October 5, 2008 — drsubrotoroy
11 March 2010
My paternal grandfather, Manindranath Roy, had been a friend and colleague of Nagen Ganguly, the son-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore. This 1930 letter, perhaps from Puri judging by its contents (or could it be Vizag as there is a Mr Naidu as a “local man”?), was sent by Nagen’s wife, Meera Debi, to her friend, my grandmother. It is being published here as it may throw a little light on Bengal’s social life at the time. Though women wrote in Bengali amongst themselves, Bengali men educated in English seemed to invariably correspond in English.
“My Dear, Today we reached here safe and sound. The journey was smooth. Monibabu had asked someone to receive us at the station but we did not need his help as my nephew came to receive us. People here seem to be veritable cut-throats.! If you have no acquaintance here there is every possibility of your being cheated. My nephew, Ajin, took a local man , Mr. Naidu with him. If this person had not bargained with the porters they would have created great chaos demanding …….Rs. just to get our luggage off the train. Mr. Naidu also fixed the fare with the coachman. In fact the servant , the gardener, everyone has this tendency to extort as much as possible. Our gardener has fixed us one helping hand but I don’t find him suitable. He will only bring water, buy daily necessities, and sweep the floors but he will not wash utensils or clothes. He disobeyed me even when I asked him to hang the clothes for drying! Our own servant who has come with us can easily do the cooking along with sweeping and shopping. So, how practical will it be to have another help just for the washing! Today we had lunch at my brother’s. Charubabu’s son-in-law came to look after our requirements as soon as we had come here. A great disadvantage of this house is that there is no shelf or rack to keep a single thing . There are only one table and a small table. Of these one has to be kept in the bathroom for toiletries and the other will have crockery on it. There is no other almirah or cupboard to keep the crockery so that I can use this table for writing purposes. Anyway, I feel embarrassed to ask for anything because we are enjoying the house free of cost. I asked for only one thing but in vain. It was for a dressing table. It never entered my mind to bring a mirror as I had thought it was someone’s home. Naturally none of the three of us had thought it necessary. Nevertheless, I really like this house. It is on the sea beach. It merely lacks a few small necessities. I am feeling very drowsy because I have taken a bath in the sea after arriving here. I hope you are all hale and hearty. That day I got really scared while coming back from your home. My regards to all of you. Yours, Meera” .
From Facebook 8 May 2012
Rabindranath Tagore was a great man, a year younger than my great grandfather. My father when a boy paid his respects to him many a time. My grandfather worked with Tagore’s son-in-law and their wives were friends. A letter from the daughter to my grandmother is at my blog (translated very kindly by KM). Tagore, as a creative genius and literary spirit, would have been appalled by all the worship he has been subjected to in recent decades. A holiday for his 150th birthday? He would have I am sure preferred to see new genius thrive, not his work endlessly repeated, made a hash of, bowdlerized….
What I (also) find odd is no one realises that no Muslim can go about worshipping Tagore or Vivekananda etc statues and photos with garlands and namastes etc. And in this I am wholly Muslim.
June 16, 2008 — drsubrotoroy
My grandfather, Manindranath Roy (1891-1958) was a quiet enigmatic literary figure and artistic benefactor in Calcutta; he wrote very well and had excellent taste and manners (though was of foolish judgement in money and friends). This photograph is from about 1922 at Allahabad where he used to take his family on annual holiday. (The little boy to the left behind his mother would grow up to become my father.)
My grandfather is dressed in fine post-Edwardian fashion; at the time, his father, Surendranath Rai, was at the peak of his political career as first Deputy President and then President of the new Bengal Legislative Council. Surendranath was an orthodox Brahmin and chose never to wear Western-style suits and neck-ties, and he was thoroughly averse to the idea of dining with Europeans. Manindranath was the first to wear Western clothes, as well as to dine in Calcutta’s Western restaurants. There was tension between father and son due to such matters.
My grandfather came to visit us in Ottawa in May 1958, and here we are on a day’s outing to show him the sights. I recall it well though I was three years old. My mother had stayed home to arrange our meal.
Manindranath Roy died in Ottawa on September 3 1958, the first Hindu gentleman known to have done so, it was said; he had to be cremated in Montreal as no one was cremated in Ottawa back then.
There will be more of his eventful and interesting life here in due course. For example, he was a benefactor of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and many others including Uday Shankar, and he was a close friend and colleague at Grace and Co of Rabindranath Tagore’s son-in-law, Nagen Gangulee. Rabindranath apparently visited the Swaraj Party’s political meetings where Surendranath was an old friend of CR Das. Another close and respected friend of Surendranath’s was Jagdish Chandra Bose.
October 30, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
India-USA interests: Elements of a serious Indian foreign policy
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, Oct 30 2007
If there is a “natural alliance” between India and the United States, it arises to the extent that both are large democracies and more or less free societies that happen to be placed half way across the globe and pose no perceptible military threat to one another. The real long-term strategic and political dimensions of such an alliance are quite independent of the business interests driving the “nuclear deal” or selfish interests of the few million “elite” Indians who have fled to the USA as immigrants in recent decades. The interests of Indian immigrants in the USA and interests of the vast masses in India are, after all, quite distinct. Also, America derives most if its own energy not from nuclear reactors but from abundant hydroelectric resources. If the nuclear deal has been ill-conceived and fails in implementation at any stage, India will not import expensive nuclear reactors but can still learn much from the USA in developing hydroelectric power which constitutes India’s greatest energy potential as well.
China and Pakistan
Key strategic interests of India and the USA are fully convergent in East Asia, especially in respect of Communist China. But in West Asia, American attitudes and actions towards the Muslim world, specifically the invasion and occupation of Iraq and now a possible assault on Iran, have been deeply disconcerting for India which has some 120 million Muslim citizens.
It is not a coincidence that Pakistan, an overtly religious Muslim state, has had a marriage of convenience with Communist China, an overtly atheistic anti-religious state. Both have been militarist dictatorships that have seen democratic India as a strategic adversary, especially over territorial claims. It was Pakistan that facilitated President Nixon’s desired opening to Communist China and later permitted President Reagan’s attack on the soft underbelly of the USSR in the Afghan civil war (an attack in which China participated too). With the USSR’s collapse, the USA removed its main strategic adversary only to be left with two new adversaries: Islamic fundamentalism in the short run and China in the long run!
Indian diplomacy can credit a rare (indeed exceptional) success in having warned the USA from the early 1990s onwards of the dangers brewing in the jihadist camps in Pakistan sponsored by the ISI. The US Government has now declassified its assessments of those dangers and what it tried to do as early as 1995 and as late as 2000 through the Saudis with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar ~ who refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to Saudi Arabia and openly spoke of plans for revenge against American interests. With a continuing Cold-War mindset, US policy-makers thought state-actors like Saddam Hussein were a graver risk to Israel than non-state or pan-state actors like Osama could be to the American mainland. Having distracted itself with Saddam, the US Government’s response to Osama has been far too much far too late ~ the maddened bull chasing the matador’s cape, in Stephen Holmes’s recent metaphor.
Pakistan’s consistent motivation was one of gaining advantage with the Americans in the hope of undermining India, and indeed the nexus created in Washington by Pakistan’s bureaucrats, politicians and military over decades has been the envy of all lobbyists. But Pakistan overplayed its hand, and once the 9/11 genie was let out of the bottle it could not be put back in again. Meanwhile, Pakistan allowing Gwadar port to become a haven for China’s Navy would have obvious new strategic repercussions.
American interests in West Asia are to protect Israel, to protect trade-routes and to defend against non-state or pan-state terrorism. American interests in East Asia are to protect Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from communist attack, to protect trade-routes and to defend against new terrorism arising from places like Indonesia or the Philippines. All American interests in Asia would be facilitated by appearance of genuine multiparty democracy and free societies in China and Pakistan.
China as a two-party or multi-party democracy and a free society, even on the Taiwan-model, is unlikely to be an expansionist militarist aggressor in the way it has been as a dictatorship and unfree society. Communist China in the early 21st Century makes the same outrageous unlawful claims on Indian territory as it did half a century ago. Only the USA came to India’s assistance in a tangible way when Communist China attacked in Ladakh and Arunachal in the late months of 1962. John Kenneth Galbraith was President Kennedy’s Ambassador in New Delhi and his memoirs tell the tale of the landings of C-130 aircraft in Kolkata carrying infantry weapons, light artillery and quartermaster stores for the beleaguered Indian Army in Tezpur and Leh.
Nehru, Krishna Menon and India’s whole political and diplomatic leadership revealed gross incompetence as did the Army’s top brass. Indian Communists virtually betrayed the country. The Chinese massed in the Chumbi Valley near Nathu La, and had they attacked all the way to Siliguri, India’s North East would have been cut off. As a demonstration, the Chinese in division strength took and held the whole of Arunachal for a month, withdrawing before there could be anyIndian attempt to retaliate or cut supply lines. The geography has not changed in fifty years. What can yet change is the ideology, away from the communism that has ruined China’s great people, to a new and bold commitment to liberal democracy and the Rule of Law.
As for Pakistan, its people under crude military rule have hardly allowed themselves to become the source of Muslim culture that Iqbal had dreamt of. Pakistan today is not a place even the most ardent pro-Pakistani person in Jammu & Kashmir can find very appealing or inspiring. If there was multiparty democracy and a free society in which the military had a normal small role of defence (as opposed to a large purportedly offensive role against India), Pakistan could calm down from its neuroses and become a normal country for the first time~ one in which the so-called “extremists” of today are transformed into a politically legitimate religious conservatism, who could seek to take power responsibly through the ballot box.
India should be a friendly neutral in the conflict between the West and Muslim world, doing whatever we can to bring better understanding between the two sides. Both have been invaders in Indian history, bringing both evil and good in their wake. India’s culture absorbed and assimilated their influences and became more resilient as a consequence. India also was a haven for Jews and Zoroastrians fleeing persecution. India as a country must condemn fanatical terrorist attacks on the West and bizarre reactionary attempts to return to a caliphate in the world of modern science. Equally, India must condemn vicious racist bombing and warfare unleashed by technologically advanced countries upon ancient societies and cultures struggling to enter the modern world in their own way.
As for the central issue of Israel in Palestine, Martin Buber (1878-1965), the eminent Zionist scholar and philosopher of Judaism, said to Rabindranath Tagore in 1926 that the Jewish purpose should be one of “pursuing the settlement effort in Palestine in agreement, nay, alliance with the peoples of the East, so as to erect with them together a great federative structure, which might learn and receive from the West whatever positive aims and means might be learnt and received from it, without, however, succumbing to the influence of its inner disarray and aimlessness.” If India could guide the region towards such a “great federative structure” of reason and tranquillity, while encouraging democracy in China and Pakistan, the aim of our “natural alliance” with the United States half way across the globe would have been fulfilled.
September 12, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
Of JC Bose, Patrick Geddes & the Leaf-World
By Subroto Roy
What happened to me yesterday was very odd. In a Kolkata bookshop, the first volume my hand completely accidentally reached for was The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C. Bose by one Patrick Geddes, published in 1920. I have been in recent years learning a little of the magnificent scientific achievement of J. C. Bose (1858-1937), and knew of the justly acclaimed 1998 “I-triple E” paper by Probir K. Bondopadhyay, as well as a recent article by 25 year old Varun Aggrawal, which much belatedly but definitively have been establishing Bose’s pioneering contribution to the development of “wireless telegraphy” or radio. Marconi and Braun won the 1909 Nobel prize in physics for their work on the subject – had Bose been less of a great scientific soul and even slightly more of a businessman than he was by temperament and character, he should have been a winner too. Indeed, I had already come to a conclusion that Bose’s genius was such that his additional pioneering contributions to understanding plant physiology, e.g. his delicate instruments, one of which the crescograph magnified small movement in plant growth 10 million times, made him someone like Marie Curie who had been probably deserving of not one but two scientific Nobel Prizes in his time. He received none yet seemed not to have cared a hoot.
Reading through Geddes’ biography of him quickly last night, I found it simply wonderful in its depth, range and sympathy. The biographer introduced himself modestly as being “Late Professor of Botany” at University College, Dundee and “Professor of Sociology and Civics”, University of Bombay. A kindly young admirer of Bose I thought to myself, doing good for India as many Brits had done in their time.
Imagine my surprise this morning to find that the biographer of the lost genius that was JC Bose was himself a lost genius of equal capacity and achievement! Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was older than Sir JC Bose by a few years, and died a few years before him.He has been considered by his own biographers to have been a modern Leonardo da Vinci — “a prodigy in physical endurance, range of interests, and imaginative powers”, who was praised by Darwin, Einstein, Tagore and like men, and who as a polymath contributed to economics, sociology, history, art, museums, exhibitions, politics, literature, agriculture, gardening, geology, religion, philosophy, education, geography, science, astronomy, biology, planning, printing, mathematics, navigation, travel, public health, housing, music, and poetry, besides having designed a city like Tel Aviv and pioneered the idea that “cities must be planned with respect to their surrounding villages… Industrial development, if left unchecked, would damage the air, water and land upon which all life relies. Little wonder that today environmentalists consider Patrick a prophet of land stewardship and sustainable activity”.
Geddes’ most famous words quoted today are: “The world is mainly a vast leaf-colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass, and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests. This is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon the leaves. By leaves we live.”Little wonder that he became a friend and admirer of Bose.He reports in his biography of Bose that Howes, the successor of Thomas Huxley (disciple of Darwin), had come to witness one of Bose’s experiments with a galvanometer on plants and had exclaimed afterwards: “Huxley would have given years of his life to see that experiment”. Huxley had been Geddes’ mentor too.
December 31, 2006 — drsubrotoroy
LAND, LIBERTY & VALUE
Government must act in good faith treating all citizens equally ~ not favouring organised business lobbies and organised labour over an unorganised peasantry
By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, December 31 2006,
EVERY farmer knows that two adjacent plots of land which look identical to the outsider may be very different in character, as different as two siblings of the same family. Adjacent plots may differ in access to groundwater and sunlight, in minerals and salts, in soil, fertilisers, parasites, weeds or a dozen other agronomic factors. Most of all, they will differ in the quality and ingenuity of thought and labour that has gone into their care and cultivation over the years, perhaps over generations.
John Locke said: “Whatsoever that (a man) removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property… For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no one but he can have a right to what that once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others” (Second Treatise of Government). Plots of land are as specific as the families that have “mixed” their labour with them. Locke wrote of labour being something “unquestionably” the labourer’s own property; in the same libertarian vein, Robert Nozick opened Anarchy, State and Utopia saying “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”.
But as we recognise the universal sanctity of the individual person and his/her private property, we have to start qualifying it. If you purchase a field, forest or estate through which runs a pathway traditionally used by the public to get from one side to the other then even as the new owner you may not have a right to forbid the public’s use of the pathway. By extension, it is clear the State, the community of which you are a citizen, may approach you and demand there should be and will be a public road or thoroughfare through your property in the common interest. Such is the sovereign’s right of “eminent domain” recognised throughout the world, not only in times of war or natural disaster but also in normal times where private property may be taken for public use. The individual’s right to free use of his/her property is circumscribed as a result.
What may be certainly expected though in all matters is that the State will act in good faith, i.e., that it has conducted proper technical surveys and cost-benefit analyses as well as transparent public hearings, and has honestly decided that the road must be constructed using this route and no other. The doctrine of eminent domain implies that while the right to private property may be basic, it is not absolute, as indeed no right is, not even the right to one’s own life. In India, one key difference between the landmark Golaknath (AIR 1967 SC 1643) and Kesavananda Bharati (AIR 1973 SC 1461) rulings had to do precisely with the former recognising the right to property being fundamental as in our original 1950 Constitution, while the latter consented to the Indira Parliament’s denial of this.
When private property is taken, fair compensation must be paid. For example, the American Constitution says “no private property may be taken for public use without just compensation”. What is just compensation? Typically it would be the “fair market value” — but that must be properly adjudged accounting for the best future use of the land, not merely the historical or traditional past use of the land.
Consider, in a mature urban real-estate market, a plot made vacant because a warehouse located on it has accidentally burned down. What is the value of the plot now? Another warehouse could be built, but other bids could come in too for construction of offices or residential flats or a multi-storey garage. The plot’s value would differ depending on which use it is ultimately put to. And this value would be ascertained by calculating the expected cash flows into the future from each of these possibilities, discounted appropriately to account for the fact the future is less valuable than the present, with the highest value alternative being chosen. That is how a mature private real-estate market works in theory, though in practice there would be zoning and environmental restrictions to account for the traditional nature of the neighbourhood as well as possible pollution by effluent waste etc.
In India, Government departments and ministries have inherited prime urban real estate from British times. Amidst the highest value real estate in Kolkata, Bangalore, Delhi etc. will be found a military camp or flats built for military personnel, having nothing whatsoever to do with furtherance of the nation’s defences today. The appalling state of government accounting and audit of our public property and institutions includes the fact that neither the Union nor State Governments and municipalities have the faintest idea of assets, including real estate, that they own. These public assets are frequently open to abuse by managerially uncontrolled government employees.
Fallacies even more curious seem to be currently at work in Indian policy-making, whether by this or that political party. The “eminent domain” doctrine requires a public purpose to exist for acquisition of private property by the State: e.g. construction of a road, bridge, dam, airport or some other traditional public good which is going to be used by the public. In India as elsewhere, “land reform” did involve taking an absentee landlord A’s land and distributing it to B, C, D and E who worked as peasants on it. But nowhere else outside formerly communist China has land been forcibly taken from peasants B, C, D and E and handed over to this or that private capitalist in name of economic development (in a reverse class war)!
Eminent domain doctrine requires good faith on part of the State with respect to its citizens and that implies treating all citizens’ interests equally – not e.g. favouring an organised business lobby or organised industrial labour over the unorganised peasantry uneducated in the wiles of city people.
Also, there is no reason why Government should be interested in a particular product-mix emerging out of a given private factory (such as the so-called inflation-unadjusted “Rs one lakh car” instead of telecom equipment or garments or textiles). Dr Manmohan Singh’s statement last week that he wishes to see “employment-intensive” industries merely added to Government confusion: from Henry Ford to Japanese “lean business” today, everyone knows the direction of change of technology in the automobile industry has been towards robotics, making modern manufacturing less and less manpower-intensive! The Tatas themselves underwent a major downsizing and restructuring in the last decade, hiving off industries not considered part of their “core competence”.
Traditional agriculture of Singur’s sort represents the most labour-intensive employment-generating kind of rural economy. While such rural life may appear unsatisfying to the urban outsider, there is, as Tolstoy, Rabindranath, Gandhi and others knew, subtle happiness, contentment and tranquility there absent in alienated industrial sprawls. “Surplus” labour occurs in agriculture because of technological improvements in quality and delivery of agricultural inputs as well as new education and awareness (Theodore W. Schultz,Transforming Traditional Agriculture). It is mostly seasonal and all hands are used during the harvest when even urban migrants flock back to help. Industry did not leave Bengal in the 1960s and 1970s because of Mamata Banerjee but because of urban unrest, the culture of gheraos and lockouts, and bad regulations of the labour and capital markets associated largely with Ms Banerjee’s Left Front adversaries.
The basic fiction the Union and State Governments have made themselves believe is that their idea of an industrialisation plan is necessary for economic development. It is not. Real economic problems in West Bengal and elsewhere are financial to do with State budgets. “Debt overhang is there” is how the RBI Governor apologetically put it last week. Interest payments on the West Bengal State public debt consume larger and larger fractions of the revenue: these payments were at Rs 13 Bn in 1995 but grew to Rs. 92 Bn by 2004, and may jump to Rs 200 Bn in the next decade. The communists have been in power thirty years and no one but they are responsible. Making the State’s budget healthy would require tackling the gargantuan bureaucracy, slashing ministerial extravagance (foreign trips, VIP security) etc. It is much easier to hobnob with the rich and powerful while tear-gassing the peasants.