Friday, January 23, 2015

India 2015 - The Fragility of Future

Some time back, on the eve of the 2014 General Elections in India, I wrote about the Indian Republic (see Resurrecting The Republic) as perhaps the greatest achievement of India, and hoped that the Indian electorate would vote sensibly to protect it. I argued then that handing out the Hindu Nationalists a mandate may endanger whatever we have achieved so far. I feared that we might have taken the Republic and the democracy for granted and might, therefore, stand to lose it.

A few months on, the Hindu Nationalist take-over has happened, with some predictable outcomes. The development talk continues to dominate the agenda, with the government making tall proclamations while back-pedaling on the old ones. The greatest achievement of the new government so far has been a slew of development friendly ordinances, ten in eight months in office, which they have adopted without reference to the Parliament. So far, there was not much of economic good news, except the Bombay Stock Exchange achieving some breathtaking heights and the global petroleum prices collapsing to give the middle class at least one commodity where prices have really gone down. 

Instead, as expected, there were some really game-changing social developments. The conversions to Hinduism reached a fever pitch and the government planning to ban all religious conversions on the back of it (apparently to stop its own Hinduvta champions, but to put the Christian missionaries and others out of business). The MPs have gone around preaching Hindus to have more children, 4 or 5 at the least as recommended, to keep growing the majority population and to keep the Islamic conspiracy of over-running India with Muslim children at bay. As an aside, one of the MPs preaching such population strategy also prescribed what to do with all the children of Hinduvta, with the middle one being duly sent to the Army. The newly assertive Education Ministry has engaged itself in promoting traditional values in education, and have pushed for Sanskrit, the traditional language, being taught in the universities. Nathuram Godse, the Hindu nationalist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for being too soft to Muslims and Pakistan, was back in mainstream conversation, and a statue of his has gone up in Meerut, not far from Delhi. The national anthem of India, which, at its heart, uphold a cosmopolitan vision of India, has been questioned - and an alternative song, Vande Mataram, has been promoted as truly Indian instead.

I can indeed be accused of exaggerating the bad news and not talking about the new shopping malls, roads or bridges that may have been constructed in the last few months. I have surely heard the excited talk in business circles - I was present when Gopichand Hinduja informed an Indian delegation his joy of getting his long-stalled infrastructure projects cleared only in a few weeks after the new government took power - and know of the great triumphs the Indian Prime Minister has scored with the Non-Residents in the few short months with his business-like approach. But, I am talking about the Republic and not the Stock Exchange, which, important as it may be, belongs to a separate sphere. And, for the Republic, the social stirrings I describe may be more significant than the shopping malls, and we should be mindful that the new India may be more tolerant to the idea of Military Rule than inter-marriage across castes or religion.

I am conscious that this commentary, and the title I have chosen, may appear pessimistic. However, pessimistic we should not be. The fragility I refer to is to invite caution, not to give up hope. The events I mention are exceptions, even if significant. We should be mindful of them, but they don't, at least yet, define India. And, the broader point I want to make is that the good news of India progressing is not in the new roads and shopping malls, but in the the small, significant, individual resistance of the all-compassing embrace of development rhetoric. Among these, the best news I have recently come across is the stand by the students of Jadavpur University, from Kolkata, which, despite its limited agenda, illustrates that not everyone has surrendered themselves to the convenience of career and money. And, though the Hindu nationalists continue to dominate the political agenda, winning over one state government after another (which, if it continues, will give them enough powers to effect major constitutional changes in India by 2017), one can still hope that the Indiab democracy to stay its course through the resistance of individuals such as these.

On the eve of the Republic Day, then, we must spare a thought for the Republic. We have come to take it for granted, but this is our Ask-Not moment. Without being alarmist, we must recognise the existential threat that our grand idea faces, and that we must re-imagine to protect our cherished, modern, Indian identity. India is an idea after all, and like all ideas, it needs an act of commitment from time to time. And, by such commitment, and nothing else, we can prove ourselves to be worthy of the grand vision that we inherited, of a poor but democratic nation, an illiterate but tolerant land, which, by being itself, present the best hope for humanity. It is a responsibility, if I am re-invoking Kennedy,  that we must bear. 



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