Last week, someone who knew I’d been a journalist asked me, “Why do we make such a fuss about a five-buck increase in petrol prices, and not about education or infrastructure or health?” That “we” must necessarily be taken to refer to the Indian upper middle class—and the upper-middle-class media.
The clinical murder of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital on October 28 is a new cause celebre for us to take up (“us”, as with “we”). Certainly, the Irish law is an ass, but is its stupidity cause enough to summon the Irish ambassador and make a quiet diplomatic row? The Republic of Ireland is bound to resist any such pressure, just as India refuses to bow to Italy in the matter of the two marines who shot the Kerala fishermen without warrant.
What are we doing, though, about the tens of thousands of Indian women who die in childbirth for want of adequate medical attention, and the millions of children who are unlucky enough to survive their births to spend deprived and malnourished and therefore useless lives? Will the prime minister’s office issue a demarche to the home secretary and demand an explanation? Surely, it is our greatest shame that, 65 years after independence, our children are uneducated and ill-fed, and their lives are doomed to be nasty, brutish and often short.
Is this a conscious choice the upper-middle-class Indian makes, to forget her poorer sisters while she is willing, even eager, to light a candle for a Jessica or a Savita? To return to the opening question, of course infrastructure matters. The roads in Delhi and Bangalore do matter, and the toll charges on the highways are iniquitous. Health matters too, her own health and her children’s. Education matters: this damned rte causes her precious progeny to rub shoulders with the children of the riff-raff of the slums.
I’m afraid it is a conscious decision, now that 20 years of boom-and-bust have leached from us our once-vaunted socialism, and hamdardi, or sympathy, is as much a thing of the past as Hamdard’s Gripe Water. I’ve actually heard it said by an executive, “All these [expletive deleted] slum people should go back to their villages.” After, of course, they’ve built the city, laid its roads, cleaned the toilets, swept and mopped their rooms, washed their clothes and so on.
There is certainly a casteist element in this attitude. When K.R. Narayanan was the vice-president, he was also chairman of the Planning Commission. He is reported to have said of his years there, “I got the strong impression that many people did not want change.” Change for themselves, yes; but “uplift”, oh dear me, no. Indeed, how nostalgic our politicians must be for the votebanks of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, you have to deliver something.
But only to someone, or some someones. If we bemoan Dr Savita’s fate, it is because it could be our own. That this could happen to a young, upper-middle-class, professional woman in the white West—that is a dreadful thought. It should not happen again; next time it might be my daughter. It is happening every minute in my own country, or anyway in India—that other India which does not matter—but it is happening to another kind of person, hardly the same sort of citizen that I am.
Yes, of course this piece is reactionary, socialistic bunkum. Millions of Indians are more prosperous and happier today than they were in 1990. Is that not so? Let us not forget, though, that there are hundreds of millions more to be made happy; that Rs 1,000 today is not worth what Rs 100 was in 1990; and that the trickledown myth has been pretty well exploded. As for happier—are you really happier, freer from worry, your shoulders less bowed, than in 1990?
I’m sorry for Savita—not that there’s any point in being sorry for one who’s out of it. I’m sorry for her husband and family. But while I’m not doing anything about her million sisters living second-class lives in our country, don’t expect any outrage from me, at least not against the Irish government instead of my own. And at the vigil at India Gate, turn down an empty candlestick, for I won’t be there.