Let me begin with two epiphanies. A few years ago, I visited a book fair held on the seafront in Kochi. The local publishers were represented, as were Indian and foreign firms. In between the stall of Oxford University Press and a shop stocking Malayalam translations of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, I came across a man selling, of all things, pickles from Bikaner. His wares were contained in large open buckets, one containing aam ka murabba, another shalgam ka achar. I asked the young man how he had come from a far northern desert to participate in a book fair in this southern port. “Maine suna ki Keral mein mela lag raha tha,” he answered, “aur maine socha ki wahan ek dukan khol doon (I heard that there was some kind of fair on in Kerala, so I thought I would bid for a stall there).” Thus spoke a pickle-man in a salad bowl nation, adding his charmingly naive logic to an apparently illogical country.
Some months after this encounter, I was travelling by car from Patiala to Amritsar. It was a hot day, and the countryside was monotonous. I fell asleep, and woke when the car slowed down. We were now in the market town of Khanna. I scanned the buildings and their signs. One, particularly, caught my attention: it read, ‘Indian Bank, Khanna Branch, Head Office, Rajaji Salai, Chennai’. I was charmed and uplifted, sentiments that (especially for the young) perhaps need explaining. For ‘Rajaji’ was C. Rajagopalachari, the scholar-statesman who had been Governor-General of India, chief minister of Madras State, founder of the free-market Swatantra Party and author of best-selling versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In his person, he embodied all the Punjabi stereotypes about the Madrasi; he was slight, wore thick glasses, had never played a single sport or consumed an alcoholic beverage, and was vegetarian. Yet here was evidence of his enduring legacy in the Punjab, where—as that sign informed me—there were many whisky-guzzling, chicken-eating Sikh farmers banking their savings in an institution headquartered in Chennai on a road named after a dhoti-wearing, rasam-drinking, austere Tamil scholar.
The poet Wallace Stegner once remarked that “the tracing of ideas is a guessing game. We can’t tell who first had an idea—we can only tell who first had it influentially, who formulated it in some form, poem or equation or picture, that others could stumble upon with the shock of recognition”. So it is with the idea of India. Rabindranath Tagore used the phrase in a letter to a friend in 1921, writing that “the idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts”. There may have been others who used the phrase before him. But it was only in 1997, when Sunil Khilnani used it as the title of his wonderful book, that his fellow citizens stumbled with a shock of recognition at what the idea of India represented.
The nationalisms of 19th-century Europe, which provided the template for many later nationalisms (including those of Israel and Pakistan), united citizens around a single religion, a single language and a common enemy. On the other hand, as articulated by Tagore, Gandhi and the Indian Constitution, the idea of India contains within its capacious borders more social diversity than any other nation. It privileges no particular religion, does not enforce a common language, and does not promote patriotism by identifying or demonising a common external (or internal) enemy.
As citizens, we ubiquitously use a humdrum manifestation of the miracle of India—namely, our currency notes, which have a portrait of Gandhi on one side and the national Parliament on the other, and its denomination written in seventeen languages, indeed seventeen different scripts, each encoding a distinct, sophisticated, ancient and proud literary culture. Since rupee notes are an artefact of everyday life, we do not see or sense their significance. However, in its own way, our paper currency is as marvellous and strange as the Bikaneri achar-vendor in Kochi or the signboard of the Southern bank in the Punjab.
The plural, inclusive idea of India has three enemies. The best known is the notion of a Hindu rashtra, as represented in an erratic fashion by the Bharatiya Janata Party and in a more resolute (or more bigoted) manner by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and other associated organisations. When Khilnani published his book in 1997, Hindutva appeared to be the major challenge to the idea of India. To the “theoretically untidy, improvising, pluralist approach” of Gandhi and Nehru, he wrote, the Sangh parivar offered the alternative of “a culturally and ethnically cleaned-up homogeneous community with a singular Indian citizenship, defended by a state that had both God and nuclear warheads on its side”.
Living in north India between 1988 and 1994, I experienced this challenge at first and second hand—by seeing my Muslim friends board trains under assumed Hindu names, by visiting Bhagalpur after the riots provoked by Lal Krishna Advani’s rath yatra, by witnessing a more general polarising of public opinion on religious lines. The poisonous residues of those years carried on well into the next decade, as illustrated by the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.
Shortly after the Gujarat riots, I was driving to the Mumbai airport from the south of the city, when I noticed the tricolour hanging out of every home on Mohammed Ali Road. As I proceeded northwards, beyond Parel into Dadar and Shivaji Park, the flags were not visible anymore. The contrast puzzled me, till I reached the airport and saw a live telecast of an India-Pakistan cricket match. It remains one of the saddest memories of my life—the memory of how, intimidated by decades of harassment and violence at the hands of Hindutva bigots, so many of my fellow citizens had to shame themselves into a public display of patriotism solely on account of their faith.
The threat to India from Hindutva bigotry was at its most intense from about 1989 to about 2004. When judged by political (and social) influence, the threat appears to have receded, although the terrorist activities, recently exposed, of sundry sadhvis and swamis suggests that one should not be too sanguine on this score. At any rate, right-wing religious fundamentalism has now been matched in force and influence by a challenge to the idea of India from the extreme left—that posed by the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Reports and essays in this magazine—by Smita Gupta, Nandini Sundar, Arundhati Roy and others—have documented in detail how the rise of the Maoists is linked to the dispossession of the tribals of central and eastern India. These tribals live in India’s densest forests, along its fastest-flowing rivers, and atop its richest veins of iron ore and bauxite. As the country has industrialised, they have lost their homes and livelihoods to logging projects, dams and mines which are directed by and benefit more powerful social forces.
Even when they are not dispossessed, the tribals are actively discriminated against. Demographically concentrated in a few hill districts, they do not constitute a votebank whose voice can, at least symbolically, be attended to by the political class. There is a contrast here with Dalits (as well as Muslims), who are more evenly distributed across India, and hence have a far greater impact on the outcome of state and national elections. Lacking adequate representation in the higher civil service, and without a political voice anyway, the tribals are subject to contempt and condescension by the officials of the forest, police, revenue, education and health departments, who are obliged by law to serve the adivasis but oriented in practice to harass and exploit them.
Altogether, the tribals have gained the least and lost the most from sixty-three years of democracy and development in independent India. This is not to say that Dalits and Muslims have not been discriminated against. However, their concerns have found powerful expression through democratically elected parties and politicians. The tribals have not even had that consolation. If there was no adivasi Ambedkar, there has been no adivasi Mayawati either. This is the vacuum that the Maoists have sought to fill, with increasing success, and also with increasing sympathy among sections of the Indian intelligentsia.
Metropolitan intellectuals have been fascinated by left-wing rebels for a very long time. From Mao through Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, onto Subcomandante Marcos of the Mexican province of Chiapas and Comrade Kishenji of (as the news reports have it) “somewhere on the Jharkhand-West Bengal border”, guerrillas in the forest or highland have attracted admiring comment from writers and poets themselves living in the cities. The contrast, indeed, explains the intensity of their commitment. Because they themselves lead bourgeois lifestyles in a land where so many are so poor, these writers sublimate their guilt by an effusive and excessive endorsement of armed rebels who claim to speak on behalf of the deprived and disadvantaged.
The first roadblock Advani’s rath yatra polarised public opinion. (Photograph by HT)
In the summer of 2006, I travelled through the district of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh state, as part of a group of independent citizens studying the tragic fallout of the Salwa Judum, a vigilante army promoted by the state government. We found that the Judum had polarised adivasi society, fuelled very many murders and killings, and displaced at least 60,000 people from their homes. Disgust and revulsion at the policies of the state did not, however, blind us to the errors of the other side. The Maoists had contributed to an escalating cycle of violence by beheading alleged ‘informers’, assassinating village headmen and setting off land mines which killed civilians as well as policemen. They had also blown up schools, transmission lines and railway tracks and stopped paramedics from working in villages under their influence.
I knew beforehand that the Maoists were no Gandhians, but it took a conversation with a Muria tribal to see them in clearer light. This man, a first-generation graduate and former school-teacher who had been rendered homeless by the civil war, explained to me how behind the macho image of an armed revolutionary lay a man who lacked any moral courage whatsoever. His words ring in my ears still—he said, in Hindi, “Naxaliyon ko himmat nahin hai ki woh hathiyaaron ko gaon ke bahar chhod ke hamare beech mein aake behas karein (the Naxalites do not have the guts to leave their weapons outside our village and then come and have a discussion with us).” It was an arresting remark, deep in insight and understanding about the real meanings of democracy. Despite his machismo and certitude, the Maoist was actually so fearful of his own self that he dared not engage in democratic debate—even with poor and unarmed villagers. If he really had confidence in his beliefs, why would he seek in the first instance to enforce them at the point of a gun?
No education but Maoist one Abandoned school in Dantewada. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
The remark of the Muria teacher also allowed me to see that Maoist violence was not random or anarchic, but highly focused. Schools were attacked because the revolutionaries did not want children to be exposed to a pedagogy other than their own. The Maoists regularly murdered panchayat members and leaders (including many women) because they saw electoral democracy, even—or perhaps especially—at the village level, as a threat to their vision of a one-party state.
In the short term, the Maoists may sometimes provide the tribal succour against the exactions of the forest guard or moneylender. In the medium and long term, they provide no real solution. For them, the tribals are essentially cannon fodder, a stepping stone in a larger war against the Indian State which will end—or so their ideologues claim—with the Red Flag being planted on the Red Fort in thirty or forty years’ time. In enacting this fantasy, they will further escalate the violence and expose the adivasis to even more suffering and discontent.
The history of post-colonial India, like the history of interwar Europe, is one of an unstable democratic regime in the middle, challenged from the left and right by absolutist ideologies that seek to replace it. In January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic; six weeks later, under the orders of Moscow, the then undivided Communist Party of India launched an armed insurrection against the Indian State. Through resolute leadership, the threats from left and right were contained, and a democratic Constitution put in place. However, ever since, the Hindu rashtra and the Communist dictatorship have stood as sometimes recessive, sometimes aggressive, alternatives to the democratic idea of India.
The third challenge to the idea of India also goes back to the founding of the nation. This is the notion that the Indian Union is an artificial cobbling together of many rival nationalities that must, in time, break up into its constituent parts. In the summer of 1946, a section of the Nagas announced that when the British departed, they would form an independent nation of their own. In the summer of 1947, similar claims were put forward by (among others) the Dewan of Travancore, the Maharaja of Kashmir and the Nizam of Hyderabad. August 15, 1947, was marked as a day of mourning by the Dravida Kazhagam, an influential Tamil party that likewise wished to strike out for an independent nation. Some Sikhs were upset by the division of British India into India and Pakistan, since they had hoped that a third nation, Khalistan, would also be brought into being.
Many British imperialists believed that an independent and united India would not survive. These sceptics included the former prime minister Winston Churchill as well as officials serving in the subcontinent at the time of the transfer of power. The Mizo Hills, then known as the Lushai Hills, were governed by a man named A.R.H. MacDonald. In March 1947, MacDonald wrote to his immediate superior that his “advice to the Lushais, since the very beginning of Lushai politics at the end of the war, has been until very recently not to trouble themselves yet about the problem of their future relationship to the rest of India: nobody can possibly foretell what India will be like even two years from now, or even whether there will be an India in the unitary political sense. I would not encourage my small daughter to commit herself to vows of lifelong spinsterhood; but I would regard it as an even worse crime to betroth her in infancy to a boy who was himself still undeveloped.”
In subsequent years, the infant developed sufficiently to persuade or coerce its recalcitrant partners to unite with it. But the process took time and money, and spilt a great deal of blood. Between 1947 and 1950, more than five hundred princely states were integrated into the Union. In 1963, the Dravidian parties formally dropped the plank of independence. The Mizos launched a rebellion in 1965; two decades later, their leaders laid down arms and successfully entered the democratic process. The 1980s witnessed a movement for Sikh separatism in the Punjab; this was finally tamed, albeit with much loss of life. The ’80s and ’90s also witnessed much violence instigated by the United Liberation Front of Assam; this too, has abated, with a vast majority of the Assamese seeking a better life within India rather than a separate homeland for themselves.
In 2011, three nationalist insurgencies retain their force and relevance; those in Nagaland, Manipur and Kashmir. The first of these has been led for more than three decades by a Thangkul Naga named T. Muivah. In the late ’80s, the Dutch writer Bertil Lintner trekked across the India-Burma border to meet the Naga leader in his jungle hideout. Muivah told him that “the only hope the Nagas had to achieve their independence would be if India itself broke up”. The Nagas had made contact with Sikh and Kashmiri separatists, and Muivah “fervently hoped a similar movement would emerge among the Tamils of southern India—which would indeed plunge the country into the anarchy he desired”.
Waning influence Sikh separatism is no more a strong force. (Photograph by Corbis)
The Tamils remain quite content to live within the Indian Union, and (the recent reappearance of Bhindranwale posters notwithstanding) the Sikh separatists are no longer active or influential. But the Valley of Kashmir remains on the boil; Manipur is home to dozens of armed insurgent groups; and despite 13 years of ceasefire, no agreement has yet been reached between the Government of India and Muivah’s men.
The discontent in these three states has four major causes: their distance, geographical and cultural, from the Indian heartland; the power of the idea of national independence among young men; the immunity from arrest and prosecution of soldiers, with their actions against civilians then leading to more discontent; and the support by the Centre to manipulative and corrupt local politicians. These insurgents have their own crimes to account for, as for instance the expulsion of Pandits in the case of Kashmir, and the steady extortion of civilians by Manipuri and Naga rebels. They are also often funded by foreign nations. That said, the principal reason for the conflict remains the intense commitment of the rebels on the one side, and the excessive use of force by the state on the other.
Those with a detached, long-term view may point out that it took centuries for countries like Spain and the United Kingdom to successfully subdue the ethnic minorities that live on their borders. There is also the example of the American Civil War, and of China’s troubles in Tibet and Xinjiang. These are all illustrations of the pain, the anguish, the bitterness and the brutality that often accompanies the process of nation-building. India, however, claims to be a modern democracy. The standards it sets itself must be different from those acceptable in aristocratic regimes of the 19th century or totalitarian states of the present time. To reconcile the Kashmiris, Manipuris and Nagas to the idea of India must involve methods other than coercion or bribery.
Fight squad Muivah supporters blocking the national highway
The state’s reliance on repression, and the rebels’ insistence on full national sovereignty, has led (in Tagore’s phrase) to “ceaseless conflicts”. If the violence is to end, the Government of India must do far more to reach out to the people of Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur. The notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act must be repealed. Policemen and soldiers guilty of human rights violations must be punished. The constant interference with the functioning of democratically elected state governments must end.
At the same time, one should not romanticise little nationalisms, for they can be rather ugly themselves. The intolerance of Naga activists was on display in the summer of 2010, when they blockaded the Imphal Valley for more than two months, denying access to food, petrol and medicines intended for ordinary civilians. The narrow-mindedness (and perhaps paranoia) of Meitei insurgents is evident in their banning DVDs of Hindi films from being shown even in private homes. As for Kashmir, Outlook readers may wish to consult an essay by Yoginder Sikand in the Economic & Political Weekly laying out the reactionary, medievalist worldview of Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
There is also the question of viability. The small, hilly, land-locked independent homelands the radicals dream of will, in an economic and political sense, be unviable. (And an independent Kashmir will most likely become a receptacle for Al Qaeda.) If Tamils and Mizos can live within the Indian Union, there is no reason why the Meiteis and Nagas cannot. Educated, English-speaking and characterised by a high level of gender equality, these communities can access the best jobs in the whole of India (in fact, some of their members already do). Why then restrict oneself to a small, circumscribed piece of turf?
The idea of India is plural and inclusive. The Constitution of India is flexible and accommodative. As it stands, India incorporates a greater variety of religions (whether born in its soil or imported) than any other nation in human history. It has, among other things, a Sikh majority state (the Punjab), three Christian majority states (Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya), a Muslim majority state (Jammu and Kashmir), Muslim majority districts in Kerala and West Bengal, and districts dominated by Buddhists in Kashmir and Arunachal. India also has a greater variety of languages and literatures than any other nation, and a federal form of government. If flexibility is promoted more sincerely and accommodation implemented more faithfully, one can yet arrive at a resolution which allows for real autonomy, such that Manipuris and Nagas and Kashmiris have the freedom both to determine the pattern of their lives in their own state, and to seek, if they so wish, opportunities to work and live in the other states of the Union.
These three conceptual and ideological challenges (Hindu fundamentalism, Communist dictatorship and ethnic separatism) all date to the founding of the nation. To these have more recently been added three more mundane and materialist challenges. These are inequality, corruption and environmental degradation.
In India today, there are gross and apparently growing inequalities of income, wealth, consumption, property, access to quality education and healthcare, and avenues for dignified employment. These diverse disparities in turn run along diverse social axes, among them caste, religion, ethnicity, region and gender. Upper castes (and Brahmins and Banias in particular) go to better schools and better hospitals, and are massively over-represented in the professional and entrepreneurial classes. In economic as well as social terms, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are significantly better off than Muslims. The tribes of central India, as we have seen, may be even worse off than Muslims. Those who live in the west and south of the country have more regular sources of income than those who live in the north or east. All across India, per capita income is much higher in cities than in the countryside. Finally, in every social strata, men have easier access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities than do women.
I am not a socialist, still less a Marxist. The history of Communism shows that those who seek by force to create a perfectly equal society only end up suppressing citizens, catalysing violence and creating a new class of nomenklatura who enjoy greater privileges and even greater immunity from public scrutiny than did medieval monarchs. The state of North Korea today is perfect proof of the idiocy and barbarity of the search for perfect equality.
As that wise Indian, Andre Beteille, always points out, what we must strive for is reasonable equality of opportunity, not absolute equality of result. This we have plainly not achieved, hence the disparities noted above. The life chances of a Dalit remain grossly inferior to that of a Brahmin; of a Muslim to that of a Hindu; of a tribal to that of a Hindu or Muslim; of a villager to that of a city-dweller; of an Oriya or Jharkhandi to that of a Maharashtrian or Tamil.
These inequalities are intensified by corruption, the diversion of public money meant to generate employment and income, or to provide social services, into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. In a novel written in the early 1950s, Verrier Elwin noted how homespun khadi, once “the symbol of insurgence against British rule”, had now become “an almost official uniform, the sign of authority and power”. The rebel had become the governor; even so, the association of khadi with decency and honesty stayed on awhile. I am just about old enough to remember a time when Indian politicians were, by and large, not selfish and narrow-minded, and not on the take. As prime minister between 1964 and 1966, Lal Bahadur Shastri presided over a cabinet of largely honest men and women. His colleague, Gulzarilal Nanda, lived out his last days in a dark, poky flat in Ahmedabad, with no car, no fridge, etc. The politicians of the left and right were often as upright as those in the Centre. When, in the 1980s, a robber raided the home of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who had served three terms as the chief minister of Kerala, he found eight hundred rupees and a gold sovereign.
There appear to have been three, overlapping, phases in the evolution of political corruption in India. The licence-permit-quota raj of the ’50s and ’60s was the first stage. Favours were granted to particular individuals or firms in return for a consideration. The second stage, inaugurated in the 1970s, involved the ruling party taking a cut off large defence contracts. The third stage, which began at the same time but really intensified only in the 1990s, has rested on the abuse of state power to allocate—or misallocate—land and natural resources to friends and cronies.
At the close of the last century, my home town, Bangalore, was a showpiece for the virtues of liberalisation. Access to global markets had allowed the skilled workforce of the city to generate vast amounts of wealth, which in turn spawned a new wave of Indian philanthropy. At the beginning of the present decade, my home state, Karnataka, has become a byword for the darker side of globalisation. The loot of minerals and their export to China has wreaked large-scale environmental damage and polluted the political system through the buying and selling of legislators. A state once represented to the country and the world by N.R. Narayana Murthy was now being represented to itself by Janardhan Reddy.
Reddy turf Mining in Bellary, source of all evil in Karnataka. (Photograph by KPN)
The massive profits on mining are in part because of high international prices, but in greater part because the state charges a very low royalty on ore, allows many consignments to proceed to the ports without any royalty payments and does not impose any environmental or labour standards on the mine operators. In October 2010, an attempt was made by the Opposition parties in Karnataka to unseat the government. According to news reports, individual mlas were offered close to Rs 50 crore to change sides. Since many stayed where they were, it can safely be assumed that their party bid higher to retain them. Several thousand crores may have changed hands on this single transaction alone. It is a reasonable assumption that those who were willing to pay that amount were reckoning on making at least ten times as much money in the course of their government’s tenure. One may further, and equally reasonably, assume that the commission paid to politicians by private entrepreneurs was one-tenth of their estimated proceeds. These are crude estimates, but it is clear that illegal and criminal profiteering on mining in Karnataka exceeds tens of thousands of crores annually.
Mining may have caused even more destruction to the fabric of democracy in other states, notably Goa and Orissa. As a report in this magazine by Smruti Koppikar suggests, Maharashtra appears to be next on the list. Last month, I spent several hours in Pune with India’s finest ecologist, Madhav Gadgil. Gadgil had just been on a tour of the Western Ghats. He found a thriving agrarian economy, based on the cultivation of fruits and spices, and on fishing. However, there was now a massive land grab afoot, with promoters of mines, power plants and luxury resorts working with legislators and ministers to displace local residents and destroy forests and estuaries.
To suppress opposition to these projects, the district authorities routinely impose Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prohibits public gatherings of more than five people. Himself followed (against his will) by a police escort, Gadgil found an atmosphere of terror and intimidation, which, as he recalled, “struck me full in the face as I stood, for the first time in my life, flanked by policemen on three sides talking to Muslim fishermen of Nate village expressing their fear of total destruction of their livelihoods as the nuclear power plant comes up and swallows up their entire estuary as part of its security zone”.
As Gadgil and I spoke, there was a knock on the door. It was the postman, who was carrying, among other things, a sheaf of some sixty postcards from the residents of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts. This was apparently an everyday occurrence. Since I do not read Marathi, I asked Gadgil to translate a letter for me. It was from a girl in high school, who urged the scientist to keep the marauders away and save the social and natural integrity of her district.
The mining and power sector boom is in part propelled by the fetish of achieving 9 per cent growth, which, it is said in some circles in New Delhi, is necessary for India to achieve superpower status. Those who most actively promote this ambition are a certain kind of cabinet minister, a certain kind of corporate titan, and a certain kind of newspaper editor. They are all, I believe, beset with a deep inferiority complex, whereby they wish desperately to be placed on equal terms in international fora with the politicians, billionaires and editors of the West.
Environment be damned Nuclear power plant site in Jaitapur. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade
The superpower aspiration is as much a male, macho thing as Naxalism or Hindutva. It is likewise a fantasy, and an equally dangerous one. It has already spawned much conflict in its wake. With public policy overwhelmingly determined by the desire to achieve 9 per cent growth, we have handed over peasant and tribal lands for the most destructive forms of industrial and mining activity. By making that one number the sine qua non of national pride and honour, the central government has encouraged state governments to promote corruption, criminality, social strife and massive, and possibly irreversible, environmental degradation.
To be sure, the Indian economy needs to grow at a steady rate to lift our people out of poverty. However, we must look more carefully at the components of that growth, at its distributive impacts across and between generations. We must assess different enterprises and sectors according to the kinds of employment they generate, and their varying impacts on nature. We must ensure that all processes of land acquisition and natural resource allocation are fair, just and transparent. The costs of a narrow-minded focus on GDP growth, and of a fetishisation of a particular number—8 per cent, 9 per cent, 10 per cent—can be colossal. For the GDP accounts do not subtract for the loss of water, land and vegetation polluted or destroyed by open-cast mining.
The market can promote efficiency and productivity, but not ecological sustainability or social justice. The market does not value the needs of poor people who have no money, it does not value the future, and it does not value the right of other species to exist. It is thus in the rational interest of miners and industrialists to externalise the costs of degradation and pollution. (The laws to prevent this exist on the statute books, but, with a few spectacular exceptions, are not implemented.)
India today is thus an environmental basket-case, characterised by falling water tables, dead rivers, massively high rates of air pollution and soil erosion, the unregulated disposal of toxic wastes, and the decimation of forests and biodiversity. These processes are caused by a combination of inequality and corruption. Politicians at the Centre and the states, acting at the behest of the wealthy, pass on the costs of environmental damage to the poor and to future generations.
On November 4, 1948, B.R. Ambedkar introduced a draft report in the Constituent Assembly. This, with a few modifications, was to become the Constitution of India. Ambedkar said of the document he had overseen that “it is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in war time. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile”.
Sixty-two years later, the conclusion must be that in our failures to fulfil the constitutional ideals of freedom, fraternity and equality, one kind of man has been particularly vile—the one kind mandated by law to promote these ideals in office. For, the scale and ubiquity of political corruption means that perhaps the most powerful enemy of the idea of India now is the Indian State.
The Congress has played a leading role here. As the party of the freedom movement, it helped define the idea of India. As the party which, after Independence, promoted unity and democracy, it deepened the idea of India. However, over the past three decades, the party and its leaders have worked principally to damage and degrade the idea of India.
Blind honesty Manmohan’s is a corruption-steeped regime. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
One may as well name names. Indira Gandhi, herself a child of the freedom struggle, schooled in the traditions of Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru, converted a decentralised, democratic party with robust district and state committees into a family firm; and destroyed the autonomy and integrity of the civil services by making loyalty to the leader the principal criterion of professional advancement. Rajiv Gandhi, a modern-minded man who said he was going to take India into the 21st century, opened the locks in the Ayodhya shrine and then, to please the bigots on the other side, annulled the progressive Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case, thus catalysing two decades of religious rivalry and rioting that left thousands of Indians dead and many more homeless (and also incidentally opened the space for Hindutva to move from the political margins to centrestage). Manmohan Singh, himself a man of personal integrity, presides over a political regime stinking with corruption, watching as thousands of crores illegally change hands as commission on the sanctioning of special economic zones, infrastructure and communication schemes, and energy projects.
It is important to name Congress leaders at the Centre, since chief ministers in the states have been encouraged by them to act likewise. The example of Indira Gandhi surely inspired M. Karunanidhi and Parkash Singh Badal (to name no others) to groom their children to take over the party after them. Had the senior Mrs Gandhi not promoted the notion of the ‘committed’ bureaucrat, we would not have had such a large-scale subversion of the administrative machinery, with every state government assigning departments to civil servants on the basis of caste, ideology and personal loyalty rather than competence. Had Rajiv Gandhi not so readily banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses at the behest of reactionary clerics, Ashok Chavan would surely have not so obediently followed the instructions of another kind of bigot and withdrawn Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey from the curriculum of Mumbai University. Had Manmohan Singh not been so reluctant to act against his tainted ministers, B.S. Yediyurappa would not so easily have ridden out press exposure of his corruption and that of his cabinet colleagues. Finally, had the junior Mrs Gandhi not promoted a cult of her husband and mother-in-law, naming scheme after scheme after them, Mayawati could scarcely have launched her own extravagant projects of personal memorialisation at public expense.
Maya memsaab The Buddha Vihar Shanti Upvan in Lucknow. (Photograph by Nirala Tripathi)
The short-sightedness and amoralism of the post-Shastri Congress has permeated the political system. The JD(S), the RJD and the SP were, from the beginning, personal fiefdoms. The Shiv Sena and its splinter, the MNS, cannot be other than narrow-minded and chauvinist. However, some other regional parties, such as the DMK and the Akali Dal, have a history of progressive social reform. Surely, had the Congress not shown the way, there would have been some attempts to deepen that legacy instead of subordinating party and state to the interests of a single family.
In terms of personal integrity and decency, the parliamentary communists may be the least odious of all our politicians. They do not, for example, have Swiss bank accounts. They are not often to be seen in five-star hotels. Many of them have a deep sympathy with the poor and excluded. However, they have, when in power, energetically promoted party loyalists in the bureaucracy, the police, and perhaps most depressingly, the academy. Calcutta University, once an institution of high quality, has been destroyed on account of all senior positions having first to be vetted by the party’s ideologues in Alimuddin Street.
The ideology itself is astonishingly archaic. The Nepali Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai says his party wishes to “try out a new model which will incorporate the ideas of Gandhi, Lohia, Marx, Lenin and be a synthesis of all”. His leader, Comrade Prachanda, often speaks of the Buddha with admiration. Their Indian comrades, on the other hand, get all their inspiration from more distant quarters. The annual congresses of the CPI(M) always feature four portraits on the dais. These are of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—that is to say, two 19th-century German thinkers, and two 20th-century Russian dictators. I do hope that in my lifetime I will see pictures placed at CPI(M) meetings of representative Indian democrats, such as (for example) Gandhi and Ambedkar.
To function moderately well, a democracy needs three sectors to pull their weight—the state, private enterprise and civil society. In the ’50s and ’60s, when entrepreneurs were timid and risk-averse, and civil society was non-existent, the state performed superbly well. In 2011, it appears to be civil society which is performing best of all. There are hundreds of hard-working and selfless social activists, working in the fields of education, health, environment, women’s rights, consumer protection, civil liberties and more. The private sector, on the other hand, is marked by both visionaries and marauders; whereas 10 years ago it was the philanthropists who defined the trends, now it is the crooks and cronies who appear to enjoy more power and influence.
To restore faith in the idea of India, a more capable, focused and honest political class may be necessary. Meanwhile, we can take succour in the manifest intentions of the citizenry, who, despite the provocations of the extremes, continue to hold democracy and diversity in high regard. Outside of Gujarat, hardline Hindutva has repeatedly been rejected by the electorate (as demonstrated most recently in Bihar, where keeping Narendra Modi out of their campaign helped the NDA to a spectacular victory in the state elections). The acts of Islamist terror in Mumbai, Delhi and elsewhere have not been followed by religious scapegoating or rioting. Likewise, peasants and adivasis in areas of Maoist influence regularly defy them by participating enthusiastically in state and national elections, thus proving, incidentally, that ours is not a democracy for the bourgeoisie alone. And while the Centre must be more sensitive to the sentiments of citizens on our borderlands, it is striking that, even as the stone-throwing proceeded in Kashmir, shawl merchants were seen conducting brisk business in Kerala, while thousands of students from the two states in the northeast hardest hit by insurgency—Manipur and Nagaland—studied peaceably and with dignity in Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.
In Rae Bareli Sonia Gandhi on the campaign trail. (Photograph by AP)
The decent instincts of the citizenry were also on display when they rejected, quietly and without any fuss, the campaign launched before the 2004 elections to portray the leader of the Congress party as a foreigner. By speaking of the dangers of a ‘Rome Raj’ led by ‘Antonia Maino Gandhi’, the xenophobes hoped to catalyse the base instincts of Indians in general and Hindus in particular. Outside the Hindutva faithful, the call found no resonance whatsoever. Voters made it clear that they would judge Mrs Gandhi by other criteria. Her birth in Italy and her Catholic upbringing were immaterial. By four decades of continuous residence on Indian soil, she had claimed the right to be an Indian. To be sure, there remain many Indians who are unhappy with the promotion of a family cult, and many others who are critical of the Congress president’s social and economic policies. But her European ancestry does not matter at all. Like the Rajasthani achar-seller in Kochi, she is free, as a citizen of India, to exercise her vocation where she pleases. We will assess her wares as they appear to us—and accept or reject them as we please.
Based as it is on dialogue, compromise, reciprocity and accommodation, the idea of India does not appeal to those who seek quick and total solutions to human problems. It thus does not seem to satisfy ideologues of left or right, as well as romantic populists. To these sceptics, let me offer one final vignette. One Independence Day, I was driving from Bangalore to Melkote, a temple town in southern Karnataka which incidentally also houses a celebrated Gandhian ashram. The first part of the drive was humdrum, through the ever-extending conurbation of Greater Bangalore. Then we turned off the Mysore highway, and the countryside became more varied and interesting. Somewhere between Mandya and Melkote, we passed a bullock cart. Three young boys were sitting in it; one wore a suit with spectacles, a second a bandgala with a Mysore peta atop his little head, the third a mere loin cloth.
The boys had evidently just come back from a function in their school, where, to mark August 15, they had chosen to play the roles of B.R. Ambedkar, M. Visvesvaraya and M.K. Gandhi respectively. Remarkably, none of their heroes was a native Kannada speaker. Yet all spoke directly to their present and future. The boys knew and revered Ambedkar as the person who gave dignity and hope for the oppressed; knew and revered Visvesvaraya for using modern technology for the social good, as in the canals from the Kaveri that irrigated their own fathers’ fields; and knew and revered Gandhi for promoting religious harmony and leading, non-violently, the country’s fight for freedom.
The vision of those young boys was capaciously inclusive. Ideologists may oppose Ambedkar to Gandhi; historians may know that Gandhi and Visvesvaraya disagreed on the importance of industrialisation in economic development. Yet, the boys understood what partisans and scholars do not—that our country today needs all three, for all were Indians of decency and integrity, all seeking sincerely to mitigate human suffering, all embodying legacies worthy of being deepened in our own age. What I saw that day was a spontaneous, magnificent illustration of the idea of India. To more fully redeem that idea would mean, among other things, matching the pluralism that those schoolboys articulated with the democracy defended so precisely by the Muria school-teacher in Dantewada.
(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Makers of Modern India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)