Monday, June 30, 2014

The Great ‘Babu-cracy’ of India - Origin, Changes and Challenges of Today

The word ‘babu’ has a bona fide entry in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED); I have the Fourth impression 2006 of the Eleventh edition, 2004, First Published in 1911. The meaning reads: a respectful title or form of address for a man; an office worker - Origin from Hindi, lit. Father. The ‘Babu-cracy’ - i.e. bureaucracy, to be exact, had its formal beginnings in India, in its current connotation, in 1765 when the British East India Company had first organised a cadre of civil servants with the sole objective of assisting to collect revenues from the people of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa under the right granted by the Mughal emperor. This dual role of the Company as trader and ruler continued till 1833 when it succeed in acquiring control over extensive territories all over India. The Company, in its new role as ruler, soon recognised the need for a bureaucracy devoted exclusively to administration, unburdened by any responsibility for trading operations.

To quote the veteran bureaucrat Dr PC Alexander, 
“In 1853, the Company accepted the most distinctive feature of the Covenanted Civil Service of India which became the Indian Civil Service (ICS) after India came under the direct rule of the British Crown in 1858.” 
The process of selection through competitive examination and the most magical nomenclature ‘Indian Civil Service’ -  hailed by historians as the ‘ Heaven Born Service’ and ’Steel Frame of India’ - had been given by the special Indian Civil Service Act of 1861. The history of the ICS and its ‘reincarnation’ as Indian Administrative Service since independence indeed represents transformation of India as a modern democratic polity with all the ups and downs in the life of the nation.

Both Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister cum Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai devoted an extraordinary attention to reassure and reorient the ICS and also to guide the Service towards the new goals of the independent nation. Nehru and Patel along with Dr BR Ambedkar were instrumental in putting in place the constitutional and related institutional frame work for the security and neutrality of newly designed All India Services - with the Indian Administrative Services at the top of the pyramid - and the other Central Services. To quote Patel,
 “…you will not have a united India if you do not have a good all India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security… The constitution is meant to be worked out by a ring of Service which will keep the country intact.” 
The grateful bureaucracy of India has adopted the day of the address by Sardar Patel to the All India Services Training College, Delhi on 21st April 1947 as the ‘Civil Services Day of India’ since 2006, quoting Patel’s masterly exhortation to the civil servants to be always mindful of their, “dignity, integrity, incorruptibility and impartiality.”

The Nehru era - glowing with the higher values of the freedom struggle- witnessed a very fruitful flowering of the trust and collaboration between the well-meaning and patriotic political leadership and the gifted and competent top brass bureaucracy. There were shining examples of the efficient execution of many a visionary schemes for the development of the country and the welfare of the masses. The ‘steel frame of the ICS’ was indeed skillfully tempered to serve the requirements of the ‘sovereign (later amended to include socialist, secular too) democratic republic’ - in the making. How the stresses and strains of the party politics since 1969 and a good bye to the higher pursuit of “not power at any price but service at any cost’ have been adversely affecting all walks of national life - including the highest rungs of bureaucracy - need not be narrated at length. The manner in which the competence, integrity and impartiality of the top civil service has been continuously compromised, blatantly in the states under the rule of the rapacious local leadership, makes a sordid saga of the great betrayal of the people who put them into the seat of political and administrative power. The corruption at the political and bureaucratic level has indeed corroded the national psyche and endangered our survival as an independent state.

The Election Commission of India has been once again recipient of the great applause and admiration of the world for conducting the gigantic task of enabling the largest electorate of humanity to exercise their most precious right to vote in a free and fair manner. Comparatively on a different – quiet and sober-note the Union Public Commission of India had also declared the results on 13th of June of the Civil Services Examination 2013. The UPSC, it may be mind boggling to know, has selected during the last six decades nearly a quarter of a million candidates after examining over 46 million! This year, a total of 1,122 candidates were declared to have qualified one of the toughest three tier examinations so meticulously devised and spaced out over twelve months to select the brightest of the youth of the country for the most demanding and prestigious positions in the service of the state. The allure of the IAS seems to have become the most irresistible national obsession; it is rated far superior over all the other options of careers: the best are prepared to spend their best years chasing the civil services dream. It was reported that some 5,36,506 candidates had applied for the preliminary exam of the Civil Services in 2012. The mushrooming of civil services coaching centres / academies in the two localities of the capital of the country attract hundreds of thousands of civil services aspirants from far and wide in the country. They camp there ‘to try, try again, and again… and again till their respective limits of age or the chances get exhausted’.

It is said that India has the most elaborate - rather the most forbidding and intimidating - systems of examinations but, perhaps, not one credible system of education. The education system meant primarily to qualitatively improve life of the people of the country, millions of them being marginalised in society, has been, of course, continuously subjected to various processes of reforms. The new trends in higher education have also been amply reflected over the years in the UPSC’s agenda of reforms. Chairman of the UPSC Professor DP Agrawal has underlined that the changes in the pattern of Civil Services have to be ‘consistent with the need for selecting the right kind of persons from a huge pool consisting of multiple languages, creeds, culture and communities.’ It is indeed quite baffling for the former civil servants like myself, now a senior citizen of 70+ years, how in the changed times in India, the serious policy issues like the syllabi of the Civil Service Exam; issue of age limit; the number of chances, etc., have become causes for public protests by the aspirant candidates. And the government of India has created precedents that such protests and demonstrations in the capital can be effective in getting rules amended! Is the country marching towards the ‘Street- smart Civil Services Examination’?

The All India Services including the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Forest and the entire range of various Central Civil Services including the Bharati Videsh Seva - the Indian Foreign (Diplomatic) service - have a unique role in keeping the country going forward and unified as visualised by the founding fathers of India’s federal structure under the Constitution. The upright, efficient, experienced, duty conscious and fair minded civil servants are an invaluable asset of any nation, more so in a developing democracy like India with the millions of the deprived reposing their faith in them for justice and a fair deal. The old usage of ‘mai-baap’ - the paternal officer for the district officer - remains relevant even now in the rural areas of India where the vast majority of the dispossessed, discriminated and oppressed live. An honest and helpful civil servant is indeed the best creation of any political dispensation - and, perhaps, divinity too. Those interested in making money and lusting for power may think of doing any other thing but must not ever think of a career in civil service.

I am tempted to look back, as far as the deepest recesses of my memories go, towards all my days, weeks, months and years of my own service and memories of so many extraordinary colleagues in the Indian Foreign Service- I had joined w.e.f. from 11th of July, 1971- and the IAS / other Central Services. By a strange coincidence, there is a get together of the ‘Batch-71’ on this very date in July in New Delhi. I look forward to meeting many colleagues of the IAS / other Services since we parted company in November ’71 after the common Foundation Course National Academy, Mussourie! Among the distinguished batch mates, Shri SY Qureshi, formerly Chief Election Commissioner, remains in the media focus as an author-commentator. Shri Madhukar Gupta and VK Duggal distinguished themselves as Home Secretaries. Shri PL Punia had the rare distinction of being Principal Secretary, respectively, to both Maya Vati and Mulayam Singh and later became an MP on the Congress. He is still in position as Chairman of the National Scheduled Caste Commission with the BJP nudging him to quit. I also remember those batch mates who died in accidental and unnatural deaths in the prime / peak of their careers including Shri Gian Chand Gill whose parents were still sanitary workers in Malerkotla. The UP cadre had a strange case of a wife killing her IAS husband for infidelity; suicide by a DGP rank officer and currently an imprisonment for four years for corruption of a former Chief Secretary of the state. The involvement of senior civil servants of all the prestigious services on a larger scale in the recent years has indeed been a disturbing tendency.

The media has reported in some detail about the two and half hour inter active meeting taken by PM Narendra Modi on 4th of June with the 77 Secretaries of the Government of India. It was underlined that such a meeting has taken place after more than eight years - kya top Civil services ke achhe din aa gaye hain !.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Kabir - the Visionary poet and Revolutionary Reformer

This article was first published in the monthly magazine Identity, in the June 2014 issue.

Kabir - the low caste Julaha, weaver - a bona fide ‘Korie’ voter in the current context of the mythological Brahmanical city of Benares a.k.a. Varanasi - has indeed witnessed a remarkable up-gradation of his stature during the last century. He has been hailed as a valiant saint-poet, a distinctly rebellious voice of a social reformer and a Messianic icon for the oppressed people of his epoch. He has been increasingly recognised as ‘a dare devil spiritual ideologue’ for displaying a rare courage of convictions and as an all-embracing poetic genius in hitting as hard as he could at the hypocritical, irrational and unjust practices of both the moribund Hinduism and aggressive Islam. Kabir has been hailed for his masterly magisterial pronouncements employing the most effective instrument of poetic satire. He certainly lifted the level of his saintly sermons to a refreshingly redefined realm - far beyond the prevalent traditions of Bhakti-Sufi School of Nirguna - Formless, Monotheistic - devotional movement.

The exact details relating to the life of Kabir have remained shrouded in uncertainties, as per the splendid ancient Indian traditions of ‘Smiriti/Shruti - remembered/received’, implying mainly the orally transmitted accounts. Kabir’s hymns had, of course, started getting transcribed more than a hundred year after his passing away. It has now been broadly agreed upon by the Kabirian scholars that this most extraordinary saint-poet had his earthly sojourn sometime around 1440 to 1518 A.D. The earliest account of Kabir has been recorded in a poetic work called Bhaktamal - ‘A Garland of Devotees’ compiled in C.1585 by Nabhadas who refers to him in a single stanza,

“Never did Kabir accept /
Distinction of caste ... Religion devoid of love /
is heresy, he declared.”

Many of the compiler-commentators and Kabir’s sectarian followers called Kabir-panthies have been busy weaving a halo around him that has gradually obliterated the original lustre and subtly distorted his pristine precepts leading again into ritualistic Brahmanic folds. Anantdas in Parichai - an introduction (C.1595); Priyadas in his commentary on Bhakatamal and Mukund Kavi in Kabir Chrit (1645) reconfirm him as a Muslim weaver living in Kashi but without any comment on stories about his birth. Saint Guru Ravidas, a contemporary of Kabir, according to some sources says,

“He whose ancestors slaughtered cows ... attained such height that he is revered in all three worlds” - Adi Granth, Malar, p.1203. 

As an inquisitive and compassionate child of his loving parents, Kabir is alluded to be keenly inclined towards learning at an early age. But how could a poor and low caste fellow fulfil his yearning for knowledge in a hierarchical society driven by the scripturally ordained caste system of the Hindus? There is a strong traditional evidence suggesting that Ramanand, a relatively liberal Vaishnavite saint, had grudgingly taken Kabir under his wings and the two together sought to realise the higher Truth. The single hymn of Ramanand included in the Adi Granth proclaims,

“Where need I go, for within my home I have been dyed in the divine hue... The Lord pervades all, says Ramanand...” - Raag Basant, p.1195.

The incorporation of Kabir’s 532 verses in 16 Ragas - melodies - the third largest in number after the compiler Guru Arjan (2312 verses in 30 melodies) and the Guru Nanak (869 verses in 17 melodies) in the Adi Granth, compiled in 1604 A.D., was indeed the most significant authentication with far reaching spiritual consequences for positioning of Kabir. The tradition confirms that Guru Nanak had met Kabir on several occasions for detailed spiritual discourses. It is further believed that Guru Nanak could have been the first to get Kabir’s verses transcribed and passed on the manuscripts to his successors. According to Giani Gurdit Singh, Kabir’s contribution as an inspired saint poet indeed stands apart not only in terms of the output but also for the versatility of themes indicating his own inner development with the excruciating experiences of his long life. 

There are anecdotal references that Kabir had to face the wrath Delhi ruler Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) in the wake of complaints against him by the Muslim Qazis and the Brahmin priests. Kabir’s poetry, therefore, appear to be directly addressed to listeners - of any religion or caste - with the trade mark, Kahai Kabir, suno Bhai sadhu - Kabir says, “Listen, O brother monk!” The passion packed and cryptic couplets engage the audience to wake up and peek within - “Kabir pounds away with questions, prods with riddles, stirs with challenges, shocks with insults, disorients with feints.” Kabir is indeed unique among the Bhakti poets in overwhelming us with his mastery of the vocative - “Pandit... let me know how to destroy transiency... You, Mr Qazi, who told you to swing the knife?” The impact of Kabir’s pithy poetic sayings must have been profound on the people crushed as they were in the crude formalism of the two competing mainstream religious divides. To quote Kshiti Mohan Sen, a scholar of Bengali Renaissance, “Kabir’s superior spiritual achievements came to have a sovereign influence on the people... his influence, direct or indirect, on all liberal movements that occurred in medieval times after him is uncommonly deep.” Since the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the western scholars, in their pursuit of study of Indian religious traditions and spiritual literature, had started taking a serious notice of Kabir’s remarkable hold on the common folk of the land; they hailed him as one of the greatest mystics and religious reformers in India. Swami Dayanand, however, remained adamantly hostile to all the leading lights of the liberal Bhakti movement describing Kabir - and Nanak too - as illiterate commoner, “Pandits refused to teach Sanskrit to this low caste weaver... Tab oot pattaang bhasha bana kar julahe aadi neech logon ko samjhane laga - then he started teaching low caste weavers, using crude and unbecoming language...” - Satyarath Prakash, 60th Edition, July 2005. 

Rabinder Nath Tagore’s anthology of the translation of 100 hymns of Kabir, published in 1917, with a comprehensive introduction by eminent Irish mystic-pacifist Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), opened the flood gates of Kabirian studies in the major vernaculars and European languages. The foreign scholars – cum missionaries were ‘clean bowled’ by the weaver-poet from Kashi and, in their enthusiasm, hailed him as ‘the Indian Luther’. The work in English of scholars like G.H. Westcott - Kabir and Kabir Panth, 1907 and the French researcher charlotte Vaudeville stating, “Kabir prefigured Tyagraja and Tagore and could even be considered the Gandhi of medieval times”, resulted in inspiring many more to undertake in depth studies on Kabir. Among the publications in Hindi, mention must be made of the monumental Kabir Granthavali series edited by Shyam Sundar Dass, Mataprasad Gupta, Parasnath Tiwari and many other eminent scholars. There were several editions published under the Bijak title. As regards the recent classic literary studies of Kabir, the writings of Dr Gobind Trugunayat, Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Acharya Parshuram Chaturvedi and Dr Ram Kumar Verma have indeed made path breaking contribution. 

The more recent interpretative studies of Kabir’s life and writings have dwelt more emphatically on his seminal relevance as poet-thinker-fighter for social justice; freedom of conscience; secular values in life; peace, understanding  and welfare of all. Kabir’s sublime couplets underlining the nobility of character; kind behaviour; honest living and fellow feeling effortlessly pierce deeper into the soul. Kabir’s frontal attack on the most callous caste system has make him an icon of the new age Dalit assertion. The writers and artists with progressive outlook and activists of secular forums have been amazingly innovative in rediscovering and reclaiming Kabir. We are also witnessing fiercely scholarly debates among outstanding Kabirians like Dr Purushottam Agarwal and Dr Dharamveer. Meanwhile the galaxy of the uniquely talented artists like theatre actor Shekhar Sen with mesmerising musical mono-act play; film-maker-singer Shabnam Virmani with her folk troupe of Prahlad Singh Tipanya and classical masters like Kumar Gandhrav - not to speak of so many popular singers including legends like Lata and Jagjit - have all made Kabir ‘a very, very cool guy’ for the 21st century among the young and old not only in India but globally. 

I was indeed the most blessed as a child to be amply introduced to the Dohe - couplets of ‘Kabir Julaha’ - and many an interesting anecdotes about him - by my grandmother even before I joined the school. And then it was in the summer of 1956: I had just been promoted to sixth class. The film Bhagat Kabir ‘arrived’ in our tiny market town of Ahmedgarh - to be screened in the make-shift small Sundar Theatre. I sought my grandmother’s permission to go to cinema to see this film about Kabir - her idol saint. I assured her that I had my own savings to buy the ticket - costing a few annas. “Cinema, film, no, not at all!” was the firmly reply by my grandma. “But, Dadee Ji, it is about Bhagat Kabir... you have been teaching me his Bani and telling his stories?” She remained unmoved, “No, no; these film makers must have made it something quite different containing dirty and vulgar things - ‘gandi aur Kharab baaten’ - about the saint and adding their own strange songs and dances - ‘Bure naach, gaane.’ I had no choice - how could I ever dare to defy my most loving and pious grandmother! 

To conclude: just to check references about Kabir in the google search, I put the subject, ‘Films and documentaries on Kabir’ - and, look, behold... there are 34,70, 000 results in 62 seconds!  The weaver poet of Benares has indeed gone global - and soul of my grandma would seem to approve and applaud it!!

I do earnestly hope and pray that people of Kabir’s own land would be heartily attuned with his soulful hymns of fraternity of humanity! He was never so compellingly relevant for India of Today, Tomorrow and the Day After!!!

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Song from the movie Mahatma Kabir (1954)