The broken idea of India

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The strife in Assam and beyond shows that our Indianness itself is an oppressive shackleJay Mazoomdaar

Jay Mazoomdaar Independent Journalist

Illustrations: Anand Naorem

THE ANTHEM sung and the flag folded, the media quickly moved on to exclusives, and the social media to other anniversaries. Coalgate was already big. Then, a mini-exodus of the mongoloid-looking from mainland India to the Northeast got us — the opportunistic and the righteous — busy. An opportunistic writer frequently blamed for righteousness, I could not join the what-has-befallen-India chorus this time. Worse, I do not even have an intellectual excuse.

Some hardliners targeted people from the Northeast far away from the riotous scenes of Assam, where the resident and the outsider have been fighting each other for decades. Not too long ago, Bal Thackeray’s underlings tried to bully Biharis (and before that the Madrasis) out of Mumbai and the youth attacked Mumbai-bound trains across Bihar. Thousands of Hindi- speaking migrants have been persecuted in the Northeast and hassled in Tamil Nadu over decades. Even Bengalis resent the Marwari takeover of their businesses in Kolkata.

So does it really help that domestic migration is a constitutional right? Are we really one people who merely forget our Indian identity once too often? Or, is our Indianness a wishful construct too delicate to hold its ground against so many real and rooted identities? If the latter is true, what do we make of the very rationale of India?

A few happy jalebis are my first memory of tricolour hoisting. Even in commie Bengal, schoolboys easily developed into endearing nationalists. India was Kapil Dev and Rakesh Sharma, Reita Faria and PT Usha, and not Pakistan. JC Bose, the Indian scientist who lost out to that Italian Marconi, was an icon of compulsive anti-establishmentarianism that was to surge and swallow us later at College Street. Young coffee house revolutionaries did question democracy but never quite nationhood.

The day Narasimha Rao’s Congress lost the 1996 general elections that threw up a hung Parliament, it felt very much like a personal triumph when a gallivanting African student gushed disbelievingly about how the roads were so busy and life absolutely normal. Back home, he said, the military would have moved in immediately. Not for nothing did we grow up believing in India.

If the idea of India binds a Naga with a Kashmiri, it can connect an Afghan to a Burmese too

A decade and a half later, experience should have strengthened that conviction. It has not. Sunil Khilnani has written more than 200 pages on it and many feel he should have written more. At Twitter length, the idea of India is secular, and plural. But what is the Indian identity that justifies the geographic limits of this nation? If it binds a Naga with a Kashmiri, it can very well connect an Afghan to a Burmese. Tamil students abroad naturally gravitate towards their Lankan mates and the Punjabis seek out Pakistanis. The British, after all, tried to govern the entire subcontinent from Kabul to Rangoon as an undivided unit.

One does not have to pore over the complex annals of the 1940s to conclude that the territorial limits of the Indian nation, set by political convenience, were incidental. It was an arrangement, possibly the best one forgeable 65 years ago, with obvious merits. The tradition of huge joint families drew from the benefits of economy of scale, pooled resources and common expenditure. Look back at the intricate state boundaries on an early map of India and imagine the military expenditure involved in guarding thousands of kilometres of additional borders on both sides had those provinces become separate nations.

This smart arrangement required its symbols to subsume regional identities. While Pakistan’s failure to deal with Bengali nationalism created a new nation, India has so far staved off balkanisation at a cost reasonable to many. Regional nationalists here have been mostly happy carving out new states within the nation. While religious frissons posed much bigger problems in Punjab and Kashmir, parliamentary politics rapidly internalised caste identities.

But Indianness remains an imaginary brand. It works when the arrangement that is India clicks. When a cricket team picked from eight corners of the country succeeds on the strength of the talent pool; when states do not need to pay import duty on basmati from Punjab, terracotta from Bengal or Kanjivarams from Tamil Nadu; when the benefits of the arrangement that is India is reasonably shared among many different Indias. When that does not happen, the construct requires an assortment of forces for sustenance. Bollywood has often come handy. But places such as Kashmir and the Northeast got more used to off-screen gunfire.

It is not a coincidence that anti-India sentiments are more vocal in the physical extensions of the zmainland, far away from the so-called mainstream, the relative homogeneity. Only free referendums can tell if these secessionist demands have mass legitimacy. That apart, the aspiration, and therefore resentment, of different regional nationalisms is not unnatural within such a mega arrangement. Be it the water wars or tussles over electricity sharing, mutually hostile states of India do engage with one another within broad democratic norms.

But there are two Indias which rarely acknowledge the rest — a third India — while living off it.

‘Chinki’ does sound offensive. If mainlanders could identify a Manipuri from a Naga or Mizo or Sikkimese by their looks, language or accent, they would have invented community-specific terms such as Gujju, Mallu, Bong, Ghati and so on. All these terms can be derogatory. But why does a Bihari often get more offended when called a bhaiya (or simply a Bihari) than a Tamilian when referred to as a Tam? Why is a well-to-do Bihari, let’s say in Lutyen’s Delhi, less likely to be miffed by this regional name-calling than a jobseeker from Patna? Richer states build a more respectable image for their people. Economically secure individuals tend to care even less for such collectives.

Physical attributes apart, the term ‘chinki’ often implies a fast lifestyle and easy (even commercial) availability. Such innuendos easily hurt workers in low-paying, menial, odd and long-hour jobs. Up the economic and social ladder, such barbs lose sting and become nearly inconsequential. Imagine someone calling a Bhupen Hazarika, a James Lyngdoh, or a Chokila Tshering (Iyer) a ‘chinki’ in their face.

No socialist magic can or should make all Indians equally moneyed or equal achievers. But what each of them, communities and individuals, deserved and still deserve are equal opportunities to benefit from the experiment that is India. The wait continues.

This I-Day, I heard Dr Singh speak for about half an hour. We have heard prime ministers at the Red Fort before. It certainly takes rare skill and temperament to repeat the same promises without sounding embarrassed for not delivering yet and still hoping to convince the nation to fall for it all over again. Clearly, this mock routine cannot go on without the audience’s indulgence.

Every year, besides false promises, the Prime Minister’s address contains certain concessions for the aam aadmi. It works because the grand collective of the common man has long been a misnomer in India where the political and economic dialogues are limited to the ruling elite, and the (rural and urban) middleclass, the de facto aam aadmi.

This aam aadmi does not really mind the false promises as long as he benefits from the concessions and the hand-me-down privileges such as farm subsidies, a range of IT jobs, reservations, and an FMCG boom. They include the small businessmen, the salaried class, the landed farmer and can be almost rich, nearly poor and anything in between. The destitute majority that governments struggle to reduce on paper by pulling down the poverty line is rarely spoken to, either by this aam aadmi or the power elite. The first holds the poor in fearful contempt, the latter uses them as ballot fodder.

This I-Day, the Prime Minister said: “Time has now come to view the issues that affect our development processes as matters of national security. If we do not increase the pace of the country’s economic growth, take steps to encourage new investment in the economy, improve the management of government finances and work for the livelihood security of the common man (emphasis mine) and energy security of the country, then it most certainly affects our national security.”

His common man could not have been those, depending on the the fast-changing sarkari definition of poverty, 37-77 percent of Indians. That Indian majority does not understand the aspiring superpower’s development and growth rush. They are not bothered about scams because corruption to them meant total disempowerment long ago. Really, what do people who do not remember when they last had a potato, make of or care about livelihood and energy debates?

NO DOUBT some churning, from the poor to the middle class and from there to the ruling elites, has taken place. That is inevitable in our centrifuge grinder and, by far, so deeply admired because so few escape the grind. But 65 long years after the nation was founded on the principle of equal opportunity, do we dare ask hundreds of millions of destitute Indians if they are happy with the arrangement that is India, if Indianness makes any sense to them, or if they care for national security?

That will be some referendum.

The biggest threat to national security, we are told by the State, is the Left-wing extremism in the tribal heartland of India. The excesses of kangaroo courts and bloody ambushes of the red brigade make most of us, the ruling elite and the middle class, concur that the innocent tribal is being manipulated and the nation held to ransom. Certain romantic intellectuals eloquently disagree but the communities that the Naxals claim to defend are getting increasingly vocal against the ideological and moral corruption of the so-called revolutionaries.

A thousand years ago, Baghdad became the world’s most prominent centre of liberal learning. As recently as in the 1970s, when the Baath Party kept religion out of political life, the veil was an uncommon sight and bars flourished in many neighbourhoods. In two wars in the name of neutralising Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (which remained elusive), that secular Iraq was laid waste by the US. Any common man in India knows all about the plot: It is the oil, silly!

If we attach other identities to the destitute majority of Indians, the single biggest population would turn out as tribal, geographically concentrated in the contiguous states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. History and forest surveys know them as laidback but free-spirited people, living in sync with nature. Atrocities committed by the British and Indian State forced them to pick up arms. Today, each indiscriminate assault by security forces in the garb of fighting Naxalism pushes them further into resistance. Yet, few aam aadmi dare whisper: It is the ore, isn’t it?

If there was a separate tribal nation outside the arrangement that is India, it would require an invasion and a full-scale war to perpetrate the kind of loot of minerals and coal that we have been witnessing for decades. Loot, because the contracts for mining are offered at shockingly low prices, disregarding all environmental and local livelihood concerns and the profits bring no tangible benefit to the tribal. The spoils “uplift” a few local elites and some more elsewhere. The concessions bring investment and create jobs for the middle-class. This is India’s national interest. This justifies routine trampling of any tribal resistance against mining, mega factories or power plants by mobilising forces across states as part of anti-insurgency operations.

Yet, only America’s wars are imperial aggression; ours are waged to defend democracy.

Much has been spoken about the resilience of our democracy, about the miracle of consistently significant turnouts of largely illiterate and impoverished voters during elections that frequently topple mighty governments. At the same time, elections are manipulated in ways much more complex than mundane rigging. In Assam, for example, successive Congress governments have allowed systemic influx of people from neighbouring Bangladesh in exchange for electoral loyalty.

In the context of Indianness, these illegal migrants could well be counted among our people 65 years ago. Today, they threaten to edge out the resident tribal from the local economy that is anyway in tatters, having been all but abandoned by the arrangement that is India. Worse, the BJP and its allied organisations, the principal political opposition to the Congress, is milking away what is essentially an economic and political crisis for its communal potential just because the majority of the migrants in question happens to be Muslims, creating room for an Islamic backlash on anyone looking Mongoloid across the country.

Yet, the average poor Indian’s awareness of the value of her vote is no myth. After each verdict for change, the transition of power has always been gracious, barring the Emergency. Even the military has consistently stuck to its honourable apolitical tradition. The maturity of it all impresses visitors from banana republics but does not change much on ground.

Does that sound paradoxical? It isn’t really.

India does not erupt every time a government falls because the one that follows is not fundamentally very different from its predecessor. Big money that ultimately runs the show has long stopped playing favourites and is so entrenched across political lines that it does not really care which combination holds power.

Compare the key economic policies of the Congress, the BJP and some of their key allies such as the NCP or the BJD. Most major parties of India are on the same page on the FDI or the FTA and the extent to which foreign governments (read USA) and MNCs can influence those policies. Only last week, KN Govindacharya (yes, of all people) advised the Congress and the BJP to fight the next Lok Sabha poll together.

The resulting polarisation, of the poor and the rest of India, is becoming so stark that it has got the middle class worrying about reprisals. Recently, a friend planning to return from the US for good sounded unsure if his little fortune would stand out and make him a class enemy of sorts. While laughing it off, I could tell that he was thinking of shelving the family’s long-time dream of owning an “independent house with a slice of lawn” in favour of a duplex in a secure, gated apartment complex.

As long as the State abuses its own, do we have any right to demand loyalty from the abused?

Moreover, the splendid unconcern of the ruling elite has now started riling even the lower rungs of the middleclass. The ugly clash in Maruti’s Manesar factory in Haryana did not involve any destitute Indian. It was one section of the middle class turning its anger against the corporate management (backed by the state machinery) on another section of its own.

Whichever way it dawns, the realisation that the arrangement that is India is not quite working for the majority can make the middle class aware of its critical power as the driver of the so-called Indian tiger. Simultaneously the biggest producing and consuming force, it can potentially turn around the Indian story, but for its customary inertia.

It is still very much business as usual while battle lines are getting edgier by the day. But as long as the state abuses its own, do we have any right to demand loyalty from the abused to this lopsided arrangement that is India? While persecuting, dispossessing and murdering people for their resources, can we really complain that the victims are too stupid and obdurate to see their interest in “the national interest”?

Or, is it time we accept that all Indian-born who die fighting for her land do not die Indian?

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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