A society on pyre

CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.

The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun—

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood:

For nothing now can ever come to any good

– WH Auden, Funeral Blues

Despite the tall claims of saffronite pseudo-historians, the history of 'India that is Bharat' begins only with the British conquests of the Indo-Ganga plains after the battle of Plassey in 1757. Earlier, it was the gods who peopled Ashoka's Jambudwipa while all contemporaneous foreigners were yavanas. One would have been hard put to find either brahmanas or sramanas. Neither did the boundary of Manu´s Aryabrata extend beyond today's north India.

After the sepoy mutiny of 1857, later recorded as the first war of independence in the nationalist literature of free India, the British transformed the Mughal's fluid expression of Hindustan into something concrete: the concept of India as a unitary colony of the crown in South Asia. Lord Curzon elaborated the place of India in the empire in an eponymous book published in 1909, and it was with its publication that the seeds of the future hegemon in the Subcon were sown. And even more than Guru Golwalker, the Sangh Parivar owes a debt of gratitude to Lord Canning (1812-1862), the first viceroy of India, for providing it with the imagination of akhand Bharat.

A competing imagining began with the arrival of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from South Africa. Gandhi's swaraj was different from earlier anti-colonial movements for self-rule. Even though cloaked in the vocabulary of tradition, swaraj was a radically modern concept – it dared to fashion an inclusive Indian identity based on universal values of equality in polity, equity in economy and justice in society. For a backward colony mired in poverty and hopelessness, these concepts were revolutionary.

Jawaharlal Nehru continued with the Gandhian project of imagining a new India and added two dimensions of his own to it – state secularism and Fabian socialism. It is this process after which Sunil Khilnani has titled his book on the subject: The Idea of India.

Nehru's daughter used such an idea of India as a resource. A demagogue par excellence, Indira Gandhi coined catchy slogans such as 'garibi hatao' (calling for an end to poverty), abolished the privy purse, nationalised banks, created war hysteria against Pakistan, and declared a state of emergency in the country when faced with the prospect of an adverse court decision. She did all this in the name of defending her late father's idea of India. The fiasco that was the Janata Party government excused her sins of omission and commission. When Madam Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards, the pogrom of Sikhs that followed elevated her memory to that of a divinity of Hindu wrath.

Jawaharlal's grandson chose to ignore the Nehruvian idea of India and rode to power by cashing in on the communal divide created by his mother's killing. It was the Rajiv Gandhi regime that brought in the Doon-goons of free-market fundamentalism and religious obscurantism. The Lotto shoes and Ray-Ban Aviators of a former commercial pilot did not come in the way of realpolitic, and the Shah Bano episode demonstrated to the saffron brigade that the state was no longer wedded to the (flawed but nonetheless earnest) secularism of Gandhi and Nehru.

The Ram shila and the rathyatra culminated in the destruction of the historic Babri Masjid and Guru Golwalkar's ideological children entrenched themselves in the avenues of power in New Delhi through Pokharan II, Kargil and the devoted worship of their new deity – George Bush II. It is easier to curse the Narendra Modis and Pravin Togadias – they go to ridiculous lengths to invite the scorn of the secular elite upon themselves – but they are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise that afflicts Indian society. The concept of the state as a protector of all faiths, dating back to Asoka and Akbar, is long dead, and the Nehruvian idea of India too is taking last gasp. Since no credible alternative has yet emerged, the consuming classes are deserting the republic for the illusion of an India Incorporated.

Funeral feasts

The resurgence of religious fundamentalism and economic conservatism is not unique to India. Post-11 September, to submit meekly to the global hegemon seems to be the common fate of all humanity. What really rankles is the lack of willingness on the part of the Indian elite to realise the gravity of the looming crisis. For the few hundred thousand super-elite PLUs ('people like us') of the ABCD-type in metropolitan cities (Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Calcutta, Delhi), the fate of the other 1.4 billion simply does not matter (one billion in India and 0.4 billion in the rest of the Subcontinent). Corporate India has not even realised that its free ride cannot last if the 'other' India is not taken on board as well.

Even though the event was billed to be of continental scale, participants from the Subcontinent dominated the Asia Social Forum (2-7 January 2003) at Hyderabad. It was a meeting of activists, scholars and others agitated by the spectre of economic globalisation and global one-man-rule. The mood at the venue, the Nizam College grounds was festive, but every participant seemed to understand the enormity of the challenge presented by profiteering multinationals and weak national governments hoodwinked into thinking that the market provides all the answers.

The so-called national media of India ignored the event completely even as it went gaga over the Confederation of Indian Industry's 'partnership summit' hosted by Hyderabad, aimed partly at attracting foreign investment into Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, may be a charming host but it is quite unlikely that any of his prospective suitors felt safe in a state where abject poverty and superficial prosperity live cheek-by-jowl in the capital itself. The visiting business bigwigs must have had a ball in Hyderabad at public expense and then gone home to do what they know best – sell some more of their products and services to the remittance economy of a city that takes pride in providing virgin brides to the oil sheikhs of Arabia.

Even as Hyderabad occupied with the social forum and the business meet, there was a fiesta on in New Delhi. The central government laid out the red carpet for its prodigal sons and some daughters. The purist regime of New Delhi revealed its true colours by creating a hierarchy for Non-resident Indians (NRIs) and people of Indian origin (PIOs) based on which country they belonged to – while residents of countries with freely convertible currencies will be entitled for dual nationality, their poorer cousins will have to fend for themselves. This then has happened to the 'idea of India' in the age of multinationals.

Hazy future

The town of Saharsa in the Kosi floodplains of Bihar is a long, long way from Hyderabad. On the Republic Day of the third year of the 21st century, the town was shrouded in haze as hundreds of limp tricolour flags braved one of the bitterest winters in living memory. The electric supply in Saharsa district is erratic, its roads are in a shambles, the water supply is unreliable, municipal services are nonexistent, and all that the policemen do is extort small-change from famished riksaa-pullers.

The bare bottoms along railway tracks that so revolted VS Naipaul in An Area of Darkness are a poor joke in comparison to the overflowing sewers of almost every town in Bihar. If the sanitary practices prevalent in a society indicate the level of its culture, then municipalities of the Ganga plains have regressed to a stage earlier than that of the Indus valley in the fourth millennium BCE.

But in Saharsa too, islands of private affluence thrive in the sea of public misery. Along the market strip, hundreds of portable generator sets light up the lives of impulse buyers and creative shopkeepers. A plethora of private 'boarding English convent academy' schools compete for custom while public schools wither away in neglect.

Whether staffed by a trained doctor or a quack is different question altogether, but almost every medical shop is a private clinic and only those go to government hospitals who have nowhere else to turn to. Laloo Prasad Yadav may be guilty of various ills, including having made off with the fodder, but should he be made to take the rap for the mismanagement of public services in Bihar?

No privatisation drive can succeed in treating the deep-rooted ills of political economy, created by various historical forces that hit and hurt the poor in a town like Saharsa. In the name of state socialism, government policies have pushed people into the embrace of the business classes. Those without purchasing power have nothing while the rich call for less government still rather than rally for better government. The need, however, is for more government in such societies, not less; and authority has to be established in a lawless land before government can be substituted even in part.

Globalisation has no meaning in this region of Bihar where all business revolves around rites of passage: feast for the male newborn, dowry for the daughter, funerals for the old and annual shraddha ceremonies for the dead. These generate more business for the retailers in the small towns of north India than other, more productive, pursuits. In settlements such as Saharsa, the living envy the dead especially under the shroud of the winter fog or seet lahar.

More worrisome than the abject condition of the breathing poor are the loss of hope in the middle class and the lack of self-confidence among the social elite. Almost everyone who has the capacity to change the status quo wants to opt out. Information Technology — the El Dorado of the Indian bourgeoisie — is a useful tool to fool the waiting-to-be-rich middle class, but it has no meaning for the masses for whom even the kerosene lantern (the electoral symbol of Lalu's Rastriya Janata Dal) is an object of desire.

One may say that Bihar is an extreme example that diverts attention from the technological strides being taken by a country that boasts a scientist as head of state. But that is ignoring the obvious – it is the worst case that tests the mettle of an ideology or a leader. Maharastra has its mafiosi, Karnataka-Tamil Nadu have not been able to handle the lone warrior Veerappan, Andhra is fighting its Naxalites, Bihar and Jharkhand have not succeeded in tackling their individual Maoist insurgencies for decades. None of these challenges are going to disappear even if every corporate Indian begins to drink colas (red, blue or of whichever hue) by the gallon.

There is no escape in sight from the tyranny of commerce as a concerted attempt to discredit politics gathers momentum. If another world is possible, as the Asia Social Forum proclaimed in Hyderabad, a new socialism must rise from the ashes of the old one. Other than that there is no way of tackling the twin monsters of communalism and class hatred in India. And since the present boundary of India encompasses most of South Asia, the region cannot hope to rise unless Bharat tackles its internal contradictions, so visible in both Hyderabad and Saharsa.

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