New | Book Review | Civility in Crisis: Democracy, Equality and the Majoritarian Challenge in India


Chandrashekhar Ravan, photo by Shakeeb kpa (wiki commons)


In 2014 and 2019, India voted for a Hindu right party, the second victory being even larger than the first. There were no major lapses in the procedure of elections, nor physical violence, control over mass media or any such mishaps. Only one group was targeted- Muslims, in particular and religious minorities (Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists), in general. Yet, we observe that crimes against vulnerable sections of the Hindu society have been increasing steadily, be they women, Dalits or Adivasis. It is this paradox that the book Civility in Crisis (2021) by Suryakant Waghmore and Hugo Gorringe has tried to explore: the paradox of high democracy and low civility. All the essays included in the book under review discuss specific forms of incivilities with the broad aim to highlight the importance of civility in a functional democracy. By civility, the editors broadly mean what BR Ambedkar meant by social democracy, in which socially progressive values such as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are recognized. For Waghmore and Gorringe, civility is betterment in the social relations from apathy to empathy, from conflict to co-operation and above all, from skepticism to trust. Thus, one cannot simply say that civility is an anomalous concern in Indian soil as the project of civility presumes that humanity can only be conceptualised as universal brotherhood. It goes beyond the polite behaviour displayed in civil society which is mostly face-saving. It involves warmth in the moral behavior of both the powerless and the powerful sections of the society. Civility is about the change of heart, not merely of mind.



The book starts with ethnographic reflections by Sharika Thiranagama based on results of fieldwork conducted in Kerala. It has two physical sites- rural libraries/ reading rooms and Dalit households. Libraries were an important site through which communist ideas were spread. The author states how libraries never eliminated caste but merely re-organised it. Library activists were mostly dominant castes (Nairs and Ezhavas) who claimed to be atheists but associated only with Hindus. Libraries had books which were anti-caste but no Dalit members. These library activists added that caste and Hinduism are private affairs and must remain so. They also shared their dismay with inter-caste and inter-faith marriages, mainly against women opting for them. This brings us to the second field site- Dalit localities. Land redistribution has caused upward mobility of Ezhavas. Ezhavas became landlords and neighbours with Dalit labourers. The author states how untouchability was practiced by Ezhava women against Dalit women which increased with Hinduisation. Hindu supremacy, untouchability and patriarchy, all three get their safe haven in private domain and the ramifications are felt in public. The essay ends by stating that now Hindutva parties simply present those evils as public virtues.



Rowena Robinson’s essay introduces us to the ideas of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who said, “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well”. In the hope of bettering their socio-economic conditions, many Untouchables and middle- ranking castes converted into Christianity, which, like Islam and Sikhism, values social equality. Robinson finds out that casteism ails Christians of rural Tamil Nadu. “In the places where the domination of Vanniyars is more, Paraiyar communities still cannot enter the churches”, she writes. Even the position of priests (catechists) is mostly held by Vellalars. Thus, we see that among the Tamil Christians, dominant sections of the middle-ranking castes practice untouchability. Robinson tells us that the exclusionary methods practiced by state machinery get normalised. She elaborates that Dalit Christians (like Dalit Muslims) do not get Scheduled Caste status. This, in turn, denies them any kind of affirmative action policies like representation in legislatures, reservation in government jobs, scholarships in state-run educational institutes, and protection under SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989. Civility, as the essay states, is about trust, equality and fraternity; it is anchored in religion (Buddhism) and morality, which is beyond the purview of law.



Indrajit Roy’s essay on the politics in Bihar is about middle-ranking castes (Yadavs) and their form of mobilisation (Rashtriya Janata Dal party). Roy observes how ‘low’ caste Hindus in rural Bihar always talked about social justice, equality and dignity while talking about RJD’s ascendance to power. RJD was critical of the domination of high caste Hindu men in Congress and Jan Sangh. Failure of proper implementation of affirmative action programs, and land reforms was due to this domination. Roy terms Lalu Prasad’s rule as ‘substantive deepening of democracy’. He highlights some of the most crucial aspects of RJD’s work, “[Lalu] Yadav provided institutional support to popular struggles for equality in the state. Specific policy interventions included the elimination of tree and toddy tax, regularization of slums and allowing milk suppliers to establish cowsheds freely in towns and cities. State holidays were declared to mark the birth anniversary[y] of [Saint] Ravi Das.” One must note, this is happening at a time when in 1991, high caste Hindu men of the Savarn Liberation Front gang raped and killed ten Dalit women. Roy proposes that negotiations and conflicts within a symbolic framework are not only inevitable but also desirable for the proper functioning of democracy.




Suryakant Waghmore, from his fieldwork with two caste associations located in Mumbai, helps us understand the present form of cosmopolitanism in India. He coins the neologism ‘Hindu cosmopolitanism’ and argues that Hinduness within cosmopolitanism is a unique feature of contemporary Indian society. This chapter is based on the study of Deshastha Brahmin and Nair caste associations. Wealth, elite education, and cultural capital symbolise these two castes. Yet there was anxiety and a sense of loss among the members of both the associations. While Brahmins cast aspersions against Marathas, Nairs were irritated by the rise of Ezhavas. Maintenance of rigid social hierarchies came at a cost- it produced anxieties in elderly men and it subjugated unmarried women. Detailed interviews with the senior male members of the two caste associations show how, despite living a consumerist lifestyle, one is left to maintain caste purity against other dominant castes. What we see is that while non-Hindus are discredited at the outset of the Hindu cosmopolitanism, it also entails the maintenance of patriarchal endogamous casteist norms among Hindus. The workings of high caste Hindu associations tell us that elite Hindus have all elements of an urban cosmopolitanism, except civility.




Meena Gopal’s essay engages with the debates within women’s movement. Her focus is on ‘the case of the ban on the dance bars in Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra in 2005’. While savarn feminists opposed this ban because it would hamper the only source of income for poor bar dancers, Dalit feminists supported it as it would help poor women to come out of the stigmatised occupation of a bar dancer. The debate was alive for more than a decade, as Gopal notes. Through this debate, a point was noted that women’s movement needed many more conversations around the theme of gender justice from various social positions. During such conversations, it came out that Savarn feminists remained silent after Khairlanji massacre where a family of Buddhists were killed by Hindus (Kunbis/ dominant OBCs). What also came out was the lack of trust between savarn women and Dalit women, and a need to overcome differences for larger solidarity of women across the lines of castes and religion.



In the prevalent discourse about rural India, conflict is given supremacy over peace. James Manor urges his readers to focus on negotiations, accommodations and dialogue among various castes which bring about rural peace. This is in line with the lessening of caste conflicts over past two to three decades. Manor asks why conflicts are resolved, how dialogue happens, who are the major stakeholders and what ramifications do such accommodations have on the future. Manor proposes that slowly Dalits are being extended some civility from high caste Hindus. Manor, however, cautions us that this cannot be overemphasised because violence is now shifting from local to regional level as protests against SC/ ST PoA Act, 1989 is mostly backed by political parties both regional and national. He adds that this is merely a change of mind, not heart. High caste Hindus are well aware of the pitfalls of engaging in conflicts as Dalits are increasingly protesting through both state and non-state actors. Extension of civility towards Dalits by high caste Hindus is about strategy, not about empathy.



Amita Baviskar’s essay talks about how neo-liberalism is engulfing Delhi. It is a city where efficiency trumps over equity, where cars and cows screech past one another, where women are asked to return home before sunset, where Muslims and Sikhs are looked at with suspicion and where heat-island effect makes it a furnace during summer. She tells us about the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and business class for taking over public land for private purposes. She proposes her own idea of Delhi. A Delhi where commons and commoners matter; a Delhi which provides ‘basic amenities like housing, clean water and sanitation, health and education’; a Delhi which is dotted with small commercial hubs catering to all basic necessities; where ‘urban commons—land, water, air, green areas—are shared’, where strangers are assumed to be kind, not cold and where dissent remains the hallmark of democracy. Her Delhi has to be like Begumpura a city of civility.




Overall, the book is an attempt to tell us that democracy has to be looked beyond its institutional and procedural aspects; that liberal democracy might have illiberal values, and what is assumed to be a peaceful society may have normalised violence. It hints that today’s fascist regime in India has roots in the social order which has held for centuries. It finds postcolonial understanding of India not only superfluous but also misleading. Elections, media, institutions, (lack of) development, economic (in)equality, citizenship, minority rights, political (in)equality, etc. are the key categories to understand democracy across the world. Waghmore and Gorringe have introduced another category civility in the discourse surrounding democracy. Anthropologists of democracy, political sociologists, social theorists, postcolonial historians, feminists and Ambedkarites will find the book handy.


New | Poetry | Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi | Happiness | by Shiv Mirabito


                                                            Photo by Andy Carvin, Wiki Commons

Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi  

The eternal flame burns here
since before time began
since before the advent of writing
& anybody who is anybody 
wants to be cremated at Manikarnika Ghat 
in Varanasi, India
on the black terraced steps
stretching up from the cool green Ganga River
Bodies are burnt
big & small
young & old
day & night
until there is nothing
but glowing ashes
at first the corpse is wrapped in glittery gold cloth
& gently placed upon well stacked wood
with cries of: Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram!
then immediate families 
heads shaved
wearing only seamless white cloth
mourn silently
watching the flames devour ears, fingers, toes, arms, legs
sweaty men use bamboo poles to poke & prod
the burning body's wayward limbs
& sometime fold them in half
to keep the burning blob contained
& finally as the ashes are pushed into the Ganga
dark men slosh around in the thick black primordial ooze
looking for gold jewelry or stray coins of the dead
monolithic stacks of wood
surround the burning grounds like a fortress
the primeval fortress of Yama the god of Death
Manikarnika's name comes from a deep pool
behind the flaming pyres
where Shiva's wife Sati's jewel earring fell
as he carried her lifeless burning body
from South India to Tibet
& in the small temple above an old man rings bells
& lights camphor offerings
to an ancient Shiva lingam
& beside that is the round red sandstone observation deck
built by the British
where idle men take naps
& play cards
& drink cheap whiskey
& above that is a four story building 
where Allen Ginsberg fed a banana to a wild monkey
early in the morning in 1961
& behind that is an alley where Peter Orlovsky 
bathed & fed a dying leper
& on this sacred mandala
countless thousands of Mahasiddhas & yogis
sat still
& meditated on the temporary nature of life 
& every year in monsoon time
the mighty green Ganga swells
& rises 100 feet
sweeping away all the ashes
all the lives
& the eternal flame must be carried
in a copper pot
up to the top terrace
where death still takes place
every day
rain or shine. 


I don't want to get married

I don't want to join the army

I don't want to wave any flag

I don't want to be president

   or rule the world

   or to be the king of curiosities

I don't want to expand the empire

I don't want to take away anyone's rights

I don't want to steal anyone's thunder

I don't want to be the most famous

   or the richest man on Earth

I don't want to live forever

I don't want a six pack, a facelift, or botox

I don't want to hate anyone who hates me

I don't want everyone to love me

I just want everyone to be happy


New | Poetry in Translation | Naresh Saxena | Translated by Sanjeev Kaushal

Artwork : Eugène Louis Boudin via Wiki Commons 


Lanterns: 1


Think of light

And in the mind, flashes

The Sun and the electric

bulbs and torches


Only lanterns, however,

Are sent into dark dungeons

And manholes

filled with poisonous gases


They generally return extinguished, with the glass cracked

Alerting us to impending dangers 

Because where lanterns blow out

Humans choke

लालटेनें : १ 

रौशनी का नाम लेते ही 

याद आता है सूरज 

याद आती हैं बिजली की बत्तियां और टौर्चें 

लेकिन अंधे तहखानों 

और जहरीली गैसों से भरी मैनहोलों में 

उतारी जाती हैं सिर्फ लालटेनें 

जो अक्सर वहां से बुझी और तड़की हुई लौटती हैं 

हमें खतरों का पता देती हुई 

क्यूंकि जहाँ जा कर लालटेनें बुझ जाती हैं 

वहां जा कर आदमी का दम घुट जाता है।  

Lanterns: 2


When we return to the faces and books from childhood

We come across them first

They approach us as auspicious signs

Among echoes of howling jackals


Moving from one hand to the other

Like trust

Waking up in slumbering houses

Like hope


Late at night

They can be seen in a desolate veranda


Flaring and fuming.

लालटेनें : २ 

बचपन के चेहरों और किताबों की तरफ लौटते हुए 

वे सबसे पहले मिलती हैं 

सियारों के रोने की आवाज़ों के बीच 

एक शुभ संकेत की तरह हमारी तरफ आती हुईं 

एक हाथ से दूसरे में जातीं 

भरोसे की तरह 

सोए हुए घरों में जागतीं 

उम्मीद की तरह 

देर रात 

किसी सूने बरामदे में अकेली दिखाई दे जातीं 

धुआं देती और भभकती हुईं  

In This Rain


He who took my land

Has also taken

My rain


Now when dark clouds line the horizon

They appear for him

Cuckoos sing only for him

It is for him

That petrichor wafts from the earth


Now there is nothing for me

Neither plough nor ox

Neither the path to the fields

Nor a drop of green

Neither parrots, nor ponds, neither river, nor the Ardra constellation*

Not even the Kajri-Malhar **


He who has no land

Loses even  the sky.

इस बारिश में 

जिसके पास चली गयी है मेरी ज़मीन 

उसी के पास अब मेरी 

बारिश भी चली गयी 

अब जो घिरती हैं काली घटाएं 

उसी के लिए घिरती हैं 

कूकती हैं कोयलें उसी के लिए 

उसी के लिए उठती है 

धरती के सीने से सोंधी सुगंध 

अब नहीं मेरे लिए 

हल नहीं बैल नहीं 

खेतों की गैल नहीं 

एक हरी बूँद नहीं 

तोते नहीं, ताल नहीं, नदी नहीं, आर्द्रा नक्षत्र नहीं 

कजरी मल्हार नहीं मेरे लिए 

जिसकी नहीं कोई ज़मीन 

उसका नहीं कोई आसमान 

*Constellation associated with summer monsoons

**traditional folk songs sung during monsoons



Dreadful is the night

When dogs cry

But even more dreadful is the night

When dogs laugh

Listen, do you hear

Someone laughing?


(During the Emergency)


भयानक होती है रात 

जब कुत्ते रोते हैं 

लेकिन उससे भी  भयानक होती है रात 

जब कुत्ते हँसते हैं 

सुनो क्या तुम्हें सुनाई देती है 

किसी के हंसने की आवाज़ 

(आपातकाल के दौरान )

So That a Tree Remains


At the time of the last journey

When no one will come along

A tree will

Leaving behind all its sparrows and squirrels

A tree will accompany me

Enter the fire before me


How much wood will be needed?

The wood seller will ask

Even the poorest of the poor goes for two quintals


I mention it in my last wishes

That I be given an electric cremation

So that after my death

A tree remains

Protected along with my daughter and son

In this world.


एक वृक्ष भी बचा रहे 

अंतिम समय जब कोई नहीं जाएगा साथ 

एक वृक्ष जाएगा 

अपनी गौरैयों-गिलहरियों से बिछुड़कर 

साथ जाएगा एक वृक्ष 

अग्नि में प्रवेश करेगा वही मुझसे पहले 

'कितनी लकड़ी लगेगी' 

श्मशान की टालवाला पूछेगा 

गरीब से गरीब भी सात मन तो लेता ही है 

लिखता हूँ अंतिम इच्छाओं में 

की बिजली के दाहघर में हो मेरा संस्कार 

ताकि मेरे बाद 

एक बेटे और एक बेटी के साथ 

एक वृक्ष भी बचा रहे संस्कार में 

Naresh Saxena is both popular and critically acclaimed as a poet. He has received several prestigious awards, including Pahal Samman, Nagarjun Puraskar, and the UP government’s Sahitya Bhushan Samman. His work has been brought out by well-known Hindi publishers, Bharatiya Jnanpith and  Rajkamal Prakashan.

Sanjeev Kaushal teaches English at IGIPESS, University of Delhi, India. He is a Hindi poet and translator. His collection of poems titled 'Ungaliyon Mein Parchhaiyan' has been published by Sahitya Academy, New Delhi. His poems have appeared in various reputed Hindi magazines. His translations of German poetry titled 'Khwahish Hai Namumkin Kee' and 'November Kee Dhoop' have also been published.