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The Hindu Notes for 24th September 2018

A nationalism that’s anti-national

What the RSS needs is an exposure to Indian culture and a deeper understanding of Hinduism itself

The recent outreach by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi seems to have succeeded in its principal objective: an image makeover for a niche audience. Thanks to an obsequious media and a commentariat ever willing to suspend disbelief, the event has yielded the soft, liberal gloss the RSS needed and desired. Sadly, the critics limited themselves to questions that the RSS anticipated, indeed wanted: Does the RSS exercise influence on this government? Is the RSS anti-Muslim?

It is time we asked a harder and deeper question: Is the RSS anti-national?

Theory and practice

On the face of it, this is an odd question. Nationalism, Indian-ness and Hindutva are very much the calling card of the RSS. This is not put on. I have known the RSS from inside and outside. Having met hundreds of swayamsevaks and many pracharaks, I know that an average RSS volunteer carries this nationalist self-image. I can also attest that just like the communists or old-time socialists, an average RSS worker tends to be more honest and idealist than a run-of-the-mill political leader. I am aware that on more than one occasion, the RSS has done exemplary rescue and relief work during national disasters. If anything, its critics accuse it of being ultra-nationalist. Thus, to question its nationalist credentials might appear outrageous.

Yet this question needs to be debated in all seriousness and all fairness. Given the salience of the RSS in our national public life today, this is a pressing question. We worry, rightly so, about the impact of Islamic fundamentalist groups and Maoist insurgents on our nation. We debate, as we should, the challenge posed by separatism in Kashmir and Nagaland to our nationhood. But we no longer debate with any seriousness the challenge posed by the RSS and its associates to the project of nation-building the Indian nation. The question is about the theory and practice of the RSS as an organisation and its relation to the Indian nation, its past, present and future.

The nation and the past

Let’s begin with some indisputable facts about its past. Right from its inception in 1925, the RSS was not in any way active during the national movement. In fact, its associates such as the Hindu Mahasabha actively opposed the national movement. It is also a well-documented fact that V.D. Savarkar, whose ideology inspired the RSS’s founders and who remains its icon, was released from Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after he wrote four mercy petitions to the Viceroy pledging loyalty to the British empire. After his release, he lived off a stipend from the British government and obeyed faithfully the conditions it had imposed on him. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, another Hindu Mahasabha leader, actively collaborated with the British during the Quit India movement while the RSS kept aloof from this biggest anti-colonial uprising. The two-nation theory was propagated by Hindu nationalists, much before the Muslim League. And it is no secret that Nathuram Godse was once an RSS member and was very much a part of its extended family when he murdered Mahatma Gandhi. Bluntly put, the RSS made zero, if not negative, contribution to the national struggle. But that is not sufficient to dub it anti-national today.

The role of the RSS after Independence is more relevant here. How did the RSS contribute to the project of nation-building? Sadly, the answer is again in the negative. The RSS was among the few organisations in independent India that refused to honour some of the key symbols of the Indian republic: the national flag, the national anthem and, of course, the Constitution of India. It speaks volumes that the head of the RSS has to clarify, nearly seven decades after the promulgation of the Constitution, that his organisation believes in it, something explicitly contradicted by his predecessor. Notwithstanding its recent claims to the contrary, the RSS does not quite subscribe to any of the key tenets of the Constitution: socialism, secularism, federalism and, indeed, democracy.

In practice, far from being a part of the solution, the RSS was always a part of the problem that India faced in its difficult journey of nation-building. The legacy of Partition and the challenge of bringing together immense diversities posed an unprecedented challenge to the nascent Indian nation. During this delicate phase, the RSS was at best an irresponsible denominational pressure group for the Hinduisation of the Indian state, opposing any and every concession to minorities and advocating a hawkish foreign policy. At worst the RSS became a fulcrum of organised subversion of the constitutional order, as in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. If constitutional patriotism is the heart of national political life, the RSS has repeatedly stood in opposition to the nation.

More than anything else, it is the theory and practice of its nationalism that shows the RSS to be a European import, out of sync with Indian nationalism. The RSS subscribes to the now outdated European model of nation-state which assumed that the cultural boundaries of a nation must match the political boundaries of a state. In Europe it meant a uniform race, religion, language and culture as the defining features of a nation. In India it meant Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan, the slogan coined by Savarkar. India’s home-grown nationalism challenged this European model and its futile and bloody quest for matching cultural and political boundaries. Instead, Indian nationalism was about creating political unity in conditions of deep diversity of culture, religion and language.

Paradox of its workings

Today, as a rapidly diversifying world seeks to learn from the Indian model, the RSS clings on to an alien, borrowed and fractious understanding of nationalism. Worse, its model of separatism of the majority is clearly the biggest obstacle for Indian nationalism. Isn’t it odd that an organisation that claims to work for national integration has, or has had, little time and energy for an amicable resolution of some of the issues that challenge our national unity? These include intractable regional disputes (the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu and Punjab-Haryana water disputes), intra-regional tensions (demand for Telangana or Vidarbha), language issues (Punjabi-Hindi, Kannada-Marathi) or differences with racial and ethnic dimensions (violence against migrants from the Northeast in Bengaluru, Hindi speakers in Mumbai).

The RSS version of nationalism comes into play only when there is a religious angle to any issue. It is not that they care for Hinduism either. The RSS ideologues have little knowledge of or interest in Hindu traditions. In fact, the version of Hinduism that it seeks to impose is itself a parody of orthodox Islam and orthodox Christianity and against the basic spirit of Hinduism, let alone the spirit of humanism that informs all religions. Unfortunately, the principal focus of the RSS has been to foment Hindu-Muslim differences, division and hatred. Since Hindu-Muslim violence poses the biggest single threat to national unity today, those who work for the exacerbation of Hindu-Muslim tension must be seen as anti-national, and guilty of treason.

The secessionists challenge the territorial integrity of India. The left-wing extremists challenge the writ of the Indian state. The challenge posed by the RSS is much deeper: it challenges the very idea of India, the swadharma of the Republic of India. If this is not anti-national, what is anti-national?

I am not for a ban on the RSS. Its theory and practice represent a cultural-political malady that needs a deeper cure rather than a ban. It originates in an inferiority complex of a modern Hindu, made worse by a westernised, deracinated form of our secularism. This might sound odd, but what the RSS needs is exposure to Indian culture and its multiple traditions, greater appreciation of culturally more confident Indians such as Tagore and Gandhi and a deeper understanding of Hinduism itself. If it introspects rather than hold an outreach at Vigyan Bhavan, I am sure its Sarsanghchalak would recommend to the RSS what Gandhiji suggested to the Congress party: dissolve itself.

Yogendra Yadav is the President of Swaraj India

A change in the Maldives

India must seize the moment and rebuild the bilateral relationship

Democracy is a strange leveller. In domestic politics it has a way of springing up surprises which few anticipate. Even in foreign relations, it can make crises disappear in the same manner in which it can create them. When most had assumed that a second term for Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen was a done deal, given the controlled nature of the Maldivian elections, the people of the small archipelago in the Indian Ocean voted for change and brought to power the Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. They came out in huge numbers with the turnout being 89.2% and dealt a decisive blow to Mr. Yameen.

Democratic vote

Belying concerns that he may not respect the outcome, after a few hours of election results, Mr. Yameen conceded defeat in a televised address by saying: “The Maldivian people have decided what they want. I have accepted the results.”

Mr. Solih is a senior politician in the Maldives and was the joint presidential candidate for an opposition alliance of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the Jumhooree Party and the Adhaalath Party. His victory underscores the commitment of the Maldivian politicians to secure the future of democracy in their country. The exiled former President of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, who was ousted by Mr. Yameen in 2012, underlined this when he tweeted that Mr. Solih had done “an extremely good service” to the people. This was a do or die battle for democrats and they succeeded.

After the results came out, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said Sunday’s election marked “not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi also called Mr. Solih, underscoring his support for better ties between the two countries. The U.S. State Department said the Maldivian people had “raised their democratic voices to determine the future of their country.”

The Maldives has been in turmoil since its first democratically-elected leader, Mr. Nasheed, was forced out of office following a police mutiny in 2012. This was followed by the controversial election of Mr. Yameen in 2013 when the Supreme Court annulled the result. Mr. Yameen was trailing Mr. Nasheed, thereby providing him an opportunity to win in the second round of voting. Mr. Yameen’s presidency saw the Maldives flirting with Islamist radicalism and the democratic underpinnings of the nation came under assault. This February, he imposed a 45-day state of emergency fearing an attempt by his political opponents to impeach him. This led him to target his own half brother and former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and the judiciary. Even on the eve of the polling, the police was used to target the opposition MDP, amid concerns that the campaign had been heavily tilted in favour of Mr. Yameen.

Mr. Yameen also fostered closer ties with China and Saudi Arabia, ignoring India and even pulling the Maldives out of the Commonwealth in 2016.

Tilt towards China

The alacrity with which Mr. Yameen embraced China caught India off guard. During his China visit last year, the two nations signed 12 pacts, including a free trade agreement (FTA). Mr. Yameen not only fully endorsed China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Road initiative but also made the Maldives the second country in South Asia, after Pakistan, to enter into an FTA with China. The Yameen government pushed the FTA through the nation’s Parliament, the Majlis, stealthily, with the opposition not attending the parliamentary session.

The opposition accused the Yameen government “of allowing a Chinese ‘land grab’ of Maldivian islands, key infrastructure, and even essential utilities, which “not only undermines the independence of the Maldives, but the security of the entire Indian Ocean region”. The massive infrastructure growth funded by Chinese debt was a key part of Mr. Yameen’s election campaign but the massive debt trap made it a difficult proposition to be accepted.

Mr. Yameen may have conceded defeat but many of the challenges the Maldives faces linger. The opposition may have been united in its desire to oust Mr. Yameen but this unity will be tested in governance. Democratic institutions have been weakened and a fragile democracy can also be susceptible to radical ideologies if not effectively governed. And China is not going anywhere in a hurry. Its economic presence in the Maldives is a reality that all governments will have to contend with.

Mr. Yameen’s ouster has certainly produced a favourable outcome for New Delhi and it should seize the moment to rebuild ties with Male. If there is one lesson out of the Maldives crisis, it is that political elites in India’s neighbours will come and go but if India can stand together with the aspirations of citizens of neighbouring countries, then the prospects of a long-term sustainable relationship will be much brighter.

Harsh V. Pant is Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor at King’s College London

‘I’m proud that I could make a difference to chess in my country’

The five-time world chess champion remembers his highest and lowest moments

Viswanathan Anand is among India’s greatest sportspersons of all time. In 2000, he became the first Asian to win the World Chess Championship. He went on to lift the world title four more times. He is also one of the most durable champions in any sport. Last year, at 48, he won the World Rapid Chess Championship. His greatest contribution, however, is that he almost single-handedly turned India into one of the major powers in chess, by inspiring thousands of children to take up the mind sport as a career. On a pleasant morning at his residence in Chennai, he spoke about his extraordinary career, longevity, triumphs and defeats, and varied interests, including astronomy and books. Excerpts:

Before you became a Grandmaster (GM) in 1988, India didn’t have any, but now there are 54. India is ranked sixth in the world among men and seventh among women in chess. It must be gratifying to note that you are largely responsible for all this.

Yes, it is. I am proud that I could make a difference to chess in my country and that I could be a catalyst. I remember how unattainable the GM title felt once upon a time. When I played Alexei Shirov for my first world title in Tehran in 2000, I had felt that my time would come, if not then. But I don’t think I could say the same thing about the GM title. I had no way of knowing if I would become a GM or not. It took me two full years to get it.

For India to have 54 GMs is a very impressive feat. There was a time when we didn’t really exist in world chess.

And chess originated in India.

Yes, it feels like chess is coming back home. When [World Chess Champion] Magnus Carlsen was asked — last year, I think — who would be the world champion in 2050, he said, “By that time India will have had many already”. There are also jokes doing the rounds that planes full of Indians are travelling around the world always ready to land for an open tournament. Even in top events, you see Indians like Pendyala Harikrishna, Vidit Gujrathi and Krishnan Sasikiran.

And there are some exciting prodigies like R. Praggnanandhaa, who recently became the world’s second-youngest GM, and Nihal Sarin.

They are very promising. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was telling me only recently that he was impressed with Praggnanandhaa. Besides him and Nihal — I was happy to find him raising funds for the Kerala flood victims through YouTube — there are also others like Arvindh Chithambaram, P. Iniyan and Karthikeyan Murali.

You broke into the world top 10 for the first time in 1991 and you are still there.

When I got there in 1991, I was just thrilled to be in the top 10. I remember that whole year and 1990 as well, when I qualified for the Candidates tournament [qualifying event for the World Chess Championship] from Manila. That whole period was just wonderful. At that time, I didn’t think that I would still be among the world’s elite 25 years later. It is a great feeling that I am still in the top 10, that I continue to play chess and enjoy it, though my perspective has changed. Becoming the world champion was more important, but being in the top 10 shows that I have been consistent. When I got into the top 10, I was thinking what are the things I would accomplish.

Becoming the world champion must have been one of those things, which you did in New Delhi-Tehran in 2000.

What I most strongly remember from that tournament, though, is the nightmare I had against Alexander Khalifman in the quarterfinals. And it happened on my birthday. The whole morning I was trying to avoid people [because] I didn’t want them to wish me. A birthday will happen whether you make an effort or not. I was the best-performing player in the tournament, having won my matches without difficulty. But against Khalifman, there were a few moments when I was facing certain defeat. It looked as though I was giving everything away and I would have to wait for another year and a half for another crack at the world title. But a miracle happened. He made a mistake and I won the match.

It is almost two decades since. What keeps you going?

I still like playing. I know that in order to like playing, I must be able to play reasonably well, and for that I have to make efforts. And it is the efforts that you make in any field that make the successes rewarding.

I continue to find chess fascinating. There are so many new things to learn. I find it extremely challenging to compete with all these youngsters. I am nearing 50 and they are in their 20s and 30s.

Having won five classical World Chess Championships, how important was it for you to win the World Rapid title in Riyadh last year?

Sometimes, even for a person who understands that success is not guaranteed, you need an occasional success. Otherwise you have no idea [whether] what you are doing is right or wrong.

Before the event, given the form I had been in, I thought if I could finish in the top six, that would be nice, and that it would be worthwhile going there. I can tell you that for a few hours after I won the title, I experienced something I cannot describe or recreate. Then I finished third in the blitz, which again was something I didn’t expect. You felt so happy you wanted to talk to someone, but you understood that those players might not be feeling the same after bad results and you may irritate them. I had a flight to catch at 3 a.m. to Abu Dhabi and then to Kochi, where my family had been holidaying. You know, when you celebrate something great you have achieved, you don’t feel guilty about celebrating.

That same pattern had happened before: in Mexico, Bonn, Sofia and Moscow [where I won the classical world titles]. I remember those victories fondly.

Then there was the Candidates tournament you won at Khanty-Mansiysk in 2014, at a time when many had begun to write you off, after the loss to Carlsen in the world title match here in Chennai.

Indeed, the only other event I could compare with Riyadh is that tournament, from where I earned the right to challenge Carlsen for the world title. The crisis I was in then was even bigger than the one leading up to Riyadh; the Chennai match in 2013 was the biggest disaster of my career. I had felt that I might not be able to play in another Candidates again. I was in a situation where I didn’t know what to do in chess. My results were so bad that I was depressed.

Then I won the tournament with a round to spare. These moments of intense joy come only once in a while. They go away very quickly. But those are the moments I live for. I will remember the win in Riyadh all my life.

Maybe the win against Carlsen, against whom you went down twice in the world title match, was the icing on the cake?

Yes. There was a point when he overtook me and I thought, “Oh boy, he’s again going to win the tournament!” But I came back and tied for the top spot and then won the tie-breaker against Vladimir Fedoseev rather easily. I remember trying to call [my wife] Aruna to tell her what happened, but before I could, she texted me: “I would take a flight and come there now if I could, but you know I can’t.” I knew what she meant.

And Aruna was the one who persuaded you to play at Riyadh...

Yes. She has been such an indispensable part of my career that I cannot make a list of the things she has done for me [as my manager].

Recently, Soumya Swaminathan had to pull out of the Asian Team Championship in Iran because she didn’t want to wear the hijab.

That was unfortunate. No player should be forced to face such a situation.

Talking of women in chess, you have had some interesting battles with Judit Polgar, who defeated all the top male players and broke into the men’s top 10.

And she did that at a young age. What she did for women’s chess was remarkable.

You have been described as the world’s nicest GM ever. But nice guys are said to finish last. Did that thought occur to your during your unsuccessful attempts before becoming the world champion?

Yes, there were times when I wondered if it was the thing that stopped me from crossing the final hurdle. But of course, I could not have become what I wasn’t.

You were once dismissed as a “coffee-house player” by former world champion and rival Garry Kasparov.

That didn’t bother me at all. Viktor Korchnoi had said even worse things. He had said I could not play chess at all and that I played only for tricks. But my Dutch friend, Jeroen Piket, told me something very perceptive. “You know, Korchoni told me that I was a wonderful player,” he said. “But I never beat him and you never lost to him.”

But Kasparov also gave you tips for your world title match against Veselin Topalov in 2010.

Yes, he did. And I was surprised by how Vladimir Kramnik, as part of my team, worked hard for me for that match.

You have a minor planet named after you.

Initially I thought it was an April fool’s joke, since the news came on April 1. I felt honoured because astronomy has been a hobby for me.

What are you reading now?

The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree, who has interviewed me a couple of times. I find the book pretty interesting and well-researched.

Editing our genes

Bioethicists fear abuse of gene editing by governments and the private sector

American biochemist Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of the gene editing tool Crispr-Cas9, woke up in a cold sweat after she dreamt of Adolf Hitler. He was wearing a pig mask, and wanted to understand the tool’s uses and implications. In the book she co-authored, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, Doudna recounts the dream, and acknowledges the “truly incredible power” of the technology, “one that could be devastating if it fell into the wrong hands.”

Crispr, an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, harnesses the natural defence mechanisms of bacteria to alter an organism’s genetic code. It’s likened to a pair of molecular scissors, a cut-and-paste technology, that can snip the two DNA strands at a specific location and modify gene function. The cutting is done by enzymes like Cas9, guided by pre-designed RNA sequences, which ensure that the targeted section of the genome is edited out. The elegance of this editing tool has transformed medical research and gives rise to the question: can a faulty gene be deleted or corrected at the embryonic stage?

Last month, researchers in China used a variation of Crispr. Instead of snipping strands, they swapped DNA letters to correct Marfan Syndrome, an inherited disorder that affects connective tissue. Huang Xingxu, the lead author of the paper, which was published in Molecular Therapy, said it was done on 18 viable human embryos through in-vitro. Two of the embryos, however, exhibited unintended changes. All were destroyed after the experiment.

In 2017, American biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov used Crispr to repair a genetic mutation that could cause a deadly heart condition. It was done on embryos in such a way that the faulty gene would not be passed down the family tree. The findings are the focus of an ongoing debate, with several scientists sceptical of whether the gene was corrected. Can accuracy be guaranteed in early stage embryos?

Bioethicists expressed concern over the clinical application of such research. Can we — and should we — control or dictate evolution? These are still early days in a new frontier of genome engineering. Researchers are only beginning to understand the power — and fallout — of gene editing.

Studies have shown that edited cells can lack a cancer suppressing protein. As our understanding grows, we will have the potential to edit out genes that cause fatal diseases. We will perhaps one day have the potential to use the very same mechanisms to edit out undesirable traits in human beings. This raises the spectre of eugenics.

Bioethicists fear abuse of gene editing, not just by misguided governments hoping to create a ‘superior’ race, but also by the private sector preying on a parent’s desire to create a perfect child. For now, it remains a distant prospect, but silencing science or hijacking the debate is not the answer. The burden of this knowledge cannot be borne by science alone.

The writer is with The Hindu’s Bengaluru bureau