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Smoke Signals from the Edge
UNCOMMON WEALTH GAMES
Subversion of democracy and the Constitution is pushing India to the brink of anarchy The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, vigilance not simply against external aggression but against internal disintegration. But many a nation is suffering
2 from the same set of life-threatening diseases; India is just one such country. What has gone wrong? Warning smoke signals are rising right now all over India. They are indicators of an overall decline in moral standards, violence in all spheres of life, general meltdown in ethical standards, rampant materialism at the cost of scruples, abandoning all sense of decency, justice and fair play, blatant selfishness, general disrespect for elders and women, contempt for law, administrative impotence to confront forces of disorder, cynicism and self-service in public life. The indiscriminate infusion of western value systems has given rise to a youth culture of hedonistic materialism and unbridled consumerism, organized crime, violence and religious intolerance. While we can see all these at work in India today, the single most important factor, prima facie, for the decline of our society is the failure to implement the provisions of the Constitution (as well as those of The Directive Principles of State Policy) in both letter and spirit, especially in the spheres of individual freedom and communal harmony. Once the demon of demagoguery has unleashed the forces of unbridled communal violence, corruption, nepotism and casteism, it is very hard to rein them in. The tragic events in Gujarat are a case in point. What has brought things to such a sorry pass? Looking back at the whole sorry mess, it’s possible that we may be able to identify the factors that have precipitated this madness if one were to intellectually distance oneself from events and examine them from a historical perspective. That’s resorting to hindsight, true...but isn’t hindsight supposed to make us alive to the possibility of exercising a little foresight in the future? Oughtn’t we to have learnt something about the art of governance after fifty-four years of independence? Chanakya would have torn his hair out at the roots in vexation. Even Machiavelli—much reviled yet much revered—would have winced. Let’s do a quick recap of what has transpired south of the Indus over the last ten millennia. The history of the sub-continent has been a turbulent one for about a thousand years, especially since the first Arab invasions of Sind. It was a time— not uncommon in human history—when one civilization clashed with and finally succeeded in subjugating the other one. It helped that this was a civilization steeped in religious lore, spiritually inclined, intent on living and letting live, pursuing happiness at the cist of neglecting the common defence. Under the circumstances, conquest by a warlike, materialistic invader that swore by the sword was an evolutionarily inevitable process. By the time the Mughal Empire went into decline after the death of Aurangzeb in the early 18th century, Turkish and Mughal rule in India had traumatized the native non-Muslim population, barring the relief given by a few enlightened and tolerant rulers. Subjugation of a rival culture always involves bloodshed (observed far too often in history to bear elaboration). But economic and cultural warfare can be a far more effective weapon in subjugating another culture. It is of little consolation to recall that the vanquished populace was a hardly a stranger to
3 violent upheavals and internecine strife. Scattered pockets of resistance—the Rajputs and the Mahrattas—had to ultimately sue for peace with the Mughals on highly disadvantageous terms. But 17th century India — if one can at all use what is basically a term that refers to a vast geographical expanse rather than a homogeneous political entity —was relatively better off under Muslim rule. It controlled 25% of the world's trade. Vessels from distant counties of Europe paid in gold and silver for Indian handicrafts, muslin, cotton and jute cloth, and silks. Spices were in great demand on western shores from remote antiquity well into modern times, and not only because European palates were starved for stimulation. In a region where meat was an indispensable part of the diet, it was regrettable that it was not only a costly but a perishable commodity whose shelf life could be extended by judicious admixture with spices. But spices were also valued because the rich condiments served to conceal the repugnant odour characteristic of 'high' meat. This was another way of extending shelf life (besides helping to line the pockets of doctors who specialized in treating stomach ailments). The British brought the country under a truly alien administration. At this turning point in the history of the subcontinent, the two rival communities, united for two centuries under a well-entrenched and all-powerful dynasty, could well have buried the hatchet and joined hands to resist a common foe. Alas, it was not to be. Politicians love disparate constituencies that give them clear hegemony in their exclusive spheres of influence. The process continues: observe the continuing fragmentation of India into smaller and smaller states on specious grounds of autonomy for minority, linguistic or ethnic groups ostensibly for the sake of social justice. What a travesty of the truth! Paradoxically, Gujarat is about the only success story in this list of new states carved out from bigger states, with Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh being prominent examples of the dismal failure to ensure social justice. Hindu – Muslim integration on a political platform still lay in the distant future. Mischievous elements belonging to the once-subdued culture still pretend today that they speak for the bulk of a populace which nurses a grievance against the one that had conquered them before the British arrived on the scene. As any rational observer will appreciate that it would be stretching a point to say that multi-cultural societies do not work (Europe is reuniting, burying centuries-old hatchets for the sake of harmony, cooperation and mutual benefit. France and England have agreed to share aircraft carriers for the sake of economy). Sadly, Hindus and Muslims, who had co-existed more or less peacefully under the Mughals (especially in Akbar's reign), did not see it fit to rise above parochial and religion-based politics and unite against a foe intent on tearing apart the socio-economic fabric of the country.
4 The important lesson to be learnt here is that in the public perception, government should not appear to be the slightest bit interested in supporting any particular community or religion. In other words, it seems that an impartial and truly secular approach to government and administration engenders communal harmony in a state where all are equal before the law. Initially, the British followed this line to the extent compatible with their imperialistic agenda, trying to work within the framework of the existing, and still very powerful, caste system of the Hindus. They found it easy to identify with the compulsions, tensions and motivations inherent within this system, English society itself then being a highly stratified affair. They had sufficient administrative experience to realize that communal tension was a Pandora’s Box. Later, when it suited them (read 'to try and weaken forces of dissent by following a policy of divide and rule') to do so, the British took turns siding with one community or the other, cleverly playing off the rival groups against each other and keeping them so preoccupied with their traditional communal feelings that only they, the British, seemed to offer a solution that suited them both. This was the Great Illusion that the British almost managed to pull off, that of creating an impression that they wished to protect the interests of the Muslim League, while seeing to it that the Indian National Congress was short changed in the process. In the event, they managed to pull the wool over the eyes of both Hindus as well as Muslims, leaving behind a country artfully divided along communal lines—lines that continue to harden as Pakistan, having proved to be a 'failed' state that has long been propped up by its American allies, heads for anarchy. Fortunately, this cannot be said for the body politic of latter-day Free India. But there's little to rejoice about. With the gradual slide in the fortunes of the once-dominant Congress Party and its fracture into splinter groups, smaller parties, jostling for a piece of the lucrative cake came to the fore, often entering into unholy alliances, riveting together coalitions fashioned with the primary objective of dividing the vote to bring down the Congress. Politics in India (and, I daresay, elsewhere as well) has lived up to George Bernard Shaw's opinion of it: "Politics deserves a better name than it has and has a better name than it deserves." Now the game of money and glamour, it is hardly surprising that politics attracts elements that are hardly shining examples of rectitude and other-worldliness. The new breed of Indian politician is a pragmatic businessman who invests in the polls like any canny stock market player or investor, with a view to reaping a rich harvest later. Such investment (in electioneering) can run into tens of millions of rupees even for a single legislative assembly seat. Surely it makes good business sense to capitalize on any opportunity—as well to create new ones—that ups the chances of success in elections and assures handsome returns on investment once the victor is installed in office.
Let us now shift our focus to the nation as a whole...for the things that ail Gujarat are seen all over the country. The canker has spread. If that’s accepted as true, then we may now speak in general terms of the Indian political scenario in toto. The voter is shamelessly wooed, wined and dined as vote banks—the caste / communal one being the most obvious—are systematically harvested. Other ‘market segments’ such as the SC/ST vote, slum and pavement dwellers, and women (whose traditional subjugation in society is even more systematically exploited) are carefully developed and tapped in a marketing exercise that would put the global strategies of many multinational corporations to shame. The fallout of such market segmentation is that Indian society has become unbelievably fragmented along communal and parochial lines, an unhealthy development that has the potential to cripple the nation, not to mention tearing it apart. Fostered as they are on the volatile platform of communal and regional priorities, the issues that are raised in the process of electioneering continue to fester and rankle long after elections are over. As one political party becomes identified with the vote banks of a particular community, rival parties hasten to outdo each other by wooing the same vote banks with even more alluring promises while also focusing their attention on other—and often culturally opposed—vote banks. This has the inevitable effect of pitting one party against the other on communal considerations, and even undermining a party's unity. Vote banks, by now well aware of their importance, have become increasingly shrewd, vociferous and manipulative. Communalization of politics can be lucrative in the short term, but it is a tiger that, once mounted, is very difficult to dismount from. Even today, 1947 is not all that far away for some sections of the populace. Eyewitnesses to the bloodbath of Partition are not all that rare, even in 2010. They were the unknown haggard faces whose despair was captured forever on film by photographers of the likes of Margaret Bourke-White. As populations from either side crossed the new border, a million people died in the carnage. It is a figure that matches the total number of civilian casualties in the Allied bombings of German and Japanese cities during the Second World War! And today we see the shameful way in which octogenarian and nonagenarian ‘freedom fighters’ are lionized (read 'exploited')...with the political sponsors hogging the spotlight. It’s all about squeezing political mileage from the blood of martyrs, an exercise typical of the self-serving politicians of today, few of whom experienced British rule or spilt their own blood for the country. The ancient Babri masjid was reinvented (exhumed?) as a symbol of (an earlier era!) of domination and promptly desecrated, predictably stirring deep passions on both sides of the communal divide. Why can’t we just leave history
6 alone and get on with the urgent task of eradicating poverty, disease and human exploitation? Why don’t our leaders fight corruption, hunger, economic inequality, and social injustice? Aha! Then what shall they fight over? And how on earth did ‘selfless service to the people’ manage to bring to a politician such disproportionate material rewards as seen in Mayawati’s case? Aye, the body politic is sick indeed. Gujarat has always been a powder keg of communal feelings that needs one such as Gandhi to defuse. If the accounts of serving IAS officers are to be believed, the horror of what happened in March 2002 is irreconcilable with the notion of a civilized society. Like the Reign of Terror in post-Revolution France, armed gangs, apparently well marshalled and obviously operating at the behest of a centralized authority, systematically carried out a perfectly orchestrated pogrom. Almost every heinous crime known to man was committed, while the police and local administration stood by impotently. It has become a convenient kneejerk response for us to see a cross-border hand behind every civil commotion. It is time we identified the motivations behind the malaise that is destroying our society from within. Like an ailing polity, a sick society also emits warning smoke signals. It is upto us to heed them. Does anyone know what to do about the smoke signals rising from almost all of 2010 Commonwealth Games venues / ventures, where Rs. 260,000,000,000 have gone up the spout? Can we, a poor nation, afford this kind of tomfoolery? The Indian Constitution describes India as inter alia a socialist state. Some socialism! Just who do our politicians think they're fooling? As Pogo famously said, "I have seen the enemy, and he is us." India is in great peril—from herself. © Subroto Mukerji
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