Vratabhanga, Paapa and Adharma: Sabarimala and a Case of Justice in India

By M. S. Chaitra and Ashwini B. Desai

The recent judgement by the Supreme Court of India regarding the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple has generated an acrimonious debate in India. The secularists (a broad group including, feminists, liberals, leftists, …) believe that, if women of any age group are not allowed to worship Sabarimala Ayyappa, this action amounts to gender discrimination. Therefore, they believe it necessary to reform Hindu religion to ensure equality in worshipping Sabarimala Ayyappa.

In order to assess the claim about gender discrimination, one must examine what is believed about the rituals of Sabarimala Ayyappa. Every devotee knows that Sabarimala Ayyappa is ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’. That is, Ayyappa in Sabarimala follows a ‘Vrata’, namely a Brahmacharya of a kind. In Indian traditions, individuals often follow different vratas, which demand that the individual follows strict procedures of living in the world. For example, we are familiar with Rama, who was an ‘Ekapatni vratasta’: his vrata allowed him only one wife. In the same way, Harischandra was ‘Satyavratasta’; therefore, he was a truth-teller irrespective of the situation. In the same way, Brahmacharya is also a vrata. There are different kinds of Brahmacharya that are followed by different traditions. In case of Naishtika Brahmacharya, a vratadhari will not look upon women of a certain age, i.e. women of menstruating age, which is the case with Ayyappa.

This vrata is not ‘other’-directed but ‘self-directed’. That means Ayyappa does not have a problem with women. But because of his vrata, he will not look upon, meet and touch women of certain age. If one knows that his vrata is self-directed, how could this be a case of gender discrimination? Surely, Sabarimala Ayyappa can follow Naishtika Brahmacharya, if that is what he chooses.

In the agitations, one notices that women too are protesting the temple entry of women of a certain of a certain age group. Why do these women oppose enforcementof the law? Here is one way to make sense of their behaviour: if someone (like Ayyappa) follows a vrata, one should not disturb it. That means one should not wilfully bring about a vratabhanga (breaking the vow). For most people in Indian traditions, vratabhanga is a paapa and an adharma. Thus, women of a particular age do not go to this temple precisely because an Indian avoids disturbing the others’ vrata and thus becoming responsible for vratabhanga. No one belonging to the Indian traditions would call vratabhanga a ‘good thing’. Because it is an adharma, one does not consciously commit vratabhanga. A simple understanding of Indian traditions tells us that women do not go to this temple because it amounts to vratabhanga and not because of a male prohibitory order of Hindu religion; in fact, many people do not see this as a case of gender discrimination at all.

However, what happens when gender discrimination is alleged with respect to such a practice? In such a story it appears as though Ayyappa should seek ‘permission’ (whose?) before undertaking this vrata, which implies gender discrimination because he vows not to ‘look upon’ or meet women of a certain age group. Thus, the argument has to be that Ayappa’s vrata is bad or evil and, therefore, justice requires interfering in this practice to bring it to an end. This means that vratabhanga, which is considered as an adharma in our traditions, becomes ‘an attempt to enforce justice’ in the secularist arguments. Strangely enough, the Sangh Parivar, an organization which intends to protect and defend Indian culture, has fallen prey to the same story. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevaksangh’s  (RSS) executive body resolution and the subsequent statements by others have affirmed that not allowing women into this temple is unjust and must be reformed through dialogue in society. This essentially means Ayyappa’s vrata in Sabarimala is an unjust practice, and they want to reform people and their traditions such that vratabhanga rectifies the unjust and evil vrata that Ayyappa practices. That is, these organizations apparently believe that doing adharma is necessary to reform Hinduism and that encouraging people to do adharma and breaking vratas preserves dharma!

Further, many have argued that women have a right to worship and that women must, therefore, be allowed inside the temple. Though it is unclear what worship means in this case, the question remains: who has given this right and what exactly does it imply? In Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), God enjoins human beings to worship Him in the ways that He instructs them. No human being has the right to interfere in the worship of the other.  However, we cannot straightforwardly translate Semitic religions to Ayyappa even if the secularists (and the courts) believe that Ayyappa, by “excluding women of a certain age”, is giving unjust and evil instructions about how to worship him! From what other source might this right to worship be derived? To appeal to the Indian constitution or to the UN human rights instruments is to go far beyond the absurd: the Indian constitution (or any such secular document) cannot dictate how human beings ought to worship God. Therefore, in the case of Sabarimala, one cannot talk about the right to worship. One can still ask the question whether women have freedom to worship or not. Of course, they do have the ‘freedom’ to worship Ayyappa the way they have the freedom to worship anyone or none. But how do we know which mode of worship is to be followed? How do we know that vratabhanga is the mode of worship of Ayyappa?

The entire discussion seems to draw upon arguments that emphasize a need to reform Hinduism. The questions of the reform of Hinduism emerged in 18th– and 19th-century India when Christian missionaries were trying to understand India and deal with Indian religions. In Indian society, they saw a false idolatrous religion called Hinduism, corrupted over millennia.  For Europeans, most of the Indian ritual practices were corrupt and superstitious. While responding to such criticism, 19th-century reform movements like the Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, etc. developed ‘criticism’ of Hindu religion. They had an action plan to reform it in the backdrop of what they saw as corrupt practices of Hindu religion. Today, scientists, courts, secularists, liberals, Hindu nationalists, etc. are all in a race to continue the reform agenda that the British had set. But this reform agenda is breaking India and her traditions. What we see today in Sabarimala is that one treats the vrata of Ayyappa as an unjust and evil practice and celebrates the vratabhanga of Ayyappa as a socio-religious reform. This is sensible only against the background of Europeans’ understanding of a false heathen religion that requires reform, which essentially requires the destruction of Hindu practices. Consequently, in contemporary, independent India, what we see is a race to destroy India and her traditions.  The irony is, this time the leaders of such activities are not Muslims or Christians but Hindus themselves!

Author details:

M. S. Chaitra is the Director and Fellow, Aarohi Research Foundation, Bangalore. Email: chaitra78@gmail.com

Ashwini B Desai, is Research Fellow at Aarohi Research Foundation, Bangalore. Email: ashwini.b.desai@gmail.com

Freeing the Indian Traditions? Government Control of Temples in India and Freedom of Religion

A Crowdfunding Proposal


The goal of this proposal is to involve you, via crowdfunding,  in a very focused project on the past and current problems of bureaucratic and political control of Hindu temples and traditions in India.


The erstwhile colonial masters of India, the British, had contempt and disgust for ‘Hinduism’, the so-called majority religion in India. During their rule, they did their best to destroy this religion, inter alia, by bringing it maximally under their control also through legislation. The Indian Constitution took over this attitude from the British and enslaved the Indian traditions to the whims, fancies and arbitrary wills of politicians and bureaucrats. Whether it is about employing Archakas or controlling the finances of temples, whether it is about performance of seva by the devotees or about the practicing of kinds of fasting, the Indian central and state governments have taken complete and total control of Indian traditions and justify this by considering all such issues as ‘laukika’ (translating this term as ‘secular’). From the local tahsildar to the state- and central-level IAS officers, bureaucrats control and direct Hindu religious activities: from defining the route of processions to lighting the firecrackers. State governments loot the wealth of temples after suitably lining the pockets of officials and politicians.

This type of rules and regulations applies only to the Hindu religions and traditions; the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. religions enjoy autonomy, freedom and protection as ‘minority’ religions. Only ‘Hinduism’, the majority religion, has no religious freedom in India. The Supreme Court of India just follows the State here: the latter should have absolute control over all ‘laukika’ matters regarding religion.

The Sabarimala verdict is merely the latest episode in the saga authored by the British centuries ago and continued by Indian hands now. These Indians too believe that Hinduism is a barbaric religion, an affront to values like ‘equality’, ‘progress’, ‘democracy’ and so on. How true is this story recited by the ‘secular’ and ‘Marxist’ intellectuals of India for nearly 80 years now? What are the values in western jurisprudence (like ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, etc.), which allegedly stand in conflict with an Indian religion like ‘Hinduism’? Is the idea of religious freedom, as formulated in western legal traditions, compatible with the way in which the Indian law-giver has dealt with Hinduism? Do Hindus enjoy the same religious freedom in India that is being enjoyed by Muslims, Christians and Jews? How is it possible to put all temples under the control of bureaucrats and the State, when doing something similar to mosques, churches and synagogues is unthinkable and forbidden? These are only some of the questions that arise to anyone with some knowledge of the situation in India.

Prof. Balagangadhara (Balu, who has been doing scientific research into Indian culture and her traditions for the last 35 years) and his student prof. Jakob De Roover (a member of prof. Balu’s research group in Belgium) have recently begun guiding historical and jurisprudential research into these questions. The first result is a Master’s thesis in Law at Ghent University in Belgium submitted in September 2018. While we refer the reader to this thesis for details, its central question has once again been brought to the limelight by the Sabarimala case: How has the Indian State dealt with Hindu temples and traditions in the post-Independence period? Here, we see a state institution, the Supreme Court of India, intervene in the age-old traditions of a temple and ban a practice which is considered highly important by the Ayyappa devotees and pilgrims visiting the temple.

To large sections of the media and the intelligentsia, such cases establish the liberal credentials of the judges of India’s apex court and the fact that Hinduism remains in need of reform by the state. To most Hindus, however, they are typical instances of a system of political and bureaucratic intrusion into their temples and traditions. After all, this was not a one-off case. In the past decades, the Indian courts have allowed state governments to take over the management of tens of thousands of Hindu temples. Today, it has become self-evident that government officials have the authority to supervise all temples that are classified as ‘public’ by the state. This supervision not only pertains to the finances and everyday administration of the temples, but often extends to the organization of rituals and festivals. And the Indian courts endorse this government control of temples; even more, they explicitly grant the authority to the state bureaucracy to interfere in the traditional practices of the temples.

Along the way, the judges regularly tell the people that their practices are backward and based on irrational beliefs. They insist that the Hindus do not know their own religion and hold forth about the true nature of Hinduism. In the Sabarimala case, for instance, the Chief Justice of India told the Ayyappa devotees that their practice is mired in chauvinism and patriarchy and based on beliefs about the treatment of women as ‘chattel of man’. It is contrary to the true Hindu religion, he argued, since “it is an essential part of the Hindu religion to allow Hindu women to enter into a temple as devotees and followers of Hindu religion and offer their prayers to the deity.” Therefore, this ‘exclusionary’ practice cannot have the status of “an essential practice of Hindu religion.”

In all such cases, the courts take over the task of teaching the people how to be good Hindus and of deciding which practices are essential to Hinduism and which are not. The government is then free to take control of all domains of traditional practice which are judged ‘non-essential’ to Hindu religion. They are supported here by the Indian constitution. And still, India is supposed to be a secular republic that guarantees the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

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Attempts to Free the Temples

Today, more and more Indians feel that something is very wrong with this. In their experience, the government policies constitute unwelcome intrusion by an external authority that has no part in these temples and their traditions. Every day they face all kinds of regulations and obstacles put in place by the bureaucracy, if they wish to continue their rituals for the deities and their practices in the temples. At the same time, the laws have reduced the traditional heads of these temples to figurehead ‘trustees’ and made the pujaris into clerks, who are expected to function as the subordinates of IAS-officers and government-appointed committees.

This situation has inspired pujaris and practitioners to go to court to challenge the legislation and policies about the temples. They want to free the temples from this yoke imposed by the state-level governments. To do so, they draw upon the freedom of religion clauses of the Constitution, Articles 25 and 26, to question the constitutional validity of these laws and policies. Almost invariably, however, they have met with failure in the High Courts and Supreme Court. The judges keep on repeating the same set of claims: the management and practical organization of temples and their rituals are not religious practice but secular activity; the practices regulated by the state are not essential to Hindu religion; therefore, the state legislation and policies about temples do not violate the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

The result is perplexing: for the people involved in the temples and their ritual practices, the right to religious freedom entails that the judiciary not only sanctions government control of the temples’ administration and finances, but also legitimizes the systematic expansion of political and bureaucratic interferences into traditional practices. In any Western democracy, this would be rejected as a flagrant violation of the right to free exercise of religion. In India, however, it appears that government tyranny is being sold as religious freedom.

What is happening here? It is important to note that this is not a recent phenomenon. Building on colonial regulations, most of the temple legislation was created in the decades after Independence. Since then, the courts have become the stage for hundreds of conflicts about the control of temples. The same cycle has been going on in the Indian courts for more than six decades now.

The current political system (irrespective of which political party is in power at the state or central level) continues enslaving temples and traditions; the courts continue to pronounce judgements that enable the politicians and bureaucrats to extend their stranglehold on the Indian traditions and temples. Some people challenge the Supreme Court judgements in the streets and demonstrate violently against them. However, this not only undercuts the rule of law, but also encourages something equally pernicious: people can now take to the streets to protest against any decision that goes against their narrow preferences and sectional interests. The only way to remedy this situation in a reasonable way is to get clear insights into the real causes: what exactly is happening and how has this situation come into being? Only then can we develop alternative ways of addressing the issue of the temples in the courts and in politics.

The Proposed Project

More particularly, one first needs to gain knowledge of (a) the legal and conceptual issues at stake, (b) the constitutional background, and (c) the larger framework concerning freedom of religion. But there is a major obstacle here: today, we face a scarcity of scholarship about the Indian legislation and court decisions concerning the way in which the state has dealt with Hindu temples and traditions.

Therefore, the very first requirement will be fundamental research. Only this type of research will allow for analysis of the laws and judgments in such a way that new legal arguments can be developed.

We have launched a research project that takes up these tasks. The project is led by prof. Balagangadhara, with the assistance of prof. De Roover at Ghent University, Belgium.

Its aim is to develop systematic jurisprudential analysis of:

  1. the state-level legislation about ‘Hindu religious and charitable endowments’ and concerning Hindu temples and other institutions,
  2. the judgments of the Supreme Court and the High Courts in cases related to temple management and temple entry,
  3. the Constitution of India and its articles concerning freedom of religion.

We will need to examine the legal and conceptual foundations of the government control of temples, its historical origins in British colonial rule, the effects on the temples and their traditional practices, and the relation to the international legal tenets and jurisprudence about religious freedom.

To be able to do so, we need to hire at least three researchers who will focus on the different dimensions of the situation. For the funding of this project, we are seeking support through crowdfunding. Such financial support is required for the salaries of the researchers and the library and other operational costs. Hence, we call on all those who share our concerns about the way in which the Indian state has dealt with the temples and traditions of India in the past decades to help us.

If you wish to contribute to the funding of the research project “Freeing the Indian traditions?”, by donating a limited amount monthly, please visit the Patreon site of prof. Balagangadhara:


If you are considering donating a larger contribution or would like more information about the project, please contact us via email: Balu@UGent.be.



Caste Atrocities? The Big Picture of the Supreme Court Judgment

by Sufiya Pathan

Opposition to the Supreme Court judgment on the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act revolves around the premise that it is against the interests of the Scheduled Castes (SC). Does placing some checks on the non-bailable detention for a PoA charge of any kind (whether a serious charge or not), compromise the interests of the SCs? Why so? Does upholding SC interests require compromising the rights and interests of citizens at large? And if we do take this route what kinds of ripples are we setting off in society? Surely, these are the kinds of questions that we need to discuss in the wake of the judgment. Yet, the most widespread reactions that have emerged vis-à-vis the verdict are stories of misuse of the act from some corners and vulgar chest thumping from political parties falling over each other in their bid to “fight for the SCs” while really just fighting amongst themselves.

While the upcoming elections in some states and the national elections of 2019 appear to provide the immediate context for agitation against the Supreme Court’s decision, digging deeper reveals systemic problems and concerns about the long-term interests of the SCs for whom so many tears are being shed for their ostensible protection. This article points to at least three additional scenarios where we have to look closely to assess why we have a worrying structural problem on our hands. Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, the statistical picture provides no grounds to assume that SCs are subject to any more violence or crime than other segments of the population. Yet the very same statistics are used to project an image of India as a country ridden with caste violence and discrimination. Meanwhile, the continued set of attempts to build a picture of SCs as a uniquely and disproportionately targeted group in India is building a new type of resentment against the very same groups for whom protective measures have been spuriously justified. This does not bode well for India or the SCs.

Purported rise in atrocities against SCs

Figures have been bandied about in the Press about rising atrocities against SCs as the context for ‘SC anger’ (see, for instance, these articles in the Times of India and The Week). The simple truth is that this country does not produce any reliable documentation of atrocities against SCs. Why so? The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) annually reports the total number of cases registered under the PoA and PCR (Protection of Civil Rights) Acts. As per legal definition, these are the only cases that qualify as ‘atrocities’. However, scholars and activists have always been dissatisfied at the ‘low level of reportage’ under these sections and have rejected these figures as unreliable measures of caste atrocities in the country. Yet, large figures are constantly quoted in the press and by caste scholars in relation to atrocities. How so? Very simple.

Since 1995 the NCRB was asked to report separately on the total crime faced by ‘vulnerable sections’ of society. Thus, total crime faced by senior citizens, children, women and SC/STs is recorded and reported annually by the NCRB. The established practice today is to take the total figure of crime against SC/STs and report it as ‘atrocities’. To reiterate, since figures under the PoA and PCR are considered low and therefore unreliable, in order to reflect a ‘truer’ picture, the total number of crimes against SC/STs are quoted as atrocities. You don’t have just yellow journalism to blame for this. Even the official website of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment follows exactly this strategy in its annual reports.

There are multiple problems with such an approach that make it not just unreliable, but outrageously deceptive. To list just a few of the problems – these cases would include those where both victims and perpetrators belong to SC groups; they would include crimes that have no relation to caste and do not establish that the perpetrator even had any knowledge of the victim’s caste – a pre-requisite to making a case of ‘atrocity’; they would include categories of crime that could not logically be envisaged as ‘atrocities’. The need for special legislation covering caste atrocities was felt because it was seen as an especially obnoxious kind of crime. While it was never clear what exactly atrocities referred to, it was clear that the violence was disturbing not because of the volume of the crimes against SCs, but because of the special nature of the crimes.[1]

Yet, today, this rationale behind the PoA finds itself absolutely overturned, and all crime against SC/STs, regardless of who has committed the crime, is being categorized as atrocity. Remember that this route is taken because the statistics under PoA and PCR are considered low and, therefore, unreliable. Yet, if we take this route and deem any crime against an SC to be a measure of atrocities, we are faced with an even greater hurdle to understanding the basic claims about caste atrocities.

One of the basic claims about caste atrocities is that caste violence is extremely widespread and that lower castes face greater violence than any other groups in society. These statistics, inflated as they are, should be in a position to give some credence to this claim. Yet, if we study these statistics, we are forced to reject the claim as absolutely baseless!

How so? Some simple mathematics will tell us. The total number of incidents of crime against SCs in 2016 was 40,801. Of these, 5926 crimes were reported under the PoA act. The figure for total incidents of crime in India in 2016 is 48,31,515. The SC population comprises about 17% of the population. If 17% of the population faces 0.84% of the total incidence of crime, then 83% faces the remaining 98.16% of the crime in India. That means each percent of the SC population faces about 0.049% of total crime, while every percent of the non-SC population faces 1.18% of the total incidence of crime. Thus, non-SCs face about 23 times more crime than SCs.

Would we really want to support the claim that these statistics tell us anything significant about caste atrocities? Yet, scholars, journalists, activists, and government agencies, all use these statistics with impunity and with very little evidence of basic mathematical reasoning!

In all this bandying about of numbers, what is lost sight of is precisely the problems that the PoA legislation was framed to address in the first place. These statistics certainly do not help us understand what the problem of caste violence was or is, or explain anything that could help form solutions. Yet, our scholars and journalists, who ought to be engaged in helping us understand the problem, instead appear unable to show the mathematical skills of a 10 year old.

International attention

A Pew research study on ‘global restrictions on religion’ 2015 placed India fourth on its world-wide scale of ‘social hostilities’. India came in after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq, doing only negligibly better than these countries on its scale of social hostilities. Why so? Where is the kind of wide-scale violence that Syria, Nigeria and Iraq have witnessed in order to justify giving India this rating? Who in India has been subject to such systematic violence as the Christians in Nigeria, for instance? No need to go far for the answer. The report says, “Hindus were harassed in just 18 countries, fewer than some other groups. But the vast majority of the world’s Hindus (95%) live in India, where harassment of Hindus by both government and social groups was reported in 2015. Members of the lowest Hindu castes, also known as Dalits, often faced obstacles to [access] basic government institutions and services such as education and health care. The United Nations also reported systematic abuse of Dalits by individuals, and many of the perpetrators of these crimes were not prosecuted by the government.”

Since when does the be-heading of 100s of individuals belonging to a particular religious group put one country almost at par with another country where a section of the population faced trouble accessing government services? Besides, which section in India, except the moneyed classes, do not face difficulties accessing government services? Yet, this does not alarm either our political classes or our activists. India has systematically built up an international reputation for the abuse of its SC population, which for the most part is built on inflated numbers and reports like the one cited above – in other words, on thin air.

Yet, the UN annual report on religious intolerance 2017 relies on Pew as its source for India in order to press for international recognition of violence against “Hindus”, which basically refers to “caste violence”. Coming at the heels of the special attention paid to caste discrimination by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority rights in 2016, we can be sure India is going to hear more about this internationally.

So, here’s the deal. We in India have no reliable data to talk about caste violence. Yet, we loosely talk about it in puffed up figures that would not stand up to a child’s scrutiny. The world is listening in and such loose talk will cost India dearly.

Social unrest and anti-SC sentiment

While NGOs and intellectuals build their careers by shedding crocodile tears for SCs, and the political classes scamper for their votes, of greatest concern in the contemporary scenario is not India’s international image. Of greatest concern is that the kinds of policies that government after government is upholding vis-à-vis the SCs in the name of their interests is systematically building a dangerous anti-SC sentiment in the country. Legislation like the PoA Act was not built on the basis of popular SC campaigns or movements. In fact, even today, most of the so-called SC groups are really Marxist groups, not mobilisations based on any kind of SC movement.

But, for the first time in history, there is a popular movement against the PoA that was also directed against the SCs – the Maratha movement. No matter what kind of violence India has witnessed in the name of ‘caste violence’ so far, it has never been targeted at SCs as a whole. It was always particular jatis or clusters of jatis in particular regions that came into conflict with each other. Even though the PoA Act was never a plank to bring SCs together, it has become the plank that builds resentment against them as a whole.

Ironically, even government reports have warned against the effects of the PoA in society and how it was actually acting against the interests of SCs. A Karnataka government report in 2008 baldly stated how the PoA was affecting inter-community relations, especially in rural Karnataka: “Instead of developing a good relationship based on mutual dignity, a fear psychosis is making many people of the other sections to refrain from any transactions with the [SC] people, adversely affecting the livelihood opportunities for the poor village living persons dependent on farm labour.”[2]

While the Supreme Court verdict is seen as going against SC interests, it is perhaps the only time over the past four decades that anyone has dared to do anything that is really in the long-term interests of the SCs. The truth is that SCs are ordinary citizens of this country. There is absolutely no reason why upholding their interests should bring us in conflict with the interests of the Indian citizens at large. What will the ordinary citizens of this country choose to do when their long-term interests are being systematically trampled upon in the name of short-term gains by every power-wielding class in this country? The answer to this question will shape the future of India.


[1] Special Correspondent. ‘Rising Crimes against Scheduled Castes’. Economic and Political Weekly, XV:32, 1980, p.1336.

[2] Bhat, H.K. An Evaluation Study on the Atrocities and Compensation given to victims of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes in Karnataka– Report submitted to the Director, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Research Institute, (Government of Karnataka), Bangalore, October 2008, p. 345.


Taking Rohith Seriously

by Jakob De Roover

When a person close to us commits suicide, we often struggle to make sense of the act and of the experiences that led to it. In the case of Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide, no such predicament appears to face the many academics, activists, politicians, and journalists commenting on it. No, they know what caused his step: the oppressive caste system and the caste discrimination of the Hyderabad Central University authorities. What is the evidence? The clarity of his suicide note, they say, which is “full of serious lessons for India’s caste-ridden society”: it shows how “the Hindu caste system still lives in the Middle Ages” and is no less sinister and monstrous than the Nazi regime. In an open letter, a long list of academics (arrogating the voice of “the global scholarly community”) suggests that caste discrimination pervades the premier higher education institutions in India and drives so many Dalit students to depression and suicide. This type of account has inspired forceful protest, political campaigning, and disciplinary measures on the university campus where the tragedy occurred.

There is something bizarre going on here. When you make the effort of reading Rohith’s farewell letter, you will see it does not once mention caste, the caste system, or his status as an untouchable. Still, that is the one thing that commentators keep mentioning. Thus, they ignore, deny, and distort the experiences that Rohith tries to express in his letter. Instead of taking his moving words seriously, they simply appropriate his voice to rehash an age-old stale story about ‘the caste system’, which we have inherited from nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries and colonial Orientalists. Thus, these commentators reduce his entire existence – all his concerns, dreams, and deeds – to victimhood, to ‘being a Dalit oppressed by the caste system’.

Some argue that Rohith is clearly referring to the effects of caste discrimination, when he writes the following: “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.” Now, what makes him experience himself as a monster? What prevented him from becoming the writer that he dreamt of becoming? One answer is: the oppressive caste system. But how does one establish that without adding all kinds of assumptions that may be there in one’s head but not in the world and certainly not in Rohith’s letter?

Another answer is much simpler: it is the life he had led the years before his suicide, which prevented him from becoming a science writer and made him experience himself as a monster. What life is that? That of a member of the Ambedkarite movement on one of the Hyderabad university campuses. To know what this kind of life looks like and why it prevents one from realizing one’s dreams, we need to go beyond the stale stories about ‘caste discrimination’ that the mainstream media keep repeating. We could start by examining what has actually happened on Hyderabad university campuses over the last decades because of the tyranny of Ambedkarite caste politics. We could start by showing some minimal honesty about the goondaism and terrorizing of students and teachers that occurred for many years, all in the self-interest of a small group of people who claim to be the representatives of the Dalits and whose life revolves around enforcing this status.

Some claim that Rohith’s letter describes his being an untouchable as a curse. Actually, he writes the following: “All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” Thus, he connects life being a curse and the fatal accident of his birth to childhood loneliness. It is unclear how that is related to being born in a particular jati. Anyone with some first-hand experience knows that children growing up in the many jatis today classified as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’ are not generally lonely during their childhood. They play with children from their own and other jatis; they have friends; they have brothers and sisters; they are not alienated from other human beings. They are also generally not unappreciated children. After all, if this is the claim one wants to make, one would also have to suggest that parents and family members from the jatis in question generally do not appreciate their children (a claim that is hardly acceptable). So what then is the supposed link here between childhood loneliness and the oppressive caste system?

More evidence of caste oppression is read into Rohith’s concern that the value of a man is “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.” If one insists on interpreting this in terms of the oppressive caste system, one can always do so and reproduce all the clichés. But then one has to again add premises that are not there in the letter.

Why not understand this in terms of the words that Rohith himself uses? Then this passage appears as a profound reflection on the terrible form of identity politics that has developed in India. Being ‘a Dalit’ or ‘an untouchable’ has become the only central ‘identity’ for people like Rohith, because this is what is demanded from them, not by ‘the caste system’ but by the political institutions and ideological movements built around a particular story about Indian society. Just look at how Rohith has been treated since his suicide: he is endlessly presented as ‘an untouchable’ or ‘a Dalit’; he is thus being reduced to what certain people see as ‘his immediate identity and nearest possibility’. He is transformed into a thing that plays a welcome role in the political campaigns of Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi, Derek O’Brien, and in the ideological posturing of JNU academics and writers for The Hindu and similar newspapers. They have not taken his experience seriously and treated him as a mind. Instead, “in dying and living,” he has become an instrument for their own agendas.

The response to Rohith Vemula’s suicide and to his letter is indeed a symptom of a corrupt system, not the so-called ‘caste system’, but something very different: namely, the systematic corruption of politics, academics, and the media in India, which is so manifest in their reporting about, and responding to, the genuine problems in Indian society. Today, this system is doing to Rohith what has been happening again and again from the colonial era onwards: inflicting violence upon people’s experiences instead of making sense of them and rehashing moralizing ideology in the name of social science.

Paris, Terrorism and the Third World War

More than a month ago, when the long-expected war refugee crisis hit Europe, I spoke to a Belgian MP and told her of the danger awaiting Europe, if it follows its current dumb policies towards the refugees. Like all politicians, scared of the truth, she buried her face in the sand. Today, after the Paris disaster, all she can do is to express the moral indignation so typical of the European politicians who pursue even more irrational policies. Only the terrorists and the racists will enjoy huge success; the rest of us, the European populace included, will pay a very heavy price for this victory, if we do not wake up on time, now, before it is too late.

Today, the thing to know and realize is that the Third World War has been going on for some time. A man, George Bush, and his poodle, Tony Blair, began it. The American and British PR departments went into an overdrive mode that masked the world war as a ‘war against terror’. Only the ‘Old World’, in the pretentious words of Rumsfeld, protested impotently against it: some European politicians even said that one should not call it a ‘war’ for wars can only be fought against nations. However, it was a war, as both sides saw it: the ‘clash of civilizations’ said one ideologist whose holy words were picked up by self-serving institutions in the US; ‘jihad’ said the other who wants to pit the Muslim Nation (used in the singular) against all other nations in the world. A war was also going on against the Afghan nation, but people were fooled into believing that this was a war against a group of terrorists called ‘the Taliban’. The people forgot that Ronald Reagan had called them ‘freedom fighters’ long before, thus recognizing them as a nation that fought the Soviets.

A military alliance of multiple nations was fighting a war in two theatres, Asia and the Middle East, and ‘all the king’s men’ did not see that the war was escalating. No, it was still a ‘war against terror’.  Syria entered the war: armies fought; millions of civilians paid the price that war makes people pay; chemical bombs were used to destroy people, schools, hospitals … The world watched; the politicians thumped on the table with moral indignation; the press had a field day; and no one saw that more and more nations were being sucked into this war. Now, unmistakably, the World War had begun; still, people were mumbling about ‘terrorism’ and ‘peace’. Saudi Arabia went into a full scale war in Yemen; Iran entered the fray; the US supplied arms … but, no, it remains a war against ‘terror’. ISIS arose, a trans-national army that fought the armies of other nations.  It was called a ‘state within a state’, and even when it massacred civilians and massively persecuted religious groups, it was still considered ‘a terrorist group’.

A war begins in Ukraine, Russia intervenes militarily in an indirect way, and all that the NATO can talk about is a ‘crisis’ involving ‘rebel groups’. In Syria, Russia also intervenes militarily, enters into an alliance with Bashar al-Assad, and challenges the USA. After being cowed down by Putin here, Obama’s officials begin to flex their muscles in the South-China Sea. But no one seems to appreciate what is happening in the world.

The war comes home to Europe and touches Paris first and all that people can do is cry horror. Horror it is, but it is not the horror of terror but of war. The increasing hostility of the populace against Muslims is what the ‘terrorists’ want and the racist parties will give them that. The political pundits in Europe pontificate pompously: we have to tackle the ‘radicalisation of Islam’. The achievements of Europe of the last five decades that were themselves a response to the horrors of the two World Wars is rolled back at a stroke to protect ‘French’ values and lives.

The PR departments and advertising agencies are in full swing decrying ‘terrorism’ and assuring us that ‘Islam’ means peace. No one seems to understand that Paris today (and London and Munich tomorrow) are merely the expanding theatres of war. Even when war refugees storm into Europe, the politicians do not understand the phenomenon they are confronting: they deny that they are war refugees by treating them as political refugees.

The future will not understand why we are blind or even how we became blind. The Third World War that pits nations against nations, creates unholy alliances and justifies all war time measures (just think of the massive NSA spying programme that targets friends and foes alike) is already with us. These are covered and disguised by morally high sounding slogans and propaganda. Any dispassionate summing up of the properties present in a world war show us that these are present in the ‘war against terror’ today. All we lack is a clearly identifiable global enemy. The jihadists across the world and racists across Europe will soon provide us with such an entity, namely ‘the Muslim Nation’.

What do we need to wake up? The terror in Paris is not a mere ‘act’ of a small group of terrorists that we should abhor. The Third World War has reached Europe. It will engulf the world, even if it takes a decade or more. What do we need to wake up?





An Open Letter to Europa

Oh Europa, My Lady, Whither are you Going?

An Open Letter, January 2012

My Lady, I wanted to write this letter and share with you my thoughts at the turn of the millennium itself. I could not; I had to wait a full twelve years to be able to do that, a time-frame significant to those of us who know the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is the grand story of the relationships between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two groups of cousins. When the Pandavas asked for their just share of the kingdom, their cousins, we are told, connived to make them accept a twelve year exile before considering their request. Some of your children dislike me for much the same reason and treated me pretty similarly. Be that as it may, the twelfth year is now up and the mutually agreed period of exile has run its course. I am, at last, free to talk to you.

When I look at you, at your past, at your deeds and their consequences, I feel a deep sense of sorrow. You see, in their striving to bring true religion and civilization, to make money and become powerful, Europeans inflicted massive damages on the world, on humanity and on multiple cultures. They transformed continents into markets, peoples into slaves and, in so doing, colonized most of the planet, destroying peoples and groups in the name of religion, progress, civilization and democracy.

But do they realize how they made you suffer in this process? You see, you did not survive this onslaught on humanity without paying a heavy price yourself. You underwent two world wars that destroyed continuity between generations, you experienced fascism and Nazism that tore the fabric of your culture, your own people were destroyed through the Holocaust and concentration camps that inflicted horrible wounds on you that can never properly heal, your nations were split into artificial hostile camps in the cold war from which you have not yet recovered,… Any one of these events would have staggered a nation; cumulatively, they tore open gaping holes in your memory. Thus, what is absolutely essential to you was tampered with: the memory of who you once were. As a consequence, you barely realize who you now are and hardly know where you should be going in the future.

You, my Lady, are suffering from amnesia. Some of your children could have helped you here, made you remember your past and cure you of this malady. Instead, these, the historians, mindlessly collect factoids and destroy your past by transforming it into a set of historical facts. Where historians failed, there the philosophers could have helped: they did not; they have produced a story, which puts paid to all grand narratives, as though remembering who you were for the last two millennia is a false narrative that is best destroyed, desecrated, forgotten and buried. They call this story ‘Postmodernism’.

You are not a stranger to me, My Lady. In fact, you became my mother-in-law when I married a European. But my relationship to you is richer and more complex than this fact and it both antedates and postdates the event of a marriage: you see, when my mother taught me that the teacher becomes the second father, she did not quite tell me what happens when that teacher, which is what you are to me, is a woman. So I can only assume that you become my mother, the second mother as it were; thus, I owe you a debt of gratitude which I can hardly repay, even though it is my obligation to try. Therefore, I will address you like I would my own mother, and not as I would talk to my mother-in-law. If you become my mother, Europeans become my cousins, my own relatives.

For some time now, I have been troubled by what is happening to you, even more troubled that none of your children is helping you, but troubled most by the worry that they might in fact be burying you while you are still alive. They do not seem to understand that you are merely suffering from an ailment; you are not moribund, not yet dead or even close to dying. How can premature burial cure cultural amnesia? Yet, in this letter, I shall not complain about them.

In the land I hail from, there once lived an extraordinary poet Kalidasa, who wrote a play called Abhignana Shakuntala. ‘Shankuntala’ names a girl and, in Sanskrit, ‘abhignana’ means ‘remembering the forgotten’. Today, we need another Kalidasa; not to write Abhignana Shakuntala but to write an Abhignana Europa. I wish I could do that, but I am neither a poet, let alone a great one like Kalidasa, nor can I give back your memory. Even though I look back with admiration at the things you have realized and at what you have accomplished, I am very, very perturbed by what you have forgotten. Thus, I shall make a beginning with the hope that a new Kalidasa will emerge out of the millions who constitute your children, to tell you how great you once were and how great you still are, if only you could remember what you have forgotten since. Yet, I am afraid, even this will not suffice; you need more than a new Kalidasa to remember. To make you understand the ‘why’, I need to recount a story.

Let this story begin at a time that also marks the end of your most acute suffering, namely, after the first fifty years of the last century. The ravages to your internal organs were so devastating that you, my Lady, went into a coma. The United States of America, your sister one presumes, nursed you back to health here: she helped rebuild your towns and cities, revitalized your commerce and trade and she even airlifted food to mitigate the dramatic consequences of an imposed division of a nation into two warring factions. Rightly, Europeans are grateful for what she did; they owe her their lives in more ways than one. However, you needed more than physical health but, here, she failed abysmally. Not for the want of trying but because she herself underwent changes that sapped life from her.

You see, after the Second World War, your sister rightly lifted her restrictive immigration policies. Now, she allowed people to come from different shores and continents to live at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. While doing so, as a mother, she committed an unforgivable act: she neglected to care for her new children, transformed them into orphans, taught them no culture but instilled in them only the greed for money. When orphans multiply with no teachers to teach them, with no cultivation or education or culture, we know what happens: we know our Oliver Twist well, do we not? Criminals take over and run schools for the orphans, not in order to teach them how to live well but to ensure that they learn to steal. This is what America did to her new children: she orphaned them, neglected caring for them, and left them at the mercy of criminals who set up schools that taught them to make money by hook or by crook. As a result, she, their mother, lost her life blood, became drained and anemic; her orphaned children knew no more why they ceded from Britain, nor what ‘No taxation without representation’ really signified. Today, the self-styled inheritors of this tradition have taken the grotesque form of the ‘Tea Party’ – a bunch of lunatics who are beginning to define the politics of the United States by borrowing slogans from thoughts they scarcely comprehend. That is the price you pay when you forget your own past. Your sister, America, sold her soul for a dime and a cent, precisely at the time you lost your memory due to suffering. But neither fact excuses the failure of the progenies: to remind you or America where you are coming from and where you should be heading.

Let me tell you something more: this sister of yours has created criminal gangs called ‘lobbies’, which run America. These are small groups of individuals financed by huge amounts of money that care only for narrow, sectional interests. These lobbies buy politics and politicians through money and favors; they mortgage the democratic election processes by spending gigantic sums on televised lies. Most Americans, the students from orphan schools with little education and no culture, buy into these advertisements as though they embody God’s own truth. They cannot distinguish between fiction and reality, between lie and truth, and between falsehood and deception. These lobbies not only buy votes and politicians: they also formulate narrow policies, which, when strung together, get sold as the ‘National interest of America’. It has little to do with the national interests of America; as the history after the Second World War demonstrates, she is rapidly losing friends, including those from ‘Old Europe’, as a pretentious American disparagingly referred to you not so long ago. America is isolated, America is going into a decline, but these orphaned children do not even know that they are watching Rome burn while their presidents play fiddle like Nero did. America is burning, my Lady, but there are no firefighters left anymore: not in the Americas, not in Europe, nor anywhere else in the world.

The United States of America. Is she truly your sister, a daughter or merely a pretender to the title? Whatever the case, she had great promise and showed great potential at birth. ‘Give me your poor’, she said to the world at large, ‘give me your wretched and give me your weak. I shall make them proud and strong’. She fulfilled her promise too, or, at least, people thought she did. It does not matter which of it is true, but the point is that she knew why she existed. However, something happened after the Second World War: perhaps, your present situation also interfered in her past. Be that as it may, while you developed cultural amnesia she learnt just this: greed for money. Today, my Lady, the ‘American Dream’ signifies only this: anyone can make money there, if only one is greedy enough. America sold herself to the incessant greed to make money, more money and even more money. Any protest is stifled in the name of ‘fighting socialism’, ‘fighting communism’ and ‘protecting freedom’.

The American public has become so illiterate that they hardly distinguish between democracy, socialism, authoritarianism and dictatorships. They shout slogans ripped out of contexts borrowed from your liberal and socialist thinkers of yesteryears. They disfigure and deform these beyond all recognition and such one-liners then become the planks of American policy towards other nations and people. The price she is paying for it is huge; the price the world is paying for it is also huge. America has become a poison in the palace of nations. Instead of occupying her rightful place, which was hers even without asking, she has fritted it away in the last five decades by supporting authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, by promoting terrorism under the guise of supporting ‘freedom fighters’, and by attacking weak countries using her military might. All of this in the name of her ‘national interest’. Which national interest is served, my Lady, when, decade after decade, you support dictators and terrorists? America has no national interest to protect, because she is not a nation anymore. Today, she is simply a collection of lobbies, a collection of interest groups, a collection of people crazed by money, who are steering America hither and thither without any idea of where she should be going. So, you see, your present state is not obviously without universal impact; it has not only impacted America but also the rest of the world. We need you today. Come back to us my Lady, because if you go the way you’re going, human destruction is an assured fact.

Your sister’s progeny, the present day Americans, are pretenders to the throne. They falsely claim that they are continuing your legacy, the legacy of democracy. You would have known this for a falsehood, if it was not for your amnesia. Contemporary Europeans are beginning to blindly and unthinkingly reproduce the worst from America and, in the process, mutate, deform, disfigure and destroy what you once stood for. Mindless imitation is more damaging here than it is elsewhere.

Today, such unthinking people suggest that voting periodically and having a peaceful transfer of power is what democracy is all about. Did you fight for centuries for a mere voting procedure? Surely despots also organize elections, the way China does today, and have themselves elected. Why fight for this? What did you oppose? What did you want to realize and achieve?

Everybody preaches democracy but nobody seems to know what it is. It gets reduced to voting, to universal suffrage and to peaceful transfer of power as though with these things in their place, society is rescued from the clutches of sectional interests and narrow ideologies. You, my Lady, did not fight for this; the earlier generations of Europeans did not die for this, even though this was surely a part of their dream, a part of what they wanted to achieve. They wanted something more, which they did achieve, even if imperfectly. On their way to realizing their dream, the earlier generations knew that there were the general interests of society, general interests of people, which trump any narrow sectional, class, group, or nationality interests. They believed very strongly that general interests override all sectional and particular interests and democracy was desirable because it represented to people their own interests as a people. This was the democracy they fought for, and this is the democracy that the despots and the authoritarian regimes fight against. If this was not the case, Pinochet with regular elections and Hitler with popular elections would all be democrats. But they are not. They cannot be that because they would not and could not represent the general interests of a people. Because such general interests are not given a priori, it is the task of the democratically elected political parties to hammer out a general interest through discussions with the people as a people: not as social classes, not as interest groups, not as lobbies. But as members of a society desirous of living peacefully with each other.

One does not pass a legislation for holding arms, as they do in America, under the pressure of a lobby like the NRA. One does not use the murder of school children as an excuse to transform citadels of education, which is what schools should be, into prisons by calling for the police to ‘guard’ the inmates. One does not protect tobacco, automobile and other industrial lobbies because they pay the politicians; instead, one looks at what they are doing to the interests of the people, both national and international. Today, democracy is being honored by raping it:  your philosophers and historians either stand by the wayside or applaud the act. As though this is not enough, they also want to publicize this state of affairs, promote and transfer it to other cultures and people. Do they realize what they are doing when they do this? Are you even aware that such things are happening in the name of your past, in the name of your travails and in the name of the torture you underwent and in the name of the results that you once tried to achieve?

Do not misunderstand me, my Lady. Not all your progeny is doing all of these things. There are indefinitely many, both in Europe and in America, who think the way I do. But their voices are drowned and their numbers overwhelmed. They too despair, not knowing what they should be doing. In their despair, some of them seek to ‘build a European identity’ or even encourage people to ‘become’ Europeans. This would be comic if it was not so tragic: how could they want to ‘become’ Europeans, when they are already that? So, it appears, they too do not know who they are. Stands to reason, does it not? As your children, they too are afflicted by the amnesia you are suffering from. Perhaps, this explains why neither your historians nor your philosophers can help you; why even America cannot help you. It is not their bad faith that is responsible for this, My Lady, but merely their helplessness.

Thus we arrive at the questions of the millennium: what should you do to get your memory back? Who can help you here? When your erudite historians with their impressive tomes about past events gaze helplessly; when your brilliant philosophers with their obscure and not-so-obscure tracts produce impotent discourses; when your gifted politicians succumb to the siren song of ephemeral political success; when even a nation like the United States of America can do no more than play the bully; who, then, can help you here?

Amnesia is a tricky thing. We know of a few remedies that can cure: we wait and hope for the memory to come back; where possible, we also administer ‘memory enhancing’ drugs, whose efficacies are dubious at best; further, we encourage the patient to seek out familiar places and people, interact as the acquired skills and knowledge permit and jiggle the forgotten back into existence through an exercise of the ‘not-forgotten’. We have waited for more than five decades now and no doubt will continue to do the same for some more time to come. Your writers, thinkers and politicians are the only drugs we have and I have already expressed my skepticism about the results. So, it appears that there is but one option left for you, which is to seek out familiar places and people. However, what are these places and who are these people?

In retracing your actions among people to recover your memory, there are many things that should not be repeated, some only partially and yet others perhaps in full. I possess no special knowledge to help you in this regard. I do not need to: the Europeans will learn what they have to do, when the time comes. For now, all I can suggest is that you partially retrace your actions in your ex-colonies, who have become proud and independent now. To do what requires doing, the Europeans have to seek them out: not in ones and twos, but in hundreds of thousands; not as colonial masters meeting their subjects and not even as tourists. They have to go to them as concerned people, who are looking for a people-to-people relationship. These contacts will provide you with new contexts where the reproduction of some of your old actions will be fraught with new meanings but still help you recollect yourself. It will not be the colonial context because that is long past; but it will be context where the Pandavas and the Kauravas meet, as children of two different mothers. This time the meeting shall not take place on the battle field where they destroyed each other but in a festival where they come together as family members.

However, I cannot speak in the name of all your ex-colonies or even one. But I can speak of my mother’s land and invite you to come and seek us out in numbers that beat the imagination. While I cannot promise you anything in the name of my brothers and sisters, I can let you in on an insight that should help you in your quest. This insight will tell you why Indians will help you because, you see my lady, you can help them too when you go back there: you can give something back to them that they badly need today.

You see, when your children dominated and took us over, they turned-off the taps, which brought water to our lands. This life-bringing water is the traditions of a people that connects them to their past and to each other. Because of the event of colonialism, Indians lost trust and faith in their own traditions because they related colonization directly to the nature of these traditions. The land of millions, they reasoned, could not be dominated by few thousands unless their own culture and traditions were backward and primitive. The Europeans, drunk with their belief in the truth of their religion and the strength of their civilization, told us that we were indeed primitive if not barbarous, stagnant, and in need of progress, true religion and modern science. We believed them; we could not argue with the power of colonialism. Thus, we have come to accept as God’s own truth that our traditions and cultures are hindrances in every way. In doing so, we let them tell us what our traditions are, what these cannot do and the Europeans did what they thought was in the best interests of all concerned: they turned our taps off.

By turning the taps off, they did not merely sever our links to the land, to our past and indeed to knowing who we were. It also made us ignorant of the very existence of these taps, had us believe that these were useless drainage cisterns built by people from so-long-ago. Our traditions ceased to be seen by us as taps; they became useless drainage pipes from the past. Therefore, we do not know that water came through them once. All we see are useless pipes, which work no more; that is what our own traditions have become to us now: useless and stifling customs that have made our soil into an arid land. When Europeans ridiculed and trivialized our culture and traditions, while within a colonial ambit, they turned the taps off; now, it can be turned on again by helping us to rediscover the strength and power of our culture and traditions. In this sense, Europeans do know how to turn the taps on; after all, they turned them off before. Please have them do so: that is what they will have to do when they come to India.

Having been the cause of many induced famines in Bengal, the British observed the result of one such thus: “we can now safely say that Bengal, once the granary of India, a third of Hindustan, is now a jungle inhabited only by wild beasts.”

Then it was at least a jungle; now it has become a desert where nothing grows except the cacti. My Lady, this is a fertile land, not a desert. It is a crime to transform fertile lands into deserts when mankind is starving for food. All it requires to make it fertile once again is to have the taps turned on. Let that be done because food is needed not just for us but for the whole of humanity. That humanity is starving today.

Help us reconnect to our traditions, my Lady, and we shall help you rediscover the memory you have lost.

So I invite you, my Lady, to send your children to us. Together, let us build an ‘India Platform’, a platform which will be the foundation of a festival hall built big enough to accommodate both my siblings and your heirs. May we come together this time to celebrate and not to destroy, to enjoy and not to suffer, to remember and not to forget.


Affectionate greetings,