A Muffled Voice
The first two chapters made me jot down: ‘putdownable’. Thank God, I continued. Sue the Messenger then starts to read like a detective novel. Each Smart-Alec chapter-title is followed by journalistic sleuthing, digging up dirt, exposing the filthy tricks bag of corporates—be they chemicals manufactures, the fourth pillar robber barons—or sundry nasty characters, out to stifle, not dissent, but truth.
 
Shooting the messenger may seem more humane. Here are examples of harassment, hounding, ingestion of fatal substances; and the ever-present halo-backed denials. Sabse Badaa Rupaiya. And to hell with the public! Mark Twain said, attributing to Benjamin Disraeli, that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. We now add unholy refutations, doctored reports, manipulative press conferences, et al. Finally, there is resort to ruinous litigation where the small guy is driven into the ground, not allowed to function, financially decimated and made to shut up.   
 
As a lawyer, I asked myself: Would I issue notices, actually legally worded threats, if I were offered a million bucks? As one who has often said that the “Let’s-teach-him-a-lesson” litigation is taboo, what would I do? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.    
 
This very magazine has faced similar tribulations. Laws do not allow me to elaborate on sub-judice matters, especially where I was involved; but the reader will find fairly accurate reportage in the book. Maybe one day, Sucheta and Debashis (and why not I too), will be able to pen a volume. Till then, this is all you get.
 
It’s frightening to read. To think that we are exposed to toxicity every waking and sleeping moment. In the mad rush of the 1950s and 1960s, the Holy Grail was import substitution. Chemicals formed no mean part and South Gujarat baited the Bombayite. Vapi was the preferred destination. Asia’s biggest chemicals estate, it was billed; and caution was thrown to the winds. Winds carried the deadly fumes for miles around. Rivers turned to every rainbow hue, fruits shrunk by 30%. Well-water was contaminated, effluent discharged into nullahs.
 
I know. As a young salesman, I had tried to sell pollution control equipment in Vapi. I sold none. The stock excuse was that the inspector could be paid off; why invest in equipment and waste money. 
 
With this attitude, chemicals banned in other countries, along with forbidden and scrapped plants, found ready buyers in India. Worse was to follow. The font of the estates sprayed the entire country with poison. And any attempt to expose the noxious nexus was thwarted by crushing litigation. Read it. It’s all there in this book.
 
There are two distinct writing styles discernible in the book. One staid. The other racy. But the research and facts stand out. One never feels that there is any wavering from the truth. Where the authors, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Subir Ghosh, were personally involved, they make it clear. It is for the reader to decide whether they have axes to grind.
 
Constant vigilance is the price of freedom. Newsmen, and women, help in no small measure. But investigative journalism is not for the faint of heart nor for the weak of spirit. 
 
Moreover, is there a journalist who has made his pile by exposing the crooks and the corrupt, the high and the mighty? Methinks not. The breed will live and die penniless. But we, and the truth, will survive.
 
At the end of the day, we must understand this. Every time David slays Goliath, we can rejoice. Not because of victory, wherein we need to demonstrate magnanimity, but because we live in a free world. A world where informed choice overcomes lies and deceit, where human bulldozers are stopped in their tracks, and men and women enjoy the fruits of their labour; and those that seek to prosper by oppression are laid waste.
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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

Ray Lopez

1 year ago

"Ashoka once had 18,000 Ajivikas Jains in Bengal put to death in a single episode. " - hard to believe so many people died in a single episode, so this might be anti-Ashoka propaganda?

Ramesh Mehta

3 years ago

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

Saving Democracy and Capitalism
Winston Churchill was right when he said that democracy is not a perfect system; but until we find a better one, it is the best we have. The pessimists in all countries, including USA and India (the largest democracies in the world), will keep complaining about the failure of the system. This is the easiest thing to do. Kotler, known as the father of modern marketing, prefers to be an optimist. He advocates that we keep trying to correct the system and make things better for everyone. For that, he goes back to his original training as an economist at the University of Chicago, under Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, and then, at MIT, under Nobel Laureates Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow.
 
Kotler brings ‘marketing thinking’ to improve the working of capitalism and democracy. Therefore, in this book of only 200 pages, he does not just list the 14 problems/interlocked challenges, but also suggests how we could find solutions for them. Kotler looks at democracy as a product and then analyses the strengths and weaknesses, the competitive systems, why and in which areas it no longer satisfies the needs of the consumer (citizen) and then suggests how we can work towards making the product (democracy) a winner in the marketplace. 
 
Today, less than 60% of eligible voters vote in a presidential election (against a higher percentage in Belgium, Germany, etc).Over 96% of politicians are likely to stay in office. Since politicians desperately need money to run campaigns, many of them get money from the rich—for a price. The result: much of the legislation not only seeks to protect big fortunes but is designed to enlarge them. We have moved rapidly from being a democracy into an oligarchy or a plutocracy. And the weakening of democracy is reducing the capitalist system’s ability to produce benefits for the majority. Democracy is increasingly becoming an instrument to take care of the very rich—1% of the population.
 
Kotler lists 14 shortcomings in democracy such as low voter literacy, turnout and engagement; shortage of qualified visionary candidates; and two-party gridlock, etc. He analyses each of these and proffers solutions. It is a good start to save a system of governance, first initiated by Plato in The Republic—a government of the people, for the people, where only the ‘enlightened could vote or be elected’. This has been experimented in small communities (like in Vermont and New Hampshire in the US) where they met several times a year—and ran a government of - We the people, not We the Corporations! But this has changed everywhere else, because most democracies are ‘representative democracies’, not direct democracies. A very interesting comment on page 29 is: “In 2015, the League of Women Voters in USA cited three problems that are weakening democracy:  
  • Congressional districts are drawn and gerrymandered to benefit self-serving politicians;
  • Access to voting is limited and, sometimes, denied;
  • Dark money is infiltrating elections so voters do not even know who is bankrolling the political messages that we see and hear.”
Does this seem familiar, for India and many other democracies, younger than the US? Kotler suggest some solutions—or at least solutions that can be debated. One example is: Governments, at all levels, must become more businesslike and transparent. Periodically, they should tell us what they have accomplished with the tax money. Another example: reduce election campaign period. UK limits advertising campaigns to 30 days. All candidates would benefit by not needing as much money. 
 
There is much for the thinking Indian to learn from this book. Although Kotler mostly talks about the part failure of democracy in the US, much of what he says is applicable to India. India professes consumer protection, but the consumer courts have no staff—sometimes, not even any physical infrastructure. We want to look after the interests of the citizen but even minor legal cases can take 30 years to conclude because of the poor legal infrastructure. While Plato talked of an enlightened electorate, 60 years after independence, India still has a literacy level of less than 60%. And, yet, in August 2016, India is estimated to have the 7th highest number of richest people in the world. We may need to consciously target for improvement in per capita GDP, rather than total GDP. Just going after the latter can give a sense of complacency, when true change has not taken place at the ground level. 
 
This book is a must-read for all thinking Indians. If it can be buttressed with a reading of the earlier book on capitalism, so much the better. 
 
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