If God comes roll-calling on the internet, and the way it is going, She/He certainly may, I must not be absent. And therefore, this blog is my proxy herein.

Do let me know, if you want me to stop doing this to the human-kind (/unkind). Or, rarer still, if you want me to do more of the same.

(And ah, while you are here, do feed the fish. They like mouse pointers.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review | Undemocratic impulse : Broken Republic (Arundhati Roy)

ARKESH AJAY | September 4, 2011, New Delhi

(This book review appeared in the print edition issue dated September 4, 2011, of The Sunday Indian magazine)

Arundhati Roy
Penguin (Imprint: Hamish Hamilton)
Edition: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780670085699
Pages: 232
Price: 499

Sixty-four years after it has ended, India needs to understand the definition of imperialism the most now. It may be in the irony of things, but often every battle faces the danger of leading its people into the very oppression it fights against. Maybe, and maybe I don’t need to temper my statement with a “may”, India already has landed there- the very imperialism it fought to be free from.

Let’s, for once, think of the tribal region lying at the trijunction of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand & Orissa. They are rebelling, and are being quieted by military might. Isn’t imperialism exactly this- a policy of extending an entity's power and influence over another through diplomacy or military force?

But you may say, India is a singular entity, and hence the argument doesn’t hold true. I would then ask- what makes a nation? Is the will of the governed not significant? Isn’t India a republic? And if it deviates from this line, doesn’t it lead itself to become a “broken republic”, as is also the name of the new book by Arundhati Roy, a collection of the three sharp essays, about the war “in the very heart of the country”- between the so-called Naxals, and the ‘state of India’. Between a government, and its own people. And not just any people, it’s very poorest ones. And as one visits this chapter of present India, and reads through Roy’s evocative writings, there is one question which often raises its head- ‘What makes these tribals pick up guns against an obviously much stronger government’?

What emerges from her investigation is the story of how corporate greed, justified in the sweep of the celebrated brush of 9% GDP growth, is about to turn India into an organism trying to “eat its own limbs”, as “those limbs refuse to be eaten”. In order to achieve this growth, the fruits of which never will reach the people who will be sacrificed for it, the government needs the tribals to move off their mineral-rich lands. Since they won’t, for they know not where else to go, there is a need to use military might. And however blind our democracy may become, it still will hear the sounds of these bullets. So emerges the need to create an ‘enemy’. The “Maoist menace” is that enemy, magnified to monstrous proportions in order to justify use of brute force in these jungles, against the nation’s poorest citizens.

Roy makes compelling arguments, especially when she quotes from the current home minister’s speech at Harvard, about how the government, in its hurry to allow “market forces” to mine resources “quickly and efficiently” has vandalized the constitution. The minister almost sounds disappointment at how “democracy” adds to the “challenge of development”, where he is “obliged” to provide “right compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement”.

Roy goes on to wonder as to why are these villagers sympathetic to the Maoists? The answer, though, is simple. For so many years the Indian state has exploited resources traditionally belonging to these tribes, and turned a blind eye to their welfare. No relationship based on only one party taking from it can last long. And so when PWG walks into these forests with a sympathetic ear, compared to the forest department’s pitiless officials, they immediately win a place in the hearts of the natives, become a part of them. “Guerillas being the fish and the people being the water they swim in”, as Mao put it.

Roy also examines the Maoist ideology, and its failings too. She wonders about the possibility of the revolution turning into an uncontrolled act of violence, far from the ideology it began with, especially in the unlikely outcome of its meeting success in its present endeavor. While exploring this, she offers hints into what could be the basis of a solution: “If we lived in a society with a genuinely democratic impulse, one in which ordinary people felt they could at least hope for justice, then the Maoists would only be a small, marginalized group of militants with very little popular appeal.”

And this is where the book’s greatest strength lies- in the balance of the debate Roy undertakes. Between a government which is dangerously in sway of “corporate fundamentalists”, and Naxals with a history of often-directionless violence, are millions of India’s poorest villagers, almost constantly staring down the barrel of someone’s gun. It is then only natural that they feel like aliens in their own country, and want the state to just leave them alone.

Bhagat Singh had once said, “...the state of war…shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be...purely Indian”. If we agree with the celebrated revolutionary here, we’ve to also agree that India, then, has a full scale war going on its very heart, and it’s easy to spot the villain.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Whose revolution is it anyway?

Once upon a time there was a little boy, who wanted his father to buy him a bicycle. The father hadn’t been obliging, and seemed to be in no mood to do so either. The reason the older man provided was simple- you don’t need one, everywhere you got to go, you can go on foot, and reach on time. When everything failed, the child decided to beat the old man at his own game- the game of reasoning. He decidedly began to get late for his school. After a while, the teachers complained to his father, and also gave him an advice- why don’t you get your child a bicycle? A man of logic, he couldn’t debate it, and went ahead and bought the bicycle for his son.

Moral of the story: when you don’t have an enemy to justify your actions (line-of-approach), create one.

One of the tragedies India as a country witnesses today, is in fact being celebrated as its success- the immense power wielded by its middle class. It is, however, celebrated entirely by the middle class itself. This middle class is largely Hindu, upper-caste, a fact most of the political discourse wants to sweep under that wonderful word- coincidence. And it is indeed a coincidence, as much as an apple falling to the ground is. Gravitation is but a mere conspiracy a communist called Newton created.

And this middle class wants control. Of everything- resources, means of production, land, capital, media, politics, sports, education. And absolute control at that. You name it, and before you pronounce the last syllable, they already want to control it.

Anyone who would resist this is anti-national, who doesn’t want “India do take its rightful place in the comity of nations”. After all, it is the middle class which fills the back offices of MNCs from the west. And it is these back offices which have made us the darlings of the world. And how we love to be liked by the west is not even required to be elaborated upon. (Anything which stops you from being this darling is, again, anti-national). It is the middle-class which is that multi-million-dollar market everyone and their aunts are chasing all the way from foreign, either directly or indirectly (in some cases through 100% investments, and in some a mere 50). So it is this middle-class which pays for their share-holders’ yachts, and hence it is only they who matter. To the US, or to the IMF, and by extension to our Prime Minister (who, I have a suspicion, realizes the immense power speaking in a low inaudible voice has of giving the impression that the speaker in an incredibly nice guy). And since it is only the middle-class which matters, it is only they who become “India” for everyone’s for-all-I-care concerns. And so God help you, if you have one bone against the middle-class, you are picking a fight against “India”, and therefore surely, you are an anti-national. Down with you! (You as well may now grow a beard, roam the jungles of Chhattisgarh trying to provide medicine for the tribals there, and call yourself a communist- a term I am sure most of the people who oppose, do not know the meaning of).

So now that we have established to everyone’s delight that the middle class is what India is and it is just a coincidence that the middle-class is largely upper-caste Hindu, let’s move on to take our rightful place in the global comity.

But wait, there’s this one thing. When we got freedom, we decided to call ourselves a welfare state, and a socialist one too (imagine!), and also decreed that individuals will not control the means of production. Or in other words, we won’t become capitalists. Who does these things? But our fore-fathers did. And now we must free ourselves from all that, red-tapism et al. We must assign corporations the selfless task of building the nation, based on the premise of limited greed & the nature of money to trickle-down. How we do it, well, we’ll devise something along the way.

But the bigger trouble is this legacy of corruption. It is the practice whereby the public sector and the politicians make-disappear small or large sums of money, in order to do/not do certain duties. Let’s not confuse it with the practice of kick-backs, fudging of balance sheets, sponsoring Hong Kong trips for complying bureaucrats (the bureaucrat, however, becomes corrupt here by virtue of going on this trip), and other such corporate endeavours taken in obvious national interest (expressed often through the logic of GDP). Noteworthy also is the differentiation that needs to be made here, between “corruption”, and offering token money to get a task done through government officials. In effect, using money as enticement to get a favour done is not corruption, while agreeing to take this money clearly is.

So about this legacy, we obviously need to get rid of it. And since the middle class only unwillingly suffers because of it, with never benefitting from it, they are all up in a united battle against it. Mostly, the ones who operate businesses, or work in businesses operated by others, or find this the way everything should operate (namely, someone’s private business, pun debatable) - or the capitalists. Since, their being Hindu upper class was a coincidence, even being a capitalist, who wants the state to lay its hands off, also is.

Since, we have seen 1991, and the fable of how a messiah from the IMF created an instant-financial-policy to save the nation from doomsday, we don’t challenge miracles. Hence, when a diminutive man tells us it’s time for another one, we instantly rise in a Mexican wave of cheers, resembling the one seen during the cricket world cup final concluded just a day before his movement began. (Another coincidence, for who expected India to reach the final, let alone win and thus create a spirit of nationalism, for the afore-mentioned man’s movement to draw upon). And when the man decides to draw his sword a second time, just a day after the Independence Day, we are now in serious struggle mode. (It would be a rather obvious coincidence, since everyone knows as to how the middle class gets its annual patriotic fever precisely on the 15th of August every year, sometime about 11 am in the morning, when, it being a holiday, he/she wakes up late to switch on the TV bleating about how we as a nation have made giant strides in the last few decades, through the compulsory visuals of the army, stock exchange, missiles, the Red Fort- for a sense of history, cricket, and a recent addition of badminton/boxing).

On television these days, it is this ‘struggle for second independence’ we are witnessing. The fact that most of the media houses are owned by upper-caste Hindu businessmen is, again, just a coincidence.

And the instant-balm we are fighting for this time around is an instrument called the Jan Lokpal, or the Ombudsman. Known to cure chronic corruption in government departments, and politicians. This is all the information most of us have, and frankly care for. For ideologies are something we as a nation of youths, don’t have the time, patience, or the need of. Nothing that cannot be fitted into 140 characters is worth wasting time over.

There are a number of sources, and forums out there discussing (interestingly, in ‘.ppt’ format) this bill, its facets, and how it has the obvious potential of turning into a Frankenstein's monster. So let us dwell over something else. A question, to be particular.

After this second independence comes, thanks to this bill, will it achieve what the first failed to- will it put a chapatti on the plate of that starving family in Bastar? If the answer is yes, pass me the now-suddenly-in-fashion-after-years-of-decadence Gandhi topi, and tell me the way to the nearest fast-in-the-comfort-of-your-own-town joint. And if the answer is, ‘it will trickle down’, please don’t mind while I think of you as an ignorant fool. When it did not trickle down in 60 or so years, how will it do so now?

For if “it will trickle down”, this movement is just a right wing activist making political noise for ideological gains over the current ruling party, maybe for larger people sitting behind the scenes. There is then, no progress or deliverance that is going to come through this. The large majority of this country is the peasant or the proletariat class. This bill, then, has nothing for them. But then, look at me, I forget so conveniently who “India” is- the middle class.

The class who believes that corruption is a government-bureaucrat-politician phenomenon, only. The class who still thinks the corporations only acted under the compulsions of this corrupt system, when they tried to get the minister of their choice, a certain Mr Raja, to the telecom portfolio, as heard in the Radia-tapes. Now when post his appointment, Mr Raja played ball, and choreographed a massive 2G scam, it is only he who is to be held as corrupt, and not the corporations. In fact it will be very well if these corporations are assigned a few new mines in Bastar, where those tribal squatters are living for centuries now. In fact, such may be an outcome of this protest- greater control to the corporates.

Since the politicians are corrupt, and the government systems are beyond repair, let us give greater autonomy to the corporates. It is then little surprise that the corporates are quite vocal about their support to this entire movement.

Let’s then also ponder a moment about something related. Which political party do the majority of corporates (big or small) owe their allegiance to? Is it then not an interesting coincidence that the BJP is very vocally in support of this ‘movement’? And isn’t it a delight to watch them talk of “democratic values”, especially on the morning Mr Hazare was arrested by Delhi Police on the behest of the government (a move which allegedly made the king-in-waiting come out of his slumber, and dress as the knight in shining armour)? This is a party in favour of cutting short all civil liberties and even human dignity, in the name of draconian anti-terror laws. This is a party responsible for Gujarat riots, the state-sponsored pogrom (which, I am sure, killed Muslims in a very democratic fashion).

This then makes BJP the biggest gainer from all this mayhem. I’d suggest, let’s not draw conclusions right now.

Where does all this leave the Congress party? Onto the opposition benches, many may argue (after the next elections, that is). And again, I’d say, let’s not draw conclusions right now.

The congress government is headed by the original miracle worker, from the IMF- the Mecca for all corporates. He is ably assisted by an ex-corporate lawyer, who has stood with the business houses on many occasions through his life. These two are to greater corporate control of national resources, what water is to ice. They will surely find an opportunity to push for more of the same, and keep with them the distinction of being corporate friendly (and hence friendly to ‘development’- one of the Indian synonyms for corporate).

Where does that leave us? Who is fighting against whom? But then, aren’t the most interesting battles those, where you can’t tell the good guys from the bad? Where the enemy-lines are blurred, often invisible?

In fact, this is where this country’s biggest challenge, actually lies-identifying ideological corruption in political life, and curing it. Disappointingly, no one seems interested in fighting for it.

And till that doesn’t happen, the true voice of this country’s real sufferers- the workers and the farmers, shall find no resonance in the corridors that matter. (Their so called representatives, the Left is, well, left somewhere caught up in its own who-to-appease battles). The middle class can continue to consume the definition of India entirely, as it does with the country’s resources.

And we can continue to fight these well-choreographed stage-fights against cosmetically enhanced and ideologically morphed enemies. The middle class can continue to have its cathartic ‘revolution’, get purged of her/his sense of “not giving back to the society”, and then go back to chasing that Indianised American dream.