes that the critiques and reviews that come steer clear of ad hominem attacks and focus instead on the substance of her book.  This will require a dispassionate reading of ancient texts which may lead to some unsettling conclusions.  However, this will generate a genuine exchange of ideas and opinions that ultimately will serve the cause of American scholarship on Hinduism.

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Posted on 26-09-2009
Filed Under (History, India, Politics & Propaganda) by Rashtrakut

Many successful rulers and administrators have often failed to grasp the importance of good public relations.  As a result, an otherwise competent or successful tenure in office has been marred by rising unpopularity. Others have excelled far too well on the propaganda side of governance until the inevitable disclosure that the emperor wore no clothes. Very few rulers have managed to find a fine blend of the two and the very success of the public relations campaign makes an honest appraisal difficult.

This is the first in a series of appraisals of rulers through history and whether their reputations are deserved, undeserved or over inflated.

The Emperor Ashoka is a fine example of this. The Wikipedia entry on his life contains a list of the usual platitudes about his reign and how his reign was a golden age of peace and prosperity. The only problem is that almost all the extant data of his reign comes from pillars and rock inscriptions placed by Ashoka across his vast empire. The third Mauryan emperor knew the value of propaganda. Read the rest of this entry »

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