Book review History Politics

Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India exposes the decades-long roots of contemporary India’s social chasms, systemic injustices, and communal tensions

In this article published at Qrius, I explore the continuing relevance of BBC journalist Mark Tully’s book of essays on India.

(Image Source: The New York Times)

(This article originally appeared on Qrius on Friday, Apr 25:

No Full Stops in India (Viking Books, 1991) is BBC veteran journalist Mark Tully’s third collection of essays.  NFSI illuminates the forest of contradictions that constitutes modern India.  It’s especially relevant today: amidst reign by demagogues who seem to have stopped India – and much of the world – short in the path of secular liberalism.  In ten narrative essays spanning the country – from Chennai (“The New Colonialism”) to Rajasthan (“The Deorala Sati”) – Tully examines the decades-long roots of major Indian problems in the 1990s.  Equally relevant to India in 2020, Tully’s observations suggest three themes:

1.        A schism yawns between India’s religious masses, and the westernised deracinated elite who dismiss them.  In “The Deorala Sati,” Tully investigates young Roop Kanwar’s immolation, which turns out to have been possibly involuntary.  This case, involving a Rajput family in Deorala, Rajasthan, develops national repercussions that illuminate deep sociopolitical schisms.  The Rajasthan government, contravening its own laws, fails to intervene.  The sati-site becomes a major pilgrimage destination: legitimising what is possibly a homicide, and definitely illegal.  What began as a family incident proves to have involved the whole village, and as such draws criticism from feminist groups and the liberal press.  These criticisms, which Tully quotes, illustrate the schism between the masses of people – still religious, their centuries-old social structures threatened by modernity – and the liberal elite, who condemn without understanding.  In the Times of India, Praful Bidwai accuses Rajputs of orchestrating the sati in a bid to promote Rajput identity.  In the Jansatta, Prabash Joshi declares that Roop’s sati was voluntary – and is swarmed by the Janwadi Mahila Samiti demanding an apology for what they read as a defence, not of one woman’s autonomy, but of barbaric Hindu practices.

The schism between the English-speaking, culturally-vagrant elite and the masses translates into cultural dysphoria.  “The Rewriting of the Ramayan” documents the making of an epochal television series: which enjoys mass popularity, but befuddles India’s crop of westernised culture-critics.  ‘[Even] Madhu Jain, one of India’s most sensitive journalists, wrote the series off as ‘moving calendar art pictures’.’  These westernised critics miss the series’ technical innovations and progressive messages: including its feminist rewriting of Sita’s endgame. 

The schism begins with language.  In “The New Colonialism,” a regional-language book-publisher in Tamil Nadu laments that ‘a well-educated Tamil family ‘will happily spend Rs. 50 on an English paperback, but will not think of buying a Tamil book.’ 

It is from this schism that NFSI derives its title: in his Introduction Tully observes that India’s out-of-touch elite ‘want to write a full stop in a land where there are no full stops.’

The great Indian divide has only deepened since NFSI.  It’s a divide between north and south; between rich and poor; between tradition and modernity, with the modern’s lament for the traditional being possibly an insincere exercise in lyricism; and between religious communities, now backed by an anti-secular government.

2.        The Indian government and elite join foreign observers in paying lip-service to Indian poverty: but fail to enact economic reform, instead commodifying Indian culture.  In “The Kumbh Mela,” ghatias and pandas exploit deeply-held religious beliefs to cheat the working class out of their savings. ‘The pandas feed on the carrion of superstition, and justify the Indian elite who dismiss Hinduism as backward, priest-ridden mumbo-jumbo.’  At Kalighat in “Communism in Calcutta,” the panda’s cynical commercialisation of religion is on display, thinly veiled by the pretext of raising funds to feed the poor. 

As powerful Indians bleed dry the impoverished, religious masses, so foreigners commodify Indian culture.  In “The New Colonialism,” English artist Stephen Cox visits Mahabalipuram to learn from Indian temple sculptors.  According to these local craftsmen, Cox fails to learn anything, and never really wanted to.  Where Cox does succeed is in establishing a workshop that exploits local labour to produce traditional art.  This art then passes through Cox for cursory touchups, before being exported for sale at high margins.  Tully observes: ‘Socalled cultural exchanges are in fact… a subtle way of imposing cultural imperialism.  They create the impression that we respect Indian culture, while allowing us to demonstrate our own superiority.’ 

A sentiment no doubt shared by Cox’s customers: mostly westerners, primarily Indian expatriates.  The subtext is that Cox has in fact served his function: he has legitimised Indian culture, permitting foreigners and Indian expatriates to pay tribute to India within the norms of westernised consumer society.  Postcolonial capitalism, in turn, vindicates Cox appropriating the lion’s share of profits: after all, his physical capital (setting up the workshops) is supplemented by cultural capital (if an Englishman takes interest in Indian culture, then the rest of the west may safely do so).  All this happens with the sanction of a pleased Indian government.

Government institutions systematically fail the people.  In “Ram Chander’s Story,” Tully attends the wedding of his cook’s daughter.  Back in Ram Chander’s village – Molanpur, Uttar Pradesh – Ram’s sweeper-caste biradari deploys traditional mechanisms to resolve disputes, provide social support, and share wedding expenses.  For matters involving other castes, the villagers prefer the old panchayat system over modern institutions.  An elder explains why: ‘The panchayat knew that the village couldn’t do without us, and so they wouldn’t do us too much injustice… These days everyone runs after the police and law-courts.  They waste their money, and nothing gets done… because these systems always favour the richer man.’  With formal government institutions insensitive to social nuances, centuries-old informal mechanisms developed within the community remain serviceable.

Again in “The New Colonialism,” Christianity – perhaps more than any other religion a sanctuary for the disenfranchised – becomes, in south India, a casteist, cliquish club.  Why does a non-Hindu religion perpetuate, instead of transcending, Hindu caste divisions?  Some priests astutely identify one cause: the source of the church funds.  ‘You can’t build an indigenous movement on foreign funds.’ 

The solution?  Dalit Christian reformers, like Paul Panneerselvam, take matters into their own hands: touring villages to build pride and self-confidence in Dalit children.  Panneerselvam’s Dalit Liberation Education Trust exemplifies much of India’s lasting, meaningful change: which has come from the bottom up.  ‘There’s no point waiting for the church to rescue us,’ says Panneerselvam.  ‘We must fight our own battles.’  

Today, India’s poor continue to be overlooked.  Indian culture continues to be commodified.  An optics-oriented government leads the charge in mobilising Indian cultural assets as geopolitical tools.  Grassroots civil society movements remain India’s engine of socioeconomic change: from agrarian reform and women’s rights to environmental conservation.  These movements are often hamstrung without government support, if not directly threatened by government.

Caste politics and marginalisation continue within Indian Christianity.  The persistent nexus of caste and money in Indian Christianity is troubling.  Equally troubling is the fact that, for Hindu nationalist governments, it’s one more excuse to persecute Christians and other minorities.  This, despite the fact that the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples confounds belief in a country with millions living in poverty.

3.        Communal tensions come, not from the people, but from political and religious leaders.  “Typhoon in Ahmedabad” documents April 1990’s communal violence and curfews – triggered and maintained, claim locals, by politicians.  “We’ve lived here cheek-by-jowl for generations,” attests a working-class Muslim puzzled by the sudden outbreak of violence.  Her hypothesis?  It’s politicians who pay criminals to incite communal violence: to disgrace their rivals in power.  Tully’s investigation reveals, indeed, a nexus between police and politicians, mediated by alcohol-bootleggers in prohibitionist Gujarat.  Congressman and lawyer Mohamed Husen Bareija [sic] confesses: ‘There need be no communalism in India, but for the power-brokers.  The power-brokers turn Hindus and Muslims against each other, so that they can become vote-banks.  If you arouse communal feelings, you can count on Hindus to vote as Hindus.”

In “The Kumbh Mela,” it is religious leaders who cultivate tension between Vaishnavite akharas, and between Hinduism and the ‘invading’ proselytising religions.  A mahant boasts about touring villages with his colleagues to recruit children into militant Hindu nationalism: ‘Awake, children of Bharat!  Protect your religion and your country.’

Is there hope for India?  Tully seems to think so. 

“The Return of the Artist” documents how cultural institutions grounded in Indian artistic and social tradition can rejuvenate the Indian cultural landscape – and, incidentally, offer better employment prospects than the small number of government jobs contested by millions of graduates churned out by our antiquated educational system.  Jangarh, a school dropout, gets recruited as an artist to government-run cultural centre Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal.  Jangarh earns a decent salary for meaningful work.  Meanwhile Jangarh’s nephew, with an M.A., sits competitive exams, gets a job in the railway police, and eight years on remains an ill-paid constable.  But Bharat Bhavan’s good work is dismissed by both leftists and intellectuals – as ‘backward’ and ‘promoting superstition.’

“Communism in Calcutta” also touches upon the spectacle of graduate mass unemployment.

Indian education continues to fail us.  Schools are underfunded, overlook the liberal arts, focus on science-and-maths but fail even there to prepare graduates for jobs.  Today, eerily recreating western Christianity’s decades-long anti-science campaign, Hindu nationalism is undermining scientific education and defunding higher education bodies.  Millions of applicants, unemployed or underemployed even after graduate degrees, compete for limited government jobs.  Already since the COVID-19 lockdown, India has lost more jobs than did the US during its Great Depression.

“Operation Black Thunder” narrates how, in 1988, militant Sikhs fortified the Golden Temple and defended it against the Indian army.  The government’s response, Black Thunder, was restrained, sensitive to the local community, and clearly informed by the botching of Black Thunder’s 1984 predecessor, Blue Star.  Blue Star’s mismanagement had caused civilian deaths and communal unrest.  In “Black Thunder,” Tully suggests that sensitive government response to tense situations at the intersection of religion and militantism is – not easy, but possible.  As the government learned from Blue Star to better handle Black Thunder, so Indians can hope to learn from our past to save our future.

As a document of how we got where we are, and as a glimmer of hope for where we go from here – Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India is worth a read.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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