Sunday, April 26, 2015

As CPI and CPI-M mull merger, a short history of how they split up in the first place

First published on Scroll

The recently elected Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has his work cut out for him. His party’s electoral fortunes have plunged greatly in the past decade and, to revive them, Yechury declared that one of the strategies he is considering is a merger of the CPI-M and the Communist Party of India.

To the layperson, the finer doctrinal debates between communists can be confusing, even exasperating. Just to take nomenclature, the two largest communist parties in India have near identical names, the only difference being a parenthetical Marxist – this even when both claim to be Marxist in ideology. This communist tendency to fission was famously parodied in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, as the Judaean People’s Front bitterly criticised the People’s Front of Judaea, the Judaean Popular People’s Front and the one-man Popular Front of Judaea for being “splitters”.

Nevertheless, on the inside, these communist debates are hard fought and have had an impact on Indian politics. As the CPI-M now considers merging with its mother party, the CPI, it would be interesting to look back at the circumstances that led to their split more than 50 years back.

Sino-Soviet split and anti-Congressism

One of the main drivers of the Indian communist split lay in the falling out of the Soviet Union and China, the two largest communist powers of the time, after the death of Stalin in 1953. The Chinese objected to some USSR policy positions that Mao Zedong thought were not Left enough. The Soviets, by that time, had accepted “peaceful coexistence” with the West as a diplomatic aim and advocated using democratic means to spread communism in other countries. The Chinese, denouncing the Soviets as “revisionists”, spoke of promoting a “class war” and fighting the West militarily. So bitter was this disagreement that it led to a border conflict between China and the USSR in 1969.

The fallouts of this were felt by the communist movement around the world, as both the USSR and China promoted communists who would follow their line. In India, at the time, the Communist Party looked to the USSR for inspiration, but by the late 1950s a definite pro-China sub-group had formed, echoing many of the Chinese policy positions.

The other factor roiling the Communist Party of India was the attitude towards the Congress. The communists were confused about how to treat the Congress, which was at once a mass movement and a “reactionary bourgeoisie” party. For the first 10 years after the CPI was formed, till 1935, the CPI had no truck with it. From then on, under general secretary PC Joshi, the communists decided to work with the Congress as part of its socialist pressure group.

Matters changed abruptly in 1947, as the CPI declared India’s independence/Congress rule to be a lie and launched an armed struggle against the state. But by 1951, it had changed its mind again, deciding to give up armed struggle once and for all and contest the first general election of 1952, where it did quite well, becoming the second largest party in Parliament. By the late-1950s, the CPI had settled comfortably into India’s parliamentary democracy and believed that the way to bring about communism in the country was to cooperate with the left wing of the Congress.

Later on, its pro-Congress attitude, prodded on by warm Soviet-India relations, would become even cosier, sometime embarrassingly so. During the Emergency, the CPI was one of the few parties to support Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This softening towards the “bourgeoisie” Congress was disliked by the more radical sections of the united CPI, which, following the Chinese model, wanted to stress on peasant mass movements.

1962 Indo-China War

These trends – anti-Congressism and the Sino-Soviet split – came together during the Indo-China War of 1962 to create a flashpoint for the communists. At the time, the conservative section of the CPI put its full weight behind the Nehru government. The radical wing of the party, wrote historian Bipin Chandra, “while opposing the Chinese stand on the question of the India-China frontiers also opposed the unqualified support to the Nehru government because of its class character”. The Nehru government did not take kindly to this and jailed the communist dissenters for most of 1962 and ’63.

By 1964, the differences among the communists had become irreconcilable. The parting of ways of the conservative and radical factions was helped by the fact that the Sino-Soviet split was out in the open now. During the CPI’s National Council meeting that year in Delhi, 32 members famously walked out to form the “real communist party”. Later on, in a meeting in Calcutta, they founded the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

As it turned out, the CPI-M was vindicated electorally. Almost immediately, they became the main communist party in India, eclipsing the parent party in the left bastions of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.

Naxalites split

Even this, however, was not enough for some of the people who had split from the CPI in 1964. For them, now the CPI-M wasn’t Left enough. Given that the CPI-M had formed the government in West Bengal as part of the United Front in 1967 (Bengal’s first non-Congress government) and was making no moves towards an armed revolution, these radicals accused it of betraying the communist cause. Charu Mazumdar, who would later on in 1969 lead the split to form the Communist Part of India (Marxist-Leninist), now accused the CPI-M of “revisionism” and of choosing the “path of class collaboration”. In 1967, Mazumdar would walk the talk and lead violent attacks in Naxalbari in North Bengal, hoping to replicate the communist revolution in China. Ironically, now the CPI-M took to calling them blindly pro-Chinese, using a label applied to them just five years back. Jyoti Basu writes in his memoirs:

“They said they were followers of Mao and raised the slogan, 'China’s chairman is our chairman’. Forgetting everything else that the country stood for, they followed the China model with disastrous consequences which had no relation to Marxist philosophy.”

Mazumdar’s revolution did not happen and he was soon captured and killed, as the West Bengal police, under the CPI-M-led United Front government, launched a brutal crackdown. However, that act did launch what is today known at the Naxalite or Maoist movement.

In spite of this constant factionalism, the parliamentary communists have managed to maintain a fair amount of electoral unity ever since. The CPI-M, CPI and other smaller parties have set up and maintained stable coalitions in Bengal, Kerala and Tripura for the past five decades.

If the CPI-M and CPI merge, how much of an impact they will have electorally remains to be seen. The relevance of communism in a post-USSR world is often dismissed. Of course, as a counter to that, there is the fact that the CPI-M’s best ever Lok Sabha performance came 15 years after the Berlin Wall fell, showing that rumours of the death of the Left maybe greatly exaggerated. Even while doctrinaire communism might have seen its last, a polity without the left in a country as poor as India might not be probable.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Bengali New Year: how Akbar invented the modern Bengali calendar

First published on Scroll.

April 15 was the Bengali New Year (in West Bengal; 14th in Bangladesh), known in Bangla as Pohela Boishakh. A number of Indian calendars, of course, have their new year around now: the Punjabi, Assamese and Tamil, to name a few. The modern Bengali calendar though is unique amongst these, given that it was introduced by the Mughal Empire.

More than two decades into his rule, Emperor Akbar, third in the Mughal line, had set up, what was at the time, the most powerful empire on Earth.  Secure in his power, the emperor’s attention shifted to the more intellectual side of things: religion, philosophy and the arts. Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian, mentions how Akbar's interest in various religions led him to dabble in the calendars of various faiths as well. As a result, as Sen put it, he invented “a combined calendar which paralleled his interest in floating a combined religion, the Din-e-Ilahi”. This calendar, modestly titled the Tarikh-e-Ilahi, calendar of God, was introduced in the year 1584 AD.


Many historians believe, however, that Akbar chose the calendar not out of any interest in theology but in response to a much higher power: taxes. In their compendium, the Historical Dictionary of the Bengalis, Kunal Chakrabarti and Shubhra Chakrabarti write that earlier, the Mughal Empire was having trouble collecting land revenue since they followed the Islamic Hijri calendar. Given that the Islamic calendar is lunar, it did not coincide with the seasons, leading to much confusion.

Akbar therefore asked his royal astronomer to devise a new calendar which merged together the Islamic calendar, the historical Bengali calendar (based upon a Sanskrit astronomy text, the Surya Sidhant) and Akbar’s own date of coronation. The last point might sound a bit pompous but, as anyone who’s seen Mughal-e-Azam would attest to, Mr Akbar did have a bit of an ego problem.

The new calendar that was devised was a bit complex. Its first year, just like the Islamic calendar, was the date of the Hijra, Prophet Mohammed’s emigration from Mecca to Medina. From this year 1 to Akbar’s coronation (in 1556 AD), the calendar ticks off the years as a lunar calendar. Up till here, the Tarikh-e-Ilahi and the Islamic calendar are in step: for both, Akbar's coronation occurs in the year 963. From this annum onwards though, things change – after all, it’s a big year: the Emperor's coronation. From the coronation onwards, the years start to tick off as per the old traditional Bengali calendar, which was a solar one, and solves the problem of mismatched seasons.

Bengali year 1422

The “formula”, as it were, for calculating the Bengali year, therefore is: Islamic year at Akbar’s crowning (963) + current Gregorian solar year (2015) - Gregorian solar year at Akbar’s crowning (1556).

This gives us 1422, which, voila, is the Bengali year which starts today.

The Tarikh-e-Ilahi was introduced for the entire Mughal Empire and, like the Din-e-Ilahi, it really didn’t last much beyond Akbar’s lifetime. The one exception was in Bengal, where it became integral to both agriculture as well as the Hindu religion. As a result, it is interesting to note that when, say, Durga Pujo dates will be calculated for the Bengali year 1422, the two events referenced (unknown to most Bengalis themselves) will be the migration of Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina and Akbar’s coronation.

On that terribly syncretic note, here’s Tarikh par Tarikh wishing its readers shubho noboborsho. Happy new year.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A short history of the Chinese of Kolkata

First published on Scroll

Dibakar Banerjee’s adaptation of bhadralok sleuth Byomkesh Bakshi for the big screen has focused attention on Kolkata’s past and the history of one of the city's most fascinating communities: the Chinese. The film is set in 1943 in Kolkata's Chinatown against the backdrop of the opium trade.

At the time, Kolkata was the second city of the British Empire, after London. People from all over the globe flocked to this melting pot. These included Armenians, most of them from Isfahan in modern-day Iran, Afghans, Greeks, Baghdadi Jews as well as the Chinese.

Most of these communities have left. The Greeks left first, even before 1947. After Independence, most Armenians left too, to England, Canada or Australia. The Baghdadi Jews made a beeline for Israel after it was created in 1948. The land route that the Afghans used to bring in dry fruits became unviable post-1947 and only a few still come to the city, mainly to act as moneylenders. Only the Chinese remain in any substantial numbers and with a distinct identity.

The making of Chinatown

In 1780, a Chinese gentleman called Yong Atchew received a grant of land from the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, in an area about 30 km south of Kolkata. His tomb still exists there and the area is now called Atchepore, after him. On this land, he set up a sugar plantation and a mill to make refined sugar. Refined sugar was a fairly new product for the people of Bengal at the time and so they took to calling this new stuff chini, literally meaning “Chinese”. Bengalis also borrowed the name of a new drink the Chinese bought with them that, in the Cantonese and Hakka dialects, was called "chaa". The British already had a word for it: "tea", taken from the Chinese Amoy dialect via Dutch traders.

Atchew started off with only a hundred of his countrymen but more were added. Shanghaied sailors, desperate to desert their ships, escaped the first chance they got when their vessels docked at Kolkata’s port. These were joined by Hakka shoe-makers and tanners, who set up shop in what is now Bentinck Street – and where Chinese shoemakers can still be found, selling high-quality, reasonably-priced footwear.

From here the Chinese population grew, driven by the general state of violence in China in the first half of the 20th century, which sent more immigrants to the relative peace of Kolkata. The census of 1951 counted almost 6,000 Chinese in the city. Hard working and skilled, they made certain professions their own: dentistry, shoe making, leather production, beauty salons, dry cleaning and restaurants.

The opium habit

In all of this, there was one widespread vice, though: opium. Kolkata's first Chinatown, situated in the Tiretta Bazar area, had a number of chandukhanas or opium dens. In British India, the business was legal and, in fact, heavily promoted by the Raj for the revenue it bought in. Rudyard Kipling’s first published short story, The Gate Of A Hundred Sorrows, is about an opium den in Lahore, run by a Chinese boot-maker from Kolkata who murdered his wife and took to the drug.

This, of course, made Chinatown an exciting place for story tellers. Saradindu Bandyopadhyay placed his first Byomkesh Bakshi story, Satyanweshi, in Chinatown. The plot revolved around drugs and murder and is one of the inspirations for Dibakar Banerjee’s film.

Banerjee’s film, however, is not the first Bollywood movie to be set in the city's chini para. That honour goes to Shammi Kapoor-starrer China Town (1962), which features opium gangsters, with a double-role-identical-twin switcheroo. If Bollywood is anything, it’s a master of the stereotype and the Chinese in China Town weren’t exactly portrayed with any nuance. As if this wasn’t enough, the film portended a dark time for Kolkata's Chinese community: it released on the same day that hostilities with China broke out in the 1962 War.

Judged by the colour of their skin

The reaction of the Indian government to this was shameful in the extreme. On the orders of Prime Minster Nehru himself, the Chinese of Bengal and Assam were taken to a camp in the middle of the Rajasthan desert and locked up. Three thousand people were arrested and detained without even the hint of a legal process, simply on the basis of their ethnic origin. While the Chinese rarely ever spoke publicly about this incident, their faith shaken, they started to emigrate out of India, to Canada, Australia, the United States or Hong Kong. Kolkata’s crumbling economy didn’t help either.

From a high of an estimated 20,000 during the 1960s, the city’s Chinese population has fallen to 2,000, confined to the city’s new Chinatown, Tangra, located in an eastern suburb of the city. In Tangra originated Indian Chinese, as chilli potatoes and chicken manchurians were rustled up alongside mixed fried rices and hakka chow meins. The original Chinatown, located in Central Kolkata, is almost gone now, having being cleaned up by city planners in the 1960s. The area now looks like any other Calcutta neighbourhood.

The flight of the Chinese signals, as if any more signs were needed, the decline of Kolkata from metropolitan to mofussil. It is a bitter present. But for two-odd hours, at least, you can escape it, as you watch Byomkesh crack a case in the old, thriving Calcutta of 1943.

Mercenaries and merchants: A short history of the strong ties between India and Yemen

First published on Scroll.

As Houthi rebels overran the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in March, the embattled government shifted its capital to Aden. For many Indians, and especially for residents of Mumbai, the name of the city has an unusual ring of familiarity to it. It is evoked, for instance,  in the name of major thoroughfare in the Central Mumbai neighbourhood of Matunga: Adenwala Road is a the leafy symbol of a deep if forgotten connection between India and Yemen.

The road gets its name from a Parsi family that had such strong business links with Aden, they decided to make it part of their identity. But trade wasn't the only bridge between India and Yemen.  Islam has long bound the two countries, with clerics and lay people travelling back and forth from the medieval age.

The strategic location of Yemen, close to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, means that it has always been an important centre of Islamic theology. As a result, the medieval age saw Islamic saints come down from Yemen to India, especially the Deccan. The most significant transfer of this sort might have been the migration of the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community to Gujarat in the 16th century.

Yemenis in India

Yemen also exported fighters. Mercenaries from Yemen were well known for their skills of war and were in great demand, especially in the Deccan. Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat in the 16th century had 10,000 Yemenis in his army and and Nana Phadnavis’ Maratha empire employed 5,000 fighters who were the highest paid soldiers in the entire army. Later on, with the fall of the Marathas, these Yemenis would serve the Hyderabad Nizams, where they were just as well regarded: they often served as guards of the Nizam’s palace.

The descendants of those soldiers still live in India. On the Konkan coast, there are Marathi-speaking Muslims of Yemeni descent. They are called Jamaatis and their Marathi is heavily influenced by Arabic loanwords, reflecting their origins. In Hyderabad, they are called the Chaush and many of still live in the Barkas neighbourhood.

The traffic between India and Yemen intensified greatly after 1839, when the British conquered Aden and declared it a free port. The city came to be used as a coal refuelling station for steamships sailing  between India and Europe. The building of the Suez Canal in 1869 transformed the city into a entrepot for trade between Europe, Asia and Africa.

Cowasji Dinshaw (the name “Adenwala” would be added later), a Parsi merchant of Mumbai, saw this potential early on and arrived in Aden in 1845. He proceeded to remodel the port to make it capable of handling the steamer traffic between the Indian Ocean and Europe, turning Aden the Singapore of its age. At the turn of the century, his son, Hormusjee, expanded the business, eventually acting as bankers, naval agents, shipowners, managing agents for mills and steamship companies. When the Suez Canal, the world’s largest shipping company at the time, the British India Steam Navigation Company, hired the Adenwalahs as their agents in Aden.

Uncrowned kings of Aden

Vispi Dastur, postal historian and president of the Bombay Parsi Association, says that the family were at the time knows as the “uncrowned kings of Aden”. In 1911, King George V was hosted by the Adenwalas in Aden as he travelled to India for the Delhi Durbar in order to celebrate his coronation. The chairs that were used in that function, says Dastur, are still used by the family's descendants in their Adenwala Baug mansion in Tardeo Road.

Aden wasn’t done with giving India tycoons. In 1950, a 16-year-old boy named Dhirubhai Ambani made his journey to Aden, a city still ruled by the British, to work as a clerk for Besse & Co. Later on, Besse & Co. would become distributers for Shell and their petroleum products and it was here that Ambani first came up with the (at the time crazy) idea of building a oil refinery back home in India.

While most Indians are unaware of these centuries of interaction with Yemen, a rather delectable result of this connection is much more familiar: haleem.

Hareesah to haleem

The 10th-century Arab scribe Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar wrote down a recipe in the Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes) for a meat porridge that he called hareesah. The Kitab was a collection of recipes from the kitchens of the "kings and caliphs and lords and leaders" of Baghdad. It mentions a number of meat and wheat porridges and says that "if the wheat was beaten to a smooth paste" it was to be called hareesah.

Hareesah has survived well into the modern age, and is still popular in the Middle East as an staple during Ramzan. The Yemen mercenaries who came to the Deccan in the medieval age bought it with them. Sometime in the 1930s, Sultan Saif Nawaz Jung, a Hyderabadi Yemeni-origin noble in the Nizam's court, popularised hareesah by having it served at his feasts.

This hareesah was slowly Indianised in Hyderabad. The original dish contained only meat, wheat, cinnamon and ghee, cooked on a slow fire till everything turned to a mash. The Hyderabadis added a variety of dals. And, of course, masalas, India's secret weapon,  found their way into the dish.

This modified dish took the name “haleem” and was by the 1950s being sold in Hyderabad’s restaurants, especially during the Islamic fasting month of Ramzan. Soon, it spread to other parts of the country and became a Ramzan staple.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Kashmiri Pandit enclaves: Not the first time we've debated separate areas to keep an exiled minority safe

A people are driven off the land they’ve called their home for centuries. The reason? They belong to a minority religion. A mania has gripped the land and they are chased off on pain of death. 

However, even after being driven off, they still desire to come back. The poison of religious hatred, though, still courses thought the veins of the land they once called home. 

A workaround is thought of: why not reserve separate enclaves for them, where they will feel safe? A gerrymandering of populations to create regions where a minority becomes a majority. An insurance plan just in case the religious mania raises its head again (many believe it never went away in the first place).

I am describing, of course, the ongoing controversy over whether Kashmiri Pandits should be settled back in Kashmir in exclusive enclaves or go back to their original homes in the middle of cities where they are a minority. But I am also narrating the plight of the Delhi Muslims in 1947-48, during which time an almost identical debate took place.

The Partition violence that happened in Delhi is not something that is discussed much in our mainstream histories and in the mass media. It was, however, horrific with almost the entire Muslim population of Delhi – then a largely Muslim city – being attacked and driven out to what is now Pakistan. Here is a poignant first person account of the violence by Vijay Rohtgi, a resident of Delhi at the time:

The partition of India brought many changes to Chandni Chowk. Sometime around 15 August  1947 all the Muslim owned shops were looted. I was too young to understand why. My father would not allow his children to be a part of the looters, and we never took anything home from these shops. Ahmad ka Mohalla was similarly looted. I remember seeing a large number of people walking away with large silver spittoons, utensils, bed head-boards and other silver articles from this street.  
We wondered what happened to the people living in this street. There was no attempt by the neighbourhood leaders or by the police to stop the looting. The residents were evacuated either by the Government or by their Muslim protectors in the middle of the night. Perhaps they went to Jama Masjid. We never knew where they went, but it was a source of intensive speculation in our community.

The Muslims of Delhi were replaced by refugees from West Pakistan, escaping horrible charnel houses of their own in places such as Lahore and Rawalpindi. Rohatgi describes the changes this exchange of populations bought about (thus creating modern Delhi):

The influx of refugees changed the local scene in old Delhi. Streets became crowded. Many schools started running two shifts with several sections of each class. New words were added to our vocabulary and newer foods were introduced to our diet. Thus, kulche-chole and bhatures, unknown to us earlier, became common street foods. Even the shape of our beloved jalebis changed from thin golden crisps to large yellow pieces. The aroma of desi ghee in our streets was overpowered by smells of garlic, onion and vinegar. Even the language changed incorporating phrases such as kee haal hai (how are you), tusi dasa (you tell me),and changa (good).

In 1948, however, many Muslims tried to return back to Delhi. To make these Muslims feel safe, Nehru, supported by Abul Kalam Azad wanted to reserve whole neighbourhood for Muslims within Delhi. This, they assumed – following the same line of logic that people are following with Kashmiri Pandits today – would ensure greater safety for this embattled minority.

But like today, many disagreed. For Pandits, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front is bitterly against the idea of separate Pandit enclaves. In 1948, the main opponent to separate Muslim neighbourhoods was Vallabhbhai Patel. Patel was not very keen for Muslims to be allowed back at all – he wanted any empty houses in Delhi to be allocated to Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Pakistan first – and even if they did get accommodation, it would be distributed across Delhi, with no guarantee that the house would be in a Muslim neighbourhood.

There are differences here with the Pandit analogy, of course. The proposal in Kashmir involves wholly separate cities, it seems. Nehru was, of course, only proposing separate neighbourhoods within the same city. But even that, it seems, was something Patel would not agree to.

In the end Patel had his way. No separate neighbourhoods were reserved for Muslims. One of many reasons why hardly any Muslims came back to Delhi. Pre-1947 Delhi now exists in Karachi, if it exists at all, that is.

Patel is a complex figure but nowhere does his reputation get more mauled than in his handling of the Delhi riots. In his book, Patel: A Life, Rajmohan Gandhi writes, "Taxed by Gandhi with a report that said he was “encouraging the idea of Muslims going away to Pakistan” Patel denied it indignantly. However, he told the Mahatma that Muslims not loyal to India should leave...". 

Rajmohan Gandhi then completes the narration of their conversation: "...and he [Patel] could not help adding that he suspected a majority of disloyalty".