An Ode to India
Posted on 1-September-2010
Every August on the 15th day, the anniversary of Britain's transfer of power to the Dominion of India, also known as Independence Day in India, I don my cap of patriotism and sit in front of the television at seven in the morning to hear the Prime Minister speak from an increasingly elaborate platform on top of the false red sandstone rampart erected by the British, blocking the view of the Lahore Gate of Shahjahan's red fort in Delhi. Not having been patriotic enough in the days when I received an official invitation to the morning function of 15th August at the fort to go there and listen to the Prime Minister live, I now make up for the lapse by doing my patriotic duty regularly and conscientiously. Each year I prepare to listen to the Prime Minister in the hope that he will have something inspiring to say and each year the Prime Minister does no more than read from behind a transparent bulletproof plastic or glass cage from a prepared speech which sounds like a rewrite of the President's speech at the opening of parliament in February. The present Prime Minister, who has more university degrees than any other of his predecessors, does not even make an attempt at rhetorical flourishes.
Common citizens like me sometimes wish that he put into these speeches even half the passion he has shown whenever he has spoken to defend the Indo-US Civil nuclear agreement, seemingly one of the few projects he is genuinely committed to. Perhaps he is too cerebral to attach much value to mere rituals like a public celebration complete with a military guard of honour and a public speech. In any case whenever the television camera rather cruelly turns towards the audience as the speech goes on it shows bored faces of hapless diplomats, ministerial colleagues of the Prime Minister, other politicians of different descriptions and other state functionaries for whom it is a must to be present there for fear of their absence being misconstrued. Other than these there are very few common men and women for whose movements in pursuit of their daily lives the area around the red fort shuts down about a fortnight before the event. Every year as the Prime Minister reads his speech my mind starts wandering off in different directions and produces evil thoughts. One of these is to wonder whether the present Prime Minister should not use his considerable intellectual capacity to think radically and abolish this ceremony altogether. He could speak to the people of India on television in the morning. He would have the additional advantage of a teleprompter helping him look directly into the camera and give his audience the feeling that he is speaking to them. Any money that would be saved from this iconoclastic act could go to the city which seems so cash-strapped as not to be able to maintain its roads, drainage and transport system. Besides the administration will earn no divine curses from those citizens whose lives are thrown into disorder for a whole month leading up to Independence Day by different agencies preparing for the event.
As I performed my patriotic duty this year I prayed that my heart, like so many other hearts of innocent, avid consumers of the products of mass media, welled up with national pride at the promise of near 9% economic growth during the current fiscal, at the approach of an official visit to India of the the Big White Chief (it does not matter that the current one happens to be of chocolaty complexion), at the fact that India is finally in a position to break nuclear apartheid and be set on the road to an energy Valhalla, at the fact that India has completed the legislative process for the revival of the glories of the ancient Buddhist monastic institution of Nalanda in the guise of a modern international university, at the fact that India has taken the friendly step of giving neighbouring Pakistan financial aid worth five million American dollars (an additional quantum of twenty million dollars has since been announced), at the foreign conquests of large Indian business corporations (the Empire is hitting back in some cases as the tired expression goes), at the fact that an Indian heads the international body governing the organisation of international fixtures (I did not originally intend a pun as I wrote this word) of a game that used to be played leisurely by English gentlemen during the English summer, at the fact that India's capital is at last beginning to have one decent mass transit facility or at sundry other achievements of shining India. There was no reason why the divine powers above should answer the prayers of a godless man like me. The only news that has cheered me up a little, coming a good fortnight after Independence Day, is that India's space agency has finalised the payload to be carried by a lunar orbiter on its second moon mission.
Like all other years, this year also, India celebrated its Independence Day against the backdrop of news about people dying or in distress due to the twin blights of drought and floods. But in this land of suffering and human misery where every year people die of droughts and floods and of cold waves and heat waves and where a long time ago Sakyamuni concluded that dukkha was part of the human condition, news of death due to floods and droughts no longer causes more than a frisson in the hearts of those who are protected from these. Almost daily stories of corruption in high and low places have become so routine that many people take no more notice of them than they do of the weather report. Therefore the best is to concentrate on large issues of great national import.
When Independence Day was celebrated this year, people in the valley of Kashmir had been in a state of revolt for two months and there is no sign that the valley is calming down. Neither strong armed methods, nor yet another all party talks, nor a fresh package of economic assistance, nor an offer of autonomy made by the Indian prime minister seem to be working. It is more than probable that the governments of Jammu and Kashmir and of India will eventually succeed in bringing order and calm to the valley. India has been trying to deal with an insurgency (call it a revolt, rebellion or uprising if you prefer) in the valley since 1989. The Indian security forces have used strong measures and periodically claimed that the Pakistan supported terrorists have been vanquished. Different aid and political packages have been offered and public and private talks and negotiations with all sections of people have been held. Veiled threats have been made to Pakistan so that it might stop its support to the insurgency. High, low and so-called back channel talks with Pakistan have been held. Periodic appeals have been made to the USA to use its influence with Pakistan to ask it to stop supporting cross-border terrorism. Yet in spite of of it all this and in spite of the advice of the legion of India's experts on Kashmir, in spite of the exertions of diverse well intentioned, albeit occasionally too-full-of-themselves, groups of individuals, discontent in the valley remains at a high level, erupting from time to time. There have been only occasional lulls in the cycle of violence since 1989. It is not sure how much of credibility Kashmir's politicians still have with the people. Government of India is not able to do more than offer fresh packages of economic development, state its readiness to talk to the people within the framework of the Indian constitution, repeat its assertion that Kashmir is an integral part of India and blame Pakistan for creating trouble. It does not know a way out of the labyrinth of Kashmir.
At a time when India celebrates yet another Independence Day, the sans culottes (or the proletariat in modern parlance or the subaltern in postmodernspeak) from the countryside and the forests in large swathes of eastern, central and peninsular India have been engaged in armed struggles against government agencies. They have different grievances--if there was an Etat General in India as in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the French Revolution, they would have turned up in Delhi with their cahiers in large numbers--ranging from denial of legal minimum wages to denial of their rights as tillers of the land, to alienation from their land without adequate compensation, without reasonable arrangements for relocation and without any assurance about alternative sources of livelihood due to developmental activities, to police atrocities, to a feeling that the administration is indifferent to their lot. Give up violence and we shall talk to you about ways of removing your grievances says India's Home Minister to them. These are miscreants and lawless people and therefore they should be crushed by force, advise some. At times governments of the states and of India seem to believe that these are simple people led astray by outsiders who swear by Marx or Mao Zedong and encouraged by intellectuals and activists concerned with social justice. The problem will get taken care of if the outside ideologues and activists can be silenced, they seem to think. Some ideologues have consequently been imprisoned, others pursued by the police and court cases have been instituted against some activists. Others believe that the best is to divide the insurgency by arming and using rural thugs from the same areas for fighting the insurgents (this has been tried in central India without any success). Others including, lately, a youngish politician widely tipped to be the next prime minister of India, talk of the need to remove the genuine grievances of these people. Then there is the eternal talk of winning the hearts and minds of the insurgents. Not a long time ago people in India's ever expanding security apparatus voiced fears of a red corridor between Nepal and Andhra Pradesh. And the Indian prime minister has described Maoist (it used to be called naxalite) insurgency as the greatest threat to India's security. This cacophony of noises has not produced any clear plan about what to do about this revolt of the rural poor and of the tribal populations. It is not surprising that the administration has done nothing to deal with the problem other than occasionally use brutal force. Nor does it seem to know what to do. But the insurgency spreads.
When in June this year a court handed down surprisingly light sentences against those accused of negligence that caused leakage of poisonous gas in early December 1984 from a Union Carbide pesticides factory in Bhopal which resulted in the death of, mostly poor, 15000 people and long term health damage to about half a million, there was an outcry. Government of India, on the defensive ever since has sought shelter under three covers: enhanced monetary compensation and medical facilities for those affected, a pro forma attempt, which the government must know will not succeed, at seeking the extradition to India of Warren Anderson, the American chairman of Union Carbide Corporation at the time of of the disaster and court action for a retrial of the Indian accused on a charge that will mean heavier sentences. The anger caused by the light sentences had hardly subsided when another scandal involving criminal behaviour by a business corporation seemed at the point of breaking out. A mining company largely owned by an Indian and incorporated in London had for the past few years been clearing up large areas under forests in Orissa for mining bauxite and for a factory to refine it into alumina in collaboration with the state government, overriding protests by local tribal communities affected by the operation and by different groups that argued that the operation was in violation of India's laws about forests, about the rights of forest dwellers and about the environment. When these protests seemed about to come to their fruition, India's ministry of environment and forests in early August this year denied permission to the London company to set up these facilities as they were in violation of India's laws. Likewise the state government of Karnataka, after ignoring for months accusations that a certain group had been engaged in illegal mining in the state has now announced a ban on the export of iron ore. These belated actions by different governments in India cannot hide years of governmental connivance in if not also collusion with private businesses involved in illegal and at times criminal activities in the country.
The People's Republic of China with which India's relations have been fraught for a very long time and towards which some people in India look kindly while others look with deep suspicion hardly ever ceases to cause worries to India's foreign policy establishment. Some time ago it caused eyebrows to be raised in Delhi by its decision to issue visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir not on their passports but on separate sheets of paper. This obviously meant that China did not accept India's legal claim to the territory. This issue had hardly died down when in August, around the time of Independence Day, it communicated its refusal of visa to an Indian army commander in charge of the area which includes Jammu and Kashmir--the army commander was to visit China as part of an official programme of exchanges between the armed forces personnel of the two countries. The Indian government, clearly caught between the desire to appease public reaction in India and to keep this latest controversy from escalating, made a formal diplomatic protest (this is usually the weakest diplomatic move), refused visas to three People's Liberation Army officers due to visit India under the same programme of exchanges but also took care to say that India was not cancelling the programme of exchanges (a cancellation of the programme would have been a strong diplomatic action). A few days later there appeared a newspaper article by Selig Harrison, an old India hand in the world of Washington think tanks, in which he described how the People's Liberation Army had been establishing a permanent presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan area with between eleven and thirteen thousand troops, how it had been building all-weather highways and possibly pipelines to connect with the Chinese constructed port and naval facilities at Gwadar in Pakistan and how it is busy constructing tunnels in the high mountains some of which could house ballistic missiles. Indian intelligence agencies either did not know or had kept this information deeply under wraps. In his intervention in parliament a former Indian External Affairs and Defence Minister and now a member of the opposition quoted verbatim large chunks of Selig Harrison's article and no other source for this or similar information while expressing his concern. That Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to the whole of which India maintains a legal claim is a relatively small problem. But a large Chinese military presence in the area cannot but cause worries for those dealing with India's defence. India's ministry of external affairs has said that it is ascertaining the facts reported by Selig Harrison. It could not possibly say anything else at this moment. It is difficult for anyone outside government to know under what compulsions Government of India manages its relations with the People's Republic of China but to the people of India at large Government of India definitely gives the impression that it--or the crowd of Delhi's China experts-- does not know how to deal with that country and that this is another case of failure of policy, or worse, its absence.
India's rulers had hoped that they would offer a palliative to the people in the form of a glitzy show in Delhi in the first half of October this year under the name of Commonwealth Games. The event which will bring together sportspersons and athletes from countries which are members of the (formerly British) Commonwealth of Nations has been billed as the largest sports gathering organised by India. It was suggested that the event will be an occasion for India to showcase to the world not only its organisational prowess but also its ability to build sports and other facilities of the highest order of excellence and that it will bring long term benefits to the country in the form of new infrastructure and increased tourism. The head of the government of the territory of Delhi promised that by the time of the Games, Delhi would become a world class city (whatever she meant by that expression she obviously had not travelled much in the territory she rules with her eyes open and ready to see more than that which she wanted to see). All seemed to be going well for this show until the middle of the last year when officials from the Commonwealth Games Federation first talked of the lack of preparedness of Delhi. Since then there have been constant and regular warnings about delayed and shoddy construction, escalation in costs and large scale, organised thievery of public money. In summer this year, in the weeks preceding Independence Day there started a crescendo of reports of serious financial wrongdoing by officials of the Organising Committee of the Games. Some of these reports came from two of India's own watchdog agencies. Some officials of the Organising Committee, including its treasurer have been sacked. And finally around Independence Day a somnolent Government of India had at least to show that it was stepping in. A Group of Ministers was appointed to oversee the preparation for the Games whose success has now been declared to be a matter of national importance. It is also being said that the watchdog agencies investigating corruption have been quietly requested to go slow with their investigations till the Games are over so that they can be brought to a successful conclusion. Another committee of secretaries (civil service heads of ministries) has been appointed to do more or less the same job as the Group of Ministers and a large number of lower level civil servants have been appointed to either assist the Organising Committee or to carry out its functions (it is not clear which). But the government has balked at suppressing or superseding the Organising Committee or asking its chairman to step aside. Reports of delays and masses of rubble lying round the venues connected with the Games continue. There is no doubt that the Games will eventually begin and end in time. Such glitches or mishaps as may occur in the course of the event will be quietly swept under the carpet and the event will be declared a grand success by acclamation. Some people will advance their bureaucratic or political careers. Others will have grown richer. Those guilty of big corruption may or may not get punished, but most probably they will not. What lasting benefits the event will bring to future generations of India's sportspersons and athletes will be known only later. That all the recent adverse publicity about the Organising Committee has already done great damage to India's image and reputation is of no consequence to India's rulers. That such shows soon get forgotten about by the people--they never if ever pass into folk memory--bothers neither the organisers nor their patrons in government.
It is strange that none of these gloomy thoughts about the present state of things in India sends me into a pit of despondency. That is perhaps because somewhere in my consciousness is the knowledge that through changing rulers, combinations of rulers and changing frontiers, India as a civilisational and geographical entity has been there for a very long time. Its people--peasants, artisans, workers, traders, priests and teachers--have made the country. They have persisted in their labours and created its wealth. They have persisted and survived all those kings and local chieftains who have taken away their surpluses. The people of India have lived through about two hundred years of exploitative colonial rule and six decades of rule by a rapacious national bourgeoisie (I find it difficult to dignify them with the word elite). All this gives reason for a belief that the people of India will also live through its present set of intellectually effete, greedy, self-seeking, corrupt rulers. It is a pity that this old long-suffering nation has been so ill served by a rotten ruling class. My hope is that some day the people of this country will wake up and give themselves better rulers than they have had in the sixty years since independence, for they deserve far better.