Book Reviews
Alternative History
Many have probably read how Sanjeev Sanyal, a thoughtful historian, economist and urban planner, has torn to shreds, Ashoka’s reputation as a pacifist. In case you didn’t, here is his story of the real Ashoka. In 274BC, Bindusara, son of Chandragupta, died. The crown prince, Sushima, was on the north-western frontier fighting incursions. When he rushed back to capital Pataliputra, he found that Ashoka, one of his half-brothers, had seized control. Ashoka got Sushima killed—possibly roasted alive! In the next four years, Ashoka seems to have killed all male rivals in his family. Buddhist texts mention that he killed 99 half-brothers and only spared his brother Tissa. Having consolidated his power, he was finally crowned emperor in 270BC.
 
Ashoka invaded Kalinga a few years later and, shocked by the death and destruction he had wrought, converted to Buddhism and became a pacifist. Or, so we believe. Sanyal argues that the rock edicts tell us that he had converted to Buddhism more than two years earlier “and from what we know of his early rule, he was hardly a man to be easily shocked by the sight of blood.”
 
Sanyal argues that the main evidence of Ashoka's repentance comes from his own inscriptions. “It is very curious, however, that this ‘regret’ is mentioned only in locations far away from Odisha (such as in Shahbazgarhi in north-western Pakistan) which can’t be challenged... If Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have surely bothered to apologize to the people whom he had wronged. Far from it, he doesn’t even offer to free the captives. Even the supposedly regretful inscriptions include a clear threat of further violence against other groups like the forest tribes.” It is likely that it was pure propaganda by Ashoka to counter his reputation for cruelty. Indeed, the Buddhist text, Ashokavadana, tells us of more acts of genocide perpetrated many years after he supposedly turned pacifist; Ashoka once had 18,000 Ajivikas Jains in Bengal put to death in a single episode. 
 
The job of any good book is to surprise us with facts, especially about known situations, and weave them in a flowing narrative to support an overarching theme. The Ocean of Churn does this very well. Sanyal skilfully weaves together stories picked from thousands of years history stretching from Europe to Southeast Asia to show how culture and commerce, religion and administration, family lineages and wars, kinship and genetics across centuries interacted around the Indian ocean. But this story has hardly been told from the perspective of those who lived around the Indian Ocean. Sanyal hopes to rectify that, with this book.
 
He has many surprises for us about our recent past, too, such as the role played by the revolutionaries in our freedom struggle. Sanyal argues that while the Netaji Subhash Chadra Bose’s role in the last stages of India’s freedom struggle is known, it was really the culmination of a strategy that had been devised decades ago. The simplest way to throw out the British was not civil disobedience but create a mutiny among the soldiers. After all, the backbone of the British empire was not the few British people who lived here but the vast army of Indian soldiers who fought for the British in many wars across the world. This was the plan of Rashbehari Bose, Sachindra Nath Sanyal (the author’s great grandfather), Har Dayal and others from the mid-1910s, influenced by Vinayak Savarkar. Another plan included bringing in arms across the sea from the east. Unfortunately, these plans failed each time. SN Sanyal was caught and sent to Cellular jail in Andaman and Bose fled to Japan. But the idea lived on and manifested years later with the dramatic escape of Subhash Bose from house arrest in Kolkata, contacting the Germans and the Japanese, and leading the charge with an Indian army from the east. Ultimately, Indian soldiers did rise up in mutiny in 1946 (naval revolt of Bombay).
 
This short review only offers a flavour that the history we read is probably a deeply flawed. The stories appear more nuanced, global, richer and shaped by unsung heroes in Sanyal’s narrative, where Odiya and Omani seafarers, Chola and Chinese kings, Pallava and Portuguese warriors race through the pages. A must-read. 

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COMMENTS

Ramesh Mehta

2 months ago

As they say "History is written by the victors"...

Failure of governance - from Kashmir to Karnataka
Be it Kashmir or Karnataka, poor governance has been responsible for making a bad situation worse.
 
Such administrative lapses are true of minor incidents of lawlessness as well like the antics of the "gau rakshaks" or the cow vigilantes, who have been running amok from Mewat in Haryana to Bengaluru in Karnataka.
 
Similarly, the inept rulers have let down Delhi at a time of dengue and chikungunya outbreaks.
 
But when the gross inadequacies of a ruling party lead to a major disturbance like the one in Bengaluru, a widespread sense of insecurity assails tourists, investors and ordinary people.
 
The failure of Karnataka's Congress government's in Bengaluru was its inability to assess the threat posed by local anger over the release of the Cauvery waters for Tamil Nadu at the expense of the state's farming and drinking water requirements.
 
This inexplicable lapse led to the burning of 40-odd luxury buses with Tamil Nadu number plates in a Bengaluru bus depot.
 
While the cosmopolitan city, which is India's pride as an information technology centre, was at the mercy of rampaging mobs for several hours, the police were nowhere to be seen till curfew was imposed as late as 10.30 p.m.
 
Yet, if the authorities had been alert to the growing tension, especially after an eatery run by a Kannadiga was attacked in Chennai, much of the mayhem could have been avoided and Bengaluru's reputation partly saved.
 
All that was needed was to increase the number of police patrolling parties and of stationary pickets before the arson took place and not afterwards.
 
There is nothing so effective as a show of force to deter the volatile underclass of lumpen elements who are present in nearly all Indian towns, big and small, and who take to the streets at the slightest provocation when they are not involved in thievery or preying on hapless women.
 
The targeting of Africans and of people from the northeast in Bengaluru not long ago was the handiwork of these unruly groups.
 
But the Siddaramaiah government did not take cognisance of their potential for mischief till the city was shamed by the television pictures of burning buses.
 
Cynics have suggested that it looked the other way for several hours so as not to antagonise the Kannadiga activists.
 
Nor did any government -- past or present -- pay any attention to a riverine problem that has been simmering for a century.
 
In the case of both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the root of the problem lies in the cultivation of water-guzzling crops like rice and sugarcane, for which the waters of the Cauvery are no longer adequate, especially in a year of scarce rainfall.
 
The Cauvery has also been "dying" because of the pollution caused by the inflow into it of untreated industrial effluents and of sewage.
 
Much of the problem could have been solved if, first, the causes of pollution were eradicated and, more importantly, the farmers were persuaded to switch to growing millets, oilseeds, pulses and other crops which do not require much water.
 
But such initiatives take time and dedication, neither of which is high on the priority list of politicians who are intent on winning the next election; or of bureaucrats preoccupied with advancing their career prospects rather than looking at permanent solutions.
 
It was the same in Kashmir, where no thought was given to ways of dealing with a "poster boy" of terrorism like Burhan Wani -- whether he should be killed or kept cooped up and subsequently smoked out by surrounding him and his followers with a ring of security forces.
 
Had such alternatives been discussed and decided on, the present unrest in the Kashmir Valley could have been avoided.
 
But the Indian habit is apparently to avoid tactical and strategic measures. Instead, the preference is for responding to an evolving situation on a case-by-case basis or playing it by the ear, as the phrase goes.
 
Not surprisingly, the judiciary has become the last resort with the governments washing their hands of difficult situations by depending on the legal system to find a way out.
 
But the judiciary cannot assuage the public mood with its cut-and-dried formulas like telling the Karnataka government to release 15,000 cusecs of water per day for Tamil Nadu for 10 days, which was later modified to 12,000 cusecs though over a longer period of time.
 
Nor does its diktats outlawing agitations have any meaning in a democracy. As much is evident from the 12-hour bandh called in Tamil Nadu, a day after the judicial directive, to register the state's protest against the ill-treatment of Tamils in Karnataka.
 
Whether it is stopping the gau rakshaks from assaulting suspected beef eaters, or providing adequate healthcare to citizens during an outbreak of mosquito-borne diseases, governance is the key.
 
What this means is that Indian politicians have to be alive to their responsibilities and liaise with the officials to address a problem swiftly and determinedly before it gets out of hand. Yet, they are generally found to be remiss in the performance of these basic tasks.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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Interest rate cycle reaching the bottom
Inflation has bottomed out leaving the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) with less room to undertake further rate cuts, says India Ratings and Research (Ind-Ra). The ratings agency says it believes that in such a scenario companies may lock in their long term funding at the current rates, before the cycle turns.
 
"Though global factors particularly low interest rates and fund inflows into emerging markets have remained favourable for a fairly extended period of time, the likelihood of interest rates moving up from here has strengthened - notwithstanding the fact that the US Federal Reserve may still take some time to resume hiking rates. With the backdrop of rising global yields, where global sovereign-bond yields have risen to the highest in almost three months, the Indian currency may come under pressure and push the RBI to turn hawkish," Ind-Ra says.   
 
As per the ratings agency inflation appears to have bottomed out, however inflationary expectations have once again shown an up-tick. 
 
The RBI carries out a quarterly survey of about 5,000 households across 16 cities in India to assess inflationary expectations of households three months ahead and one year ahead. As per data released by the central bank, mean household inflationary expectations for three months ahead in June 2016 rose by 110bp to 9.2% from the March 2016 survey. The one-year ahead mean inflation expectation is even higher at 9.6% than the three-month ahead expectations, implying households expect the inflation trajectory to move further up.
 
Ind-Ra says, "The shift in RBI's stance with respect to liquidity to neutral from deficit mode has had a significant impact on the yields of government securities (G-sec). Liquidity is no longer in the deficit mode, in fact in the last two months there has been net liquidity surplus in the system. The yield on the benchmark 10 year G-sec is presently hovering around 7% as against 7.5% in April 2016. We believe that the possibility for a further liquidity driven drop in the G-sec yield is limited. However, due to negative yields prevailing globally, demand from foreign participants can push yields down further."
 
According to the ratings agency, one of the unstated objective of the outgoing RBI governor Raghuram Rajan was to maintain real interest rates, the difference between risk free interest rate and consumer price index (CPI), positive and in the range of 1.5% to 2%. 
 
Ind-Ra says it expects the new RBI governor Urjit Patel to also follow this approach. Real interest rate has remained positive since January 2014. It peaked at 4.91% in November 2014 and has declined since then to 2.06% in August 2016. "It may be noted that the period when the real rate of interest was significantly in excess of 2% was also the period when RBI cut the policy rates. As the real rate of interest fell close to/lower than 2% from April 2016 onwards, RBI has maintained a status quo on policy rates," it added.             
 
Since the soft trend over the last three years has significantly affected earnings and debt repayment capacity, the ratings agency feels that corporate India will be keenly monitor the nominal GDP growth rate. 
 
In its previous report, Ind-Ra had highlighted that the total refinancing required by the top 500 Corporates in FY17 aggregates to Rs2.1 lakh crore, with potential candidates which will be able to access the bond market being Rs70,000 crore. "While it is early to signal a shift in the revenue trend line, corporates are likely to benefit from the current refinancing opportunities at low rates and will possibly lock-in long term funds since the downside to interest rates are limited or negligible," the ratings agency concluded.

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COMMENTS

Deepak Narain

3 months ago

With interest rates continuously going down, the future of pensioners like me, who park their funds in FDs with Banks, is getting darker. I think the govt has some responsibility towards us also.

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