Uttarakhand reiterates that our rulers have contemptuous disregard for the advice of the best scientists and would rather listen to contractors and builders to whom they are beholden for funds
In the early 1980s, while doing research on the environmental history of Uttarakhand, I sometimes visited the library of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun. Most of the journals in the library dealt with geology and earth sciences, but there were a few on conservation policy relevant to my work. One day, the librarian pointed to a man with glasses leafing though some journals. ‘Valdiya Saheb ayé hain, Nainital sé’, he said.
The tone in the librarian’s voice conveyed respect, with a dash of local pride. Then in his early forties, K.S. Valdiya was already recognised as a world-class geologist. He grew up in rural Kumaon, in the border district of Pithoragarh, and studied in village schools before going on to Lucknow University, where he did his M.Sc. and PhD, the launching pad for a research career solid in substance and achievement. While the hills had produced many great lawyers, freedom fighters, soldiers, and poets, Professor Valdiya was then, and remains still, one of the few Uttarakhandis to have achieved distinction in the natural sciences. And while many ambitious Uttarakhandis have abandoned the hills in search of professional success, the geologist has remained closely connected to the region. He did much of his fieldwork in the interior Himalaya, and — at the height of his career — took up a job in Kumaun University in Nainital rather than in a more prestigious university elsewhere in India (see, for more details on his work and career, www.ksvaldiya.info).
Back in 1981, I was too timid to go up to speak to Professor Valdiya. But now that I am older, and we both live in Bangalore, I sought his views on the devastating tragedy in a region he knew so well both as resident and as scientist. I asked, did the government of his native State consult him while designing development projects in the Uttarakhand Himalaya, a notoriously fragile environment prone to earthquakes, landslides, cloud bursts, and floods? His answer was that no, it never had. In the 15 years since Uttarakhand was formed, the politicians and administrators who ran the State had not once sought the inputs of this expert on Himalayan geology, who happened also to be a native of the State. What made the neglect even more striking is that for nine of those 15 years, Professor Valdiya had been the President of the Governing Body of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, itself located in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand. The neglect continues — as the Director of the Wadia Institute informed me in response to an email query, the Uttarakhand government never consults them while framing their policies and programmes.
I wonder — which is better, not being consulted at all, or being consulted and then having your report rejected? Consider the case of Madhav Gadgil, who in some respects is the K.S. Valdiya of the Western Ghats. He was born on the crest of the Ghats, and has spent his life doing research on its human and natural communities. No one alive knows more about a hill range that is the peninsular version of the Himalaya, home to many great rivers, and to a fantastic reservoir of biodiversity, on whose careful and sensitive treatment depends the livelihood of millions of people.
In 2009, in a rare moment of sanity, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests commissioned Professor Gadgil to write a report on an appropriate strategy for the region. He took his job seriously, involving younger scientists at the forefront of cutting-edge research, and holding a series of public hearings. After much fieldwork and consultation, a fact-filled and carefully argued report was submitted to the Ministry. The contents of the report so angered the Minister that she refused even to meet a man recognised as one of the world’s great ecologists, a recipient of medals and honours from the world’s finest universities.
A key reason that State and national governments don’t consult qualified experts — or disregard their advice when it is offered to them — is expedience. K.S. Valdiya, for example, is known to be sceptical — on strictly scientific grounds — of the siting of large dams and construction projects in the Himalaya. Beholden as they often are to contractors and builders for funds, Ministers and MLAs would thus rather steer clear of such scientists. Or turn their back on them — which is what happened with the Gadgil report, whose call for protecting endangered landscapes stands in the way of the desire of politicians across parties to convert the ecologically fragile Western Ghats into a web of holiday homes, power plants, and the like.
A second reason for the lack of scientific input in public policy making is the hegemony of the Indian Administrative Service. Back in 1977, in a bid to break this stranglehold, the then Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, inducted several professionals as secretaries to government. Thus M.S. Swaminathan became the first scientist to be chosen as Agriculture Secretary, Manuel Menezes the first engineer to be appointed Secretary of Defence Production, Lovraj Kumar the first chemist to serve as Petroleum Secretary. These initiatives were welcome, if belated. The need now was to make them more widespread, so that other ministries could likewise be run by qualified experts rather than by generalists.
In 1980 Indira Gandhi returned to power. One of her first acts was to start a new Department of Environment, and hire a first-rate botanist (T.N. Khooshoo) as its Secretary. But slowly the IAS began to fight back. It reclaimed possession of the ministries it had lost control of. In recent years, while continuing to protect its turf, the IAS has expanded into new areas. It has close to total domination (at both Central and State levels) over such institutions as the Election Commission and the Information Commission, which are run by retired IAS officers, although their jobs can be done just as well by well trained (and public spirited) lawyers or social scientists.
To be sure, the IAS does have some outstandingly competent — and professionally upright — individuals, some of whom do excellent work as Secretaries to government. However, too many babus now spend their last years in service lobbying for post-retirement sinecures, assiduously cultivating their political bosses in the hope that this will assure them five more years with a house, car, and an army of flunkies in Lutyen’s New Delhi.
The IAS has been slightly less successful in capturing an institution set up to prevent or mitigate tragedies such as the Uttarakhand floods, namely, the National Disaster Management Authority. Two of the eight members of the NDMA are retired IAS officers. Two others are retired officers of the Indian Police Service, yet another a retired Major General. Three members do have a scientific background, but two of them have spent the bulk of their career as administrators in government. Only one of the eight members, an earth scientist named Harsh Gupta, seems to be a scientist of real professional distinction.
All the members of the NDMA are well past 60. Most have spent the past decade (or more) pushing files in the secretariat. How, one wonders, would they have the energy and commitment to actively direct or oversee rehabilitation operations? Or the necessary scientific expertise and foresight to prescribe how to avert such tragedies in the future? Why are there not more practising scientists in the NDMA? Surely at least one practising social worker can valuably serve as a member?
In the better-run democracies of the world, expert knowledge is brought into governance and public policy in two distinct ways. First, scientists in universities and research laboratories are frequently called in to advise State and local governments. If the Government of British Columbia, for example, wishes to design an ecodevelopment plan for the Rockies, it shall certainly solicit — and most likely heed — the opinion of scientists in the State’s own universities.
Second, there is much greater scope for the lateral entry of professionals into government — at middle as well as senior levels. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, economists, and managers can all enter the public sector after 10 or 15 years in the private sector, and — based on their competence alone — rise to the top of the ladder, assuming posts equivalent in their system to Secretaries to government in ours. Even senior Cabinet positions are often assigned to specialists. Thus President Obama got a Nobel-prize winning physicist, no less, to serve as his Secretary of Energy.
The Indian state, on the other hand, displays — as its treatment of Professors Valdiya and Gadgil demonstrates — a contemptuous disregard for the practical advice of its best scientists. It chooses rather to go with the counsel of risk-averse retired babus or deal-making contractors and builders.
Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at age 89 and became an international sensation. Now 101 years old, he will run his final race on Sunday in Hong Kong -- and try to find peace with a Guinness World Records slight.
by Jordan Conn
PORTRAITS BY LEVON BISS
THE PARTY WOULD BEGIN just as soon as the race ended. And the race would end just after Fauja Singh crossed the line in 3,851st place. By finishing then -- by finishing at all -- Fauja would do what no man before him had ever done. Amid the bundled and cheering crowd in Toronto, underneath a distended but gracious sky, he would complete a marathon. And he would do so at 100 years old.
Was it pain he felt as he approached the end, just footsteps away from redefining the limits of human endurance? No, this wasn't pain. Fauja knew pain. Pain was death -- you see plenty of that when you live 100 years. Pain was bloody limbs and overtaxed joints -- you get too much of that when you insist on completing every race you ever start. This wasn't pain but exhaustion. And Fauja could handle exhaustion, because exhaustion foreshadowed euphoria. When Fauja got tired, it often meant a record would soon fall.
Fauja Singh crosses the finish line in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in Toronto on Oct. 16, 2011.
David Cooper/The Toronto Star/Zuma Press
He'd already broken a few. Fastest to run a marathon (male, over age 90), fastest to run 5,000 meters (male, over age 100), fastest to run 3,000 meters (male, over age 100), and on and on they went. But those records didn't roll off the tongue the way this one would.Oldest person to complete a marathon (male): Fauja Singh. The other feats had earned him recognition from the Masters Federation websites. This one would put him in the Guinness World Records. An official with the company had contacted Fauja's coach, Harmander Singh (no relation) several weeks earlier. Harmander told Fauja that Guinness would send representatives to watch Fauja run in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and as soon as he finished, they would award him the recognition he deserved.
So Fauja ran in Toronto, arms swinging, yellow turban bobbing, chest-length Zeusian beard swaying in the wind. He was joined by other runners with roots in the Indian region of Punjab, their appearance in keeping with the traditions of their Sikh faith. Fauja trotted for the first three miles, until his coach encouraged him to slow to a jog. Speed was fleeting, the enemy of endurance. By mile 6, he'd downshifted to a toddle. After a break for a rubdown and some tea at mile 18, he settled into a walk.
The exhaustion took hold sometime around mile 20, but Harmander kept Fauja upbeat with white lies about the remaining distance. He'd tell Fauja there were four miles left when there were actually six, then two miles left when there were actually three, making Fauja believe he'd covered more ground than he actually had, until finally Fauja saw the only mile-marker he understood: the finish line.
What had been silence between footsteps was now music and cheers. The slog to the finish reminded Fauja of his wedding day, of the joy that awaited at the end of the long aisle. He waved to the crowd as he walked across the line, then lifted his arms and accepted a medal. He'd finished in 8 hours, 25 minutes. There were smiles and handshakes and photos with friends and strangers, then a rambling news conference for Fauja to reflect on his record. Amid the chaos and congratulations, however, Fauja and Harmander never noticed the absence of one celebrant they'd expected.
They didn't realize that Guinness was nowhere to be found.
Harmander Singh runs with Fauja in Valentines Park in Redbridge, London.
Levon Biss for ESPN The Magazine
THE VILLAGE OF BEAS PIND sits in northwestern India, not too far from the Pakistani border, right along the Jalandhar Pathankhot road. It is quiet and nondescript, a place for farmers and their families, their daily routines dictated by the whims of the weather and the yield of the land.
On one spring morning in Beas Pind, Bhago Kaur gave birth to a son. The women of the family decided to call him Fauja, meaning "army general," or "soldier." The year was 1911. At least, that is, if you believe Fauja Singh. The man has no birth certificate, because at that time, in that part of the world, there were no birth certificates. The British ruled India until 1947 and, according to Michelle Ercanbrack of Ancestry.com, the country did not begin registering births until 1964.
There is no record when this family photo was taken, but it is at Fauja's ancestral home in Punjab, India.
Courtesy Khushwant Singh
But none of that would matter for another century or so. In 1911, it mattered only that the boy was healthy and happy and loved. By his second birthday, however, Fauja's parents had cause for concern: He couldn't walk. The way Fauja tells it, his legs were short and spindly, capable of movement but too weak to support his body. He turned 3. No steps yet. Then 4. Still crawling. Children called him danda, Punjabi for "stick." Family members worried he might be crippled for life, so they consulted village doctors. Generally unfamiliar with Western medicine, the local health care providers were likely to concoct an herbal remedy for illness or prescribe human urine for injuries, but in Fauja's case, they saw nothing wrong. The boy was just weak, they said. Nothing could be done.
Finally, at age 5, he developed enough strength to hobble. Proper walking didn't come until around age 10. In the Punjab, schools were scarce and attended only by the upper classes, so as he grew, Fauja joined the village's other men on the farm. He fed the cattle. He worked the land, growing maize and wheat. When monsoon season brought rain and rain turned dirt to mud, Fauja returned home each day with his clothes soiled, ready to rest with a hot cup of tea. He subsisted on milk and yogurt and conversations that stretched from afternoon to night. It was a simple life, each day's monotonous pleasures carrying over to the next.
Years passed. Fauja married. His wife, Gian Kaur, had three boys and three girls. Years more passed. The children grew. By the 1960s, most had married and moved, one by one, to the West. One settled in Canada, the others in England. One stayed at home -- Kuldip, Fauja's fifth child and second son.
In 1992, his wife died. Fauja grieved but felt thankful, celebrating a long life well lived. He was 81 now, surely approaching death himself, and he was happy to live out his remaining days at home with Kuldip. "I have always loved my children the same," he says, but there in the village, he could see and touch and smell only Kuldip every day. In the mornings, they worked the fields. In the afternoons, they laughed over tea. In the evenings, they retired to their roadside home. There was no favoritism, he'd say, only the intimacy of a life shared.
In Punjab, the monsoons came each July. Hot air rose. Air pressure dropped. Rain fell and crops grew and farmers celebrated their windfall while seeking shelter from the spewing and malevolent sky. One night in 1994, Kuldip and Fauja walked outside to make some repairs to an irrigation channel that ran next to the site of their newest business venture, a roadside restaurant. Wind and rain whipped across the village, ripping a sheet of corrugated metal off the roof of the restaurant. This was typical in Punjab, where the violence of the weather patterns often overpowered the infrastructure of the villages.
Everything that would come later in life -- the records, the travel, the fame -- all of it was in response to that night. But when Fauja is asked to recount it, he lets his translator tell most of the story. He'd rather not say that he watched the sheet of metal fly at his son's skull, watched iron collide with flesh and his son's head fly off his body. He'd rather not remember the rain falling as Fauja screamed, looking on as his son lay on the ground, dead. Decapitated.
He will, however, mention the thoughts the came next.
"Why, God? Why him? Why not me?"
Fauja Singh at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha Seven Kings, a Sikh Temple, in London.
Levon Biss for ESPN The Magazine
THE MONOTONOUS DAYS, once so benign, now trudged forward underneath the weight of loss. Fauja sat in his home or under the nearby trees, stone faced, waiting for each day to end. He picked fights. He lost friends. He wandered around the village, alone and aimless. He walked to the spot where his son's head had once rolled, and he stared and mumbled and cried.
The villagers worried. They called Fauja's other children in London and told them, Your father's gone crazy. The children decided Fauja needed to be near them, so they asked him to move to England. He boarded a plane, leaving most of his possessions behind. He'd visited London over the years and found it "fantastic and different." But this time: "I was going only to forget."
At first, the new setting was no better. Too old to work and illiterate besides, Fauja felt no purpose or responsibility. "My mind," he says, "was still in India." Yet his depression had come to London.
At 101, Fauja Singh is believed to be the world's oldest marathon runner.
Looking to get out of the house, Fauja began running with fellow Punjabi expats at Sikh community gatherings. "I needed something to distract myself," he says. Nearly 85 years after Fauja had been too weak to walk, he found himself in decent physical shape. While his new expat friends had spent much of their lives enjoying London's conveniences, Fauja had spent his days laboring on the farm.
He challenged fellow seniors to sprints. He won. When there was no one available to race, Fauja set off running by himself, and he built up his distance over time. When running, Fauja realized he thought only of his next step. After enough steps, his mind went blank, and with his feet pounding the pavement, Fauja says, "I felt connected to God." The anger evaporated. For at least a few moments, Fauja escaped his grief.
Fauja lived with his son, Sukhjinder, and his children took care of his expenses. He still collected a pension from the government, however (as do many of the UK's elderly residents), so he allowed himself to indulge in expensive clothing. After a lifetime in functional Punjabi garb, he took quickly to London's high-fashion aesthete. He couldn't speak the language or follow the customs, and his beard and his turban marked him clearly as a foreigner, but from the neck down, Fauja looked the part of a Londoner.
He had another indulgence, too: television. Fauja hadn't owned one in India, so now he passed hours flipping channels on the couch, and one afternoon, he saw a mass of people crowded together on the road, running along in T-shirts and shorts. Curious, Fauja asked around, What were they doing? Soon he found out it was an organized race. A marathon, they called it. Fauja decided that if the people on TV could run a marathon, then surely he could run one, too.
Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at age 89.
Levon Biss for ESPN The Magazine
THROUGH A MUTUAL ACQUAINTANCE, Fauja met Harmander Singh, an amateur marathoner who trained others in his spare time. Fauja told Harmander he wanted to run the London Marathon and needed a coach. It was February of 2000. The race was in April. Fauja had 10 weeks.
On the first day of training, Fauja arrived limber and energetic and dressed, as he believed was perfectly appropriate, in a dazzling three-piece suit. Harmander told him he needed a wardrobe change. After adamant protests, Fauja relented, ditched the suit and bought running gear. He showed up every day after that, building his routine around his training schedule. His mileage increased as the weeks passed. Race day arrived. After 6 hours and 54 minutes, 4:48 behind winner Antonio Pinto, Fauja crossed the finish line. At age 89, he was a marathoner. Soon, he would be a star.
FAUJA ENTERED THE LONDON MARATHON again the next year, 2001, this time with a record at stake. He needed to beat 7:52 to be the fastest marathoner alive over age 90. He broke it by 57 minutes.
Now came the interviews, the photo ops and the requests for public appearances. Fauja became a staple at events held by the Punjabi diaspora, showing up to weddings and parties and school festivals, giving hugs and shaking hands. Fauja kept running, and his time kept dropping, and in 2004 adidas called, eager to include a turbaned nonagenarian marathoner in its "Impossible is Nothing" ad campaign. Fauja was featured alongside David Beckham, and his image was used in magazine ads, along with the tagline: 6:54 at age 89. 5:40 at age 92. The Kenyans better watch out for him when he hits 100.
"I felt connected to God," Fauja Singh says of his running.
Levon Biss for ESPN The Magazine
According to Harmander, Fauja gave all the money he received to charity. Many races paid for his travel expenses, but at home, he could live off his children and his pension. He raced in Scotland and Canada and all over England. "I had a new focus," he says. The more he ran and gave, the more he pushed back his grief. As he traveled, Fauja barely knew where he was from one day to the next. If you asked him about "adidas," he'd have no clue who you were talking about. He knew it only as the company that sponsored him, who brought him in for photo-shoots and events.
The attention -- that's what Fauja loved. He may have donated the money, but the smiles and handshakes from friends and strangers alike, the hugs from blondes and the questions from reporters -- all of that was for Fauja and Fauja alone. He almost never turned down requests for appearances or photos, always eager to step into any room whose attention he could command. So when Fauja came to the United States for the New York City Marathon in 2003, he wanted all eyes on him. Specifically, on his head.
Post-9/11 America had become a difficult place for turban wearers. It mattered little that turbans were most common among Sikhs, and that Sikhs -- whose monotheistic faith originated in India in the 15th century -- played no role in the attacks on the twin towers. Sikhs wore turbans. And in 2003, turbans were bad.
Dozens of hate crimes against Sikhs had been reported across the country. In Phoenix, a Sikh truck driver was shot twice by men in a pickup truck, unprovoked. In Maryland, a Sikh family received threatening letters and had its home vandalized. In New York, a Sikh police officer resigned after his supervisors ordered him to shave his beard and remove his turban. For Sikhs, the turban is worn as a marker of never-ending accountability. Everywhere he goes, a Sikh man is marked by his religion. This is by design. It's a constant reminder -- a man doesn't represent only himself; he represents all who share his beliefs.
So Fauja arrived in New York, dying to spark conversation over his turban and his faith. If he could run a good race, perhaps even break a record or two, that would help. By this point, however, Fauja was on his third marathon in less than seven months. The miles had taken a toll. He showed up for the race with the flu, jet lag and a bum ankle.
Once he got going, he had to listen to cries of "Osama!" and "Saddam!" from the crowd. The pack pulled away, and Fauja slipped behind, stopping every so often for rest and medical treatment. Blisters formed, and soon they burst, the blood filling Fauja's sock. His run became a walk; his walk became a hobble. With his foot throbbing, Fauja shouted in Punjabi to whoever could hear, "Just chop it off!" Paramedics trailed close behind, but whenever they asked whether he needed help, Fauja just waved them away. He would finish, and would show Americans what kind of men wore turbans atop their heads.
After 7 hours and 34 minutes, more than half an hour slower than his previous slowest time, Fauja crossed the finish line. After he finished answering questions from reporters, he collapsed. Within moments, he was surrounded by paramedics and lifted into an ambulance. Cameras clicked, capturing the old man, frail and slow, with a turban wrapped tight around his head, looking closer to death than to ever finishing another marathon.
He felt certain he'd failed to convince anyone of a Sikh man's strength and kindness. Never mind that cheers had far outweighed slurs, or that the next morning's papers would make only passing reference to his injuries. In Fauja's mind, he'd become a symbol of weakness, deserving of pity, not respect.
He made a vow: He'd never run again.
Harmander Singh would not let his student quit.
Levon Biss for ESPN The Magazine
ONE PROBLEM: Harmander wouldn't let him quit. "I was terrified," Harmander says. "He'd used running to pull himself out of the depression he fell into after his son died. What was he going to do without it?"
Harmander convinced Fauja to run one more race. New York had been too difficult, he said. Three marathons in six-and-a-half months is remarkable for a 30-year-old. At 92 it's insane. "So give it some time," Harmander told Fauja. "Let your body recover, then see how you feel."
Fauja agreed to run the London Marathon again the next spring. He ran his third-fastest time ever, 6:07. He was back. Now Haramander approached Fauja with another proposal. "You've already set every marathon record you possibly can. There's only one left to break, the record for the oldest marathoner ever." At the time, that record was held by Dimitrion Yordanidis, who ran the original marathon course, from Marathon, Greece, to Athens, in 1976. Yordanidis had been 98. Fauja was 93. "You can't break that record now," Harmander said. "All you can do is wait."
So Fauja waited, running shorter races to fill his time. Then, in April 2011, his 100th birthday arrived, and with it, an opportunity to break the record. Soon he received an invitation from the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, where years ago Fauja had run his fastest time. He accepted.
The race was set for October. In September, Harmander received an email from Vin Sharma, a London-based Global Talent Manager at Guinness. "What would be great," Sharma wrote, "is to start by acknowledging 'Oldest Marathon Runner' title which rightfully belongs to Fauja-ji." (Ji is an honorific suffix used in Indian languages.)
“He'd used running to pull himself out of the depression he fell into after his son died. What was he going to do without it? ”
- Harmander Singh
The email from Sharma continued: "Birth certificate or passport to verify his age would also be useful." Fauja, of course, did not have a birth certificate. But he did have a passport. He'd gotten his first when he visited his children abroad, decades prior. On that passport, and on each one he'd received since, there was listed the same date of birth: April 1, 1911.
Sharma attached a document with official guidelines for the record. "Where a birth certificate is not available," it said, "a copy of a relevant ID should be submitted."
They submitted the documents, and weeks later they flew to Toronto. Fauja finished in 8:25. In his mind, and in the minds of everyone present at the race, Fauja had done what no man had done before.
"100-YEAR-OLD MARATHON RUNNER not recognised by Guinness," read the BBC News headline after the event. In an interview with the network, Guinness editor-in-chief Craig Glenday said, "We would love to give him the record. We'd love to say this is a true Guinness World Record, but the problem is there is just no evidence."
By no evidence, Glenday meant that there was no birth certificate. "We can only accept official birth documents created in the year of the birth," Glenday told the BBC. "Anything else is really not very useful to us." In September, a Guinness representative had sent guidelines suggesting a passport would be sufficient. Now in October, the company said only a birth certificate would do. It didn't matter that Fauja had received his first passport before he began running, negating any significant possibility of a plot to break the record. Nor did it matter what the Guinness official had told Harmander.
Cara Kilbey, Fauja Singh, Billi Mucklow and their friend Lulu pose for a photo during the London Marathon in April 2012.
Christopher Lee/Getty Images
"This is a case of institutional racism," Harmander said, after learning of the news. The thinking was simple. Guinness had decided its age records could be held only by people with birth certificates. The vast majority of people with birth certificates in the early 20th century came from Europe or North America. Fauja could not have the record. And for that matter, neither could most anyone else from Asia or Africa or other parts of the developing world.
Now came the follow-up stories. "Marathon man Fauja Singh runs into racism row," said the headline in London's conservative paper, The Daily Telegraph. Members of the Sikh community, both at home in Punjab and across the diaspora, signed a petition and set the Internet aflame with angry comments. "BROWN PEOPLE OF TUMBLR," one person wrote on the popular blogging platform about Singh, "I SUMMON YOU TO RIGHT THE WRONGS. TO BRING JUSTICE TO THE INJUSTICES."
Yet it would do no good. Guinness remained firm. "Passports may be used as proof of identification, NOT of birth. …" Guinness spokeswoman Jamie Panas wrote to ESPN The Magazine in an email. " … Passports and other mid-to-late-life representations of age are notoriously unreliable when unaccompanied by original proofs of birth." Panas emphasized that Guinness never guaranteed that a passport would be sufficient. She also said that Sharma, the Guinness talent manager who advised Harmander, is no longer with the company. Sharma could not be reached for comment. His personal website says he left Guinness at some point last year.
Fauja Singh wanted the world to watch him run.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
JULY, 2012. It's late on a Monday morning, one of those London summer days that barely feel like summer at all -- the sky dark, a cold drizzle just moments away. At Valentines Park in the outer borough of Redbridge, there are joggers and dog-walkers and morning strollers, all walking past ponds and trees and cricket grounds before returning to their nearby homes.
Up the path walks Fauja Singh, his yellow turban matching his yellow sneakers and accented by the yellow in his black adidas shirt. He is, Fauja will have you know, the oldest man to ever run a marathon. He doesn't care what Guinness says, barely knows who Guinness is. He and Harmander have taken to minimizing the slight. "They're in the business of trivia," Harmander says. "What does it matter if Fauja's name is in the same book as the lady with the longest fingernails in the world?"
Fauja insists the book means nothing, but it's clear that recognition matters. "Look at this," he'll say, showing off his certificates and awards. Then he'll ask someone to read them aloud. He may be illiterate, but he understands the weight carried by words written down.
He will retire soon. His last race will be a 10K in Hong Kong on Feb. 24, just before his 102nd birthday. This, he will admit, is difficult to accept. Yet he is tired; the racing and travel have taken their toll.
He will still run, though. "The day I stop running," he says, "will be the day that I die."
What began as a means of distraction from that stormy night in his village so long ago is now a joy unto itself, a path toward God.
So each day he comes here, or he goes to other nearby parks or to a route that winds through town, and he ties his sneakers and begins to stretch. He rolls his head and his arms, then leans forward to touch his toes. In a moment he is off, the wrinkles in his face contorting into something between a grimace and a smile. There is no crowd, no finish line, no record at stake.
There is only the shuffling sound of his feet, one moving in front of the other, then again, and then again and again until he rounds the bend and he's gone.
Jordan Conn (@jordanconn) wrote "The Defender: Manute Bol's Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again," a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist..
I was born in a home of broad-minded Hindus. My father, though by caste a Brahmin, never wore a thread. His own father’s brother was a lifelong opponent of the caste system; a hostel he opened for Dalit students still functions in Bangalore city. My mother went from time to time to a temple, but was happy to eat with or make food for humans of any background or creed. Two of her brothers had married out of caste; a third had married a German.
When, in 1984, I got my first job, at the Centre for Social Studies in Calcutta, I had to fill in a questionnaire which, among other things, asked me to denote my religion. I wrote ‘Hindu’, immediately attracting the ire of a friend who worked at the same centre. He felt that a secular state had no business asking for a person’s religion, and thus I should have left the answer blank. This friend was a Marxist, so (although he would not then recognise or admit it) he actually subscribed to a faith of his own.
As I saw it, I was brought up, if loosely, in the Hindu tradition. One could still be a Hindu and not believe in—indeed, militantly oppose—caste discrimination and the subjection of women. One could be a Hindu and still be respectful of other faiths and traditions. That is what my reading of Gandhi had taught me. And if Gandhi, who in adult life did not enter a temple, and who was vilified by sants and sankaracharyas, could yet call himself a Hindu, so—when pushed—could I.
Five years after this debate with a Marxist, I encountered a rather more direct challenge to my Hindu faith. I had been with a team of scholars to investigate a communal conflict in and around the town of Bhagalpur, in Bihar. The riot was sparked off by the brick worship ceremonies connected with the plans to build a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The ceremonies clashed with a Muslim festival, and violence broke out between young men of the two religions. The conflict spread outwards from the town into the countryside.
It’s brought me into contact with a certain kind of Indian who gets up before dawn, has a glass of cow’s milk, prays to the sun god, and begins scanning cyberspace for the day’s secular heresies.
Nearly two thousand people died in the Bhagalpur riots. Many more were rendered homeless. Although Muslims were less than 20 per cent of the population, they constituted more than 70 per cent of those who had been killed or displaced. We visited a once-flourishing village of Muslim weavers, or julahas, whose homes and looms had been totally destroyed by a mob of Hindus. The survivors were being taken care of by a prosperous Muslim weaver in Bhagalpur town, who had laid out tents in his garden. Other refugees were being provided food and shelter by a Muslim religious organisation. Of government work in the resettlement and rehabilitation of the refugees there was not a sign.
I was shaken to see that my fellow Hindus would willingly partake of such savagery, and that my government would take no responsibility for the victims. Till then, the politics of religion had no place in my scholarly work or writing. My principal field of research was the environment. I had just published a book on the social history of the Himalayan forests, and had written scholarly essays on environmental conflicts in Asia and North America. However, I was now provoked to write an essay on the Bhagalpur riots for the Sunday Observer. That newspaper collapsed soon afterwards, but I remain grateful to it for publishing the first article I wrote on the bloody crossroads where religion and politics meet in modern India.
In the 1990s and beyond, as the religious right gained in strength and importance across the country, I was making the move from academics to becoming a full-time writer. I now published fortnightly columns in two different newspapers. My brief, in each case, was very broad; I could, and did, write on history and sport apart from politics. But since these were the years in which the Sangh parivar moved from the margins to the centre of public life in India, naturally I wrote about their activities as well.
RSS cadre at one of the outfit’s functions in north Delhi. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
In the past two decades, I must have published some forty articles that have dealt with the politics or policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or of state and central governments led or directed by them. This constitutes somewhat less than 10 per cent of my total output—that is to say, at least nine in ten of my articles have dealt with other subjects. However, it is always articles that touch on the philosophy and practice of Hindutva that attract the most attention (and anger). They have brought me into contact with a certain kind of Indian who gets up before dawn, has a glass of cow’s milk, prays to the sun god, and begins scanning cyberspace for that day’s secular heresies. If a column I write touches in any way on faith, Hinduism, Hindutva, Guru Golwalkar, Gujarat, or Ayodhya, by breakfast I have had deposited, in my inbox—or perhaps in the ‘Comments’ section of the newspaper’s own website—mails which are hurt, complaining, angry, or downright abusive. A representative sample follows:
I think you are living on other planet. As historian, if India’s integrity is at stake from terrorist Islamic Shaitan Pakistan you are quiblling on small matters. ...so called pseudo historians like you besmirch India in Western media from whom you get sinecures and royalty.
Ramachandra is very much a Hindu name. Please dont insult that name, and show your secularism by changing your name to rahim or rehaman. anyway... sanatana dharma does not want cowards like you!!! especially cowards who rape their own mother(land)!!!
It would be to your advantage if you get mentally treated before it is too late if you are suffering from a mental problem of distortions and if it is treatable and can be cured. Good luck. When muslims got a land to live out of the land that belongs to hindus of india since 2000 BC where is the need for muslims to continue to live in India and if they cannot go to there to the land given to them they should keep quiet and vote in Pakisthan elections not in India. You too can go with them to pakisthan and live there...I will be the most happiest man if a poison like you is not exist in this world. If so our country will be more safe with less one enemy.
Sometimes the mails are sent as letters to the editor of the journals where I write, with a copy mailed to me. These ostensibly impersonal rejoinders tend to be rather forceful as well. Consider these examples, where the historian is characterised as, respectively, a Naxalite sympathiser (but simultaneously a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist), a newspaper sales agent, a covert Christian missionary, and as akin to a Swiss bank:
India has been one country not in the westophilian sense but in a dharmic sense for the last thousands of years. He might not have heard about Adi Sankara who was born in Kaladi but established Mutts in the four corners of India. For him Indian spiritual unity does not exist. Guha who is a Naxalite sympathiser has got permission from Sonia (Gandhi) to use the archives at Nehru Museum to write his book and so sing the songs of the Sonia Dynasty.
What your news paper want cheap publicity I can understand. Actually you want to increase sell of news paper that’s why you published this type of anti India and anti RSS article because at least RSS people will buy your newspaper. I vow not to buy your news paper and will try to convince more and more people. The egoist people like Guha will be punished by masses along with you.
Any criminal in India can get his stupid views on every thing under the son published in any so called secular publication and even earn a very comfortable living provided he invariably starts his piece with a lamentation about the untold suffering the Christians have been undergoing in India since independence. But still, how could somewhat decent people like Mr Vinod Mehta (then editor ofOutlook magazine) tolerate these fake intellectuals? It is advertisement income, stupid. The controlling share of almost all multinationals are held by church groups.
Mr Guha was one of the historical cartels in India who brainwashed the young and impressionable students in India about how worthless ancient Indian heritage was.... I think Ramachandra Guha’s assets are liable to be proceeded against in a Class Action law suit either in India or the USA like the Swiss Banks’ role in profiting from the Holocaust victims under Hitler by laundering the sufferings of Hitler’s Jewish victims. The Swiss Banks received the gold from Hitler’s Germany including those melted from the tooth fillings of his Jewish victims. I believe the Colonial victims of India and their descendants including those victimised by Mr.Guha censorship of ancient Indian Heritage for ideological reasons are on a similar standing to the Holocaust victims and their descendants!!!
Not all letters are angry or abusive. Some are written in a civil tone, yet reflect the same anxieties and (dare one say) paranoias of a certain kind of modern Hindu. A letter I received from an elderly gentleman now based in El Cerrito, California, feared that India was becoming a Muslim nation. In the 1940s, the leaders of what this man called a ‘rogue religion’ had intrigued with the British to create Pakistan; now, they sought by demographic means to convert the already balkanised motherland into another Islamic state. “Afghanistan,” wrote my Californian correspondent, “was once a 100 per cent Bodth (Buddhist) Country and entire poplation was converted to Islam by the terroristic tactics in the past many centuries. Now, the Madarsas of India are too churning out terrorists like Pakistan at the expense of Hindu taxpayers. ...Soon the population explosion of Muslims will make them in Majority and the fate of Indian Temples will be the same as Bamyan Budha had faced.... You may not be able to give such thoughts to the Indian Press because of certain reasons but these fears are real and felt thousands of miles away by Hindus who are living in United States....”
Sometimes, the chastisement is gentle, offered in sorrow rather than anger, and outlining the hope that, despite my past errors and misdemeanours, I might yet come to respect and even represent the cause of the vulnerable and aggrieved Hindu. A correspondent with whom I had an extended exchange, asked:
I beg, please do a favour. Do not use every single opportunity to offend those who speak for Hindus. We have no where to go. This is our fatherland/motherland our spiritual land. The land of our gods. And we have only welcomed every persecuted race on earth and given space here. Helped them to flourish and now we are paying the price. There are bigger monsters to fight. Please use your energy there. We need bright intellectuals like you there, sir. For our great nation and its great civilisation. And like it or not, the Hindu Civiilsation is the only glue that keeps our great nation together. And if it dies we have no identity and India would not exist.
This was a selective but not unrepresentative sample of the mails I have received over the years from the intensely chauvinistic tribe of Internet Hindus. I have replied, as courteously as I possibly could, to each e-mail I received (a practice I still maintain), but discontinued the correspondence if (as was often the case) the mailer proved incapable of reasoned discussion or debate.
But for all this love of the motherland, it’s striking how, while this particular heretic lives in India, so many of his orthodox opponents are based overseas, in decidedly un-Hindu Europe and the US.
I have withheld the names of my correspondents. Notably, they were all male. I do have one Hindutva-oriented mailer who is a woman—but she is an exception, the only one I have encountered in some fifteen years of such correspondence. Along with the gender bias is a caste bias. Sharma, Shukla, Rao, Iyer, Gupta—these kinds of surnames recur with regularity in my inbox. These are typically dwija names, denoting ‘twice-born’ castes who, according to the tenets of orthodox Hinduism, can wear the sacred thread. (My experience in this regard tends to confirm the characterisation of the BJP as a ‘Brahmin-Bania’ party.) Other names I recognise are of Kayasth or Rajput origin, that is to say, also upper-caste. The age profile is harder to construct. It appears that a large proportion of my mailers are in their twenties and thirties, but there is a significant sprinkling of senior citizens as well. The former tend to be impatient, seeking to overcome India’s manifest weakness as a nation and a state with an infusion of the right kind of dharmic energy. The latter tend to be anguished or bitter, believing that India threw away its chances of becoming a great and powerful nation because of the reliance of its leaders on the pernicious Western ideology of secularism. Had India followed the example of Israel, they argue, and based its national unity on a shared religion, language and sacred text (Hinduism, Sanskrit and the Vedas, in this case), it would have stood tall among its neighbours, and in the world. For these despairing, defeatist nationalists, the one true moment of national pride was when India defeated Pakistan in the war of 1971, for them both revenge and consolation for centuries of humiliation at the hands of Muslim and Christian invaders.
VHP men moments before the Babri Masjid came down, 1992
The young profess to detest the West too. But for all this love of the motherland and the ancestral faith, it is striking how, while this particular heretic lives in India, so many of his orthodox opponents are based overseas, in the prosperous and decidedly un-Hindu nations of Europe and North America. One of my regular mailers writes from his home in 1650 Voyager Avenue, Simi Valley, CA, USA. A second, who chooses rather to address the editors of the journals I write for, signs his name and then adds, by way of further identification, ‘Out West, USA’. A third (the only woman in the pile) writes from Canada and always reminds me that she is a ‘Ph D, Western Ontario’. A fourth, who likewise combines an admiration of indigenous culture with an almost unreasoning hatred of the modern West, nonetheless never fails to mention that he is the possessor of those very Western certifications, ‘M. D., Ph D’. A fifth ended a long and very angry mail with these oddly defensive sentences: “I risk of being dismissed as a unemployed ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ and would not be surprised at all if this mail is put in trash can. Hence I think it is appropriate that I introduce to you that I am a experienced Senior Management professional working with a MNC in India’s sunshine industry.” A sixth first asked: “Who cares about your opinion, man? You speak as if you are representing a billion plus Hindus! Dimwits and slaves like you sit in a corner of your dimly lit houses and pontificate to others”; and then offered his own, rather, better qualifications for speaking about the subject at hand: “I am educated, young, well read (with 3 masters degrees) and residing in the west. Yet I have great pride and respect for my country, its culture, my Hindu religion, its Heroes, God and philosophies.”
The fundamentalist is convinced he will be victorious. Like the Marxist, the evangelical Christian, the Islamic fanatic, the Hindutvawadi needs to constantly reassure himself that he’ll win in the end.
The sociological background of the Hindutva hate-mailer can be partially reconstructed from his name and background. His ideology is more directly manifested in his mails. This rests on a deep suspicion of and hostility towards those Indians who are not Hindus by religious background. Christians and especially Muslims come in for special animosity. And yet, as the historian Dharma Kumar once pointed out, the philosophy of Hindutva only mimics and reproduces the ideology of its major adversary. Its unacknowledged model is the Islamic state, where those who do not belong to the ruling faith are tolerated if they are obedient and subservient, but attacked if they seek to assert the rights of equal citizenship.
Hindutvawadis thus want to construct what Dharma Kumar described as ‘an Islamic state for Hindus’. In medieval Muslim states, there was a category known as dhimmi, consisting of Jews and Christians, who, as people of the book, were treated somewhat more leniently than the kafirs, the unbelievers. The dhimmi were barred from the top positions in the state and in the army. However, so long as they paid their taxes and did not challenge the ruler, they could live in peace and security. The kafirs, on the other hand, were seen always and invariably as adversaries. In the same manner, if the RSS were to get its way, Muslims and Christians in modern India would live undisturbed, so long as they acknowledged their theological and political inferiority to the dominant Hindus. But if they sought equal rights of citizenship they would be punished as the kafirs had once been.
Like all fanatics, the Hindutva hate-mailer thinks in black-and-white. Although I am a liberal who has consistently stood against left-wing as well as right-wing extremism, the default reaction to my criticisms of Hindutva is that I must be a communist. The mail that follows is characteristic:
If the communist journalists thinking they can distroy an organization by writing few words against them, you are wrong sir. There was a time people forced to belive what you wrote. But today there is mass Communication between people. Unlike earlier there are people now to respond against communist journalists immediately.
Today even your own media can not survive without supporting Hindutva. You see today your CPM channel in Kerala is live coverage (though it was sponsored) of a Mahayagam at Thirivananthapuram. 90% of the participants are Sangh Parivar leaders. I pity your CPM channel, they have no other alternative but to telecast the live coverage. Remember that our work is already spreads each and every corner of the country. Now we are engaged to increase our activitis more powerful. It is our challange we will dismantle Communist party in India. You wait and see what is going to happen in the coming time.
The extremist only recognises other extremists. Since I carry a Hindu name, yet have distanced myself from the bigotry and chauvinism of the Hindutvawadi, I must be a crypto-communist.
The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, under attack during 26/11. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook 19 November 2012)
Apart from thinking in black-and-white, the fundamentalist is convinced that he will, in the end, be victorious. This triumphalist rhetoric, however, is actually a product of paranoia and insecurity. Like the Marxist, like the evangelical Christian, like the Islamic fanatic, the Hindutvawadi needs constantly to reassure himself that he will win in the end. This mail I received from a young man of Gujarati extraction is both typical as well as rather sad:
Narendra Modi is the Chief Minster of my great state Gujarat. He is without doubt the greatest Chief Minster in the history of India. One day in the near future he may become the Prime Minster of India. You all third rate parasitical dhimmi toads who do nothing all your lives except lecture others and contribute not an ioata to the Indian economy can then take a permenant sabbitical to your natural abode Paki Stan. You can bark you can rant and you can use every conceviable weapon to villify and demonise Narendra Modi and us Gujaratis and every time we will show you envious scums of the earth two fingers and treat you like one treats sewage. We Gujus are no 1 and will always remain no 1 whether you like it or not and continue to contribute the highest to the Indian economy. ...You third rate filth we Gujus have nothing but contempt and disdain for your types. you can continue barking and ranting against my State, its Chief Minster and her people and everytime we will say Up yours!
To this deep suspicion of diversity and pluralism, this tendency to think in black-and-white, this insistent (if ultimately unconvincing) claim that they are history’s inevitable winners, let me add one final characteristic of the Hindutva hate- mailer—an utter lack of humour. The mails already quoted illustrate this in abundance, but consider also some responses to an essay I wrote criticising the Ministry for Human Resources Development for proposing that the wife of the richest man in India be made a ‘brand ambassador’ for their adult literacy campaigns. I had pointed out that “if one is thinking of a name to motivate poor women or men to learn their letters, no name could be more spectacularly inappropriate than Nita Ambani’s. She is soon to be the resident of a 4,00,000 square feet house; she is already the recipient of a Boeing aircraft as a birthday gift. If this exhibitionism does not run contrary to our constitutional commitment to socialism and equality, I don’t know what does. As for our other national commitment to secularism and the scientific temper—which I presume the HRD ministry shares—how does one square that with Mrs Ambani’s periodic visits to a Southern hill-top to pray for, of all things, a cricket team?”
Hate mails increase at particular moments...before the 1999, 2004, 2009 general elections, I got a flood of mails warning that I’d be put in my place once the party of the faithful came to power.
The article was published in a paper that does not have an edition in Bangalore. Downloading it the morning it appeared, I noticed that the boys weaned on cow’s milk had come sniffing already. One mailer complained that “the ‘Southern Hilltop’ the journalist so callously refers to here is the much revered Lord Balaji’s temple. Where do these people get the nerve?? Will he say ‘People running to middle eastern desert’ for Haj pilgrimage?? This is called ‘Proving one’s secular credentials’ by putting down the most revered Lord in India.” Another angrily asked: “Would Mr. Guha have taken a swipe at a Muslim person, worthy or worthless in her own right, for praying five times a day or for doing Haz? Why this step-motherly treatment for visiting temples?”
Fortunately, these mailers had been put in their place by an Indian with a sense of proportion, who responded to their screeds as follows: “There we go again, just drag religious sentiments into it, and finish off with a Hindu-Muslim comparison to highlight a perceived bias. (Guha) was commenting on (Nita Ambani’s) visits to pray ‘for, of all things, a cricket team’... The point being she was praying not for literacy, not for end of poverty, not for benefit of fellow man, country or world but her commercial interests in a cricket franchise.”
The number and intensity of Hindutva hate mails in my inbox has varied over the past two decades. They have increased and become more abusive at particular moments—after the Gujarat riots of 2002, for example, or after the terror attack in Mumbai of 2008. Before the general elections of 1999, 2004 and 2009 I also got a flood of mails warning me that I would be put in my place once the party of the faithful would be elected or re-elected to power. The mails fly thick and fast in times of political controversy, but they by no means dry up in quieter periods in-between. For the hard-core fundamentalist, the hunt for heretics is a full-time business.
I shall end this essay by quoting five very special mails that, in their individual and distinctive ways, illustrate the peculiarities and pathologies of the Homo Indicus Hindutvawadi.
The first mail offers this apparently careful and close definition of Hinduism:
A Hindu is someone who believes in the native and natural traditions of India. These traditions include a lifestyle that is compatible with the natural bounties and limits of India. A belief in the multiple facets of spirituality and tolerance of diverse concepts of god(s) (incl. that it is Man who created god(s) - not the other way around!). By this token some Moslems or Christians may be better Hindus than those who were born Hindus. But in general Hindus are the backbone of India and give it its true character. Minority communities, no matter how large, are the unfortunate remnants of past invasions. Westernized seculars like Ramachandra Guha are mere third rate stool pigeons who could not move to the richer West on their own but would say anything to harm the core of India for a few dollars as baksheesh!
The definition was however undermined by the address of the writer (‘out west, United States’)—although, as a patriotic Hindu, perhaps he had demanded of his employer that he be paid in (saffron-coloured and lotus-shaped?) rupees.
A ransacked church in Kandhamal in 2008, Orissa
My second example, coming also from a non-resident Indian, is notable for its capacious demonology, which included Muslims and Englishmen but privileged above all the Muslim-loving and English-loving renegade Hindu, Jawaharlal Nehru:
Dear Mr. Guha,
I have read some of your articles, the headings of your articles have nothing to do with body of your articles, every article is BJP/RSS and Hindu bashing.
But if you care to answer two questions which are asked by large number of Indians, the questions are:-
1. After British left India, all British invaders had left India, why Muslim invaders were not evicted? What right Nehru and Gandhi had to keep tens of millions of Muslims after giving them “homeland” (read Hindu land)?
2. If there are 150 million Muslims in India then why Pakistan was created and if Pakistan was created then why there are 150 million Muslims in India ?
Are you denying that before British took over Hindus were not fighting to get rid of Muslims? It seems all the “historians” are on Saudi pay roll.
When I come to India I talk to rickshaw wallas, rail coolies, waiters and other real Indians, all ask the same questions. They talk to me because they know I live overseas and I am not a danger to them like journalists and people like you who immediately declare Hindus “anti-Muslim”, “anti-secular”, “chauvinists” etc and also let police and Congress goons let on them....
Nehru was a loafer, thug and a ruffian, he was only interested in Lady Mountbatten, can’t you see the damage done by Nehru? Kashmir, Tibet, Aksai Chin and decimation of Hindu society? About Gandhi, less said the better.
But coming back to my two question, do you have the courage, guts, IQ to detach yourself from white skinned lady and answer truthfully, not your general doble-de-gook....
The third example illustrates the hectoring and bullying typical of a certain strain of Hindutva. It was written from Maharashtra, after I had published an article in The Telegraph of Calcutta on the Maoist threat to Indian democracy. I here recalled a similar threat from the extreme right in the early days of Indian independence, and mentioned in passing that Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, had once been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. An angry mailer claimed that my article “has nothing to do with facts and history also equating RSS with Maoist is sheer lie and hence court suit is inevitable against you if you doesn’t tenders straightaway apology to RSS.
A Bajrang Dal activist during the Gujarat riots, 2002. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 19 November 2012)
We have successfully countered such type of blasphemous propaganda against RSS through court battle.... So I am hereby demanding immediate apology from you and The Telegraph for the report or be prepared for legal battle, In case legal battle starts it is sure that your career as journalist would end abruptly, so it is not in your personal interest hence better to tender apology and end the matter here before reaching to the Court premises.”
No apology was offered either by myself or The Telegraph—a libel suit is yet awaited.
To be fair, the criticisms also allowed for a benign interpretation of the words that appeared under my name—namely, that I was suffering from some kind of mental sickness.
My fourth example illustrates the streak of paranoid triumphalism I spoke of earlier. After I had published a long essay explaining why, given the social and political fault-lines within, India would not and should not become a superpower, a reader wrote in to say that “India is bound 2 be worldpower. Take my words. People like Mr Guha are agents of China and they also go to temple (though in the dark of night)”.
Of all the hate mails that, over the years, have popped into my inbox, my personal favourite came from a man (with a resoundingly Brahmin name, as it happens), living in the town of Ghaziabad, in Uttar Pradesh. This, in one single sentence, encapsulated the sentiments of his fellow fanatics and ideologues. “It is suspected,” said my correspondent, “that you are getting money through Hawala (the black market) from antiIndia forces or your mindset is communist or you are psychologically weak requiring treatment or modern time ‘Asura’ (demon) wishing to destroy motherland.” I think of myself as a patriot, who loves his country, and lives and works in it. I also think of myself as a moderate, middle-of-the-road, liberal democrat. But by the definitions of right-wing Hindus I was something else altogether. Since I found flaws in Hindutva thought, it was self-evident that I could not be a patriot. Since I criticised the practice of Hindu fundamentalist groups, I must be an extremist on the other side, that is to say, a communist. Since I made these criticisms repeatedly, it was overwhelmingly likely that I was in the pay of foreign powers. And since I was published in a well-circulated Indian newspaper I was probably a demon in disguise, too. To be fair, the criticisms also allowed for a more benign interpretation of the words that appeared under my name—namely, that I was suffering from some kind of mental illness. If only I could see the right doctor, who would then prescribe me the correct medicines, the motherland would be saved. Excerpted from Patriots and Partisans by Ramachandra Guha. Publishing date: November 20, 2012.