TABISH KHAIR, The Hindu , 25 Feb 2007
India's democratic experiment, with all its flaws, and the often-dismissed version of Nehru-Gandhian secularism are things Indians can be proud of. But these are seldom the things that Indians are asked to be proud of.
Who cares about farmer suicides now? Who cares about the children of immigrant workers? India is busy following the West, even when accusing it of racism, following It faithfully into the fast lane of neo-liberalist progress.
THE 60th year of independent India started with a fog that grounded most domestic flights and closed schools in North India throughout the first two weeks of January.
In Noida, the booming chaotic suburb of Delhi, which is actually in the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), 2007 was also presaged by one of the biggest crime sensations of modern India. It was reported that a millionaire industrialist, who used to sip whiskey sprinkled with gold flakes, and his servant had killed at least 20 — and probably more — children over the past few years. Their modus operandi appeared to be simple: entice a child into the `farmhouse', used basically as a holiday `stud' resort by the millionaire, rape and murder him or her, cut him into pieces and dump the bag in the drain that ran behind the house.
In spite of repeated complaints against the house and about the stink emanating from the drain, the local UP police had ignored the matter. It appeared that, apart from being rich, the culprit and his accomplice had concentrated on children of immigrant workers, not interfering with the children of local villagers or the many Delhi prostitutes who frequented the place. When the matter finally came to light, it was because the servant — behind his master's back — murdered a Delhi prostitute, whose father managed to be heard more than immigrant labourers from Bihar or Bangladesh tend to be. Since then, India has been discussing various theories: on the one side, that of cannibalism and sex murders, and on the other that of organ trade. Both have their supporters in the argumentative middle classes. As for the debates in those vast Delhi slums of immigrant and landless labourers from the agricultural hinterlands, well…
One news item that almost slipped past the argumentative middle classes in the first weeks of January was the promise by a state Chief Minister that he will be accessible to farmers overburdened with loans, advanced by banks rather than the traditional moneylender. He urged the farmers not to commit suicide.
Between 25,000 and 100,000 Indian farmers commit suicide every year, unable to cope with the loans and unforgiving conditions of a booming, liberalised economy. Unlike immigrant workers whose children were killed and cannibalised in Noida, most of these farmers do not come from places like Bihar. Places like Bihar are too backward to progress into modern versions of genocide. The farmers who commit suicide belong to the more progressive and affluent states of India.
Much to be proud of
India is booming. Doubt it not. Indians are also constantly told to be proud. Say with pride you are a Hindu, was one of the two slogans that launched the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on its path to electoral success in the late 1980s. Today, we Indians are urged to be proud in films, advertisements, editorials. We are urged to be proud of our nuclear capacity and the nuclear deal signed between India and George Bush (which critics like Chomsky insist is a well-aimed American nail in the coffin of an internationalised nuclear non-proliferation treaty). We are urged to be proud of our professional classes and booming national economy, which has been leapfrogging at a rate close to ten percent. We are even urged to be proud of our cricket team, which regularly flatters to deceive.
To be honest, there is much to be proud about in India. While the booming economy is only a mixed blessing, India is a working example of a democracy that has survived adverse conditions. In many ways, India's democratic experiment, with all its flaws, offers a better model to countries in Asia, Africa and South America than the much-touted and sanitised democracies of privileged North Europe. Again, India's distinctive and often-dismissed version of Nehru-Gandhian secularism might be a better model to follow today than the secularism of Europe, which is a supposedly atheistic superstructure reared on a solid but purposefully obscured Protestant base. These are things Indians can be proud of. But these are seldom things that Indians are asked to be proud of.
The Times of India launched January 1, 2007, with an ad-lib-type boxed item covering most of the front page. "India poised," it was called. It started with the reasonable observation that "there are two Indias in this country". Then it fitted these two Indias within an implicit neo-liberalist hierarchy: "One India is straining at the leash… The other India is the leash. One India wants. The other India hopes. And one India… is looking down at the bottom of the ravine and hesitating. The other India is looking up at the sky and saying, it's time to fly."
Sonorous words, these. And empty ones. For, if interpreted with generosity, they do not really account for the farmers who commit suicides or the slum children who are cannibalised for sex or organs. And if interpreted with scepticism, they are an attempt to condone — some might even claim endorse — the genocide that lies hidden in the heart of rampant neo-liberalism. For if that other India — the India of failed farmers and slum workers — is the leash, then perhaps the only way out is to look the other way while that leash is cut to pieces.
January 2007 was significant and revealing because this year will mark the 60th anniversary of India's independence. But already, as the first month of India's 60th year lumbered to a close, attention has shifted from the cannibalising or organ-trading millionaire of Noida. Instead, the media — and not just in India — were agog with discussions of a post-modern reality show. A vacant white ex-housewife vilified a vacant Indian starlet appearing on "Big Brother", perhaps in racist terms. Who cares about farmer suicides now? Who cares about the children of immigrant workers? India is busy following the West, even when accusing it of racism, following it faithfully into the fast lane of neo-liberalist progress. The luxury cars on this highway — of which at least 10 new models will be launched in India this year — do not pause for anyone down the rugged cline that leads to the ravaged fields of human endeavour. And why should they?
After all, what is happening in India is only one version of what has happened in the world: the history of progress and modernity in Europe or US or Australia is a testament to the `inevitability' of silent genocides, that of the displaced, minorities, Jews, gypsies, aborigines etc. Perhaps other kinds of progress and modernity are also possible. Perhaps Indian democracy and secularism, to take only two examples, are weak pointers in that untraced direction. But then, who stops to talk about democracy or secularism on the highways of global neo-liberalism? Who dares take pride in these brave but flawed experiments in India today?
The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.