Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Are You among "Nero's Guests"?

Think about this:
What occupies/ concerns/ excites you more?

1-a: what is happening/has happened in Nandigram, Singur, Kalinga Nagar?
1-b: performance of Indian cricket team in the World Cup?

2-a: number of civilian deaths in Iraq?
2-b: the soaring/ fluctuations in oil prices?

3-a: farmer suicides across the country (no! they are not happening just in Vidarbha region)?
3-b: the "Retail Boom" in India? The number of Malls, entry of global majors in the industry,

4-a: India's rating on HDI Rank of 127/177?
4-b: India's increasing GDP, its "booming" economy (the BRIC rating), inching to the "achievements" of China (and the impediments that govt policy cause)?

5-a: number of people living on less than $1/day?
5-b: number of billionnaires in the Forbes' list?

6-a: implications of climate change?
6-b: increasing per capita consumption of energy/ materail etc., as a measure of growth?

etc., etc...

Perhaps, one's choices need to be looked in the context of this talk by P Sainath.

In a talk on Neoliberal Destructions - which are uploaded at Google video here (part1), here (part2) and here (part3) - that P Sainath gave in Univ of California , Berkeley, he ends his talk with the Cornelius Tacitus' description of Nero's parties:

Emperor Nero's parties in his garden were attended by all the Who's Who of Rome. Often the the parties were in progress, but then the dusk fell, and night arrived. There was no light around for the guests to continue to enjoy the festivities. Nero came up with a innovative solution to provide illumination: the prisoner and poors were brought and burnt on the stakes party all around the arena to illuminate the garden... Tacitus (The Annals, Book XV, C.E. 62-65 ) noted:

"(they) were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle."

...and the party continued....

Of course, Nero, as most people know, was mad and cruel - and so, his conduct is perhaps not really so surprising - even if it was sensational.

But what about Nero's Guests?

They were, after all, the prominent elites of Rome - the intellectuals, the traders, the artists... sort of the "owners" of Roman culture and prosperity... (one would perhaps find them similar to our contemporary urban eduacated elites in temperaments and aspirations)...

It is important to understand the psyche of people - our own, actually- who could enjoy their wine and food, while the crackling light from burning bodies provided illumination to their delights...

as the party (i.e., the GDP, the Shopping Malls, the brands, GDP, SEZs, etc.) continues...

....So, are you one of the "Nero's Guests"?


confused said...


The audio links are not working.


gaddeswarup said...

There is another interesting series (BBC) called 'The Trap" by Adam Curtis ( I gave some links in my blog and have only seen partial versions). My take: We are a weedy species and some of our descendents will survive in some form or other. We look to public intellectuals like you to show the evolution and patterns in the madness so that more may survive under 'better' conditions.

Madhukar said...

Thanks Confused!... for pointing out about the links. Those were the original links to .wmv files. I have replaced them to the same talk on google video.

(one can also find them - and some more - by searching "P Sainath" on
http://video.google.com/ )

Prof! thanks for the tip... I found the full version of "The Trap" at google video. Will certainly see it.

Madhukar said...

Thanks Confused!... for pointing out about the links. Those were the original links to .wmv files. I have replaced them to the same talk on google video.

(one can also find them - and some more - by searching "P Sainath" on
http://video.google.com/ )

Prof! thanks for the tip... I found the full version of "The Trap" at google video. Will certainly see it.

Vivek Kumar said...

The questionnaire is not fair. I could be concerned about farmer suicides, and be excited about the retail boom at the same time. Ditto for other questions.

I suppose your point can be made without these questions.

devi said...

I would say that the questions are very relevant and most of the times they are directly linked.... The second question in most cases is a privilege unfairly earned due to the atrocity or injustice happening, which is brought up in the first question...
Maybe this link is irrelevant only in case of the cricket question...
Let us not con ourselves that these are not connected....most of us are living on the subsidies from the poor....and now it is 'progressed' to such an extent that they are killed to keep us going.
Truly we are all Neros guests ....this is exactly what I had also said in apiece I wrote about nandigram ( for our group)!!


kuffir said...

professor shukla and professor swarup,

thanks for making me understand the term ivory tower. i am quite sure the good lord wouldn't have as many ready answers on the day of judgment as you do...and i am doubly sure he wouldn't be half as confident (or judgmental) about them.

you, sirs, beat manu at the game of sifting the wheat from the chaff! except...i think manoj kumar was more entertaining.

gaddeswarup said...

With apologies to Professor Shukla. Kuffir: Though I am pleased that my name is lunked to Professor Shukla's, my background is not conducive to commenting on social issues. My comment is not directly relevant to the post. I hoped to bring Professor Shukla's attention to it with the hope that he will comment it on some time. I am just trying to learn. I am still waiting for the promised posts from the man/woman 'grounded in reality' about education, agriculture and development.

Madhukar said...

- Vivek: the post is not about either-or choices on specific questions, but about two either-or mind-sets to interpret and relate to contemporary India - set "a" or set "b".

Also the issue is: one can be concerned about, say "farmers' suicide", but then what does one do with that "concern"?... my experience is that most set "b" people wrap themselves in the SEP Field and pass the concern off to the politicians, lefties, neo-liberals,... or whoever is their punching bag.... If I was unable to make this clear in my post, than sadly, I failed to make my point

- Kuffir: appreciate your "non-judgemental", "down-to-earth" sarcasm... was there also a message beyond that???

- Devi: to be honest, this post was long in making (since I had downloaded Sainath's talk); it was the mail on aidindia that spued me to finally complete and post it.. thanks for that :0)

- Prof Swarup: I guess, we are in the same boat... have more questions than answers, and trying to make sense of a grey reality...

kuffir said...

professor shukla,

i'm sorry that you don't see the point beyond the 'sarcasm' in my comment.
but i've a quiz too for you, only half as long as yours- here goes:

1) which do you think are more efficient- public sector banks because they employ more brahmins or private sector banks because they employ more brahmins?

2) when do you think the govt was more pro-poor- before 1990 when the poor stood long hours in front of fair price shops and got no rations or post-1990 when the poor stand in front of fps and get no rations?

3) who were more sympathetic to the lower castes - the central and most state governments before 1990 when they ignored their demands for jobs or the same govts after 1990 when they continue to ignore their demands for jobs?

i'd definitely appreciate a response.

professor swarup,

you've already commented here - and registered your approval of professor shukla's views.

speaking of backgrounds, let me confess: i can't rise above mine and take an objective perspective on issues, like professor shukla here. i am condemned to speak from the social ground historically assigned to me, and my concerns/views reflect those of others who share this background. i don't prescribe solutions for agriculture, education and development. i leave that to more knowledgeable people- i only examine the diverse knowledge on offer and try to understand what would address the concerns of people like me... and those who occupy positions lower down in the indian social hierarchy.

thanks for your interest in my 'promised posts'- i'd written a post on otherindia a few days ago on rural india, (which is a continuation of my earlier post 'test tube village' on my blog- see, you can't accuse me of 'arambha shuratvam':))..some other posts would be up soon..hopefully.

Madhukar said...

- Kuffir: If the purpose of your 'quiz' is to point out that the opportunity structure for those marginalised - whether by caste or class - has not changed whether pre- or post - 1990, I agree with you. In many ways, they have been edged out even further.

I am, however, still intrigued by the "ivory tower" comment ;0)

arasubalraj said...

excellent Mr.Madhukar!

Vivek Kumar said...

Clearly, I am not in Set A or Set B alone. It seems that I am probably not the target audience of this post.

So, you didn't fail to make the point - I simply didn't get it because I am perhaps not a guest of Nero.

Thanks for the clarification. I get it now :)

shikha said...

Prof Shukla,

Thought provoking as usual:)

Also,liked your attempt at providing clarity of thought for kufir ans some basic basic lessons on "discussions" rather than an argument.

Never been your official "student", but do write more often, provides good insight!!!

Also, if you in Pune,do drop in a mail...its very high on my to do list-to meet you in person!!!

kuffir said...


pick up some basic, basic courage and address me directly if you have a problem with my 'argument'.

professor shukla,

the purpose of my quiz was to elicit a response. i was hoping you'd respond more substantively, but thanks anyway.

in my view, your answer is not entirely consistent with the thrust of some of your earlier posts. you seemed to indicate through your earlier writing that policy changes since the 90's had substantially worsened the situation of the poor in the country. now, you admit the earlier policies weren't so hot either. yes, you add a qualifier- but that i understand from your earlier writing is based on your disagreement with national poverty figures.

secondly, you mention the term 'opportunity structure'. i'd like to add my own views on this - if we leave the category of class alone for a moment and focus on caste, it's my opinion that 'the opportunity structure' for a certain section of the lower castes, dalits and obcs, has actually improved a lot after the 90s. let me illustrate with one minor factoid - in the state i live in, andhra pradesh, the number of lower caste students in professional courses like engineering, medicine, law, business etc., has gone up by 10 to 20 times in the last 15 years or so(these are rough but not overly optimistic estimates). you are in the field of education, you can come up with more accurate nationwide estimates i think. but my own guess is that this figure has gone up substantially nationwide, and is much greater than the population growth rate and is greater than the increase in the number of upper caste students. i don't know how significant this figure is, but it is one small pointer that the opportunity structure has actually improved for the marginalized castes. would you agree?

Madhukar said...


thanks for continuing the dialogue...

am traveling now, with very limited time/access to net... so please bear with me. I will join in in next week


Supratim said...

Dear Prof Madhukar,

As usual, you have come up with some inflammatory (pun not intended) questions. The problem is that you have crafted your two sets of questions to be very visceral, two extreme shades of black, and not the grey that most people live in. It is axiomatic that people will deny belonging to Set B, even if they do not accept as belonging to Set A. But, what does this prove? Where is the insight here?

I can (vaguely) see the point that you are trying to make, but covering that point up in raging rhetoric (!) does not help.

Anyway, the other issue is your continuing focus on absolutes. I don't know how you define poverty levels, but I am willing to state absolutely that poverty will not be wiped out from India in the next 100 years, irrespective of govt policies (red or saffron). Now, what does this prove? How does this help advance the discussion?

IMO, we have to look at "incrementals" and "relatives", not absolutes. Does a particular policy or direction or step incrementally advance more Indians? I think that is the litmus test, not your opinions, not my opinions, not anyone else' opinions. Here, Kufir's example of the change in student population is very instructive (Thanks Kufir for a nice post).

I remember the scenario regarding jobs in the 80's - the gloom and despair associated with a job search for an "average" graduate. Compare and contrast that with today - what a humongous change. Granted, this change has been urban centric. But, incrementally, rural India has also benefited as people move from urban to rural.

Since, your inflammatory questions are addressed mainly to urban Indians, let me make two statements in riposte:

1. India can not solve the problem of poverty in Rural India. Period. Irrespective of whatever policies you may choose to implement to benefit rural India. Period. Not until we have changed the population mix. Period. Rural India has to drop to about 30-40% of India's population before we solve the problem of endemic rural poverty. And, this has to happen through increasing urbanisation.

2. Urban Indians are doing their share through taxes. The payback on our taxes is pathetic - whether it be protection against crime and terrorism or basic infrastructure. IMO, these are the main (maybe, only) two things that a govt has to provide, and all our govts' track record has been woeful. Why is this? Because we are subsidising rural India.

Now, I have heard a few statements thrown about how the poor subsidise us, but I am yet to see any data or evidence on this score. Please provide.

Look forward to your reply.



Supratim said...

Sorry, statement in Para 6 should be "rural to urban" and not the reverse as it appears.

Supratim said...

RE: Nandigram - my understanding (from my cousins in Cal) is that this is the CPM's land redistribution policy coming and biting its behind. In the 80's the CPM forcefully took away land from the landlords and redistributed it among the landless labourers.

However, it never bothered to provide the new landed people with title (fraught with legal issues)and instead said "Main hoon na!" All is fine until we come to 2006, when the CPM suddenly wakes up to the fact how poor the state is (took them 30 years) and that it requires some industries.

Now, no sane industrialist is going to try to acquire land in Bengal, even if he is paying more than market rates. So the govt had to step in and whoa ..... a minefield!

The govt can only provide compensation to the people who have title, but what about the thousands of others who have been tilling the land without title? So, the CPM said this is what I want - Obey. Thats when Nandigram erupted. The other ironic part of Nandigram has been that CPM cadres have been the recipient/victim of exactly the same kind of terror that they have been peddling in Bengal for the last 30 years. Chhhhhhweeeeet!!!!!



Supratim said...

BTW, I was really intrigued by that reference to Nero's parties and did some reading up on it. This is what Wikipedia had to say about Nero (in part):

"Over the course of his reign, Nero often made rulings that protected and pleased the lower class at the expense of the rich and powerful. Nero was criticised as being obsessed with being popular.[62]

Nero began his reign in 54 by promising the Senate more autonomy.[63] In this first year, he forbade others to refer to him with regard to enactments, for which he was praised by the Senate.[64] Nero was known for being hands-off and spending his time visiting brothels and taverns during this period.[64]

In 55, Nero began taking on a more active role as an administrator. He was consul four times between 55 and 60. During this period, some ancient historians speak fairly well of Nero and contrast it with his later rule.[65]

Nero worked to protect the rights on the lower class. Restrictions were put on the amount of bail and fines.[66] Also, fees for lawyers were limited.[67] There was a discussion in the Senate on the misconduct of the freedmen class, and a strong demand was made that patrons should have the right of revoking freedom.[68] Nero supported the freedmen and ruled that patrons had no such right.[69] The Senate tried to pass a law in which the crimes of one slave applied to all slaves within a household which Nero vetoed.[70]
Ancient graffiti portrait of Nero found at the Domus Tiberiana.
Ancient graffiti portrait of Nero found at the Domus Tiberiana.

Limiting public corruption was a major part of Nero’s rule. On accusations that high-ranking officers were collecting too much from the poor, Nero transferred collection authority to lower commissioners of competency.[66] Nero banned any magistrate or procurator from exhibiting public entertainment for fear that the venue was being used as a method to extract bribes.[71] Additionally, there were many impeachments and removals of government officials along with arrests for extortion and corruption.[72]

Nero’s actions attempted to the help the poor’s economic situation. When further complaints arose that the poor were being overly taxed, Nero attempted to repeal all indirect taxes.[73] The Senate convinced him this action would be too extreme.[73] As a compromise, taxes were cut from 4 and a half percent to two and a half percent.[74] Additionally, secret government tax records were ordered to become public.[74] To lower the cost of food imports, merchant ships were declared tax-exempt.[74]

Nero was an avid lover of arts and entertainment. Nero built a number of gymnasiums and theaters and had performers dress in Greek clothing.[75] Enormous gladiatorial shows were held.[76] Nero also established the quinquennial Neronia.[76][75] The festival included games, poetry and theater. Historians indicate that there was a belief that theater was for the lower-class and led to immorality and laziness.[75] Others looked down upon Greek influence.[77] Some questioned the large public expenditure on entertainment.[77]

In 63, fiscal crises began to emerge. The Parthian War and a lost shipment of grain threatened to increase the price of food in Rome.[78] Nero reassigned management of public funds, urged fiscal responsibility and gave a private donation to the treasury.[78] He then opted for a peace deal with the Parthians.[79] In 64, Rome burned.[58] Nero enacted a public relief effort[58] as well as reconstruction.[80] The provinces were heavily taxed following the fire[81]

A number of major construction projects occurred in Nero's late reign. To prevent malaria, Nero had the marshes of Ostia filled with rubble from the fire.[80] He erected the large Domus Aurea.[82] In 67 , Nero attempted to have a canal dug at the Isthmus of Corinth.[83] These projects and others exacerbated the drain on the State's budget.[84]"

Shades of gray, anyone?........This was in the first half of his rule, then apparently power went to his head ..... parallels in India, folks?

Another interesting point - apparently the people Nero so persecuted were all Christians. And, from what I read, the religion point was more important than them being poor. Systemic Roman persecution of Christians started with Nero.

Supratim said...

And, finally this post on Christians being burnt by Nero, as reported by Tacitus. Source:Wikipedia

"According to Tacitus, upon hearing news of the fire (in Rome), Nero rushed back to Rome to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds.[114] After the fire, Nero opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless, and arranged for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors.[114] In the wake of the fire, he made a new urban development plan. Houses after the fire were spaced out, built in brick, and faced by porticos on wide roads.[116] Nero also built a new palace complex known as the Domus Aurea in an area cleared by the fire.[117] The size of this possibly public complex is debated (some say as low as 100 acres and as high as 300 acres).[118][119][120] To find the necessary funds for the reconstruction, tributes were imposed on the provinces of the empire.[121]

According to Tacitus, the population searched for a scapegoat and rumors held Nero responsible.[110] To diffuse blame, Nero targeted a sect called the Christians.[110] He ordered Christians to be thrown to dogs, while others were crucified and burned.[110]

Tacitus described the event:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.[110]"

Kind of puts a different perspective (however harsh) on the events, right? Ah well ....... a quote taken out of context is always illuminating.

Madhukar said...

Sorry, folks! For thelate response... But as I had mentioned, I was travelling

- Shikha and arasubalaj: Thanks for leaving your comments. Yes, Shikha, perhaps we will also meet in the brick-and-mortor reality:)

- Vivek: Congratulations for not being "guest of Nero"!... ;0)

- Kuffir: I can't really answer for what "seemed to indicate" to you in my this or early postings... If I have said that things have worsened for the marginalised, it does not automatically mean that the policies were "hot" for them ealier.

re your second point about opportunity structure having improved for the dalits and obcs, frankly I am not aware of any such studies or findings. I will be happy to have any references/ links to studies that substantiate that (I couldn't locate them)... I wouldn't also say that what you say is not likely. For two reasons.

One, the four southern states were far more aggressive and earlier in implementing the "reservations" as a method to change the opportunity structure.

And two, some studies that I had read about upward social mobility among the marginalised class (not an India study, if I recall correctly) showed that the social impact of reservations/affimative-action become visible only in the second - or sometimes, the third - generations.

Which would lead me to interpret that if as you mentioned "the number of lower caste students in professional courses like engineering, medicine, law, business etc., has gone up by 10 to 20 times in the last 15 years or so" in AP, then one reason can also be the cross-generational effect of earlier policy implementation/changes - and not necessarily due to contemporary policies. This interpretation can be debated, but is still as valid an interpretation as any other. Frankly, I can't say.

- Supratim: what can I say??? As usual, you leave me amazed and speechless with your knowledge and grasp of the issue :0)... Maybe, time and energy permitting, I will start a separate blog to respond to you only...

- For other and folks already here! I hope you will not mind if I respond only if you have actually gone through the video-links in the post, and are not to shooting-from-the-hips comments...

Supratim said...

I don't know whether you were being sarcastic or not, but I can hardly leave you speechless!!! And, you can answer me here .... no separate blog required.

BTW, I found this article in today's paper .... not exactly linked to the current post, but has a bearing on some other stuff that you have written. Enjoy!

kuffir said...


i can see you don't see the point of this discussion, so i'll be very short in my response to your response.

yes you indicated that and your latest post also indicates that.

second point,
a)no it's not majorly due to second generation reservations - not many people know that reservations in ap is actually less than three decades old, as old as bihar.

b) yes, it has increased due to contemporary policies..but i don't think you want to know how...

Madhukar said...

It is not that I dont "see the point of this discussion", frankly, I dont see "the discussion" itself!

You started by talking about "ivory tower" and Monoj Kumar being more entertaining, then gave a quiz to make some point, made assertions about certain changes in AP, but when I stated: "I am not aware of any such studies or findings. I will be happy to have any references/ links to studies that substantiate that."... now make a similar assertion and allege "but i don't think you want to know how..."

If this is your definition/ understanding of a "discussion", then yes, I am afraid I don't see a point in "this discussion"

happy?! ;0)