Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti talks with Salil Tripathi about Bangladesh’s economic prosperity, cultural similarities and differences with India, religious and linguistic identity, and about what India can learn from Bangaladesh on its 50th anniversary. Tripathi is an Indian journalist, author and editor. He is currently the chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, as well as the Senior Adviser on Global Issues at the Institute for Human Rights and Business. He is the author of “Offence: The Hindu Case,” “Detours: Songs of the Open Road” and “The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and Its Unquiet Legacy.”
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Salil Tripathi, who is the Senior Adviser on Global Issues at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and an Indian journalist, author and editor, currently the chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. He is the writer of the books “Offence: The Hindu Case,” “Detours: Songs of the Open Road” and “The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and Its Unquiet Legacy.”
As Bangladesh turns 50, we talked about how the country has come into its own politically, economically, and what India can learn from Bangladesh. We spoke about Bengali exceptionalism, Bangladesh’s economic prosperity, cultural similarities and differences with India, religious and linguistic identity, lessons from Bangladesh for Indian subnationalism, feminism and much more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Hi, Salil. Welcome to the show.
SALIL TRIPATHI: Well, thank you very much. Lovely to be here.
The Ascent of Bangladesh
RAJAGOPALAN: This is the 50th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence. When the country was born, the reports around the world, and especially in the U.S. State Department—they called it the international basket case. It was ravaged by war and then the cyclone and the famines that came thereafter. Now Bangladesh is the leading star in the South Asian context. It’s doing, on some margins, much better than both Pakistan—the country it was carved out of—and India.
Can you tell us what has happened in the last 50 years, broadly speaking, that it has gone from the international basket case to an international emerging economy and superstar?
TRIPATHI: There’s a lot to unpack in those remarks that you just made, Shruti, so thank you. I think the short answer to that is, of course, that it has succeeded. I know this sounds heretical to people who are big believers in Bangla. It’s a highly polarized polity. People are not going to like what I might say here, but it has succeeded in spite of the government and not because of it. It succeeded because of the people, because Bangladesh is an extremely thriving civil society which has made enormous strides.
It has taken certain political and economic positions which are highly unpopular and unorthodox, such as the whole issue with the prices of pharmaceutical drugs. They were the champions of having this generic drug revolution. India, of course, capitalized on it, but Bangladesh was the one insisting on lower prices, and so on.
They did take some of those things that we take for granted—someone like Amartya Sen, who was also an economist from the same part of the world, Bengal, by that what I mean. Amartya Sen talks about the human capabilities and investing in women, investing in women’s education. And they’ve got all those fundamentals right.
Although there’s a lot to feel worked up about and upset about, Bangladesh as a polity—the way it does its politics, the way it has dealt with fundamentalism, the way it deals with freedom of expression—all those things are huge problems. But when it comes to infant mortality, when it comes to female enrollment at school—not dropping out—making sure that women are part of the labor force through female participation in the labor force.
Also, in terms of dealing with inoculation and certain diseases and prevention of that, they’re doing incredibly well. That’s why their human development indicators are so good.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is unique or exceptional about Bangladesh? There are three ways I think about Bangladesh. It is both ethnically similar and different than India and Pakistan. It is religiously aligned with a part of Pakistan, which is how it was born as a different country from British India as East Pakistan. But there is still a distinction ethnically and linguistically. It has linguistic similarity in terms of Bangla, the language that it shares with West Bengal, but it is still a distinct culture from what is modern-day West Bengal.
What is it about these aspects of Bangladesh that make it this exceptional country and has made it a success story within the South Asian context?
TRIPATHI: I think another thing that they were good at is understanding what they call the Banglayat, the whole Bengali identity as such. When you ask them whether you’re a Bengali or a Muslim, very often—and it is a largely Muslim country, no question about it—they will say, “We are both.”
There’s a fine poem by a Bangladeshi American poet called Tarfia Faizullah, which is set during the war, where this soldier comes and attacks a woman and drags her by her hair. As we know from the unfortunate incidents that took place in the world, most likely she was raped because there were at least a quarter-million instances of rape during the war. I’m not saying a quarter-million women were raped because we’ll never know that, but there were at least that many instances of rape during the war, and probably more than we’ll ever know because of shame, because of the passage of time, and all that go there.
Shame only because of the collective shame that South Asians feel about it. I’m not saying that it’s ever the fault of the person who has been raped for what has happened to her, so that’s out of question. Let’s get that clear.
In that context, if we look at it, this woman is being dragged, and the soldier says, “Are you Bengali or Muslim?” She says, “Both.” He whacks her, and she again says, “Both.” I think this whole idea that the two entities can remain together is something that people haven’t grasped very clearly. It’s been misunderstood on both sides. If we really go back—I’m taking a slightly historical perspective—but if you go back to 1905, which is when Bengal was partitioned, the partition was pretty much along religious lines by the British.
At that time, the British are in power. Lord Curzon is this viceroy of India. He decides to carve the province, and Kolkata is the capital at that time. But there is a combined move against the division. By 1911, they decided to reunite it.
Of course, by the 1920s, the moment for Pakistan slowly starts emerging, and this idea takes root that there’s a Muslim India and a Hindu India. Whether that is a product of only Muslim League, or whether some people in the Indian National Congress wanted it, or whether the British encouraged it—those are all debatable points and not of primary concern to us here.
If you look at even the violence around partition, there has been, in a way, a lot less bitterness within Bengal. There was a lot of brutal violence. Kolkata killings were much serious, no question about it, but it was considerably less brutal. The stories we hear about the stories from Punjab, for example, Khushwant Singh’s novel, “Train to Pakistan,” and you still get novels upon novels written about that period. “What the Body Remembers” by Shauna Singh Baldwin is another great novel about that.
People keep going back. Nisid Hajari’s book, “Midnight’s Furies.” Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, “Freedom at Midnight”—they keep going back to Punjab, and they briefly talk about Bengal but move on because, I think, the dynamic was quite different then about who wanted to be with whom. That is one part that’s worth noting.
Even when East Pakistan becomes East Pakistan, and there is some commitment to that idea—I’m not denying that at all—but there were a lot of Hindus who did choose to stay on at that time and did not move to India as refugees. Among them was this man called Dhirendranath Datta, who was a politician, and he was a member of Pakistan National Assembly.
In the assembly in 1947, soon after independence, or early ’48, he makes this famous speech, saying please make Bengali also the national language. And Liaquat Ali Khan, who was the prime minister of Pakistan, said, “No, we cannot do that.” The reason, he said, is that you are going to break up the country by insisting on that.
Now, the idea that Dhirendranath Datta had was not necessarily to say that we all want to read Tagore and so on, which was, of course, part of that, but there was a deeper issue. He said, “If I’m a rice farmer or a fisherman in Bengal, and I want to send a money order, and if I go to the post office, and if the form is only in Urdu or English, and I only speak Bengali, what do I do?” It’s a very legitimate question, but it was disallowed.
Then, of course, Jinnah comes to the Dhaka University, and he gives this address, and students boycott it and shout against it. He said that you will have only one language. In a way they were prescient on the West Pakistani side, because Pakistan itself had Balochi, Pashto, Sindhi and Punjabi, and even Gujarati and Saraiki. These are the languages in Pakistan. They thought, “How many can we do?” Therefore, they essentially had a national language, Urdu, which is actually an import from India because Urdu comes out of Mughal military units and all that in UP, Bihar, in Northern India. That’s where it emerges.
Bengalis wanted it. In 1952, there is this march that goes out, and students are shot. That happens on 21st February, which is one reason the world celebrates 21st February as International Mother Language Day. This language has become an extremely important and potent force.
Then you combine it with what Bangladeshis call colonization of the province—that you exploit the raw materials from there, but the factories are always in Pakistan. Rehman Sobhan, the distinguished Bangladeshi economist, actually wrote papers about it in the ’60s, pointing out that this is what’s going on, and therefore the Awami League comes up with the Six Point Charter.
Then, of course, the movement comes, saying, “Look, you are treating us very, very poorly.” On the West Pakistani side, they tend to see the Bangladeshis—or at that time East Pakistanis—essentially as Hindus who have Muslim names. This is one of the phrases that you hear at the time because the women in Bangladesh continued to put the dot on their forehead, and they wear the sari. There’s no Hindu way, but the Indian way or whatever you want to call it. Of course, the men have their lungis and not the Pathani outfits, and all of that.
In every which way you look at it, it looks different. These are rice eaters, those are wheat eaters. These are mutton and chicken eaters on one side, these guys do eat chicken and mutton—
TRIPATHI: —but fish. Fish is a dominant culture there in Bangladesh. Absolutely. These are boat-faring people who are in the water. These are semi-arid provinces on that side.
There’s a lot of cultural differences anyway, which are difficult to reconcile, and the fact that they have no problem and hesitation celebrating Hindu festivals, such as Puja, which is a Hindu festival, no question about it. But Bangladeshi Muslims have no problem with it. They don’t have any problem with having what we call Rangoli, the pattern that you put out in front of your home, the design.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s an auspicious Hindu symbolism.
TRIPATHI: Auspicious, but Muslims have no problem using that either. You see that, and they’re secularized, and because they’re secularized, the West Pakistani saw them as deculturized and Hinduphile. That was one of the problems. This tension about religion, ethnicity and nationalism, which had a political and economic root—all of that came together, which is where Bangladesh thought it needed a separate category and trajectory.
Then, of course, the elections take place, and before that, there is a cyclone in which lots of people die. When the cyclone takes place, the response from West Pakistan is very poor. And in the election, of course, it’s a statistic worth remembering: 300 seats in the National Assembly, 162 come from East Pakistan, 138 from West. And out of the 162, 160 go to Awami League, which means Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should be called to form the government. Which, of course, West Pakistan doesn’t want to do, and so they drag it out, and then it leads to the massacre.
What Can India Learn from Bangladesh on Linguistic Subnationalism?
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to first start with this kind of linguistics subnationalism. Amartya Sen has this lovely phrase where he talks about identity. In certain countries, if you don’t embrace liberalism and plural values, you’re going to have this “miniaturization of identity.”
If I were just to take you, Salil Tripathi, you are of Indian origin. You live in New York. You are Gujarati, but you’ve written on Bengal and both sides, both the Indian side and the Bangladeshi side. You’ve had a long career in London. You had a long career in Singapore. If I were to put it down as “Who are you?” It would be very reductive to say that you’re Gujarati, right? Or it would be very reductive to say it’s a South Asian man or an Indian man or an upper-caste man, and so on and so forth.
You see this happening again and again when it comes to this kind of subnational identity. It seems like the birth of Bangladesh is because one group tried to miniaturize the identity of another and tried to put them in a box. Are you Muslim or are you Bengali? The either-or.
I see something very similar happening in India again. Some of this is, of course, the never-ending debate of India needs to have one national language, and it should be Hindi because that’s the larger number of speakers—
TRIPATHI: There is a good counterargument against that. No, no, there’s a friend of mine called Gauri Deshpande; she died. She was a very famous Marathi writer. She actually said that India could have one national language. It should be Garo or Khasi because almost everybody starts from an equal disadvantage. Everybody has to make an effort to learn. I think that was a nice idea.
Shruti: Well, it’s an interesting idea, but the idea that we must equally disadvantage everybody for the most basic need—
TRIPATHI: She was, of course, being facetious.
RAJAGOPALAN: I know, facetious, but if we think of it, whether you talk about language as this big advantage that most people speak it or not, I think of language as instrumental. People just learn the language that they need to learn to get by, or they want to learn. That’s not just the Indian way. It’s the global way. There’s a lingua franca where, globally, English has emerged as one, it just so happens. In India, we have the largest number of Hindi speakers.
Now, with Bengali, what is it about the language that makes the culture exceptional? Is there something about Bengali as a language and all the exchange that has taken place in Bengali over 200 years?
Tagore is just the most memorable of them, but there’s a very long tradition of Bengali literature that is secular, that does try to amalgamate Hindus and Muslims, that does try to amalgamate people in the hills, in the Himalayas, in the northeast, versus people who live in the valley and the delta. What is it about that language? Is it exceptional? Or it is just like any other language—the moment you get deep into it, you will find the same complexities.
TRIPATHI: There are those complexities. That’s what I wanted to come to because, if you look at the politics in northeast India, the Assam agitation against foreigners was really against Bengalis and Bengali dominance. If Bengalis were that inclusive and open about it, then they would not have been unwelcome.
Now, I don’t think anybody should be unwelcome anywhere. It’s not a question that I’m justifying the agitation in Assam even a little bit because I think, ultimately, all of these things are rooted in xenophobia and the fear of the foreigner, and that’s not nice. The more intermingled we become, the better it is, and the more we do our genetic traces, we’ll find (a) intermingling and (b) the commonalities.
That’s my starting point in that. That said, even in Bangladesh, this is an issue. I’ll give you an example. I was in Dhaka at the literature festival, and I was at a panel with one of the authors, and I said something about it. “If this is what it says in Bengali, what do you think?” This was a Bangladeshi author. He says, “I don’t know what it means.” I said, “Why is it?” “I’m a Sylheti and a very proud one.”
Sylheti dialect is different. The old argument about what is a dialect but a language without an army? I think there’s a bit of that here, which is why in India, Hindi can just ride roughshod over others.
You said that Hindi is spoken by the largest number of people, but once you start breaking it out on Maithili and Bhojpuri and Bombaya Hindi, which is what I know—I mean, people look at my surname. There are lots of people with that surname in Uttar Pradesh, in Delhi, in northern India, and they start speaking in chaste Hindi with me, thinking that I must be from UP, and I’m not. And no, we did not migrate from there either, which is something that they cannot accept and cannot get.
I have these hilarious conversations on Twitter sometimes, where some of these extreme right-wing people write in chaste Hindi to me, and I respond in chaste Gujarati to them in Gujarati script deliberately, because I know they’ll have to go to Google and check out what I’ve said to them. I think there is that element about hegemony. I think if you speak to the Santhalis and the Chakmas in Bangladesh, they will probably tell you that, yes, there is a hegemony there too.
We should not forget the Urdu speakers in Bangladesh. There were a lot of what were called “Biharis,” because they were, and then they were called “stranded West Pakistanis” for a long time and were denied nationality for a long time. They stay in this camp called Camp Geneva, Geneva because of the high commissioner for refugees. It’s as energetic and dynamic and appalling as any slum in modern India—let me put it that way. There’s a lot of trade and activity going on there when you go to Camp Geneva, and at the same time, they live in conditions which are subhuman.
There has been a very nice film made by Tanvir Mokammel, the Bangladeshi filmmaker, who has looked into this story. And there have been people who’ve been campaigning for their right, including Bangladeshi Muslim human rights activists. It’s not that—that idea of embracing and inclusiveness certainly exists. It’s not that it’s not there. But as soon as we try to essentialize the language and say that this language is something unique, I always say, “But there are always exceptions.”
That said, it is true that if you look at Bengali literature, a lot of reform-minded writing started coming from there. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was there, of course, but he was also inspired by Christianity. I don’t want to make the case that it was Christianity that reformed because the Brahmo movement had very little to do with it. In India, 80% are supposed to be Hindus, but we know that that’s simply not true because there are subvariations within that, too. I know Brahmos who will deny that, that we are not Hindus at all.
All those reform-minded—what Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar did and all of that. Bengal has had that tradition. One of the earliest novels by a woman in South Asia was by Rokeya Begum. This is a science fiction novel about a fantasy where women dominate the world. It’s an amazing novel that she had written. You do have that kind of avant-garde. Of course, I know people from Gujarat and Kerala who are going to object and say, “No, no, we also had great writers.”
You could statistically show that Govardhanram Tripathi was an ancestor of mine and a famous Gujarati novelist. He wrote some very progressive novels before Sarat Chandra wrote them, but this is not about one-upmanship. The fact remains that there were people in different parts of India who were attracted by the modernity that came about, whether it was Western or whether it was Christian—that’s, again, a separate debate—and embraced it. And when they embraced it, it became part of that culture, and therefore, they started seeing the paucity within their own faith and tried to start reforming it.
RAJAGOPALAN: Is that also one of the reasons for the success of Bangladesh? That it stayed away from that kind of fundamental Islamization which is now taking place. I understand that that has changed over a period of time, but initially, it stayed away from that because the way to carve out the national identity was through linguistic lines and not through religious lines, right?
TRIPATHI: They were divided by religion, absolutely. When East Pakistan became East Pakistan, it was home for subcontinent Muslims in the east. I’m sure that there was some migration of Bihari Muslims, which went there for that reason. When the Adamjee Group, which is a Bohra Muslim Business Group from West Pakistan, actually had factories in East Pakistan, and so on. You did have that, certainly, as a phenomenon going on at that time.
But when the war of independence started in Bangladesh, and they saw that it was West Pakistan which was imposing a less syncretic culture onto the East, they started resenting the religious baggage that went with it. In a way, if you’re being asked to do certain things and not do certain things, as a reflex action, they started embracing secular ideals. Awami League did champion that.
We have to remember that Mujibur Rahman was an ally of Suhrawardy, and Suhrawardy was, of course, briefly prime minister of Pakistan, but people have accused him of inciting violence during the partition in Kolkata. Mujibur Rahman was indeed part of a rather rabid bunch of young people at one point. Later on, when he figures out that this is a Bengali identity, which is more inclusive, and takes over the Awami League and becomes its leader, he started talking the correct secular things that should be said by a liberal leader.
Now, again, to what extent was it convinced? Because if you look at his unfinished memoir, you do think that there is a certain transformation that is taking place. And to what extent it was political and inspired because of his friendship with Indira Gandhi?
I don’t think it was a top-down thing because when you do go to Bangladesh, you do find at the village level and at a community level, there is less of hatred across faiths than you see elsewhere in the subcontinent in many other parts. I’m not saying that it’s a heaven. It’s certainly not—nothing is—but I think it does try to get it right. I’ve been to Noakhali, which is where Gandhi went, Mohandas Gandhi, to stop violence, and he did succeed in stopping violence there. I’ve been to the ashram that Gandhi had set up there.
Between 1947, when the partition took place, and 2013, which is when I was there, there hadn’t been a single incident between Hindus and Muslims in that area. There’s some fondness that the people had for what Gandhi had achieved there. Of course, these things change. There’s the district called Joyag, and in the last few years, there have been a couple of incidents which are very unpleasant and unfortunate. But you certainly have the idea of “We are Bengalis, we are Bangladeshis, we are together, and we are Hindus, we are Muslims.”
There’s a very interesting story at Columbia University, I think soon after 1971. There was some event, and one of the Pakistani diplomats asked the Bangladeshi, “Why did you have to go on and on about Tagore when you had Nazrul Islam?” Nazrul Islam, of course, being a very famous Muslim Bangladeshi poet and very well known for his geet. And the Bangladeshi diplomat [gave] a very good reply. “We are lucky to have both. Why do you have to choose one?” That old thing about are you Bengali or Muslim? We are both. I think that is at the heart of this, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: Now, there are a few interesting things going on in Bangladesh over a period of time. You’re right, it is syncretic. They have made the linguistic identities the fulcrum though they have a complex identity overall, just like anyone else. But it’s not exactly Muslim because when the Rohingya Muslims come in, they do allow them in, but it is not a happy story with a happy ending. It is very complex. Like your Geneva Camp now, the Rohingya camps are quite hopeless, to say the least.
TRIPATHI: Not just that. They’re being sent away on this artificial island being created in the Bay of Bengal—Human Rights Watch has just written a fantastic report on it—in a place called Bhasan Char. If indeed, climate change is happening—and the consensus is that it is happening, and water levels are going to rise, and Bangladesh is one of the prime countries where, because of its low-lying area, is going to get taken—this island will disappear probably in 20 years from now. That’s where you’re going to put 100,000 refugees, and it’s grotesque.
RAJAGOPALAN: Well, one, it’s avoiding the problem, but also, there is this notion of othering the Rohingya Muslims as not our Muslims. Whether that’s happening because of ethnic reasons, because of subnational reasons or because Rohingyas are not Bengali speaking is beside the point. The point is there is a very clear limit to the syncretic nature.
TRIPATHI: No, that’s very good what you just said, that Rohingyas are not Bengali speaking. That’s absolutely true, but you try saying this in Myanmar. I’ve been to Myanmar as a journalist, and from Aung San Suu Kyi downward, people are just, “Oh, they’re Bengali.”
They’re not Bengali. They happen to be in a land adjacent to Arakan or Rakhine, whichever way you pronounce it, but they’re always called the other Bengalis. If you really trace back their history, and I’ve done that because I’ve been in the Kutupalong Camp, and I’ve spoken to people in Rohingya, people in Myanmar, and you get a completely different perspective.
I speak tolerable 10-minute equivalent of Bengali with any Bengali. I understand it very well. I chose to learn it, which is why I said there are languages we choose to learn sometimes. When I went to the camp, I thought, “I will strike up a conversation with them in Bengali.” I started speaking Bengali and they stared back, these women and men.
The NGO, the nongovernment organization which had taken me there—they said, “They’re not able to understand you,” because my Bengali was taught in Bombay, which is different from Kolkata Bengali, which is different from Dhaka, which is different from Chittagong Bengali, and I’m in Kutupalong, where they’re speaking Rohingya. They said, “Why don’t you speak in Hindi? We all see Bollywood movies.” My Hindi is broken and not very good, so we were able to have a conversation in the end.
It happened to me in Myanmar, where I met a Rohingya MP because there was one MP. It’s not complete disenfranchisement. There are some people who are politically prominent. I meet him in Rangoon, and I start speaking in Bengali, and he stares back at me. It’s not that he was being defensive. He genuinely did not understand. I’m not saying my Bengali is perfect, far from that, but it was certainly grammatically correct and spoken slowly enough for him, and it was just pleasantry I was making to break ice between us.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and I have a similar story with Tamil. I am Tamil speaking, but I grew up in Delhi, and all my Tamil came from my grandparents, which is basically an 80-year-old, very, very classical kind of Tamil. No one in Madras speaks like that. People in my generation don’t talk like that.
Try using that when you visit Sri Lanka, and you absolutely cannot understand each other. Then if you really pay attention and strap in and focus, then you will be able to parse out some words and say, “Oh, we do have a similar language.” But I can understand Marathi more easily or Gujarati more easily than I can understand the Sri Lankan dialect of Tamil.
TRIPATHI: I have seen that also. I lived in London 20 years, and I had neighbors who were Gujarati from East Africa. Their Gujarati was different because they had left India, or their family had left India, a hundred years ago. Then they go to Uganda. Two generations grew up there, and this is the generation after that, which is fluent in British English and very broken in an arcane form of Gujarati, following rituals which make no sense to me.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, because they’re frozen in that time, and that is what is being passed on.
TRIPATHI: Yes, it is beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with it.
RAJAGOPALAN: No, it’s just that language is so much more complex than simply the fact that there are different languages.
TRIPATHI: Being frozen in time—and there’s a bit of a fork I’m taking here, but it’s something I feel very strongly about—being frozen in time has both virtues and vices, vices if you believe that Mughals are the source of all problems in India, and therefore you think every Muslim in India is a problem, which is what some people are trying to do with the Hindu Rashtra Movement.
But I remember when I first went to South Africa in 1989 or ’90—soon after Mandela was released—as a journalist. I used to meet all these Gujaratis, and I’m writing about them in my next book. When I met them at that time, they were Hindus and Muslims. I remember one of the Hindu traders in Durban telling me that we had these people who came from India—this was in 1991—from something called World Hindu Council, which is, of course, Vishva Hindu Parishad.
I said, “What was it about?” “They wanted, initially, money from us to donate to build a temple for Rama, and we said, yes, sure, until they told us that they wanted to destroy a mosque or remove the mosque, and then do it. We kicked them out.” I was a journalist. I wasn’t going to impose my views. I said, “Why did you want to kick them out?” He said, “We have fought shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim brothers against apartheid. We are not going to let them down.”
That fossilization of that Gandhian view, which is what the Indians in South Africa have, is redeeming, and India should learn from that.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Pulling back a little bit to Bangladesh, where do you see this going? Is the Bengali identity going to become another fundamentalist identity? Is it going to become an Islamic identity? Because that is a frightening trend taking place in Bangladesh at the moment. Or do you think, in the very long arc, this persistence of the syncretic culture in a particular delta is going to overcome all these problems?
TRIPATHI: It’s very hard to predict, and I can’t predict who will win the next cricket Test match. I’m not going to try predicting—
RAJAGOPALAN: That is harder to predict, actually.
TRIPATHI: [laughs] That is true, but more seriously, I think it’s the single most challenge that Bangladesh has, this idea of trying to make the country more Islamic again, because, of course, the Jamaat party exists. There are other movements, such as the Hefazat-e-Islam, which also exist and which also want to make the country more Muslim.
Islamization started after Mujib’s death, but it took Friday becoming a holiday and the country being called the Islamic Republic—all that happened much later. It happened by late ’80s and early ’90s, in the times of President Ziaur first and then General Ershad, who were the two leaders in whose time it happened. Attempts are made to stop that trajectory, but the politicians are still very timid.
Two examples. One is that they have now formed a constitution which says, “We are a secular Islamic Republic.” Now, it sounds almost tautological; I mean, how can you? You have a constitution which says we are a secular republic, but we are at the same time an Islamic state. That is something that they have embraced as an ideal, and I have asked why isn’t there more challenge to that? And human rights defenders said, “You know why we can’t. Because the government Awami League, which is ostensibly secular, has not really made amends.”
If you break down one of the ongoing issues that Hindu nationalists in India go on and on about is a seizure of Hindu property by Muslims in Bangladesh. Aroma Dutta and Mr. Ansari are the two people who have worked on that quite deeply and studied that issue of seizure of property of Hindus. They find that the people who have taken over that property are from all political parties. It’s not only Jamaat or Bangladesh National Party who are doing it. Even Awami League politicians have done that. There is, of course, a certain amount of resentment of the Hindu and hatred that exists there, so I’m not trying to gloss over that at all.
At the same time, there is what in India would be called pseudo-secularism. You do find it. When all these rational, atheist bloggers started criticizing Islam, from Avijit Roy downwards, one by one, when they started, and my friend, Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury—Tutul, as he’s called—he now lives in Scandinavia because his face was slashed by somebody who came with a machete. [Ananta Bijoy] Das, cases upon cases. There was a brief period when about 15 to 16 bloggers were killed. The rest of them left the country.
If you look at that, at that time, the prime minister’s son, Sajeeb Joy—he was asked, “What do you think?” He said, “But you have to be sensitive about what you say, and you cannot say what you want.” Now, it may be wise advice from an uncle, saying that—be sensitive and be civil, be polite—but it can’t be a government position.
Of course, first of all, he’s not a government person. To that extent, it’s not the government position, but he’s the son of the prime minister, and by some accounts, the next—at least a candidate within the ruling party, the person to succeed whenever Hasina steps aside. If that is the situation, then that is a problem. There is this intolerance about a view that is extreme in the liberal progressive sense, and that itself is a problem.
Is Nehruvian Secularism in South Asia Doomed?
RAJAGOPALAN: I keep coming back to this question in different contexts—is this Nehruvian idea just a pipe dream, and we managed to succeed with it for the first couple of decades to a very limited extent? Now, once again, in India, there are some Indians—not all—there’s a small minority of Indians who want India to be a Hindu Rashtra first, while allowing all other religious minorities to also exist in India, but there is a Hindu-first movement that is going on.
Do you think this is the destiny of the South Asian subcontinent, and we are doomed to this, and any liberal constitutional value that was imported—and this is really the Nehruvian vision for India—if there isn’t a large enough coalition to realize it in the very long run?
TRIPATHI: Yes and no, in the sense that it’s very depressing right now. Because when you look at the fact that certain states like Gujarat have had a BJP government since mid-’90s, so you have almost 30 years’ worth.
I remember when Suharto fell in Indonesia after 32 years, I was meeting people who were touching 40, who had never known another form of government. You have a generation that has grown up in Gujarat, which has been like that, read those textbooks and lived in that ethos about certain kinds of majoritarianism, and other states are not far different.
Some of the other states are also similarly placed in that kind of situation. You have a new generation that has come up, which has very limited understanding of what that earlier secular model held, and that earlier secular model—in India, at least, which is a country I know reasonably well—had its problems. It did involve kowtowing to minority views—
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it’s very asymmetric in its secularism. It’s equal but not exactly equal.
TRIPATHI: There are three kinds of competing secularism that were going on in India. One is Nehruvian, which you could argue was Western, but it was not like laïcité in the French sense. But Nehru did not like ritual. There are photographs somebody will show of Nehru bowing to some guru or something, but that doesn’t mean that he believed it. He was an agnostic, certainly, if not an atheist, so that was that.
The other, the Gandhian secularism, which is Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava—all religions are the same, and you bow down to every god. Basically, if you go to his ashram, all the prayers were said.
The third is the Indira Gandhi one, which is where you do end up bowing to certain ones for political purposes. It was perfected, the whole thing. There’s never one tipping point. But after Rajiv Gandhi comes to power, and the Shah Bano judgment and the ban on “Satanic Verses” were the two so-called final straws, because there is simmering resentment over Kashmir, over the special status and the so-called benefit given to Muslims that they can have their own personal laws.
If you break it down, the birth rate of Hindus is almost as prolific as that of Muslims. There is a difference. I think the TFP of Hindus is 2.1, and the Muslim is 2.6. Given the fact that there are five Hindus for every Muslim, will Muslims ever overtake India? Yes, but it’ll be not in your and in my lifetime. Let’s leave it at that.
The point is, it’s like trying to project mathematics to a level which makes no sense at all because there are so many imponderables come in. Once there is economic growth, which we know empirically from other countries—
RAJAGOPALAN: Fertility rates just drop.
TRIPATHI: Absolutely drops, and I think that’s basically where I see hope.
If India and Pakistan and Bangladesh were to unite, create a common market, let free flow of trade and goods and people happen, and focus on those economic fundamentals, then these things will recede. As we were talking on our way, this movement to build a temple and doing all this is precisely reward of that for political purposes.
Bangladesh Liberalization and Economic Growth
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I’m glad you mentioned markets because one fantastically hopeful thing about Bangladesh is that it opened itself up to markets. Now, Bangladesh had a very similar beginning with Mujib. First, the distinction from East Pakistan was again to veer towards socialism. Sorry, that was part of it.
By 1980s, new regimes come in. They start privatizing industry, and they start embracing markets. Now, Bangladesh—they use this as a pejorative of how Bangladesh makes T-shirts. But it has done fantastically well. Just the garment industry, I believe, is about 80% of its foreign exchanges.
TRIPATHI: Yes, the third largest manufacturer, probably, if you don’t call EU one market. If you see EU as one, then they become the fourth or fifth, but otherwise, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh are right at the top.
RAJAGOPALAN: China has already grown too rich to make T-shirts in one sense, so Bangladesh has taken that spot, and it has done remarkably well, for multiple reasons. There’s a lot of foreign exchange that comes in.
Most of these factories—I know they’re complicated, and there are safety issues, and there’s always a question of, should people in the First World be wearing cheap Nikes and T-shirts made in the Third World by some poor child or some poor woman who has not-so-great living conditions? But most of the people who work in these factories want to work there. They don’t have very good choices.
It’s been fantastic for the structural transformation out of agriculture into manufacturing. It has been remarkable for female labor-force participation. Female labor-force participation, I believe, in Bangladesh is about 35%.
TRIPATHI: In the garment industry, some factories, it’s as high as 80%.
RAJAGOPALAN: In India and Pakistan, it’s like in the low 20%. Now, post-COVID, of course, everything’s gotten worse. Bangladesh is like this success story because it’s embraced markets in a way that neither of its origin countries have done as successfully. What is going on with Bangladeshi markets?
TRIPATHI: Just to add to the complexities and to make the picture even richer, what I would add is the fact that it has very little competitive advantage. It doesn’t grow cotton, it does not make capital equipment for it, and it doesn’t have a huge amount of capital to invest. It has basically done it on the strength of cheap labor.
TRIPATHI: Now, to go back to the question, should people in the West wear cheap T-shirts made in Bangladesh? My point is, who are the buyers? Very often, it’s the people who go to Walmart because they’re the cheapest place they can. By saying, “No, no, you must buy locally and buy American-made goods,” you’re going to make life harder for the poor in America.
TRIPATHI: I think that’s often lost. The very fact that the people are working there, do it out of choice. One of the interesting things is that whether it is the Rana Plaza industry collapsing when the building collapsed and about 1,100 people died in 2014 or ’13—I will have to check that—but when that happened, Kalpona Akter and Nazma Akter, are two of the most prominent Bangladeshi union activists, both women. Nazma actually worked as a child laborer, and now she has grown and created her own union called Awaj, which means voice, the voice of the worker.
They never said boycott our goods. They said, you take the responsibility as consumers. You ask your Gaps and Targets and Nikes and Under Armours and Bestsellers and all of them, H&Ms, to require the factories to improve their performance. I think that’s a very responsible position because they knew that it’s the workers who will otherwise lose out.
Because Bangladesh is so dependent on only labor force as its competitor, there’s a risk that tomorrow somebody else will eat its lunch. It’s already happening. There are Bangladeshis well invested now in Ethiopia, to make garments for the African market.
It does make a lot of sense and great for Ethiopia to get investment, so I’m not resenting. I think Bangladeshi will be prepared that someday somebody else is going to do that. Therefore, they need to move to the next level, which is where China succeeded. Then they started making plastic toys and things for McDonald’s. From that, it is now making 5G technology chips.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m very hopeful with Bangladesh on that because this is something you mentioned at the head of the conversation. They have made big investments in human capital—100% of the children in Bangladesh complete primary education, and not like India, where after fifth grade you can still not write your name or do basic arithmetic. Literacy and numeracy are pretty high in Bangladesh. Female literacy is higher in Bangladesh than in India or Pakistan. They have built certain capabilities.
I’m more bullish on Bangladesh. If someone else is going to eat their lunch as the new source of cheap labor, that means Bangladesh got rich and that’s great.
TRIPATHI: Absolutely, and even move on to dinner or something else after that.
But the other interesting story— this is a joke in Dhaka—one should take it only with a pinch of salt—that a lot of Indians in India still live in 1971. They believe that the war took place and we went there and we fixed it. In two weeks, the country was made free. Now these refugees came and they’ve never gone back—which is all falsehood upon falsehood upon falsehood in that narrative because it completely ignores what the Bangladeshis suffered and how they themselves fought earlier, and so on.
And then, of course, the despicable statement from the home minister of India, Amit Shah, who called them termites—the refugees who are coming in—and thinks they should be exterminated. He said it in an election speech. People said, “We want a wall between India and Bangladesh.” And Bangladesh said jokingly, “Yes, please do. Because we think that the people who are losing jobs in India will now come to Bangladesh to get jobs.”
RAJAGOPALAN: It is true. It’s funny the way they are saying it, but there’s a lot of truth to it in the sense that Bangladesh is overtaking India in GDP per capita. It has better infant mortality rates, as you mentioned. Better female labor-force participation. So many of the economic and development indicators, Bangladesh is doing much better.
Frankly, in the long-term trajectory, if you think about it, India has had this economic slowdown since 2010. You can see it in the confidence in Indian markets. Gross fixed capital formation and gross fixed private capital formation have been trending down. They’ve been declining since 2010, 2011. They’ve not been declining in Bangladesh.
The private sector is investing in long-term capital formation in Bangladesh. People are building more factories. People are putting up more plants. People are expanding their shops. People are more bullish about the Bangladesh economy within Bangladesh than Indians are about the Indian economy, or Pakistanis are about the Pakistan economy.
I know it’s said in part jest, but there is a lot more truth to it than I think even Indians recognize because, like you said, they are frozen in time, in a narrative where they think Bangladesh is this poor country, and India swooped in and saved the day.
TRIPATHI: And continue to see it in the prism of ’71, when, of course, Bangladesh was starving and suffering. They had a cyclone. In ’72 or ’73, they had what they describe as famine, but I don’t use the word famine lightly because precisely with famine, they’re political and manmade. And drought sounds too weak, but they had a huge food scarcity.
Naomi Hossain has done a lot of work on it here in the U.S.—Bangladeshi economist. You have that situation to examine and dig deeper into it and find out what’s going on. I think there is a fossilized idea about what Bangladesh is. And the other part, which is where the religion comes in—the narrative in India influences that debate, too—to see it as Pakistan in the East, which it is not; 1971 showed that Bangladesh was not Pakistan. I think India needs to understand that better.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to come to Bangladesh and women. In your book, you have an incredible chapter on the rapes and how the women shouldered the burden of this massive tragedy. They were victims, but they are also the collateral damage of war. It’s not just soldiers dying on both sides and bombings and things like that.
Now, typically, when there are riots or when there is war, and women are raped in those numbers, and there is that kind of trauma, the typical reaction is female seclusion. Now we’re going to protect our women. Now women are going to be covered up. We’re going to put the hijab on them. We’re not going to let them outside the house. The men are going to be men. There’s like a reinforcement of patriarchy.
You’ve seen this happen in Gujarat. You’ve seen this happening in large and small urban centers in India where Muslims are becoming more and more ghettoized, and women’s participation in life is becoming more and more secluded. That didn’t happen in Bangladesh. Why?
TRIPATHI: Very good question. I think there were a couple of reasons, and here, I think, we have to give credit to the kind of leadership that the Awami League provided right after the war. You’re talking about 1971, war-ravaged country and all that, and coming back. At that time, two things they did which were very good. They always told the survivors when they came that it was not their fault.
The other—which is parallel in a separate story altogether, but important to note because it preceded the Rwanda tribunal because Rwanda genocide hadn’t happened at that time—is to have a military code tribunal-type situation to try the people guilty of war crimes.
After Nuremberg, nobody had done it, and the Tokyo tribunal in the Second World War, and Bangladesh decided to. Kamal Hossain was a law minister, and he actually started developing legislation around.
To have some retributive justice, in one sense, and restorative on the other hand: retributive justice for those who had committed crimes, but restorative justice for those who had suffered. I think that was very well understood. I’m not saying they implemented it right because nobody can implement these things perfectly. There was that one part, which I thought was very positive.
The other was that, as I said, there were maybe a quarter-million instances of rape. Obviously, a lot of women got pregnant, and two things Bangladesh did. One is, of course, Mother Teresa was all over, Kolkata being so close, and she came from India and actively encouraged adoption of children of these encounters, products of war in a way. There has been some research around it. That’s something I would love to be exploring at some point in the future, but not yet.
You have that as a phenomenon. The other was they amended, quite in an enlightened way, the law that allowed what they call medical termination of pregnancy, which is another name for abortion, and they made it easier to do that. The third thing Mujibur Rahman does in a famous speech—he describes the women as Birangana, which is “the courageous one” or “the brave one.” My chapter is called “The Brave One,” in fact.
Not only that, it was immediately told—the message went out that even if ostracization might take place, and it did—about 30 women in my book. They do say that they were all ostracized, and they felt terrible about it, and there was no justice, and so on. They were very diffident about talking to me, but they did talk to me in the end.
But one change that happened was that there was a remarkable woman who died a few years ago, called Ferdousi Priyabhashini. She was used as—I can only call it a sex slave by the army in southern Bangladesh. And she not only manages to redeem herself; her lover, her partner accepts her back after that, and she becomes an artist. Later, she became a spokeswoman of this moment at the tribunal that was set up for the Japanese, the whole comfort women controversy. She goes and speaks on behalf of the Bangladeshi women, and she keeps that issue alive by speaking about it in public.
The shame that is supposed to be associated with having been raped—Bangladesh tried very hard to eliminate that, and I think one can only admire the fortitude of the women to start with, and also the society which was willing to accept it and not cage their women after that.
Endogamy in Bangladesh
RAJAGOPALAN: I had this interesting conversation on gender divergence with Alice Evans, and we spoke about the subcontinent, and she also talked about high female labor participation in Bangladesh coming from a couple of different sources. She said marriage endogamy is much weaker in Bangladesh. Now, technically, we think of caste endogamy only as a Hindu thing, but we all know that in the subcontinent, the caste hierarchy has permeated all religions, not just Hinduism.
So you have endogamy even in Pakistan, which is technically an Islamic country, but you have this hierarchy and jati. There are different words in different languages for it. Alice said that marriage endogamy is a lot weaker. This kind of patriarchal, “We need to keep the bloodlines pure and therefore keep the women within and not let them out”—that seems to be much less in Bangladesh.
What is your experience when you encounter the intersection between gender and caste when you visit Bangladesh? What is going on that endogamy is much weaker in Bangladesh than in the rest of the subcontinent?
TRIPATHI: There are two issues with it. I have dealt mainly with the elite secular liberals who are, of course, not going to be endogamous in that sense. Some of them are married to people from other cultures and societies. Or I met fishing communities, where these things are never an issue. It’s always a middle-class problem, where you do have a certain amount of endogamy.
We all know that there are caste divisions within Islam. Let’s keep that aside, but let’s assume for a moment it is not so. But the very fact that they are liberal enough or open enough to continue to use what sounds like Sanskrit name—I don’t want to call them Hindu name. You have Binoy Ahmed, names like that.
RAJAGOPALAN: They’re Bengali names with some kind of Sanskrit origin.
TRIPATHI: A name which will be like Farzana Kamal Sujata, Sujata, being, of course, a Hindu-sounding Sanskrit name. You have cases upon cases upon cases like that. I think this idea of not splitting that entity is very real and vivid. I’ve not looked at statistics, nor do I ask questions to people if they’re a Hindu who has married a Muslim, whether anybody has converted either way.
That veneer of secularism is still very deep, and the very fact that at least the secular elite and other secular liberals in Bangladesh have no problem embracing what are outwardly Hindu customs—I think it’s part of the reason why they are not that committed or wedded to a kind of more tribalistic view of who they are.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s so interesting that they have much of the Hindu culture penetrate their culture, but it is not caste-dominated Hindu culture, right? Whereas, if you look at, say, the Gujaratis in various parts of Africa, or those who went initially to serve as indentured labor in Guyana and Suriname and all these countries—they still have caste endogamy. Trinidadian Indians are still marrying within caste in Trinidad four generations after the original family, who was of Indian origin, left.
That I find quite interesting about Bangladesh. I’m not saying it’s completely eliminated, but there’s something that’s going on in Bangladeshi exceptionalism which has managed to not shun endogamy, but at least weaken it to a slight extent, compared to its immediate neighbors and its origin culture, and so on and forth.
TRIPATHI: Of course, there is a Dalit community in Bangladesh among Hindus and they have, obviously . . . There was a politician called Mondal, and he actually withdrew from being part of the East Pakistan government because he thought sufficient rights were not being guaranteed at that time of ’47-’48 I’m talking about. I’ve quoted from his letter in my book as well.
And when Mr. Modi went to Bangladesh recently, he also made an effort and deliberately went to a particular temple, which was largely frequented by the Dalits in Bangladesh, obviously, because the elections were going on in India, and he wanted to wean that vote away from the TMC. That was the logic behind it.
You do have instances like that happening, where playing into that subregional identity constantly, but at the same time, people—I’m not saying that they’ve moved on, they’re more enlightened or liberal, but it’s less of a divisive factor than you would think otherwise.
Modern Bengali Feminism
RAJAGOPALAN: I love that you mentioned Modi and the recent election in West Bengal. There are two things that emerge from the narrative of the BJP losing the elections. One is that a lot of commentators have talked about how the Bengali identity is much more important than the Hindu identity. Once again, this whole idea of linguistic nationalism, which is a more complex thing than just religious nationalism.
The second is, in many of the speeches and rallies, the senior leadership in the BJP said very pejorative things about the leadership in the TMC Party and, most importantly, the women, in particular Mamata Banerjee. There seems to have been some kind of backlash because a lot of people have talked about how Bengalis don’t talk about women like this. That’s a Bengali thing. This is shameful, and that’s just not how men are supposed to speak about women.
Mamata Banerjee is no saint. There are a lot of problems ideologically and otherwise with that party. In fact, sometimes I find a lot more commonality between the TMC and the BJP, but this seems to be a point of distinction.
Once again, this idea that there is something very interesting going on in Bengali culture, both East and West Bengal. I won’t say less patriarchal, but there is a vein of feminism, very modern feminism running through it that makes it sort of exceptional. We only think of it in terms of Kerala and South India typically, but I think there’s something going on there with the Bengali women, and this is something that came to me when I read your book.
TRIPATHI: Yes, thank you. The other interesting thing about Mamata—and I don’t want to make an assertion which I cannot back up—but I think that she might be one of the few female political leaders in India who have risen to the top without a male benefactor.
TRIPATHI: Either a partner or a husband or a father.
RAJAGOPALAN: Or a father-in-law.
TRIPATHI: Now, a lot of them have grown brilliantly in their own right, Indira Gandhi being the best example of that. Of course, she was Nehru’s daughter, but she became a leader in her own right.
RAJAGOPALAN: Same with J. Jayalalitha.
TRIPATHI: You do have that, but they had that leg up. You do not have that in her case, which is quite remarkable. They have another brilliant parliamentarian in their party, Mahua Moitra, who is one politician who can run rings around the BJP with flawlessly brilliant speeches that she gives in Parliament.
Subnationalism, Federalism and Delimitation in India
RAJAGOPALAN: In India, it seems now that the main opposition to the Modi government is not coming from within Parliament. It is really coming from subnational governments, right? You have Stalin and the government in Tamil Nadu, which is this huge opposition. You have Mamata Banerjee’s recent victory. Linguistic fractionalization and the splitting up of states in ’64 along linguistic lines—it seems to have done something very interesting in India.
Now, going back to something you talked about a little earlier—this demographic factor. You talked about it in the context of East and West Pakistan; there were more seats for East Pakistan. We’ve talked about it in the context of the Hindi language. Now, there’s a lot of out-migration from the Hindi belt—it’s far more populous—and in-migration into the southern and western states. That’s one trend.
The second is delimitation in India. The number of seats have been frozen, based on the 1971 census. Now, in 2026, which is not that far away—they kept kicking the can down the road, and they’ve been postponing the problem—but this needs to come to bear. India is not just asymmetric in its secularism. It’s also asymmetric in its democracy in the sense that one person, one vote technically matters, but each constituency doesn’t have the same number of people representing it. Sometimes in the southern states, you have half the number of people per constituency relative to, say, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.
Where do you see this going? This demographic clash that is going to take place—the politics of it are going to bear out. Delimitation is the solution to the problem in some sense, but it’s not a permanent solution, and it compromises the democratic values. What is going to happen as this goes along?
TRIPATHI: I don’t know what will happen, but I have scenarios in my mind. Uttar Pradesh—80 seats in Parliament. If it becomes 240 tomorrow because, roughly, you have to multiply by three to have a Parliament which is . . . The original goal was that each constituency will have half a million voters, and that’s thrown away.
There’s no such constituency with only half a million voters in India anymore. Some of these constituencies are the size of European smaller states, like Liechtenstein and all of that, at least. If you’re in that kind of a situation, you need to drastically expand the size of Parliament, or you have to do what India will never do, but I think is probably the only way forward to preserve the unity as it is, which is proportional representation.
You do need to think beyond that because, I think, the whole idea of first past the post—that means in a multi-cornered seat, a candidate with 21% of the vote gets to be in the Parliament, and 79% don’t like the person, but they get 80% of the seats, and then they say this is the will of the people. In a way, these last two elections have been like that. The first election was, I think, 31[%], and now it’s 35 or 36, which was a share of BJP, which means two-thirds of the Indians did not want this government.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s also true for previous Congress governments and so on. We’ve always had governments who had vote share of 30% or so.
TRIPATHI: I agree with that. Proportional representation is probably the way to go forward. That’s one thing, because I think the demographic transition that you talk about would have been less alarming if it did not also mean value-based transformation. My concern is that this demographic transition is leading to the whole idea of imposing Hindi, a particular kind of Hinduism—not eating beef, situation of women in a society, value placed on education, who can marry who, what music can you listen to, what can you eat, what can be in your refrigerator.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s very reductive, right?
TRIPATHI: If that kind of culture is being brought from these states into the so-called cow belt of India, as it is called—that old joke in India that north of India is agriculture, and south of India is culture. I’m not making any predictions because I’m not competent to make those predictions, but what’s going to be very interesting is how some of these southern states react to what is happening. The starting point of the controversy is GST [goods and services tax]. That’s where I see the battle starting.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think there are two places where the battle starts. One, I think, is fiscal federalism. You’re absolutely right. The southern states are effectively subsidizing the northern states. That’s one part of it. The second part: I think India—when it hits delimitation, and it has to confront the problem, what is likely going to happen? Of course, we need more seats in Lok Sabha. The size needs to increase three times. There’s no question about that, but proportionally, what ends up happening?
The bigger chunk of the increase goes to Uttar Pradesh versus Tamil Nadu, as it should be if we go by population. I think the solution is to have a stronger Upper House, and to have the Upper House not determined by population, but like the U.S. Senate. Every state gets a certain number of Upper House seats, no matter how large or small they are. Of course, this will mean that Uttar Pradesh has an incentive to break itself up into multiple states, and there’s a lot of churn.
TRIPATHI: Which isn’t a bad thing.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not a bad thing administratively, and there may be a lot of churn, but I think these are two things. I think the third way to think about it is to make the problem irrelevant by even greater fiscal federalism to the local level of government, which is Panchayati Raj and urban local bodies.
TRIPATHI: I was thinking exactly that. You can freeze your Lok Sabha seats at 547 as it is now, provided that those people decide on only defense, foreign affairs and a few things, and everything else is actually decided at a local or a much more powerful state. Not just the state because even Uttar Pradesh is bigger than Germany. You don’t even have the state level, but at the district level, much more federalized system.
It’s not an easy one to do. In an ideal world, you’re talking about the Swiss-style system of canton, where each little community decides what it wants. It’s only those who worry about unifying the culture by imposition who talk about balkanization at that time, but if you do it right, the Swiss style—it’s not a problem.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not so much balkanization. A lot of these problems that we’re talking about is the school building needs to be fixed, the water tank needs to be built, the garbage needs to be picked up. No matter what you do, whether you are a strong believer in Narendra Modi or not, the prime minister simply can’t do these things. That’s becoming clearer and clearer. And it’s not that Modi is the prime minister who can’t do these things. Indira Gandhi couldn’t do it any better.
TRIPATHI: Manmohan Singh couldn’t. Narsimha Rao couldn’t do it.
RAJAGOPALAN: Nobody can. This kind of centripetalism which we see in India simply is not the solution. Some of it got solved because we removed command and control and went towards the markets, which are naturally decentralized, but the polity also needs to be decentralized.
We’ve had 25 years of Panchayati Raj institutions since the 73rd, 74th Amendments, so I’m a little bit hopeful that if we fiscally federalize—not just on paper democratically federalize—but we actually have these people empowered with purse strings, not just with the vote, then maybe you have some room to play with and you can go somewhere.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to talk to you a little bit about your intellectual journey. I want to start with your next project because I think that is intimately linked. I’m privy to what you’re working on next. Can you tell us a little bit about your next book, and also, what has been your intellectual journey that has brought you to write about this really broad range of issues, but at the core of it is the question of complex liberalism, pluralism, identity.
TRIPATHI: Maybe I’ll lead with the second one first. Otherwise, I’ll forget about it if I get into the next book that I’m writing. I think that complexity you’re talking about—getting very personal here—but it’s the kind of upbringing I had, the kind of books I read at home, the kind of parents I had and the kind of school I went to. You always blame your mother for the way you are, and to a great extent, that is true. The way I am is the way she shaped me.
From a very young age, she would take me to the museums and to the libraries, and borrow books, and go to the USIS Library and the British Library. All of that I’ve done from a fairly young age, seeing movies and plays which are not only Hindi or Gujarati, but even seeing Marathi films and Marathi Children’s Theatre, and all of that, she had me take part in.
I used to have quite a thriving career, which not many know—and even I’ve forgotten about it—on India’s television national network, called Doordarshan in Gujarati, for children. I was a host of that show for three or four years and also for young people. It was called Yuvadarshan. I used to run those shows there and do quizzing.
I wanted to write an article when I was 12 or 13, and my mom said, “Write it and send it.” It appeared in the Indrajal Comics which was a comic book published by the Times of India. They didn’t know it was written by a 12-year-old kid. When I went to collect the check, they said, “No, you couldn’t have written it. Your mom must have written it.” Things like that that she has done, for which she deserves a lot of credit.
And the school which was inspired by two people; one was Gandhi and the other one was Tagore—Gandhi from the perspective of soft Indian nationalism in the nice sense of the term, and Tagore from the perspective of keeping your doors and windows open. I chose to learn Bengali because my school gave me the option, and I chose to learn Bengali because I wanted to see Satyajit Ray without subtitles.
Now, these sound almost snobbish and pompous responses. Most people think, “Oh, you learned Bengali because you have a Bengali girlfriend,” or something like that, but not so in my case. It was simply a question that I felt strongly about learning a language which had given Badal Sarkar and Tagore and Satyajit Ray, and people like that. All of that is probably the reason I am where I am.
And just reading a lot. I do read all points of view, not necessarily agree with all points of view because then you can’t come to a conclusion, but I suppose that’s part of it. And being eclectic in my reading. Eclectic not in an expansive, proud sense, but if something I’m curious about, I would read it. That’s probably what led me to journalism. Journalism is ultimately a profession worth pursuing if you’re curious and want to understand stories and tell them to others because you think it’s exciting to tell those stories. That’s essentially what I like doing.
Now, the next project is about Gujaratis, which you could say is narrowcasting in a way because I’m talking about all these global ideas. The idea came from my editor, David Davidar, because he had published a book on Bengalis, and he wanted one on Gujaratis. He said, “Can you do this?” I started telling him why I would like to do it. Strong connection with Gujarat history. I lived and grew up in Bombay, but I did go to Gujarati Medium School, for example.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re very fluent in Gujarati.
TRIPATHI: I read it and write it. I’ve written poems in it, so there was that part of it.
It just so happens that the man who fought to create the Mahagujarat movement, Indulal Yagnik, was my dad’s uncle. Govardhanram Tripathi, who wrote the first great novel—and people still call it a great Gujarati novel—was my grandfather’s uncle. The main library in the town of Nadiad—our family was involved with it. The book has all those details.
I don’t want to sound like I’m narrating virtues or something, but there is a strong connection I’ve always had with the language. If you look at Gujaratis, people used to call—people still call us vegetarian, happy-go-lucky, entertaining, enterprising, business-oriented and nonviolent. All of those are false assertions, right?
RAJAGOPALAN: Or half-truths.
TRIPATHI: Half-truths, yes. They are assertions, and of course, we are happy-go-lucky, but we can be very serious. Of course, we have not produced—as someone put it, there is no Gujarat regiment. But then I was talking to some people who said, “To go at the age of 16, sit on a boat, land up in East Africa where you don’t know a language, and set up a shop in a culture where you see people around you, and there are animals around you. You can get swallowed by the tiger or lion or whatever. It takes courage to be an entrepreneur.” And Gujaratis did that. They were willing to set up a shop anywhere in the world. They have done that and successfully.
There’s a lot of courage in being nonviolent. When you’re going to pick up salt with Gandhi and Indian policemen on British orders beat you up, to not hit back, not to abuse, and go to the jail singing a song—that takes courage to say that. So there are problems with those assertions.
Gujaratis are business-minded? Yes, they’ve created great businesses. Tatas and Azim Premji and Ambanis are all shining examples of India. I deliberately chose these three names because one is Parsi, one is Muslim and one is a Hindu because I’m tired of being the dominant upper-caste Hindu/Jain culture being equated with Gujarati identity. There’s a much, much wider—
RAJAGOPALAN: Again, the same miniaturization of identity that you see everywhere else, right?
TRIPATHI: Absolutely, which is why only a bare majority of Gujaratis are vegetarian. You have a population which is substantial Dalit, Muslim. On the coast, they fish. They don’t just freeze it and sell it to the Parsis in Bombay. They’re actually eating that fish. There’s a Bohra Biryani, for example, and so on. All of that is lost, and this unifying Asmita, which is a word they use, which is the identity being imposed on Gujaratis.
The narrative, therefore, being that now Gujarat means Vallabhbhai Patel, who was a home minister of India; Sardar Patel, the world’s tallest statue, and all that; or Narendra Modi, who’s also from there; and Amit Shah; and Ambani and Adani, two big businesses. My point is, there’s a lot more to Gujaratis than that. There’s a lot more than dhoklas to Gujaratis.
That’s what I’m trying to show, that there’s not one Asmita. There are many, and we are as complicated, as infuriatingly difficult to generalize as any other community.
RAJAGOPALAN: As anyone else.
TRIPATHI: Absolutely. What we assert that we are—it might apply to Marwadis. Sikhs also go everywhere and do business. So do the Malayalis and others. What was the joke? Neil Armstrong goes to moon. What is the first thing he finds? A Malayali tea shop. That was a joke at that time. There is that thing that Gujaratis tend to gloss over—others are also doing that. Sindhis are very good at trade, too.
We have our jokes about it. “Oh, but we can make money out of—” “When we buy something from a Sindhi and sell to a Marwadi, we’ll be better off in both deals.” That’s arrogance. It’s not humor when it comes out of that. There is a lot of that, too. My hope is that I’ll present all of that [laughs] in its complexity.
RAJAGOPALAN: I had this conversation recently with someone, and they said, “Oh, the Gujaratis have always been the frontrunners in nationalism.” They meant Patel and Gandhi. I said, “Yes, Naoroji.” They were taken aback for a second because everyone associates Naoroji with London, but he’s a Gujarati-speaking professor of Gujarati and mathematics.
RAJAGOPALAN: These ideas . . . There are two, three things.
TRIPATHI: Jinnah. Jinnah was Gujarati.
RAJAGOPALAN: And Jinnah is Gujarati, of course.
One, of course, that you can have many identities. You can be a trader, you can be like your family—there’s a lot of literary figures in your family and your family village. You can be an artist. You can have a small shop in the U.S.
TRIPATHI: Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar.
TRIPATHI: Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. I can go on and on mentioning artists who are Gujaratis. People don’t think of that.
RAJAGOPALAN: The way there are Gujaratis in South Africa and there are Gujaratis in Kenya. There are the Gujaratis in America.
TRIPATHI: The first speaker of the South African Parliament, Nelson Mandela’s Parliament—Frene Ginwala, Parsi woman in a sari.
RAJAGOPALAN: There is a particular, the Patidar network that came to the United States, and like you said, very courageous. They’ve set up an incredible network of motels.
TRIPATHI: I’ve some stories of that, too, in the book.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. They have as little to do with Tyeb Mehta or Naoroji as I have, [laughs] or as much in common with them as anyone else.
TRIPATHI: Yes. Zubin Mehta, Persis Khambatta—Gujaratis who made it big in the U.S.—“Star Trek” and the New York Philharmonic. They literally are everywhere. Who was the greatest Indian cricketer that the people in England could talk about? Ranji, Gujarati again. Now I sound like the character from “Goodness Gracious Me”—Sanjeev Bhaskar, who says everybody’s an Indian, so I don’t want to overstretch the point here, but maybe we all get the drift here.
RAJAGOPALAN: But the drift is not that Gujaratis have done great things. Lots of people have done lots of great things. The point is—
TRIPATHI: Oh, yes. Biggest stock market scams were, excuse me, Gujaratis. We did it.
RAJAGOPALAN: [laughs] Yes, you have that cross to bear also. You have the Harshad Mehta—
TRIPATHI: Ketan Parekh.
RAJAGOPALAN: —and Nirav Modi.
TRIPATHI: Nirav Modi. All of them are also Gujaratis, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: But I think your point is well taken, that any identity is complex and simple, as complex and as simple as anyone wants to see. Painting an entire political movement using a language or a religion is always going to sound great on paper—three inches in the newspaper—or a great rally.
But the second you start digging two steps in, you have the problem of Bangladesh, or you have what’s going on with Gujarat, or you have what’s happening in Tamil Nadu. You have these huge beef-eating, fish-eating Hindu groups in Tamil Nadu who won’t have absolutely nothing to do with the Hindu nationalist party of India, and so on and so forth.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to ask a little bit about what you have been doing during the pandemic. You’ve been living in New York. I know you’ve been cooking a lot, you’ve been writing a lot, but the most important question I have in mind is what have you been binge-watching?
Salil Tripathi: [laughs] Okay. It’s interesting what I binge-watch because I don’t watch cat videos. That’s not what I do, but one series that I’ve seen—and it’s chewing gum for the eyes—is called “Call My Agent,” which is French. It’s in French, and my French is nonexistent. I can understand when it’s written down, but I can’t speak it at all, and it sounds like Gujarati, so nobody believes what I’m saying. [laughs]
That said, it’s about an agency, a film-talent agency. The foibles and politics that go on and, of course, a lesbian love affair, and there’s a gay guy, and all kinds of things are going on, and they’re always on the verge of losing a client, and it is almost like cameo—not cameo—longer appearances by actors I love, like Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani. All of them keep coming and going out of the film. It’s just absolutely fascinating.
The main reason I like it is that I love Paris, and there are lovely images of that. You know, when you’re sitting at home, and all you can see is Fort Greene Park, which is lovely by itself, but it is nice to see Paris once in a while. So, that’s one that I binge-watch.
Not binge-watched but binge-listened . . .Because I’ve left Britain after 20 years, I’m suddenly feeling nostalgic about London, so I do see a fair amount of “[The] Crown.” I binge-watched that because I hadn’t seen it when it was coming out. So, I’m now up to date with that. And listening to P.G. Wodehouse on the podcast while walking. I know all Indians love P. G. Wodehouse. More Indians love P. G. Wodehouse than the Brits do, probably. I’ve been listening to P. G. Wodehouse stories, and “Brideshead Revisited” is something I read recently. It’s a very quaint nostalgia.
RAJAGOPALAN: This was such a pleasure, Salil. Thank you for doing this.
TRIPATHI: Thank you. Thank you so much. I had a great time.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Prakhar Misra and Shreyas Narla about the 1991 Project.