Sociology of Winning Societies, Losing Societies

I am visiting Chennai with mother in what is likely to become an annual affair from now on. My cousin and her family are dedicated doctors to say the least, fantastic in diagnosis and peerless in commitments to patients. Besides, this is always an occasion to reconnect with family. I have an irrational faith and which is that I will always come back from Chennai with good news. And I always do. But the experience in Chennai is what a visit is worth for.

Chennai has been the hotbed for Tamil chauvinism when way back in the 1970s. I knew of it when the television first came to India and Tamilians refused to allow the telecast of Hindi programmes. Not only was news not read in Hindi but the so-called Hindi news was banned too. This means that news from the Hindi heartland did not reach the Tamilian ears. So deep was the Tamil chauvinism that the rest of India did not come into their reckoning. This was backed by the domicile issues when non Tamilians were restricted from college and school admissions. At the time of Independence Tamilians in Chennai could understand English but with the language chauvinism from the 1980s even that most could no longer follow. In what was to become a cesspool of regionalism and frog in the well syndrome, Chennai became quite the contrary, namely cosmpoliton. What made it so?

Fortuitously in the late 1970’s and the early 1980s there emerged in Chennai three very bright and exceptionally talented doctors who stayed on in the city instead of heading offshore. Among them and drawing up on the Brahmin funds they built hospitals of excellence. These hospitals started bringing patients from all over India. If you could not afford a treatment abroad then you could come down to Chennai. Like a pilgrim town, Chennai became the medical pilgrimage and the usual adjunct businesses like hotels, restaurants and transport emerged. Chennai remained a linguistic chauvinist.

The transport lines were developed with trains, road networks and air connections, the Chennai port awoke to new opportunities to connect with the hinterland. Slowly by the late 1990s Chennai graduated from a sleepy port to one teeming with cargo. Indeed when opportunities rose post economic liberalisation from a busy commerce from Southeast Asia, Chennai and not Vizag could make hay. Again, the city remained wholly enwrapped in Tamil.
Chennai never became cosmopolitan. Here people seemed to have forgotten even the little smather of English their grandparents spoke.

Tamilians started off with one great advantage because here, at the head of the Tamil identity formation was the Dravida movement and not Ambedkar. In fact, despite the deepest caste troubles, the severest caste based social disenfranchisements, Tamil Nadu was veered by Dravida politics by which all castes now became more or less aligned to the Brahminic customs in worship. The ethos that alignment to Brahminism did was to bring within the lower castes, a culture that the social leaders had. While Ambedkar would have taught them to valorise victimhood, Periyar taught them self-respect. While Tamil Nadu fought for reservations just like so many other states, yet, they never compromised on self-respect, something that the Periyar taught. Hence when the medical facilities started and which needed very high professional commitments not only from the doctors but the huge variety of the adjunct staff, Chennai could create a hospital system comparable with the very best anywhere in the world. Soon, the Dravida stalwarts especially the film stars invested heavily into the hospital business and Chennai developed a formidable healthcare infrastructure. This is Chennai’s core business.

Health business being the central business of the city, it created a veneer of ethos in the wider society which were like those of the hospital ethics. Everyone seems as if to be working on a protocol. So even if you did not know the language, you could use certain keywords and find your way across the city. Since people are so conscious of their duty and what constitutes their duties, they respond very well to indicative words. You can go to a counter of a clinic and all you have to say is the name of the patient and report, even better if you could use the Tamilian accent with an emphasis on the last letter. The person in the counter would immediately know what it is about. You could take an auto, better still use the Tamilian accent and say the name of the place. Even when he does not know, he will converse with you with the names of many possible landmarks. This happens because he knows the protocol. The high work culture of Tamil Nadu has now got almost all Japanese and European companies locate their businesses out of Chennai and larger Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil language is helpful too. With its emphasis on words and verbs, it has an innately designed focus on the problem at hand. Unlike Bengali, it is not ruminative, or has not been cultured to be so ruminative and reflective. The Tamil language may not always been spoken like this; they have had days of romantic literature too. But now they excel in comedy; the emphasis on verbs and adverbs at the end of sentences perhaps helps them. But Tamil it is all the way. Food too is almost wholly Tamilian, fashion largely so, shops sell mostly Tamilian wares. The shops are owned by Tamilians, so is most of the property. Not the NRI fellows of IT but by the real Dravidas, film producers, shipping magnets, transporters and so. Brahmins remain, some salaried, some professional, some propertied and moneyed. Before Independence Brahmins were rioted out of Tamil Nadu and they came in droves to settle into Calcutta, much of south Calcutta was haven for the Iyengars and Murthys, Swaminathans and Iyers. Much like the Bengali Hindus from East Bengal and the Kashmiri Pandits. But unlike them, these Tamil Brahmin refugees did not make an issue of their displacement and hence their claiming back of their homeland never entered into the politics of Tamil Nadu. Tamilians who stayed back never entertained such sentiments.

Tamil Brahmins were now a minority in their own land and had no ritual statuses in the state. But what they lost in terms of social status they made up wholly with their secular knowledge and talent. The non-Brahmins whole heartedly accepted the knowledge and the Brahminical supremacy in it and the Brahmins too contributed generously. This is unlike in Bengal where the lower classes resents the knowledge of the upper classes; the tirade against Tagore that springs up occasionally is an ample proof of this. The clinics carry on with streams of patients from all across the country descending on an American franchisee for the scan to a wholly Tamil staff. But there is no screaming, no shouting; and the atmosphere is one of assurance, confidence, of focus and hence of calm. No one is excited, no one seems to go out of control. Everyone knows his or her job, knows exactly what is to be done. There are only encouraging and welcoming voices, Amma, Appa, come,,ah, slowuulihha…


Till 2005, when I was 45 years of age, I must admit that I had no idea of what Kashmir was except for some vague idea about its special status as one reads in the Civics books in school leaving standards. But it was just then that my father wrote a book on Kashmir and I proof read the matter before it went to press. Hence I gathered some wisdom from my father’s book on the state. Though I never pursued Kashmir in any seriousness yet I got some framework to be able to set to a schema the affairs in Kashmir. I felt enraged at the presence of the military in the state and wrote often to various authorities about making the entire patrolling army to be replaced by women; patrolling does not need men and an all-woman army may land softly on the state if the baton is to be wielded. That was about all. But soon enough I met some scholars from Kashmir and some Kashmiri Pandits too as my interns. It was then that I realized that the problem of Kashmir was more a matter of a social malaise before it was a political one. Kashmiris simply never knew what they were all about. I am not clear what they want.

The Kashmiris have been more eager to prove a point against one another. They all want to be leaders and since they were not very clear about what they were gunning for, they had factions and multiple parties and could never unite under one leader. Becoming free is a social and a historical affair, having a political seat is an entirely different game. All Kashmiris wanted is political power without securing their Independence from India, if that is what they finally wanted. There were multiple parties each wanting to rule, but none whatsoever who could achieve what they said they wanted. Actually Kashmir could never decide what it wanted.

Kashmir went with India because Pakistan was attacking it; India saved it but annexed the land as well. Kashmir was stunned because all it wanted India to do was to save it from Pakistan but India was greedier and hungry for the land. In 1971 when India stood for the Independence of Bangladesh, Kashmiris barely raised their voices. Actually they were never quite sure of what they wanted. I don’t think that they were very sure about their autonomy as well; if they were about Azad Kashmir they would have made it a point to get it. Kashmir lacked not only political but social, intellectual and above all moral leadership. Above all, though they spoke of Kashmiriyat, we barely know what it is all about. Soon, their weakness turned towards Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist jihadis got the better of the youth. I am not concerned about what India did.

I have read many books on Kashmir which almost veers towards a support for full Independence for both the Kashmirs. But all of these are written by non-Kashmiris and coincidentally almost always from the south. Where are the Kashmiri scholars? What kind of concern do they reflect in their PhD theses? I don’t think that we have anything of clarity.

The little that I get to learn about the Kashmiri psyche is from the shawlwallahs and the scholars who I meet. Were the politics of Kashmir left to be handled by shawlwallahs the state would have done better. Atleast they know what they want; they want to remain Kashmiris, a Kashmiriyat which is a simple enough life of community and belief and yet they want to be cosmopolitan because of their business. They want the freedom of movement. The Kashmiri elite want the goodies of life and are never sure how they could produce these through entrepreneurship, which is ownership of capital. Had they known how to own capital, they would have demanded autonomy. But they did not do so. Instead, in order to have a middle class life with universal aspirations of owning a car and a flat, branded goods from shopping malls, the elites have jostled for stuff that falls to them as the end products of capitalist system like goods and wages with which to buy those goods. The Article 370 was just an ego satisfaction; we are like everyone else but we are different because we are Kashmiris. Yes, but as Kashmiris what do you bring to the table? Why should I laud you just because you are a Kashmiri? What for? Somehow, Kashmir could never provide this answer in its own words.

The Kashmiri Pandit is of course the malignant cell in the body politik. They raised their statistics of displacement to ever increasing heights with the passage of time. They took the fullest advantage of the fact that beneath the veneer of the unity in diversity, India was a communally divided country. They hated Nehru and the dynasty because despite being Kashmiri Pandits themselves they showed no favour to their ilk. The Pandits were distressed because due to rising democracy, the Muslims in their own land, Kashmir were now so confident and hence, in their terms, defiant. Of course Muslim defiance is a story that runs throughout India and the Kashmiri Pandit fanned the fire in the minds of Hindus of India. Democracy has the fine effect of creating a sub stratum of middle class, known as the lower middle class, a middle class in terms of income and consumption but without the historical consciousness of agency. Such a lower middle class breeds sentiments and emotions around identities, victimhood, paranoia and weaves stories of conspiracies in which they lose land, honour, women and opportunities to the nearest neighbour of the most aggregateable difference, Muslims in case of India.

I think that the entire politics of the right wing is built around the pain of the Kashmiri Pandits just as the entire left politics has been around the displaced Hindus from East Pakistan. The danger that Bengal faces in its path towards becoming Kashmir is precisely this and the presence of a sour, defeated and defeatist group of Hindus who even after 70 years have not been able to mould their lives satisfactorily. For long the left politics articulated their angst and implemented their status quoism, hating success, hating achievements, hating progress and raising all of the above into the grand politics of 34 years of unchanging Bengal. The defeatist sentiments became the brunt of literature and poetry; angst and resentment as if the world owes me a living. Forget it, no one owes anything to you at all. But so powerful was the culture of complaint that it created class enemies of people who were the erstwhile elites; shorn of confidence and of course stunned out of their own reflections, and also systematically driven out of institutions where all appointments went to the weepers, Bengal lost the steam for thinking like a leader. There was a rush to occupy positions among the elites and the larger number of the substratum made it sure that the game was designed as per their rules, rules which unfortunately were to produce standards that did not take into account innovations. Innovation, being a kind of thought was neither encouraged socially nor promoted politically. Those who cannot think innovatively cannot command their lives, they cannot imagine a future; they fall to what is given to them, let others run their lives for them. Just as the Kashmiris did. Just as Bengal seems to be doing as well.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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