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India, 2004: The Digitization of Fascist Feudalism
A corrective for public amnesia on the eve of General Elections
by Aseem Shrivastava
[April 14, 2004]
"We the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation; in our constituent assembly this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution." (Preamble to the Constitution of India)
"The more things change, the more they remain the same." (Old saying)
"I love my country too much to be a nationalist." (Albert Camus)
2004: The year of elections
This calendar year, 2004, is perhaps fated to go down as one of the most critical in the entire political history of the world and certainly as the most significant in our time. One may even speculate that the elections of this year in different countries may decide the fate of that globally endangered species, democracy, itself: whether it will thrive and deepen its character, becoming an authentic form of human freedom in the future, or whether it will suffocate under the fascist onslaught which is practically global in the age of corporate globalization.
There are 191 member nations of the UN, of which roughly a quarter are dictatorships. Nearly half (64) of the remaining countries, all democracies of one form or another, go to polls this year. 34 of these 64 nations are due to hold parliamentary elections, 30 are having presidential elections, while 13 are having both presidential and parliamentary elections. If somewhere between 4 and 4.5 billion people in the world live in democracies, then at least half that number go to polls this year. It is unlikely that this has ever happened before, especially since many countries have become democratic only in recent times.
Clearly the stars are aligned in a rare fashion. When was the last time that not just the two largest democracies of the world, India (1050 million people) and the US (294 million), but so many populous and important nations, such as Indonesia (230 million), Japan (128 million), Philippines (83 million), Iran (67 million), South Africa (47 million), South Korea (47 million), Spain (42 million), Sudan (39 million), Algeria (34 million), Afghanistan (26 million), Malaysia (24 million), Australia (20 million) and Ghana (20 million), had parliamentary elections during the same calendar year?
The US Presidential elections this year are arguably the most significant, for both the US and the world in two and a quarter centuries of the existence of the American republic. A victory for George W. Bush could spell economic and military disaster for large parts of the world, the former perhaps not excluding the US itself. A defeat could revive the recently lost faith in democracy that much of the world has suffered and perhaps pave the way for further extensions of democracy in the future.
In Europe, the surprising results of the Spanish elections held recently forebode an interesting year. The pre-election favorites, the right-wing Popular Party lost to the Socialist Party, within days of a massive terrorist attack on Madrid for which the electorate held the outgoing Aznar government indirectly responsible because of its support for Bushís war on Iraq, in defiance of popular wishes. The results of the Spanish election have already had their first-round effect on French provincial elections in which the socialists have made significant gains.
Second in importance only to the US election is the upcoming Indian one, where a victory for the ruling BJP (Hindu fundamentalist) coalition could spell the final end of the already feeble Congress party (in the leadership of which India once won independence from the British empire) but more importantly, it will result, among other things, in the consolidation and institutionalization of consumer fascism under a saffron flag in the country and in the further corruption of school-going minds with the monstrous mythologies which have already been introduced in the education curriculum. A defeat of the BJP would, like in the US, restore confidence in democratic processes and reveal possibilities of more substantive political and social change in the future.
Evidently, the implications are potentially dire. It is not for nothing that the BJP government has been boasting recently of strong alliances with "natural allies", the US and Israel, both threatened by deadly fascism themselves. What a cowardly descent from the glory days of the Non-Aligned Movement, which India proudly shared during the period of the Cold War with such nations as Egypt, Cuba, the former Yugoslavia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria and a host of other countries! Israel was not even an invitee to the Bandung Conference, which inaugurated the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955. But now that it has occupied Palestine and carried out enough pogroms since 1967, it merits our company: Surely not a natural alliance of the kind and the merciful!
This essay is written in twelve parts that dovetail into each other.
PART I: Welcome to India's greatness
The euphoria today
"If it is good news, it must be India 2003", Deputy Prime Minister of India, L.K.Advani declared boastfully in a speech a few months back. Hardly a day goes by nowadays when the print and electronic media in India is not in rhapsodies over the imminent greatness of the Indian nation. "The Golden Year", screamed out the cover of a January issue of a leading newsmagazine, "India Today". "The Feel-good year", cautioned "Outlook", a more tempered competitor. The stock market, said to be under-performing, has reached record highs, as have the foreign exchange reserves, said to top $100 billion for the first time. The Indian economy grew at an impressive 8.4% during the last quarter of 2003. Per capita income has grown to $480, from $370 just 4 years ago. Moreover, it is argued in many quarters, India, like China before it, can r(m)ightfully expect a UN Security Council seat, given its recognized and established membership of the nuclear club. Last, but hardly least, India is after all ìthe worldís largest democracyî, a skyscraper of political freedom in a global landscape of tall tyrannies and small democracies.
One would imagine that the exploits of Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar, Sehwag and the Indian cricket heroes Down Under and in Pakistan metaphorically symbolize Indiaís arrival on the world stage as a great power! Such is the ruling fantasy.
The BJP government inaugurated some months back the orgy of public celebration with an aggressive newspaper and television campaign highlighting what it calls "India Shining." "You've never had a better time to shine brighter," the main message leaps to your eyes, with pictures of jacket-and-tie-clad Indians and their laptops. The creative director of the agency behind the ads argues that we must not focus on the negative side of the ledger: ìPoverty and things like that, I don't think that's the way to look at it," he told a British newspaper. "I think the country is forging ahead." In an unguarded moment, of the sort that only someone well-ensconced in privilege and power can afford, he declared with inadvertent candour, that the ads are aimed at ìanyone who can read and write." Precisely 60% of India's population! It is certainly not for the 420 million at the bottom of Indiaís increasingly sleek economic pyramid, and certainly not for half the women in the country and over half of the low-castes and Dalits.
The Indian President is able to count 260 million poor people. Assuming the same number belong to the elite (30 million at most) and "the middle classes" taken together, one wonders if he forgot a whole half of the country, the actual middle class, defined demographically, rather than by the standards of aspired global affluence! Allowing for the fact that so many Indians don't even bother to do so ("Discouraged workers", as economists charitably call them, are a growing phenomenon in the West as well, especially in the US), it is sobering to reflect that 42 million Indians are registered at the employment exchanges across the country. If you take 5-6 to be the average family size in India, we are talking of 230 million people whose livelihoods are involved here, a number larger than the populations of either Brazil or Indonesia! It seems India has forgotten about Bharat.
In such a time of so much giddy nationalist propaganda, some words of caution are surely in order. We need to remind ourselves of enduring social realities which give the lie to all claims to "national greatness." Why doesn't anyone reflect on the fact that over "the golden year" 2003, Indiaís Human Development Index ranking among nations slipped from an already shameful 124 to 127? Education and health statistics are sluggish to improve, especially when set against what comparable countries have achieved. China, despite not being a democracy, consistently outperforms India, not just in growth, but also in indicators of development.
Globalization has cast such a magic spell over the minds of hopeful, educated Indians, trapped by the past in the mind-set of scarcity, that we are in severe danger of forgetting that we have perhaps never woken up from caste feudalism, and certainly never de-colonized ourselves mentally and culturally. What follows is an attempt at a rapid historical reality-check. Apologies in advance to those whose optimism is wounded by "unpleasant reminders."
The times, as they say, are clearly out of joint. The rapid changes in the economic life of the country during the last decade (as much as the massive communal and caste violence during the same period) are symptomatic of very deep rumblings in the belly of sub-continental history. There is an urgent need to place recent events in long-range historical perspective if a way through the woods is to be found. This essay is written with the intent of setting recent lofty proclamations against the backdrop of history and against obvious, but easily forgotten, social realities. This will hopefully stimulate discussion of possible courses of political action during and beyond this critical election year.
PART II: 1991
1991 was a critical year in the recent history of the modern world. It was the year which finally saw the demise of Soviet communism, ushering in the post-Cold War uni-polar world, dominated by US military might. The first sign of ìthe new world orderî (as then President George Bush Sr. repeatedly reminded us) was the First Gulf War, in which imperial brutality accounted for a quarter of a million people. No longer was the world in any doubt as to who the President of the planet was. Over the next 12 years, genocidal sanctions imposed by the UN on Iraq, at the behest of the US and the UK, ended the lives of another half a million people, mostly children, a price considered "worth" paying to secure and extend freedom in the world, according to Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The most recent example of imperial pathology has been the Second Gulf War and the regime change (or shall we say merely the gratifying capture of Saddam Hussein?) effected by Washington and London, leading into the ongoing devastation of a sovereign nation, which, informed observers suggest, is in the process of becoming America's next Vietnam.
However, 1991 was a watershed year in the history of independent India as well, for it was then that the Indian state shifted economic course most notably, adopting fashionable Neo-liberal policies, abandoning what by then was the hypocritical rhetoric of socialism. The pretext of a short-term payments crisis was taken to alter the very architecture of national economic strategy. The era of globalization was hurriedly introduced in the most far-reaching "revolution from above" that has ever occurred in the history of policy-making in independent India. "Liberalize (markets), privatize (public resources and assets), and globalize (trade, investment and finance)" (LPG, as ordinary people began to identify the new policies), became the new mantra on the lips of the powerful policy-makers in New Delhi. They continue to be the magic words as import tariffs are lifted, out-sourcing (the other buzzword) and outright investment by multi-national corporations grows, capital flows are eased and, importantly, a growing proportion of public resources and assets go up for auction with each passing day. In fact, given the ubiquity of corruption in elections and government and the perceptible trend ñ which India shares with many parts of the world - towards the privatization of security, both internal and external, a case could actually be made that it is the state itself ñ shedding its liberal masks ñ which is being privatized and corporatized by the elite and the middle classes to carry out the unannounced class war! One can only hope and pray that the legal justice system at least will remain immune from such obvious efforts at class-grab and constitutional sanctity will be ultimately upheld. These are hardly unfounded fears. A few years ago, all political parties unanimously voted a bill, which would have obligated electoral candidates to make public their criminal records before the Election Commission accepted their candidacy, out of Parliament.
In the world at large, the internet revolution, impelled by the launching of the World Wide Web in 1993, and the cut-throat competition for markets, cheap labor and resources world-wide, in all possible areas of capitalist production have led to what has been called ìthe acceleration of history.î In the absence of communism, capitalism has faced crisis after crisis ñ from East Asia to Russia to Latin America (Africa, barring diamonds and the stray oil-well, having been written off the globalized world map in the 1980s itself). This has led to such titles as these being published by insiders to the system: The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998) by George Soros and Globalization and its Discontents (2002) by Joseph Stiglitz. Soros, a Hungarian émigré to the US, is a financier, and one of the richest men in the world. In the book mentioned he argues that capitalism poses the greatest surviving threat to an ìopen societyî, now that fascism and communism have been consigned to the trash-heap of history. Stiglitz was the head of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors before becoming the Chief Economist of the World Bank and finally resigning a few years ago when severe disagreements with the approach of the IMF and the World Bank to economic policy in Developing countries surfaced.
Ironies such as these, when capitalists and their policy-makers themselves feel the growing threat to freedom and all good sense from a triumphalist, revanchist capitalism (now that official communism has been swept off the world stage), should give one and all pause for sober consideration. Yet, it is remarkable that in this hour of necessary skepticism, our intelligentsia, spellbound by globalization, has merely parroted the schoolboy fables of free markets and provided the much-needed legitimacy to jingoistic bravado and the aspirations of narrow, middle-class nationalism. All is fine, or will soon become fine, they are not hesitant to declare, in this land of once-upon-a-time scarcity. And if you spend most of your waking hours in the air-conditioned bubbles of South Delhi suburbs or in the high-rises of Mumbai's Malabar Hill, not to speak of the mushrooming shopping malls, the fantasy is all too real.
While India has remained financially solvent (they boast today of our $100 billion exchange reserves), thanks mainly to traditional capital controls (now being eased), it has been for a while on the roller-coaster of globalization. It's unlikely that it will remain insulated from crisis in the future. 150 of the Fortune 500 companies now operate in India and MNCs from East Asia and Japan too are increasingly invested in India. Even European, especially British, companies are showing growing interest in India, lured by its cheap (English-speaking) skilled labor, resources and extensive (?) markets. India is getting not an insignificant fraction of jobs, outsourced by US and UK companies. Indian companies are also investing abroad. Vedanta has become the first Indian company to be quoted on the London stock exchange. With stray and meager evidence on their side, such as Tata Tea's takeover of Tetley, a company twice its size, and Sterliteís acquisition of copper mines in Australia, some sanguine analysts have even started fantasizing that Indian companies are in the process of taking over foreign MNCs! Domestically, infrastructure construction is taking place at a heady pace. Ports, highways, airports, fly-overs and Metros are being built. Shopping Malls, Multiplex cinemas and Amusement Parks are coming up every week. The elite seem to be enjoying a consumer carnival.
In short, too much has happened too soon. Can it last? It is vital to situate recent and contemporary changes in historical context. It is especially important to take stock of and reckon with unyielding realities which are fast becoming casualties of consumerist illusions today. They stand in need of rescue from public amnesia, given the overwhelming pitch of commercial propaganda and nationalist wishful thinking in the air. For if history is any guide, hidden facts are the most powerful and never fail to return to haunt, sooner or later.
PART III: The great social fact
"Apartheid": Is Bharat a part of India?
First of all, who is globalization for? Does it involve all 1 billion Indians in ways which offer real hopes and opportunities? To start with, let us remind ourselves of the great obvious fact. Few societies maintain a more effective apartheid system. Here in India you don´t have to label public spaces to direct people to socially appropriate destinations. People gravitate quite naturally only to those places where someone won't unceremoniously throw them out. The result is a society 'peacefully' segregated into social classes who meet only on the preferred terrain of the privileged, as and when the latter need the services of the underprivileged. The marvel of the vast network of such arrangements which has evolved across the land is that the lower classes seem to feel grateful for the opportunity to serve the upper classes ñ who invariably feel as though they are doing the former favours, by giving them opportunities for employment! In other words, feudal psychology and archaic social realities confidently endure even as the media and its consumers are busy with their increasingly surreal talk about globalization. If you want to discriminate against whole sets of people, do so openly. You donít even have to ensure that no one talks about it (given the weighty inertia of feudal history, it´s taken for granted.) Such is Indian Apartheid, practiced in every corner of the country with the calm and confidence which only native ìtraditionî can confer on some of the most pernicious habits of humanity.
So, once again, how many are being globalized in India? 1 billion, or 250 million? And, as "the digital divide" deepens, what are the 800 million who live across it, meant to do, uprooted as they increasingly are from their traditional lifestyles with no jobs to replace their lost livelihoods with? Let's face it. The true numbers (based on Census data for 2001) look something like this: a 30 million elite (who own cars and can fly abroad), a 180 million "middle" working class (who go to work on motorized two-wheelers), a 540 million lower working class (made up of rural peasants and urban workers, who can just about afford bicycles to get to work) and a 300 million underclass (of landless peasants, uprooted tribals and Dalits, the urban unemployed, especially street kids) who cannot even afford a bicycle.
Ponder these numbers too: According to a 178-nation survey carried out by the UN International Telecommunication Union, India, with 1050 million people, has 12 million personal computers and a mere 4 million internet connections (of which only 35,000 are broadband. China has 70 million connections). There are 45 million landline telephone connections (including government and business) and 35 million (compared to China's 250 million) mobile phone subscribers. Not surprisingly, India is ranked 119th in the survey. Only 60 million TV sets are owned by Indiaís 190 million families. (Chinaís 400 million households own 400 million TVs!) Indiaís $600 billion GDP is of the same level as that of Spain, a modest country by the standards of developed societies, though we have 25 times the population of Spain.
PART IV: Some typically Indian paradoxes
Educated India has been living in a vast (and increasingly more vulgar) culture of imitation since the end of British colonialism in 1947. The political system we have is called by the same name as the system they have in North America and in much of Europe: democracy. Democracy came out of the Western world not because kings and queens, knights and nobles, mariners and merchants generously wished to share the political privileges they had enjoyed hitherto, but because farmers and peasants, fishermen and craftsmen, mill-workers and their families fought, often with their very lives, not just for their own freedom, but for the very liberation of humanity. Since the 17th century English revolution, through the American and French revolutions of the 18th century, to the Chartist movement and the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 (not to speak of the non-European Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century as well as the Cuban and Nicaraguan ones), there has been a sustained tradition of lower class protest which has fought for the fundamental rights of humanity to live and work with dignity. It is these struggles which have led to the institutions of liberty in modern Western democracies, after extant power structures had been forced to negotiate with the hitherto disenfranchised.
In comparison to the West, in India democracy did not arise quite as organically from the political struggles of ordinary working people. While 20th century mass movements of workers, peasants and "Depressed Classes" did add in significant measure to the popular pressures upon the colonial state as much as shaping the formal political strategies of the Indian National Congress, independence finally came in that strange post-World War II conjuncture when a Britain exhausted from war yielded the worldís imperial leadership to the USA and was gradually led to cede control over the colonies, India leading the global trend towards decolonization. In the event, the idea of democracy was borrowed from the Westminster model and adopted by the new (largely upper caste) rulers of India in 1949/50, when it was still, after all, the land of kings and queens (there were 560 Princely states in India at the time of independence). On a traditional feudal caste society, best understood as a 'Biradiri' (community, based on caste and religious affiliation) system, the Westminster model of democracy was imposed by the new political elites of independent India. In contrast to the West, the underlying political culture of India was not democratic, but feudal. The West had long left feudalism behind. Even Japan had done so in 1868. Even today, in India the idea of constitutional citizenship is in its infancy and the government thinks nothing of stripping tribals, for instance, of their rights to land.
Behind the institutions of democracy in the Western world is a public ethos, which fosters respect for public spaces and public life, precisely because the institutions of democracy (Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary) as well as citizenship and society´s relationship to them are off-springs of the self-same ethos. And all this goes back to historical struggles for justice over several centuries.
Moreover, historically parallel to the political process of democratization in the West has been the sometimes rapid, sometimes slow erosion of communities, abetted by the growth of capitalism with its marked indifference to the life of communities. While the phenomenon is centuries old, it gathers momentum especially after the Industrial revolution, beginning in the 18th century. By the 19th century bourgeois individualism, the cornerstone of liberal democracy and capitalism was already the order of the day. These two salient facts need to be contrasted with the historical facts of the Indian social and political environment.
The first point, that democracy is not (the glories of the Indian freedom struggle notwithstanding) an organic offspring from the political soil of the Sub-continent, has already been noted. If Indian people had fought for democracy with the same collective intensity and clarity as our middle classes and elites fought for freedom from British rule, or as the lower classes in Western societies had fought for their civil rights, they would be able to preserve its vigour more effectively. Under the political conditions prevailing today, the defence of Indian democracy on a day-to-day basis, barring the rare upset at the polls, appears to lie more with political activists, the media and the intelligentsia than with ordinary people on the street, who feel powerless except for the fleeting time when elections are around the corner. What else can explain the fact that the genocidal killers of Gujarat have thus far gone unpunished? Is such a pogrom even imaginable within a Western democracy, let alone its culprits going unpunished?
Egalitarian citizenship, in the manner of the West, is quite alien to India. Where is the social revolution which can allow a shoeshine boy to look the saheb in the eye?
Biradiri: The primary source of identity
The second point is as pertinent. The community - the Biradiri ñ has been the primary axis of identity in the Indian social setting. There are yet no signs, despite capitalism and globalization, that this is likely to change any time soon. The contrast with the West couldn't be more stark. For decades ñ if not centuries, in some cases ñ in the West, the individual has been the independent source of identity. The whole Western way of life ñ especially its economy and its political system ñ is based on this fact. When it comes to public life and public spaces, it is a lot easier to regulate individuals than it is to control communities. This is made easier if the individuals are already brought up in an environment which values the public realm. Contrariwise, public life and public spaces suffer if the modes of life of the community are at odds with the necessities of the political framework.
In an ethos of the kind that has always prevailed in India ñ at least in living memory -- biradiris have held sway, both over the lives of individuals as well as over public life. These communities are not naturally democratic. On the contrary, within themselves, as much as in relation to each other, they are organized hierarchically. Indian family arrangements, for instance, are uninhibitedly patriarchal and authoritarian. Caste remains an obstinate social fact in the Indian countryside, and often, even in urban India. Besides, outwardly, these communities are externally as greedily materialistic as corporate institutions in the Western world, even if values of sharing and cooperation have been sustained, in the past, within them (without the faintest realization of the inherent hypocrisy underlying this double-standard).
Alongside the two aforementioned facts consider a third one. India has been a land not just of biradiris, but of feuding biradiris. This is why we can always claim that we are a pluralistic society, but not a tolerant, liberal one. This is evidenced in every riot that happens in Indian cities. The axes of conflict between communities run along caste, communal, and regional lines. (In a recent episode, Bihari workers in Assam were beaten up.) And there is much history to these conflicts. Any claim that India could make to a liberal political ethos has been mortally undermined by the pogroms carried out by the Congress Party in North India in 1984, by the Shiv Sena in Bombay in 1993 and by the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat in 2002. At this point it has become a matter of some doubt whether the secular promises of the Indian constitution will be upheld in the future.
These have been the facts of the Indian situation for as long as one can remember. Who can think of liberal and democratically organized family and community structures in the Indian context if one leaves aside some isolated responses to very recent challenges of modernity? Likewise, is it easy to imagine benevolent biradiris, who show their trust and respect of numerous other coexisting communities by honouring and caring for public life and spaces? So much easier to conjure up a picture of chaos and somehow functioning anarchy which all Indians are familiar with and have learnt somehow to negotiate. What does the seeming anarchy on our streets, especially the chaotic nature of our traffic indicate? Merely social madness? Or some hidden method in the madness? The jostling for space on the streets is merely the most easily observed form of the daily scramble for resources which members of all communities in India are engaged in. Examples -- from the widespread theft of electricity to that of groundwater -- abound.
PART V: Consumerism and squalor
The Politics of dirt
This is perhaps an opportune moment to comment on the presence of dirt and garbage and the near-total absence of concern for hygiene in all public spaces in the country, especially in North India. Whether you consider trains and railway platforms or you look at public facilities, parks and sidewalks, the story is the same one: dismal disregard for public cleanliness. Every Indian has got so accustomed to this state of affairs that everyone quietly acquiesces in the situation, regarding it as virtually unchangeable. In general, there is little understanding of the problem and thus little optimism about tackling it.
In fact, the problem is not so difficult to comprehend, even if addressing it without loss of precious freedoms may be so. If what has been suggested earlier in this essay has truth in it, then the general disregard for public spaces, arising out of singular allegiance to one´s community bears a considerable share of the burden of explanation. If so, then public spaces are as good (rather, as bad) as dust-bins and trash-cans for the huge amount of refuse that we generate.
Who cares about the streets and the parks, so long as his own private corner of the world is clean? It makes all the difference whether the banana skin is lying on this side of the door to my flat or in the common corridor "outside". Invariably, one finds far greater hygiene in private spaces in India than in public ones. The same woman, while doing a cleaning job on her kitchen, is capable of flinging the banana peel out of the window. Imagine now that public municipal authorities have to deal in India not with individual infringements but with whole masses of people treating public spaces with contempt ñ and you get the public squalor all too evident.
There is, however, another dimension to the problem of public dirt in India and that has to do with the hierarchical legacies of caste society, still so resiliently present. As per received tradition, some have the fate (duty) to clean while most others have the privilege to dirty the environment. Our relationship to dirt indicates our status, our power in society.
Recently, at Bombay Central Station I gave a pack of fruit-juice and some biscuits to a handicapped street-child, perhaps no more than 8 or 9 years old. After enjoying his refreshments, he made a nice ball out of the wrappings and flung it with all his might towards the railway tracks. A grin of defiance lit up his face as he turned around! Even a child understands and practices the basic rituals of power in Indian society. Leaving his dirt on the railway tracks is his way of registering his disgust with a society, which has given him nothing and stolen all his innocence and dignity.
What can be done to address this dismal state of affairs? Tackling the issue of public hygiene (which claims the educated publicís attention only in the event of an epidemic, as happened some years ago when the plague hit the city of Surat in Gujarat) symptomatically is what public authorities seem capable of at best. A cop will wield his lathi (stick) on the poor street-child if he catches him in the act, though he will grin with gleeful comprehension if the middle class housewife throws an orange peel out of her Maruti window.
Municipal authorities no longer seem capable of distinguishing between the squalor, which surrounds urban slums and the people who live in them. Instead of diagnosing the problem intelligently and enabling people to keep their living public environment clean, they prefer the crude, mechanical route of sending the bulldozers in. This allows them to reduce to dust the dwellings and belongings of the destitute, often destroying at one stroke, the savings and efforts of a lifetime in the process. It is as cruel as it is stupid and unimaginative! And the responsibility for this lies squarely at the doorstep of elite values obsessed with clean surfaces and appearances.
People dirty their surroundings when they don´t feel it belongs to them. How do authorities expect people to exercise a civic sense if they persist with policies which make people feel insecure even about their own dwellings, let alone about public spaces? So, clearly, one long-term approach to the crisis of public squalor is to ignore, at least for the time being, elite concerns with the appearance of our cities (especially for foreign visitors who see right through the charade anyway) and make slum-dwellers secure in their dwellings. With a surer sense of belonging, over time, they will quite naturally be more likely to be civic citizens (as of now, that designation doesn´t even apply to them!). In the long-run, even the appearance-sensitive elites and middle classes will be happier.
Other things can be done too. Even slightly wiser rulers than the wicked fools who regulate our destinies nowadays will surely come up with handy employmentñgenerating schemes and food-for-work programmes which will create jobs for the poor while giving them incentives to clean the nalas (drains) and the streets. There are 60 million tons of foodgrains that rats are consuming in air-conditioned government godowns! Fiscal resources need to be diverted away from expenditure on arms towards areas of social spending such as this. But cowardly political imperatives dictate otherwise, it seems. In the long-run, however, the issue of dirt and public squalor is directly linked with the issue of caste and dignity. Public hygiene will remain an issue in India so long as underprivileged Indians and the lower orders of this resiliently feudal society are not accorded the dignity and respect which is every human´s birthright.
While this is a long-run issue, every concerned citizen has to feel the necessary urgency. Right now there isn't even a rudimentary understanding of these issues in the minds of the educated public, let alone the mature vision which alone can tackle the problem in the end. There is only despair and escape all around ñ which only makes things worse in every sense.
Elite consumerism and despair
One evidence of this despair is the rapidly growing mania for (frequently tasteless) luxury living in this country. Everything from Italian marble and furniture to French wine and African Safari holidays are advertised on urban billboards. To be sure, runaway consumer capitalism has been selling luxury lifestyles across the world. What makes this country´s elite´s avarice for fancy living particularly shocking and noticeable is the invidiousness and demonstrativeness of luxury consumerism in the context of a still largely poor society. When Noam Chomsky visited India in 1996, one of the impressions he took back with him was that the Indian ruling elites enjoy more posh lifestyles (globally speaking) than elites anywhere, including in the Western world. Unbelievable, but true. Where else in the world does feudal privilege combine so smoothly with the windfalls of capitalist wealth?
What accounts for this and why do I use the word ëdespairí in this context? Indian elites and middle-classes look below and around them and all we can see is squalor, poverty, misery and hopelessness. For us there is much to run away from. We look out the window and we cannot stand the sights, the smells; even the sounds sometimes disturb us. The vendor drawing attention to his vegetable cart bothers us. The psychological impulse to escape is thus extremely strong. Where to run to when the world outside the window has become (has always been?) so unappealing? During vacations the middle classes can drive to the Himalayas and the globally rich elites can take cruises in the Mediterranean. But what do the same folks do when they are holed up in their own cities, which is the case for most of the year anyway?
First, we screen out the poor by hiring armed security guards, barricading ourselves behind gated communities and rolling up the windows of our air-conditioned cars as we see street children approach us, then we build super-deluxe luxury hotels in which we can entertain ourselves and our guests, especially our phoren visitors, who have to be shown only the packaged, sanitized India (for, heaven knows what they would think of us if they saw 'Ganda Bharat' ("Dirty India"), which their eyes happen to fall on regardless, and from politeness they conceal their knowing smiles from our view, both sides tacitly cooperating to conceal the truth). We get the poor to build environmentally insensitive chrome-and-glass office buildings to keep Indian heat, dust and smells out (that is, to keep out the same people who build the structures). Finally, we savour the illusion (which is now part-real) of material abundance in massive, garish, air-conditioned shopping malls, manned by security guards. You get in the end the make-believe world of prosperity which is the air-conditioned bubble in which the Indian elites live.
We claim to be happy here, but in fact our lives are persistently haunted by known and unknown psychological miseries, born of unaddressed conflicts originating both within and beyond the household and the workplace. American-style FM channels (often with hosts speaking Hindi in an American accent) beam only the happy times of Indian elation, as do most TV channels (packed as they are with predictable saas-bahu (mother-in-law ñ daughter-in-law) soap-operas) and numerous glossy magazines. But scratch the surface of this "happiness" and you come face to face with long-standing dissatisfaction and despair with life as it is being lived in Modern India (ask the shrinks and new-age gurus and they will tell you), which continues to leave unresolved age-old tensions between (a mouldy but resilient) tradition and (at once a seductive, mystifying, sometimes terrifying) modernity.
PART VI: Hindu Rashtra or ecumenical civilization?
India: Nation or Civilization?
It is time to return to the issues connected with the threats to Indian democracy. In fact, it is not only democracy which is endangered today, but the core values of this civilization itself. Apart from being antithetical to the European liberal tradition, Hindutva ñ the ideology which seeks to convert India into Hindu Rasthra (Hindu nation) - is at violent odds with ancient norms of tolerance within Hindu society and religion itself. The scriptures declare "vasudhaiva kutmbakam" ñ the world is one family! But the present Hindu chauvinist rulers assume and preach that there are at least two families involved: Hindu and Muslim.
In fact the core values of Indian civilization can be better understood today by considering not what is mouthed by our leaders and their chamchas (sycophants) -- the familiar bilge about Hindu greatness ñ but by what many foreigners even till today tend to associate with India and its past: the values of diversity, tolerance, peace and human brotherhood embodied by such men and women from our past as Buddha, Ashok, Akbar, Kabir, Mirabai, Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi and Azad. It was the fake Buddha who had smiled amidst radioactive vapours at Pokharan on May 11, 1998. One has to be clear that what is at stake today is the very heart and spine our culture.
In an article written a few years ago in Outlook magazine, the eminent historian Sanjay Subrahmanyan pointed out two very pertinent facts about India. First, that "what we have real access to in our past is that which goes back five or six centuries. No more. Everything else is intellectual construction and wishful thinking." Second, that this conception of "India was found at and as a crossroads." Not only do both names India and Hindustan come from the Arabic term "Hind", but far-flung regions and regional cultures have influenced each other in and through India. Parts of the world as far apart as Europe, Central Asia, Arabia, Iran, parts of the Ottoman empire, East Africa and South-East Asia have all contributed to and participated in the making of what we are accustomed to thinking of as India. (When I visited Jaisalmer recently, I discovered that some of the camel-leather goods being made by craftsmen there follow a Moroccan design.)
Not only is India's history the most complex, rich and multi-faceted in the world, it is one of the few parts of the world where diversity is not only alive but has till very recently been celebrated (as our national anthem reveals). All the world's religions (with the exception of Amazonian and African traditions and non-Buddhist Chinese and Japanese religions) are present here. As are a thousand different tongues and cultures. In a Western world which has steadily progressed in the direction of eroding cultural differences, India is one of the few remaining outposts on earth which has resisted such uniformity. Where outside an Indian city can you visit 10 centuries of human history within a 10-minute drive?
India is a civilization which, after a European fashion, we have been led to mistake for a nation. Our jingoistic nationalism is yet another sign of the depth to which we remain colonized today. Europeans, particularly the British, taught this civilization to be a nation. As a wise auto-rickshaw driver once said to me: ìSagar ko dariya mein utara gaya hai, sailab toh aaye ga hi!î (ìAn ocean has been poured into a brook, is there any surprise that there is a deluge!î).
Sangh-parivar politics is founded on this folly. It relies on ignorance and criminally deceitful propaganda through the education system to create new depths of ìstupidizationî in the country. It wants to drench the dazzling diversity of cultures of this ancient land in a saffron monochrome. Not only are Muslims under attack, but all minorities, religious or tribal or any other, be they Christian or Parsee, Santhali or Munda, anyone who resists being classified as a Hindu, is ultimately an object of their violence. (The RSS was busy a few years ago distributing pamphlets to district police chiefs in Jharkhand, asking them to seize tribal land by any means necessary.) The more desperate and illegitimate the position of the Sangh-parivar becomes in national politics, the more the attacks on "non-Hindus" will grow.
Power, everywhere, seeks homogenization of society in order to prevail. India must, and will, resist it. That in our ethos which commands our highest respect is our time-tested ability to live in abundant anarchy, because we have instinctive faith that such chaos reflects, in howsoever distorted a form, the natural diversity of life itself. Sangh-parivar leaders are trying to defy this historical strength.
If it is true that blind imitations of Europe or any other dominant culture work on a short leash of time, then perhaps with some good fortune we might be able to see the backs of the khaki-shorts in the not so distant future. Indian fascism will fail because it is so appallingly false. The fascist project was defeated in the infinitely more ordered environment of Europe in the 1940s. How could it possibly succeed in an India several orders of magnitude larger and more complex? But if there might be optimism for the distant future the intervening period is perhaps fraught with darkness.
The Hindu Right is the last surviving legacy of the yet incomplete decolonization of India. Culturally, politically and economically we have yet to free ourselves from the Western stranglehold, even if we may have rid ourselves of the British physically.
Our overwhelming sense of identity today, as educated Indians, is the one associated with the nation-state. It is the one which politicians run their election campaigns on, the one which our wealthy elites are so falsely proud of, the one which determines the basis on which our cricket teams are selected and which constitutes the finest feather in the cap of the great Sunil Gavaskar. And it is drawn passively from an age-old European ideological conception.
The political ideology of nationalism came of age in the European past. Its finest mutation was the optimistic and faithful nationalism embodied in anti-colonial struggles. The freedom-fighters did not betray their own people. But writers from Franz Fanon in Africa to Rabindranath Tagore at home warned of the monstrous dangers inherent in the survival of nationalist consciousness in the period after liberation from the colonizers. Now we know what enormous damage is caused by the treacherous, xenophobic nationalism which so many Third World governments have made the staple of their political survival after freedom from European domination. From Zaire to Zimbabwe and from India to Indonesia, whether through dictatorship or through "democracy", instances can be cited without number of the systematic ways in which Third World governments have looted their people in their own name, while feeding and feeding off Western banks and transnational corporations.
While privileged classes in India consume increasing volumes of American culture, our leaders take inspiration from the worst, archaic, Western ideologies and batten themselves on the largesse which prospering corporations are only too willing to share with them, so as to milk their political influence in order to gain greater control of resources and markets in India. (Who sold us down the river to Enron -- by now, assuredly, the most infamous of American corporations - within the two weeks that they held power in 1996?) But in their smiles and their speeches our leaders are zealously swadeshi (patriotic). The hypocrisy is so transparent! India was much more Indian when the British were still here, when the means for state propaganda were technologically much more limited, and when the authentic patriotism, inspired by the freedom-struggle was still alive.
How strange it would be to see one of our leaders shedding a single tear for the pregnant women who carry a thousand bricks a day on their bare heads for the construction of the buildings in which we live and work, while their babies wail in the mud, all to earn 40 or 50 rupees a day! Duniya banane wale mein aur duniya chalane wale mein aasmaan-zameen ka farak hai! (There is a world of difference between the ones who make the world and the ones who run it.) The true nationalism which the philosopher Albert Camus had in mind when he wrote that he loved his country too much to be a nationalist, is long dead. We stopped producing leaders like that when the generation which fought for freedom from Europe left the political stage. Today we have a shallow, corrupt "nationalism of appearances" ("India Shining") which tries to put the country's "best", most deceiving, image before the world, while unabashedly despising its own people and if necessary, displaying virulent hatred towards them, the ones on whose shoulders the famed nation stands! It is an insult to the intelligence of visitors to the country as well, when you try to hide from them what is so utterly obvious.
What survives today in the form of the BJP and the opposition parties is not even a bastardized nationalism. It is the most despairing and devastating sectarianism that has visited the mind of the rulers in a very long time. Surely they ought to be aware that what is common to all the pogroms and genocides that have been conducted over the past 100 years is their "nationalist" justification!
Nationalism today is not only fake and shameless, it is deeply unrealistic. Apart from the hypocritical patriotism discussed above, the practice of centralized nationalism in a sub-continental civilization as large and diverse as ours cannot possibly be a good idea. Imagine trying to rule all Europe from Brussels, taking note of the immense cultural diversity of the continent -- its numerous peoples, their languages, folklore and histories! Keep in view the fact that both the so-called world wars have been ignited on European soil. That is the nightmare that governing India from Delhi implies (or should imply to a wise ruler!).
So much centralization can only lead to terrible mis-governance, which is what has been on show for half a century or more. Neither British India (with 560 princely states and kingdoms under it) nor the Mughal empire at the height of its glory (which Akbar had wisely parcelled out to kings and chieftains, as much as to Mansabdars, accommodating among others, the Rajputs) involved this degree of centralized power. Under prevailing political assumptions even the best ruler can only try to administer the land. He can never succeed in governing it with any commendable degree of success. Just like we imitated passively the idea of democracy, we also inherited without much critical scrutiny the idea of nationhood. A loosely arranged federation would have been so much superior as a political idea! It would have done hugely greater justice to the legacy of a great civilization. And yet, till recently, there has been no public discussion of this idea.
Finally, waking up from his gerontocratic somnolence at the Islamabad SAARC summit in January 2004, Prime Minister Vajpayee, in yet another instance of imitative statesmanship, made some ambitious noises about how this region (South Asia) ought to begin thinking of itself as a federation, much like the European Union, forming a unified trade and currency bloc. The imitation of Europe (by the Hindu fascists) continues, as does the disingenuous political schizophrenia of their leadership, when you recall that till yesterday they were speaking of land-mining the entire 3000-kilometre border with Pakistan, after sending a million troops to the border! One currency, but millions of landmines! This just about sums up the grotesque political vision of our leaders today.
Once again, we seem to wait each time for Europe and the West to show us the way. Couldn't we have hit upon the idea of a South Asian Federation quite independently of Europeís recent attempts at continental union, which is to say, a lot earlier?
It is so extremely important how human beings think of themselves! We act in the world according to our self-perception. Thus, a father tries to act like a father, a teacher as a teacher and so on. Human beings find it hard to get out of understood (if not prescribed) social rules. We have come to think of ourselves as Indian citizens. That is what our passports and our cricket captains tell us and we believe them without much ado. We identify ourselves with the abstraction of the Indian nation and are willing to send people to kill and die for it (even if we ourselves would be too cowardly to go). We fight every day over useless territory in order to 'defend the nation'. But we deliberate for years before we agree to play cricket with Pakistan!
If we had the maturity to think and feel in civilizational terms we would scarcely identify ourselves with nationalist abstractions. Instead of seeming to be a threat, as Pakistan appears to educated Indians today, it would appear as an offspring of this sub-continental (not monopolistically Hindu) civilization, sundered from the rest of it (it does not matter which of the partitioned entities is larger!) as a parting gift of the British empire. The sobering fact is that in 1947 there was one land, one civilization. By 1971, there were three nations. And, if we persist with our infantile obsessions, there may be more in the future.
If this part of the world - the Sub-continent ñ is to have a peaceful future, it must as quickly as possible renew the vision which reinforces the sense of shared destiny which a civilization of this scale, scope and history ought to have. In fact, India is best understood as an ongoing experiment in civilization with utterly porous and diffused borders. Political expediency must yield to cultural diversity and autonomy here. A far more decentralized political structure (much more along the lines of the long-abandoned idea of Gandhi´s village republics than the ideas of those who have ages ago given up dreaming of a freer, happier, more peaceful sub-continent would be prepared to consider) and the possibility of a loose confederate arrangement with Pakistan and other neighbors have to be considered if this goal is to be achieved. This is the minimal order of political maturity one has the right to expect of a people who claim to have inherited the legacy of an ancient civilization. But all this is pipe-dreaming till such time as we are bedeviled with the monstrous mediocrity which is our political leadership today.
Aaj ke haalaat mein khatre (The dangers in the situation today): Savarna (upper caste) Hindutva as bastardized modernity
"Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane mein,
tum taras nahin khaate bastiyaan jalaane mein!" (Basheer Badr)
ìOrdinary folks break their backs to build one house,
and you think nothing of burning entire neighborhoods!î
What explains the rise of Hindutva? Looking past Sangh-Parivar politics, the Nehruvian legacy of dynastic democracy has to be examined. There is of course, the steady decline of the Congress Party as a political force, as the historical distance from the freedom-struggle grows.
For 37 of the first 42 years after independence (before V.P.Singh's government in 1989 and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991) India was ruled by one or another member of the Nehru family. Despite all the elections that have been held and the very impressive participation of the voting population, in our gut, we have had a hard time believing that the age of kings and queens is over. Feudal patron-client relationships have continued in politics and the rest of Indian society down to the deepest levels. It is impossible for anyone to get by in India without invoking nepotistic "connections", sarve-sarva (patrons). Today, the Hindutva brigade is busy installing, true to feudal tradition, apne aadmi (their own men) in critical positions of influence in the education system, the bureaucracy, the police, the judicial system, and the services. Everyone relies on patronage and support from above. India continues to be a feudal democracy.
Nehru's secularism too, was a political compromise in a pluralistic, but parochial, social context. Comparisons with Western democracies, with very different roots of the political struggle for democracy, are unwarranted. Indiaís democracy has been feudal and parochial all along. Pluralism has been more a matter of historical necessity, than a matter of conscious, collective democratic choice. For that matter, democracy itself, while based on the British model, was a matter of historical necessity, given how diverse the country was to begin with. One may recall that even the British Raj (rule) was not an unmitigated tyranny, let alone the rule of Akbar or Ashoka.
Nor was Nehru's socialism all it was trumped up to be. Not only was Nehru (especially after Gandhiís death) wedded uncritically to the Western vision of progress and modernization. Behind the rhetoric of official socialism was old-fashioned feudal jockeying for power, in which politicians and bureaucrats conducted the License Raj and throttled small enterprise while feeding off and patronizing the big business houses. In the name of socialism a rentier-state had developed which had little real concern for the poor, Indira Gandhiís slogans of Garibi Hatao (Remove Poverty) notwithstanding. In effect, we had neither socialism nor entrepreneurial capitalism from 1947 to 1991. What we had was an obstinate feudalism masked by socialist rhetoric, and big-business (Birla-Tata) industrialism in some pockets. It was a confused and repressed society, especially from the perspective of the middle classes, whose economic and social aspirations were unaddressed in the decades that India was ruled by the Nehru family.
In 1991, when our sarkar (government) used a short-term exchange crisis to embrace liberalization, privatization and globalization, as universal panaceas for all economic ailments of the country, they also abandoned the long-standing hypocrisy of ìsocialismî. The underlying class realities of Indian politics and economics finally surfaced (as the liberal mask of the state became more transparent). The middle classes rose to the forefront. Suddenly everyone was talking about Indiaís vast market potential. The mantra of the free market was invoked freely, now that communism (certainly in its Soviet incarnation) had proved to be a failure in the end. The not so rich had a chance to get rich and the very rich could, of course, get even richer. The poor were still not anywhere in the picture, except in the shape of trickle-down promises. And that is where they remain even today.
One of the several enormous differences in the economic climate after 1991 has been, of course, the entry of transnational corporations. Whatever their (dubious) economic merits may be considered to be in the Indian context, what they have certainly made possible are altogether new avenues of corruption, represented aptly by the Enron phenomena and the involvement of our present Deputy Prime Minister in the wheeling-dealing which has gone on since 1996 with respect to the Dabhol project (more on this in a later section).
Hundreds of regional parties have sprung up all over the country, representing the interests of their part of the country. But so far, there has been no alternative of national scope. The BJP actually occupies a political vacuum, exploiting a thousand resentments, frustrations and aspirations to forge and wield a dangerous "nationalist" ideology. To give our enervated middle-classes an illusion of power, even strength.
But there are deeper reasons at work in the rise of Hindutva. The British left India in 1947. Half a century later, the feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis (an ironically declining) West has not disappeared from the culture and thinking of our elites and our middle-classes. On the contrary, the feeling has only grown deeper. We have had over five decades to recover our faith in ourselves, to restore to our injured psyche the self-confidence it is capable of. Having failed to do that, thanks to cultural self-hatred and a dismally flawed development process (which routinely uproots countless millions from the villages, draws them to the cities, where they make meagre, insecure livelihoods if they are lucky and are looked upon as eyesores by affluent classes) and careless imitation of the worst economic approaches, political habits and cultural attitudes of the West by our elites, our "Hindu" leaders are now in search of enemies, of scapegoats actually, of people who could be blamed for our collective lapses. Muslims are only the most sizeable, credible and visible minority and hence afford an easy target. Anti-semitism, Indian style. If they did not exist, Muslims would have to be invented. Kursi pe kabza rakhne ka aur kya tareeka bacha hai? (What alternative means are available to keep power?) Their "hatred" of Muslims is more truly a reflection of their own self-hatred. It is the result of insecure identity-politics, when much graver issues continue to be ignored. Gila hamesha se angrezon se raha hai, par choonki hum angrezon ke topon-bandookon ki barabari nahin kar sakte, mussalmanon se badla le rahe hain. (The fact is that we have always felt inferior to White Westerners, but because we cannot match their bombs and missiles, we avenge ourselves on the Muslims.)
"Hum kisi se kum nahin" (We are second to none) is what our visionary leaders repeatedly wish to prove to the world ñ nay, to themselves and to their middle-class constituencies, because the rest of the world frankly doesnít care - that we too exist, that we too count ("hum bhi toh hain team mein bhai!" (ìWe are in the team too.î).
Never mind that we cannot feed a third of our population (with 60 million tons of foodgrains lying in storage). Never mind that our Swadeshi leaders are engaged in privatizing the country and mortgaging its assets to Western corporations, globalizing corruption. Let us also, for the sake of our own safety, skip over the gaping man-holes in the sidewalks of our cities. Let us ignore the hundreds of millions who go without drinking water and a decent roof over their heads, whose only chance of getting an education will now involve reading about the cruelties of Muslim rulers of the past, but not about the monuments razed to the ground by the Bajrang Dal in Gujarat in year 2002. And let them quench their pyaas (thirst) on Coca-cola, those who cannot reach out for a tap. And they should be prepared to sacrifice their jhopdis (huts) at the alter of our great national image before the world, when the next Bill (Clinton or Gates) visits India. This is Savarna Hindutva. Such is the despair and the bankruptcy of imagination.
Hindutva is best understood as a bastardized form of modernity, which has made India once again vulnerable to the West, in particular to the US. Now that the portrait of Veer Savarkar proudly faces that of Gandhi in the Parliament House in New Delhi, none barring the blind can fail to see that India is now moving firmly in the footsteps of European fascism.
Along with democracy and nationalism, fascism is the third significant political import that India has made from Europe. Hindutva terror politics, contrary to what its leaders lead their followers to believe, stands for a brand of nationalism which is an even more blind imitation of 20th century European fascism than Nehruvian secular democracy was of the Westminster model, or the visions of the early Indian Communists were of the ideas of Marx and Lenin. In politics, as in much else, we have imitated without shame the ways of a declining Western civilization.
Where Hitler and the Nazis failed, our remarkable Hindu leaders are destined to succeed in guiding us to our higher destiny of Hindu Rashtra. This is the wisdom we are sold today.
Fascism is the name used to designate broadly an ideology which took shape and form in Continental Europe between the two world wars of the 20th century. It is a phenomenon of mass society and springs from the political needs of leaders who wish to gain and maintain power in a system of industrial democracy fraught with endemic economic crises. It involves giving larges masses of exploited, unhappy young men a false sense of collective identity by political processes of regimentation and homogenization. Typically the majority are armed against a social minority group who are held responsible for the problems and misfortunes of the majority. So, for instance, in Nazi Germany the Jews were held out as the community whose actions and way of life were said to jeopardize the chances of German people in general. This ideology of intolerance, while it falsely homogenizes and unites one section of society, it does so by dividing it from the rest, who are identified as the troublemakers.
Is it a coincidence that the RSS was founded in India in 1926 just when fascism was beginning to rage in Continental Europe? When our great latter-day patriots, inheritors of the legacy of the assassins of Gandhi -- Vajpayee, Advani or MM Joshi -- rage about the revival of the great heritage of ancient India they calmly maintain a silence about where their political forefathers -- Hedgewar, Golwalkar and Savarkar -- drew their political ideology and inspiration from: not from the sacred scriptures of the Upanishads but from ideas propagated by Hitler in Mein Kampf.
How many educated Indians are aware, or are willing to admit openly, that the political merchants who rule from New Delhi nowadays, who have been instrumental in allowing the Gujarat genocide, and who advertise themselves as the only guardians of our glorious and ancient past, who will restore Hindu culture to the glory that Muslim conquest had aborted, have actually been feeding off the ideology of European fascism? All the basic elements of fascist thought and practice, from the identification of a vulnerable enemy to the donning of khaki shorts, and the adoption of Nazi terror-tactics, have been slavishly plagiarized from Nazi Germany. Fascists carry too much cowardice to nurture in people an independent, self-subsistent identity. In this sense, they are anything but truly patriotic. They must feed off parasitically, on a vulnerable 'other', a pariah. Muslims offer the Hindu Right with the needed 'enemy'.
While it would be foolish to be prematurely cynical, it is hard to deny that the fascism of Sangh Parivar politics may have already put Indian democracy in mortal crisis. With the Gujarat genocide the first chapter of Indian fascism has been written. Who can undo the damage that has been delivered to the children who saw with their very own eyes their parents and older brothers and sisters being slain with trishuls (spears) in broad daylight? The connivance of the state is proved by the fact that Pradhan Mantri ko ek maheena laga Gujarat pahunchne meinÖshayad bail-gadi par gaye! (the Prime Minister took a month to go to Gujarat to commiserate with bereaved familiesÖperhaps he traveled by a bullock-cart!) If Muslim mobs had killed Hindus, the fastest jet would have brought the PM to Ahmedabad in a few hours from New Delhi. That cruelty has cowardice for its mother was never more obvious.
In Gujarat the Hindutva brigade emulated some of the most savage terror tactics of the Nazis and the Blackshirts. They orchestrated loot and plunder, rape and murder with clinical efficiency, using land deeds, ration-cards and other official data to isolate and attack Muslim households, businesses, mosques and tombs. They have learnt well from Nazi tactics in the 1930s. Having no vision to address the economic problems of lower classes in any effective way, they used the latter, just as Nazis had done, as the wielders of trishuls and talwars (swords) in the lynch mobs which went around the city streets of Gujarat, arsoning, raping, murdering and butchering. Suit and Sari-clad, English-speaking cell-phone users and Honda drivers chipped in for good measure.
One may recall that Hitler triumphed, for as long as he did, by means of a corrupted democracy, hijacked by terror and the mass hysteria he was able to generate before launching the pogroms of the 1930s and 1940s. He was an elected tyrant. Can it happen in India? Yes, in cases such as Gujarat, it has already been happening. (Who is Narendra Modi?) The only question is whether it can be generalized to all of India. Safer to exaggerate the danger than to underestimate it. Let us not be squeamish about being accused of paranoia when what might be under way is what can only be described as the MODI-fication of India. When men like Togadia and women like Uma Bharti strut around like heroes and heroines, there is cause for concern.
Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray has called for a "civil war" to get rid of Muslims and pave the way for Hindu Rashtra. While Indiaís Muslim community -- and leaders -- have shown admirable restraint so far, it is doubtful if a beleaguered community of 130 million Muslims will not take recourse to external help to defend themselves against such a rabidly bigoted government, especially if their immediate Hindu neighbors, in an increasingly polarized society, are indifferent to their travails. (We are staring at many future Belfasts.) After all, if Hindus can organize globally through the VHP (World Hindu Council), can Muslims also not do so with the aid of their famed terror networks? There are as many Hindus as Muslims in this global village! And if so, can Hindustan not become the site for historyís greatest-ever Dharam-yudh/jehad, (religious war) drenching Bharat-mataís mitti (India's earth) in oceans of human blood? Ethnic cleansing is imaginable when the numbers are 5 or 10 million. But with 130 million? (and another 900 outside India?) Mr.Thackeray should be told in no uncertain terms what he is playing with. This is not just Gavli versus Dawood in the underworld of Mumbai. He will be in pawn this time. Of course, the "game" could be played differently too and end in a mutually assured nuclear destruction of India and Pakistan. Which one did you have in mind, Mr.Thackeray?
The truth is not only that wars have never been "civil" episodes in the past. It is also that no war of the kind that he and his ilk need for their political survival is likely to be confined to the geographical boundaries of the Sub-continent. Not in a global village which is stalked day and night by terrorists unafraid of suicide, and governments ever-ready to send troops to their borders. With the Gujarat genocide India has already taken a leaf out of Rwanda's book. Does it also want to take one from Kosovo's?
Let us ensure that the Sangh-parivar realizes how far ahead of themselves they have gone this time. These latter-day fascist fantasists have forgotten that Hitler lived in the pre-nuclear age. They speak of nuclear weapons as though they were Shiva's trishuls. They complained with indignant petulance when they got critical comments on the state tolerance of mass-violence in Gujarat from visiting foreign dignitaries. They fail to see that nuclear neighbours in the global village cause understandable concern and consternation across the world. After all, isnít this what our leaders wanted when they tested those nuclear bombs in 1998?
Let us finally remember that Hitler had to be ultimately removed by external means, given the enormity of the threat he increasingly posed to the rest of Europe and the world. Recently, Arundhati Roy has correctly foreseen a future scenario which is far from incredible: that US soldiers may "patrol our streets and, Narendra Modi, Pravin Togadia, or any of our popular bigots could, like Saddam Hussein, be in US custody, having their hair checked for lice and the fillings in their teeth examined on prime-time TV."
So much for the much-touted nationalism of the Sangh Parivar: they seem blissfully unmindful of their ultimate status as imperial pawns.
Just how Hindu are they?
The sole goal of the Sangh-Parivar is lasting political hegemony and power, the tactics are Eurpoean, and only the symbols are Indian. Even today, the BJP government is all too eager to imitate American rhetoric (and where possible, tactics) in the war against terror, perhaps also pulling a few tricks out of Ariel Sharonís Israeli hat. Another irony is that Israel does not seem to mind that Indiaís Hindu ideologues continue to draw their inspiration from the Nazis. Why should they, given that they themselves emulate those tactics in Palestine! There is no terror like state terror and all state terror is the same, whether it wears Nazi, Israeli or khaki clothes.
Hindustaniyon ko theek se samjhna chahiye ki yeh naqli Hindu hain! (Indians should understand properly that these people are fake Hindus!) Hindutva politics has nothing to do with Hindu religion except its use of carefully selected myths and images towards the ends of power. On the contrary, it is the worst corruption of Hindu heritage imaginable. Not for the Sangh-Parivar the defiance of Mira and Lalleshwari or the poetics of Jaidev and Surdas! Can the Prime Minister's feeble poetry hold the proverbial candle to the sun that shines out of Kabir's verses? Nor will they ever have the humility to share a view like Aurobindoís, who celebrated the magnificence of the Mughal empire and the contribution that Akbar made to the Indian ethos. Do they remember the stories of Birbal? And could they ever even imagine, let alone feel the spiritual might and glory attained in medieval Kashmir through the interaction of Shaivaite Bhaktas and Sufis? Have they stopped to heed the words of warning which the author of Indiaís national anthem had issued against nationalism? When Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was asked by the Sangh-Parivar to lend his singing voice to the consecration of the famed Ram-Mandir, his humble reply was "Yehan pe toh aap logon ne saare sur kharaab kar diye hain!" (ìHere you people have corrupted all the notes.î)
In Gujarat over 200 dargahs (tombs) and nearly 200 masjids (mosques) were destroyed. Not just Muslim, Indian culture was given a thrashing by the bigots. The tomb of the founder of Urdu poetry, Wali Gujarati was desecrated. The maqbara (mausoleum) of the great classical musician Ustad Faiyaz Ali Khan was left adorned with burning tyres. One might ask the Sangh-Parivar what is next. Ghalibís tomb in Delhi? Hazrat Nizamuddin's maqbara? The Taj Mahal itself? Is this what they want people to understand as nationalism?
After "genocide in the land of Gandhi", the global image of India has already suffered a mortal blow. Indiaís elite public had better wake up to the fact that the present power-brokers in New Delhi, far from guaranteeing the future stability of Indian society, are likely to precipitate events which will, once and for all, rob India of all the reputation for harmony and tolerance that the centuries have bestowed on it. Not merely that, as suggested earlier, Indiaís freedom from direct American control is under threat too.
The time is approaching (is it already here?) when each and all of us will be confronted with the choice between admiring the Prime Ministerís poisoned poetry and worshipping the light that glows through the verses of Kabir and Ghalib. What should be clear to any intelligent person is that one cannot possibly have both. Absolutely not. Not after Gujarat, 2002.
In comparison with the West, India can only be described accurately as a semi-industrial, semi-capitalist society where feudalism survives. Thus it is no surprise to note that Indian fascism is a unique species. While drawing on the essentials of the Nazi legacy and enmeshing itself with Neo-liberal globalization, it has put its money on something which is peculiarly Indian in todayís world, in that it is fundamentally feudal. It is the reality of fascist feudalism that one has to reckon with today.
I wrote a while ago about the lifestyles of the Indian elites being, even in absolute terms, more luxurious than any in the world. One of the facts that facilitates this is that in no comparable country in the world are capitalism and feudalism both so well-entrenched. Indian elites have all the means (especially since the economic reforms began in 1991) of growing wealthy which modern capitalist economies enjoy. But more profoundly, Indian elites have direct access to dismally cheap labour in a variety of forms (from qualified engineers in corporate offices to running boys, peons and domestic help and servants) which elites in other countries (even in richer Latin American countries such as Mexico) have little or no direct access to (witness the number of multinational corporations who have, for this, among other reasons, such as a class of workers fluent in English, outsourced work to India). Labor is hired which has no safety-net to guard its interests, no trade union, let alone a welfare state. Increasingly, more and more companies take advantage of the possibilities of hiring casual (dehari) labor as against labor which might demand benefits such as health insurance and occupational safety. What could be more feudal? (In passing, we may note that labor in Western countries, especially Britain and the United States, is having to face similar conditions lately, the safety net of the welfare state in the process of unravelling: more on that in a later section.)
PART VII: Brown Colonialism
Globalization, democracy and the poor
In the age of globalization, with all kinds of heady rhetoric in the print and electronic media about India's arrival on the world stage as a great power, the resilient realities of caste feudalism and the despairing ideology of Hindu fascism stand as thorns in the flesh of a miscarried democracy. Nothing fundamentally changes from the point of view of the underprivileged except that life each passing day becomes physically and economically more insecure than ever before. Since India´s heady embrace of capitalism after 1991 -- most of the country has been effectively counted out of serious economic reckoning. Now it is capitalism for 200-300 million people, at best. It is worth noting that over 90% of wage-earners are informal workers, for whom working conditions are regulated primarily by prevailing social conventions rather than by state legislation. In other words, they are not really part of the shining nation, except insofar as they may have the privilege of serving as temporary means to create the wealth which others more fortunate than they may enjoy. Thanks to feudal traditions, casual and informal labor have become widespread and virtually permanent features of capitalist India.
There is also the issue of a long-standing tax haven for the rich farmers, which deprives the exchequer, and ultimately the poor, of a major source of revenue which could serve the interests of redistribution of wealth and income, insuring better living and working conditions for the poor classes.
If one considers that the (rural) lives and livelihoods of countless impoverished millions are routinely disrupted or destroyed by the breakneck expansion of the urban elite economy (enjoying the windfalls of an increasingly outsourced global economy) and one notices the exploitation of and unemployment amongst the growing ranks of the urban poor (drawn ultimately from the effectively forced migration of the jobless, dispossessed poor from rural areas), it would scarcely be an exaggeration to describe our contemporary economic system as ìinternal colonialismî. All the typical features of a colonial economy (exploitation of underpaid labor, extraction of cheap resources, imposition of markets and most importantly, imposition of a model of development at violent odds with traditional rural lifestyles) are certainly present in the Indian countryside today. The sole difference from the past is that the entire exercise is being carried out at the behest of the Indian urban elite minorities, rather than at the command of a metropolitan power located on another continent. The lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of the people are at the mercy of this elite, their labor and resources so much fuel for the engine of Indian globalization. To be sure, many don't even get the chance to get exploited. The conquest of India over Bharat is complete. Gandhi weeps.
Evocatively enough, distressed and destroyed by the drought conditions and the stateís lack of sensible food and agricultural policies, and its failure to protect the peasants from aggressive WTO regulations, 20,000 Indian farmers have committed suicides over the past 6 years. Nothing could serve as a clearer sign of the deadly conditions and circumstances which have been generated since liberalization and that have taken a grip on the life of the ordinary Indian peasant.
The rural poor have been systemically dispossessed of assets. In an article in Outlook magazine a few years ago Arundhati Roy had argued that anywhere from 30 to 50 million Indians (Bharatiyas actually) have been forcibly displaced from their homes since independence in order for urban and industrial India to build the hydroelectric power projects for the generation of electricity. Similar stories of dispossession of land, forests, fisheries and pastures continue to get reported from all parts of the country. This is our own native version of the Enclosure Movement which took place in the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution in Britain which led to rapid urbanization and peasants, dispossessed of land, offering themselves as wage-labor in the factories in urban areas, especially after propertied classes got the Poor Laws (which offered state protection for the poor) repealed in 1834. This phenomenon accounts for the massive and growing migration from villages to towns and cities in India which has not abated in the past six decades. Yet, even today, twice as many Indians live in villages as in towns and cities.
Traditional resourced-based lifestyles of farmers, cattle-grazers, fishermen and forest-dwellers have been made increasingly unviable as state governments have been auctioning land and resources to the highest corporate bidders from India or abroad, politicians making handsome bribes in the process, even as they mouth daily the hypocritical drivel of nationalism and national greatness. This is, in fact, what globalization means to the ordinary politician ñ how to extract maximum rent (bribe) from a company (Indian or foreign) to allow it to access public resources within his jurisdiction. The case of Enron (with none other than Home Minister L.K. Advani himself being the prime suspect) has already been documented by Arundhati Roy and others. While this process has been going on since independence if not since Colonial times, it has picked up greater speed since the enactment of liberalization policies after 1991. As lower and rural classes have lost more power and influence, the stakes have become even higher and politicians have had no qualms in auctioning public assets and community resources (such as forests) to multinational companies. In the guise of greater efficiency, privatization and liberalization policies are leading to even greater discontent in the countryside (the suicides in Andhra last summer being illustrative of the fact) and more migration to the cities.
So, in a largely rural country, the challenge, from the point of view of the powerful political parties is to gain and maintain power in a political system of representative democracy, while letting the middle-classes and elites (for whom globalization was introduced after all) enrich themselves further. How can they win a mandate from the people at large if most people actually fall outside the mainstream of the economy, and fail to get globalized? How do you convince Bharat that India has their best interests at heart? Not an easy task, and yet India's political geniuses seem to have repeatedly met the challenge with success in election after election! The explanation for this lies in the fact that both the main political parties of national scope are equally unmindful of the travails of Indiaís rural population. Who could the janta (people) of Bharat vote for, who wouldnít enact the economic agendas of the urban elites and middle-classes!
No major political party ñ neither the BJP nor the Congress ñ has any coherent economic and environmental vision which can help address the long-standing and growing economic problems of masses of people. This is why false issues and agendas ñ from Pakistan to Ayodhya ñ have to be kept alive. In this most surreal of all ages in history, the parties will fight the elections over these pseudo-issues, since none of them have any answer to the real problems ñ drinking water, food, housing, health, education and environmental degradation ñ which beset the people of this stricken land. Recently, one has heard the buzzword "governance", by politicians who, without exception, were unwilling to allow the Election Commission and the public a few years ago to examine their criminal records before their candidacy was deemed acceptable!
PART VIII: The resilience of Biradiri feudalism
Caste, globalization, corruption
The above discussion raises a basic question: why did the ruling elites embrace globalization so uncritically in 1991? China, after all, the only economy comparable to India's, did no such thing. (Not that it did not liberalize its economy, but it did so on its own terms, and only after first generating sufficient competitiveness within its own economy did it welcome multinational corporations. The process was gradual and took over a decade to implement fully. (The results ñ measured by the global ubiquity of the "Made in China" label ñ are clear) A hypothesis which presents itself is the following.
Ever since the caste question was first raised openly and explicitly in independent India, in 1989, the ruling caste elites have become insecure about their traditional privileges. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 (making it globally unfashionable to stick to prior socialist commitments, and easier to renege on them) and the Indian economy had a serious short-term crisis in its balance of payments, the ruling elites seized the opportunity to embrace globalization.
This served more than one end. It saved our leaders from looking under the rug and addressing urgently long-standing issues of poverty directly. No land reforms were necessary, the rural rich could continue to escape taxation, and no great investment was required in rural irrigation and other agricultural infrastructure. The mantra of "trickle-down" economics was once again held to be the universal panacea. Growth, never mind its nature and content, would take care of poverty in the end. Such became orthodox wisdom thereon.
Above all, globalization made it possible to postpone facing the ancient caste question which V.P. Singh's government had brought into public discussion for the first time since 1947. The net result, 12 years after liberalization, is that for all the glitter of globalization which is now beamed at us from TV channels, and glows from our shopping malls and fancy expressways, the underlying social realities of India remain obstinately feudal and casteist and electoral imperatives have led our cowardly leaders to embrace a bigoted, fascist ideology, keep alive self-generated bugbears of terrorism and insecurity, in order to maintain political influence.
A related point may be made here. The fact of caste has a bearing on the issue of corruption as well. All wings of the government (Executive, including of course, bureaucracy, the legislative, and increasingly the judiciary and the armed forces) in India have gathered a notorious reputation for corruption. How does it work? A story about a Chief Minister will serve to illustrate the point: some years ago, in an interview by a reporter from a national daily (both of which shall remain unnamed here), he was put the following question in Hindi: "Allegations have been made against you to the effect that you have got college admissions and jobs for your nephews. Would you like to comment on this?" His response, far from being defensive, actually explained the biradiri system underlying all of Indian society (and thus its governments too) rather well: "Look, my friend, have you ever seen a jungle? In a jungle there are all kinds of large and small trees. There is, for instance, a Banyan tree and from this giant tree you can see all kinds of creepers and vegetables hanging and feeding off the giant. You can see all kinds of gourd, brinjal, etc. Now, our world is just like the jungle and the Chief Minister is like a Banyan tree. Arre Bhai, if I don't allow positions and jobs to my nephews, do you think I´ll give them to your nieces and nephews?"
Our globalizing, modernizing intelligentsia is all too reluctant to admit publicly the nepotistic biradiri system as the very basis of the privileged Indian's way of life. In practice, of course, anyone seeking an industrial license, who has had to bribe a Babu to get an appointment with Mantriji (minister), or has tried to get his undeserving (and sometimes deserving!) son into college, or has tried to save himself from an unwanted transfer in a government job, or has struggled to earn a deserving place in the Indian cricket team or has faced the stony indifference of a sarkari clerk in a government office (whose sadistic delight in making well-dressed English- speaking people wait for hours if necessary, knows no bounds) knows exactly what I am talking about. Bribes are the lubricant which makes the government machinery function and, dare I say, allows the elite to persist in countless undeserved privileges.
This makes me return to one of the main points being made in this essay: the fragile character of our public institutions, thanks to their imitative origin, in neglect of deeper Indian historical realities. If the administrative set-up was an offspring of the collective imagination of Indian people, the latter would have ensured --as in Western societies -- through a much more vigilant media, for instance, that honesty and integrity of a minimum standard were maintained in the public domain. (What we witness though is a resigned cynicism, reinforced by habit and custom.) However, the set-up as we well know, was adopted, along with a whole spectrum of other institutions, from Britain and the legacy of Empire (ICS for instance).
Even while Nehru was alive, Gandhiís idea of village republics was driven into oblivion after independence. It wasn't the panchayats, after all, which came up with the system of administration in the country! Whatever the promised system may be de jure, the system de facto functions along the lines of biradiri feudalism. The Chief Minister whose story has been cited above, surely feels no pang of conscience in 'stealing' money from the public treasury. On the contrary, he feels morally redeemed in doing good for his own biradiri, especially since 'the common man', the alleged loser from such large-scale corruption, is a voiceless, faceless abstraction in some remote corner of the Chief Minister´s imagination. His beseechful nephew, by contrast, is a nearby creature of flesh and blood, who can spread the word of his uncle's power and influence far and wide. Dishonesty works wonders for the Chief Minister's reputation. Honesty would make him look like a fool, other than alienating his conniving, corrupt subordinates and effectively eliminating his chances of getting re-elected (since there´d be no money to finance his campaign).
From pseudo- socialism before 1991 to pseudo-capitalism today: The enduring reality of Biradiri feudalism
Our constitution still proclaims India as, among other things, a 'socialist' republic. But since 1991 and the radical shift in the orientation of our economic policies who can take this seriously! The buzzwords today have little about rural development and five-year plans. Instead you repeatedly hear the mantras of privatization, liberalization and globalization. But no one who was familiar with socio-economic and political realities prior to 1991 could reasonably describe India between 1947 and 1991 as a socialist society. Then, as before and now, the system was in fact biradiri feudalism. Yes, there were 5-year plans and under Mrs.Indira Gandhi, slogans such as 'Garibi Hatao'(eliminate poverty), but by the late 1970s, even the leaders who would parrot them in public had lost faith in their rhetorical value (since the slogan in practice, especially after Sanjay Gandhiís slum demolitions in Delhi during the Emergency, became garib hatao (eliminate the poor).
Till Nehru was alive (1964), the state did make some notable contributions to public infrastructure and what the planner P.C.Mahalanobis called 'the commanding heights of the economy'. But what was true about industrial policy was the pervasiveness of the 'License-Permit Raj' in which the Neta-Babu (politician-bureaucrat) class (as economist Raj Krishna used to characterize them) and a handful of big businessmen prospered at the expense of small entrepreneurs and consumers. While our leaders made sure of their private share of the economic pie by quietly patronizing a handful of business families, they mouthed the appropriate socialist rhetoric in public. This hypocrisy was one of the touchstones of the polity.
Socialist rhetoric gave way to modernization slogans after Rajiv Gandhi donned the mantle in the wake of his mother's assassination in 1984. India had to be "taken into the twenty-first century", on the ample back of information technology. Not much was heard about alleviation of poverty, supporting agriculture, land reform or rural livelihoods.
Has any part of this picture changed since 1991? Other than occasional lip-service we hear almost nothing from our leaders about the alleviation of poverty or the creation of new jobs. Since the Sangh Parivar has seized control of parliament in the late 1990s, socialist rhetoric has in fact yielded to communal and jingoistic rhetoric in which Muslims and Pakistanis are the source of all our ills.
However, more significantly, the Indian economy has been liberalized, more externally than internally (the stranglehold of the License-Permit Raj is only a bit more attenuated from the perspective of the small entrepreneur, even as the big companies have a free hand in their decisions). The conditions for foreign direct investment as well as for financial flows have been eased. With the spread of satellite and cable TV and the Internet, there is more talk of liberalization and globalization 'in the air'. The middle-classes and the elites have been liberated from the material repressions they had to suffer in times of pseudo-socialism. They can now buy and sell phoren brands freely.
However, consumerism is all too easily and all too often mistaken for capitalism itself. Few people in India realize how crucial a civic public ethos has been in the growth of Western capitalism since earliest times, but especially since the welfare state was instituted in response to the Great depression in 1930s.
To start with, letís consider the elementary social fact of Western capitalist societies. Not only is there formal equality before the law (which we also have in India) society actually runs along contractual lines, ultimately honoured and enforced by the law. In all western societies you have, for instance, strict laws regulating the work-week, child labour etc. What is conspicuous by its absence is an infinitely flexible labour contract in which virtually any amount of labour can be extracted from someone vulnerable.
This is very far from uncommon in India. India is much more like the Britain of Charles Dickens than like the America of Bill Gates. In fact, barring the limited domain of organized sector employment, it is in fact quite common to find a labour arrangement infinitely flexible from the employer's point of view. In-house domestic help is a case in point. The same person who cooks three meals a day for the family will be asked to cook for a large party. She might even be asked to take care of the children, wash and iron all the clothes, do all the shopping, feed the pets, take them out etc.
While these terms for the employment of labour are anachronistic by global standards, they are by no means so in a social context still fraught with abiding feudal legacies. One of the enduring hallmarks of feudal society is the pre-dominance of patron-client socio-economic relationships, wherein material dependence is the norm. The rich feel like they do the poor a favour by giving them work to do. The poor, in fear of losing whatever few opportunities come their way, feel obligated in gratuitous ways. When labour is hired under these conditions there are hardly any formal or legal checks and balances on its abuse, especially when one keeps in view a labour-surplus urban economy.
On the streets poor kids get treated in ways which are unthinkable in a Western context. Manhattan bums will not get such treatment from Bill Gates himself! Contrary to all appearances and no matter what our leaders and intellectuals may say, workers donning uniforms still donít have the dignity of labour which they have in the West, especially in Europe. We seem not to be able to see all this because we have grown so accustomed to banal feudal cruelties. One can scarcely imagine a country where most destinies are still so entirely regulated by birth!
Another profoundly significant consequence of the deep-rooted civic public ethos in the West (and evidence, if evidence is ever called for, that all capitalism is state capitalism) has been the consistently massive investments that the state has made not just in public infrastructure but also in pioneering industries, which later became, largely on account of state sponsorship, leading edge private enterprises. The US government, for instance, did not merely build the impressive highway systems (under Eisenhower's Defense Highway Act), the ports, the early railroads, and the utilities, they also consistently pioneered investments in telegraphs, telecommunications, computers, and many other key industries throughout modern history. And if the history of the development and launching of the Internet as well as government initiatives in biotech are any indication, then this trend has hardly changed in our times. It has been noted by commentators that the costs and risks in such ventures are socialized while the benefits are increasingly private.
In India, especially since 1991, the state has been in a process of withdrawing from just about any and every area of economic responsibility.
Need it also be added that Western governments (despite agriculture being so small a fraction of the economic activity in their countries) are infinitely more supportive of their farmers and large agribusinesses than the Indian state has ever been of its vulnerable peasantry? Recent WTO negotiations over agricultural subsidies tell their own story.
Capitalism without the safety net of the welfare state
In the 1930s the Western world discovered all over again just how crisis-ridden an economic system capitalism is. In many of the most affluent societies, over a quarter of the workforce failed to find work for years. Misery and starvation were common. Revolution was in the air.
Meanwhile Soviet communism was flourishing (the fastest rates of growth ever recorded in history by any country). It was providing employment for all people of working age. The nascent radical and fascist movements in the West, as well as the political challenge from actually existing communism was significant enough for Western societies to introduce serious reform into their economies. That was the origin of the modern welfare state, brought in to attenuate the problems intrinsic to capitalism, in particular, unemployment.
It is, of course, another story how, since the Thatcher - Reagan years, the welfare state has been steadily dismantled in much of the West, the trend being greatly exacerbated by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, with which the motivation to outperform communism on social indicators also collapsed.
Till communism (howsoever bureaucratic and inimical to human dignity) was alive, it kept capitalism on its toes, since it was successful in providing a measure of egalitarian living standards for the populations living in such countries. Capitalism had to face the challenge of economic rights and equality arising from the ideological foe. It had to evolve and accommodate welfare systems in order to keep at bay the communist threat to its social and political legitimacy. Since 1991, this threat has faded away and the results are on offer across the length and breadth of the world. Unchallenged capitalism now thinks nothing of privatizing all possible public resources and production set-ups in the name of "efficiency."
Everything from railroad systems and metros to water, health and education services are fair game for private acquisition. Not surprisingly, 40 million Americans today live without health insurance. Less than 20% of the labour force of the US has been permitted to unionize. While European trends still carry residues of social democracy and responsibility, the bug of privatization has hit them too. There have been successful moves to privatize public transport as well as health and education in a number of countries in Northern Europe. There is now great pressure in that direction, and if the populace does not resist such initiatives forcefully, it is possible that these countries will go the way of the US and the UK. Britain since Thatcher has already shown the way.
By the time that India embraced capitalism in 1991, significantly, communism as a viable alternative had already exited the world stage with even China, since 1979, having accepted capitalism as the pre-eminent way of economic life.
The facts enumerated above, taken together with our feudal practices and general paucity of public resources (for all purposes other than defence), mean that there is absolutely no chance of India ever instituting any welfare measures for workers or disenfranchised peasantry. And given the infinitely long queues at the employment exchanges around the country, their future canít but be dark in the context of the extraordinary dispensations under which we live today. They belong to Bharat, the spurned three-quarters of the Indian population.
What a golden moment our ruling elites chose to embrace capitalism!
PART IX: So where are we today?
With the rise of Sangh Parivar politics and the pre-eminence it assigns to the idea of (Savarna) Hindu Rashtra has arisen the grand belief, practically universal by now among the educated elites of the country, that Indiaís national greatness is, by any means, necessary. It is the ultimate goal to strive for. If hundreds of millions of "Indians" have to pay the price for this greatness, they tend to think, along lines not too dissimilar to Madeleine Albright's statement about the half-million dead children of Iraq (quoted earlier in this essay), this price will be "worth it."
Privileged Indians have for a few decades now been wondering about the gap they feel between the enormous power they feel they are able to exercise in their own land, thanks to feudal inertia of this society, compared to their plain ordinariness in any Western country, where there is no one to open their car doors for them. Thus has been heard till very recently the observation that in the US or in the UK Indians are treated as "second-class citizens." No matter that precisely 3% of the country has the luxury to entertain such feelings. We never pause to consider how many in our country we reduce to feeling thus in their own land! The entire phenomenon of middle-class consumer nationalism today is an offshoot of this disparity in feeling: India under the Sangh Parivar must hold its head high among nations, much like Germany did under the Nazis. Proof will arrive with a seat in the Security Council, when the Indian state will get a first-time opportunity to ally its cowardice with that of the present club. It will also arrive with a more uninhibited space under Washingtonís imperial umbrella, because the way India is going, it is a mere matter of time before we become yet another outpost of empire, yet again, for the second time in a century.
So what do we have today? We still have the old canopy of a feudal society lined with consumer-capitalist realities (for a few) but with a deceptively disproportionate amount of capitalist rhetoric (for the many). The Indian Constitution stands openly betrayed. Any talk of social, let alone socialist democracy, is conspicuous by its absence. We now live with all the customary cruelties of capitalism, in addition to our own undying feudal varieties. There is ultimate bankruptcy of any vision which can be regarded as in any sense moral. Raw power seeks "democratic" legitimacy in today's India. The upcoming election is not an exception to this.
Few national elites in the world today are as deluded as ours. Few can be characterized, with little loss of linguistic precision, with a name which would sound distinctly oxymoronic in a Western context: "feudal bourgeoisie." Few have the peculiar privileges which allow them to get away with blind vision and remarkable, routine irresponsibility. An over-arching, shared political and economic outlook ñ which would respect the basic needs, including the primal human need for respect - of the vast majority of our population instead of treating their rightful resources and dignity as fair kleptocratic game for the elites ñ is conspicuous by its absence in contemporary India.
The glory of the anti-colonial freedom struggle faded soon enough. So did the colours on the nationalist banner, as Rabindranath Tagore had accurately prophesied, and had warned Gandhi, who was more confidently nationalistic, about. Since the 1970s (at least) everyone seems quite reconciled to living with a customary cynicism. Anything else ñ especially an urgent, impatient idealism rooted in the legitimate dreams of ordinary people ñ is ridiculed today. Be it noted here that ordinary non-English-speaking Desis (Indians) do have dreams! Not only do they have dreams, they work harder than the rest. We couldn't live without their grinding, daily labour (While their belief may be valid for Sarkari Naukars - government office workers - would the middle class like to extend their accusation that this is not a hard-working country to domestic servants, in-the-heat, stone-breaking dehari women workers, and farmers tempted by suicide as well?).
The ordinary, nameless people of this country have vision and creative gifts. Our cultural elite in fact, ever so often showcases precisely these talents at international events like "Festival of India" or at ethnic shopping marts like Dilli Haat and Janpath. This is because foreigners typically show a far keener appreciation for the astonishingly unique handicrafts of this country than our own ruling elites, obsessed as they are with the latest fashionable brands, mass-produced and consumed in the West. Yet, ironically, it is precisely these West-oriented elites who, despite their lack of pride in what this country uniquely has to offer, spout the pseudo-nationalist rubbish of their leaders. It is their cultural insecurity which is the greatest.
The blind and vulgar imitation of the West by the elites of this country has only worsened with time. Since the 1990s, the middle classes too have found the opportunity to be a bit "like them." TV and the internet revolution have only given greater fillip to our illusions of power and national greatness.
Now it becomes clear what 1947 achieved. At the peak of their power, around 1900, the British had 150,000 people (including women and children) on Indian soil. Evidently, using divide-and-rule tactics, they made us rule ourselves, for them, the 560 kings and princes helping in the process. It was government of the Indian people, by the Indian people, for the British Empire.
Is it basically different today? Today we have government of the Indian people, by the Indian elite, for the corporate global and national elites. As much of Indian resources, labour and markets are on auction to global capital today, through the aegis of our pseudo-nationalistic politicians, a new "brown" (often, comprador) capitalism is under way and there is no telling what horrors ñ beyond the annual floods and famines ñ are in store for the people of this God-forsaken land. When you hear of young men and women at GE and AT&T Call Centers in Gurgaon being schooled in American accents to take queries from American customers (effectively serving as the clerks of the rampaging American empire), when you hear Hindi being spoken in some ear-splitting foreign accent on FM radio, when you see this countryís so-called educated elite obsessed with catwalks and beauty contests (thanks to global cosmetics manufacturers, Indian women became suddenly more beautiful in the 1990s, though our worship of whiteness goes on unabated: you only have to see the images in the local supplement which arrives with each daily newspaper!), when you hear and see all this vulgarity, you wonder how much men like Azad, Gandhi and Tagore must be squirming in their graves. What a mess we have made of this great civilization while insulting their dreams for us and instead redeeming Winston Churchill's prophecy for India: he said that there was very little chance that Indians would be able to govern themselves.
It is a chilling irony of history that the economic, political and especially cultural shadows of colonialism are longest, long after the sun of colonialism has set on India. And we have hardly begun to wake up from Biradiri feudalism! Does it need to be added that there is something strange and curious about a country anxious to get recognition as a modern nation without giving up its caste feudalism?
After visiting India in 1937, the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung wrote an essay entitled "The Dream-like World of India", commenting on Indiaís strange romance with mythology, with Gods and Goddesses. Given how far our fascist fantasist leaders have taken us from realities looming just beyond our window-sills and air-conditioned car windows, nauseating and insulting our intelligence with all the vulgar drivel of Ayodhya and the monstrous mythologies purveyed in the wake of Gujarat, who would seriously dispute that this is still the pre-eminent land of illusion, where only virtual realities monstrous fantasies are allowed to prevail as educated men and women allow themselves to be stupidized before Big Brother's Idiot Box?
PART X: Hindustan, ab kidhar?: Where does hope hide?
"Ummeed pe duniya kaayam hai."("The world subsists on hope.") (Ghalib)
Where are Gandhi's ashes today? Or Ambedkar's? Or Tagore's? Or Vivekananda's? Are all their visions consigned to the holy fire of Savarna Hindutva and have the winds of globalization blown them away to far and distant lands, where they inhabit dusty library shelves? Shall we simply forget about them? But how about those who they had shown their concern for and in whose name they had spoken? The countless hundreds of millions in villages, towns and cities across the length and breadth of the country? Should we forget about them too? Can we? Doesnít history still haunt us? Will it not continue to haunt our future so long as we let the assassins of Gandhi be our proud leaders? Will the masses not show their power in the form of marauding mobs as and when our cowardly leaders call upon their mercenary services for their private political ends in urban riots, Gujarat being only the latest case in point?
The educated elite of this country needs to wake up to the fact that corrupted mass-politics has the deadly power to turn anyone against anyone, so long as it suits the ones who benefit politically from such divisions. Communalism thrives on indoctrinated misunderstandings between people. Yeh Hindutva-vale saare mulk ko galat fehmiyon ka shikaar bana denge. (These Hindutva folks will make the entire country a victim of misunderstandings.) Wealth is no insurance of a peaceful life in such circumstances. When the mob comes to loot and burn your house, you must know that there will be no one picking up the phone at the local police station. Because the government of the day will be behind it. I write here from eye-witness experience during the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots.
No, the assassins of Gandhi cannot be allowed to have a field day.
So where does hope lie? 1989 se Hindustan mein samudra-manthan chal raha hai, kaheen na kaheen se toh amrit zaroor niklega! (Since 1989, a churning of the oceans has been going on in India. Nectar is bound to emerge from somewhere!)
Since the 1989 elections, which brought the issue of caste to the surface of mainstream politics, there has been significantly greater political restlessness all around. A 3500-year-old oppression, lying deep within the veins of Indian civilization, is now discussed openly in public debates. This has accelerated especially after the liberalization of the economy in 1991, which has brought a measure of prosperity to hitherto backward castes. In some parts of the country, like Tamil Nadu, the Dalit movement is quite strong.
Unlike communalism, which has no real merit and plenty of venom, the issue of caste is charged with creative tensions. While it can degenerate into bloody feuds in states like Bihar and UP, it also involves real questions of unequal access to land and resources and long-standing matters of (often violent) social discrimination. These are real issues of concern to ordinary people, unlike trumped up ones, like the construction of the Ram Mandir (Ram Temple).
More than anything else, caste is an existential condition of life for hundreds of millions of Indians. It holds the mind in its prison. Referring to the ìevilsî of the caste system, Tagore had written in 1909: "The regeneration of the Indian people, to my mind, directly and perhaps solely, depends upon the removal of this condition." And while considering possible ways out of the caste predicament, he wrote:
"Whenever I realize the hypnotic hold which this gigantic system of cold-blooded repression has taken on the minds of our people whose social body it has so completely entwined in its endless coils that the free expression of manhood even under the direst necessity has become almost an impossibility, the only remedy that suggests itself to me and which, even at the risk of uttering a truism I cannot but repeat, is ñ to educate them out of their trance."
By education, Tagore did not mean inculcating children and young people with the values of "Hindu" religion, of conducting Saraswati pujas (prayers for the goddess Saraswati) in schools and teaching students mythologies in the name of history, as Joshi's education ministry has been trying to do. In fact, writing about his school Shantiniketan, Tagore wrote that above all the attempt was to give "children an opportunity to find their freedom in nature by being able to love it. For love is freedom. It saves us from praying with our soul for objects which are all too cheap." Such ideas need to be dug out from our heritage if the poisonous propaganda in the name of education being spread by the Sangh-Parivar is to be challenged effectively.
PART XI: Approaching the moment of truth? Globalize dissent!
"Öit is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity." (Rabindranath Tagore)
Every culture some day meets its moment of truth. Jaldi hi, kayaamat ka waqt yahaan bhi aayega. (This place too shall have to face the day of judgment, in the not so distant future.) It does not take the gifts of a prophet to predict what is looming ahead: certain social catastrophe, unless someone has chosen to convince himself that robber-baron capitalism can be reformed into a kind and gentle system. A man who sees his face shining (India shining?) back at him from the glass doors of one of the many new glitzy shopping malls that have come up outside New Delhi in Gurgaon can't possibly recognize himself as an Indian. Certainly not, so long as women the age of his grandmother are breaking stones on the footpath outside.
For all the many reasons enumerated in this essay (and perhaps for many others which only an unpredictable culture like India's can throw up, and which this writer cannot see), this make-believe cardboard capitalism too is bound to get crushed into the earth of Bharatmata (Mother India) one day. Only two questions are truly worth asking. How will this come about? And what next? In this election year, these questions assume even greater urgency. It is in the hope of stimulating the moral imagination of readers and of inducing public discussion and political action on these two issues that this essay has been written. Anyone with any love left for this land is obligated to participate.
Are we living in the twilight of democracy and the dawn of global fascism where, along the lines of George Orwell's story in 1984, a technologically merciless world will be run by a thoroughly militarized, corporatized Superstate centered in Washington, networked tightly with its client-satellite states across the world, the latter being sworn to keeping well-oiled the wheels and supply-lines of the American empire, as they pick up the crumbs from the imperial high-table? Or are we on the threshold of a long-awaited historical breakthrough which, with the collective political initiative of hundreds of millions of underprivileged people across the world, puts a final end to the routine injustices of capitalism and unfolds for humanity the as yet thinly perceived possibilities of authentic human freedom? Is the sort of world that the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant foresaw in his tract "Perpetual Peace" a few centuries ago just around the corner from where we stand today?
No harm in dreaming big. The answers to these questions depend in large measure on whether we heed the loud and clear writing on the walls of the global village (turn our eyes to Iraq and Afghanistan) and act collectively to pre-empt the entrenchment of global imperial fascism. The answers will depend on whether we are able to sustain a global struggle for peace, justice and freedom long enough to not just resist the fascist onslaught, but to reverse it. Nothing less could be considered a victory for humanity.
Looking at it from the vantage point of social and political change in India, one has to first acknowledge and accept that India is now hard-wired to the global village (it never was isolated in the first place, regardless of what our narrow-minded nationalists, obsessed with their pseudo-lessons in Hindu purity, may believe and preach). Resistance movements which fail to take this into account are doomed, given the globalization of military and political, technological and economic dynamics today (not to speak of the earth-wide environmental nexus).
One has to get past the parochialism of all nationalist politics, not just of the right-wing variety. One has to draw inspiration and strength only from the eternal values cherished by humanity the world over: liberty, dignity and human brotherhood. These are precisely the unrealized promises of the French and American revolutions. The story is told that after the Chinese revolution in 1949, Ex-Chairman Mao-Tse Tung was asked by a Western reporter to comment on what he thought had been the consequences of the French revolution of 1789. His reply was that it was still too early to say! History is not over yet. We are living in the midst of it and have a responsibility to ourselves and to our grandchildren to shape it consciously, instead of surrendering to familiar habits of fear and power and precipitating collective disaster.
With each imperial onslaught on the world the West betrays further the dreams of its forefathers, the humanistic ideals and values of the 18th century European enlightenment. It appears, at least on its own, to be incapable of realizing the promises made at the dawn of modernity. Today, under the flag of what it calls democracy and "free" markets, it spawns, sponsors and underwrites global corporate and consumer greed, sustaining a remarkably unjust world. And with the assistance of a dystopically powerful and precise technology it threatens to put an end to human (perhaps all organic) life on the planet. There is, of course, a close clutch between these two hands of Western domination, as they tighten their grip around the planet. The free market is anything but free. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman understands all this: "without America on duty, there will be no America on-line." "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell DouglasÖAnd the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valleyís technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps." There isnít a drop of shame in this admission. Nor any realization of the remorseless cultural decline in which the mighty West finds itself today.
Albert Einstein had pointed out that "the problem with our time" is that "our technology is so far ahead of our humanity." And writing with the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1955, after the first Hydrogen bomb tests (which were conducted by the US on Marshall Islands in the South Pacific exactly 50 years ago, this coming March), he had emphasized that if man does not abolish war, then soon enough war was going to abolish man. Taking into account Thomas Friedmanís caveat quoted above, one may add: either human beings must abolish capitalism, or capitalism will abolish human beings.
Nothing less than a global perspective is called for to mount a credible challenge to the monster of corporate globalization. As Arundhati Roy has recently argued, the choice is an increasingly stark one with each passing day. It is between the "Project for a New American Century" (which effectively means more of the American century which has recently elapsed, in other words, more, and more raw, violence) and what may be described, with as many spoonfuls of humility as of audacity, as the project for global survival and freedom. Nothing more, and no less either.
PART XII: Let's get ambitious: The South Asian Sub-Continent as role-model for the world
It is time to think big. For the past half-century and more countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have imitated slavishly, the West in a thousand ways. Given the moral crevasse into which the West has fallen today, it is incapable of rediscovering its humanity without help. Trapped as the Western world is in the myriad illusions of consumer civilization, it needs the catalyzing, humanizing influence of those who know today's global realities better. I refer to the disenfranchised, oppressed billions who live in the poor countries of the world. The countries of the Sub-continent have a special place in this scheme of things.
The South Asian Sub-Continent is a region important for the future of the world. Economically, culturally and politically, it has a historic opportunity ñ one could even say duty ñ to put before the world an example of a viable, working federation, a decentralized, participatory democracy involving a quarter of the planet's peoples, something entirely new in the history of politics, which would honour the nuances of Naga tribal life as much as the aspirations of Kashmiris for self-determination, without sacrificing the sense of shared destiny which the Sub-continent has had for millenia. Unity has to be ensured while respecting, even celebrating diversity, not by ignoring it or trampling all over it, as the Hindutva brigade or the Jehadis are making a habit of these days. The alternative to facing this challenge with courage and optimism is to settle for more partitions of the Sub-continent. In other words, more 1947s. And much more bloodshed.
In particular, India as we have known it will not survive the fascist onslaught if it is allowed to proceed without challenge. If India has a future at all, it is at once a federal and decentralized one, which it shares peacefully with its neighbors, where the color saffron, should it be present, is only one of a thousand shades visible.
I put my faith in the Hindustan in which the farmer whose fertile land has been robbed from him by the cruel bug of modernization ñ which has decreed that a highway shall stand where his wheat once grew ñ that this man now rides his bicycle in a direction opposite to the high-speed flow of Hondas and Astras. Such a man is a natural anarchist and has nothing to do with the idea of Hindu Rashtra.
I put my faith too in the India of those poor children on the streets of Mumbai and New Delhi who zestfully and spiritedly live out their days in the hostile galis (lanes) and city streets of the city, selling magazines, children''s toys, car-dusters and window-screens, staying shy of the batons and greedy pockets of Dilli ke thulle or Mumbai ke mamoo (cops) while drawing our attention to their wares. Theirs is a daily battle and their spirited integrity in the midst of mountains of misery puts to shame our own feeble ways of living. The light that shines out of their eyes is not about to go out soon.
I put my faith finally in those valiant mothers of crying children who never seem to tire of carrying bricks and mortar at construction sites all day in the sun, every day of their lives, while helmetted contractors issue commands from the shade, and we glide past in our Marutis, our dignity seemingly intact. They still await the day that India would be truly free, when the daily blood, sweat and tears which they shed begin to get noticed by those who seem incapable of shedding them.
Asli kranti ka Wakht aa raha hai. (The time for the true revolution is coming.) In India, the time has perhaps come to launch the second freedom struggle, the long-awaited one. The last one led to the relatively non-violent exit of British rulers from India. Can one hope that this one leads to an equally non-violent defeat of the present comprador rulers who stand for the defence of primitive, out-of-place caste privileges in addition to becoming the latest sentries of Western imperialism? While the British ruled India for less than two centuries, caste privileges have been around for several millenia. And the chronic cowardice which has once again endeared us to the imperialists has been around for a while too. At least a thousand Gandhis ñ women, men, and especially children - are needed if the change is to be effected successfully. We will need more than the valiant taunts of a Laloo Yadav threatening the Sangh-parivar from Bihar: "Kaun mai ka lal kehta hai ki yeh Hindu Rashtra hai?Usko yahan bhej do, chhati phaad doonga!" ("Which motherís son claims that this is a Hindu nation? Send him to me and I will tear his chest open!")
One meaning of that corrupted word "revolution" is to come full circle. This civilization has to recover its spiritual integrity and its cultural diversity, if it is not to succumb to the collective madness with which it is threatened and engulfed today. It has to draw on a million strands from its past. If we are to look forward to any sort of a peaceful future for the Sub-continent, let us invoke the confidence of a diverse civilization instead of the insecurity of homogenized, embattled nation-states. While the latter will trap us in our collective cowardice and national self-deceits, and condemn us to permanent violence, the former can elevate us to spiritual heights we may not even have dreamt of hitherto.
The work has to start with each individual, with people like you and me. The poet Nazir Banarasi has written:
"Koi la sako toh laao mera who haseen zamana,
jise maine kuchh na samjha, jise maine kuchh na jaana.
Mujhe Gham nahin hai iska ki badal gaya zamana,
Mere zindagi ke maalik kahin tum badal na jana."
("Let someone who can bring back my beloved age do so,
the one I did not understand, the one I did not know.
My sadness is not for the fact that the age has changed,
the master of my life, you must not change.")
Mahatma Gandhi once said, "We must become the change we wish to bring about in the world." In dark times, one may qualify this to say, as many religious leaders of the past have said, "we do certain, 'insignificant' things not to change the world, but so that the world will not change us." There is more human wisdom than cynicism in these sayings.
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