India versus Bharat

This post is a reaction to Aatish Taseer's evocative obituary of secular India in the Atlantic (read here). 

While I agree with it mostly - and share the reservations about the direction and the future of India - I differ with the author on one key aspect: I do not agree with his portrayal of a resurgent Bharat eating up a secular India. 

In fact, I believe while Mr Taseer regrets the Indian elite's loss of connection with the realities of day to day life of the country, his very presentation of Bharat and India as oppositional entities stems from that incomprehension. While I understand that he is only using these categories as RSS uses them - to effectively other the English-speaking elites and non-Hindus - I believe it is a mistake to describe the profound changes in contemporary India as the ascendance of Bharat. 

I grew up in Bharat. I never learnt English until late in life, when I started working. My growing-up world was one of small-town India, vernacular schooling and cycle of religious festivals. As a boy, I prayed so that I can do well in examinations and fervently believed in Astrology. Our annual holiday trips were often to the places of pilgrimage around India, and I did not get into an Aeroplane until I was 26 years old. 

I was, and still am, a 'somewhere' man - I know where my home is. And, while I went on to study and live abroad, India is still my 'holy land' - of the ashes of my fathers and of temples of my Gods - regardless of the travel document I may hold for the convenience of my wandering about. And, indeed, I wanted to travel to learn, to get to know India - to arrive where I started and know the place for the first time! None of this makes me a footloose cosmopolitan - my appearance and accent should be evidence enough - and definitely not a left-liberal, another contemporary label which makes no sense to me.

Yet, this Bharat is neither the one Savarkar imagined nor the one Mr Taseer conjures up. For a starter, this Bharat was not angry. The distant Babus of Delhi did limit the opportunities and the bureaucratic life in India did put up barriers everywhere; a few people with right schooling and right accent did get all the right opportunities. But people like me, people around me, had hope. We did not blame and we recognised everyone around us were on the same boat.

Indeed, I am not claiming that there was no bigotry. Elderly relatives did make me a caste-aware and everyday language was replete with discriminatory terms directed towards immigrants from neighbouring states. Hindus and Muslims generally lived apart, but there was no apartheid at work or education; indeed, we knew where the best Biriyanis were. However, no one was questioning anyone's right to live in India; the idea of India was not fragile and we did not go around questioning everyone's loyalties.

My point is that Bharat is not ascendant today. This has been chipped away, bit by bit, by the 'liberalisation' of the 90s. A new ideal life, one outside our communities, where happiness is defined by freedom to own and freedom to consume, tempted us out of our safe zones. Indeed, we were lifted out of poverty [or, for us the middling sorts, our lives became more colourful, with 23 brands of soaps, fancier cars and a new consciousness about our waistlines] and perhaps out of boredom. The transformation of work popped the bubbles of language we lived inside (and I had to learn English) and made us travel to other towns for work. But the package, delivered through our Achilles heel of hope, came with other stuff too: Money became central to our lives, we lost control over our labours and our desires, we gave up on politics and any hope of affecting any social change. In short, these ushered us into a new world of social indifference and selfish existence that we did not know before.

This was an act of deliberate disruption. The excuse of dismantling the license raj was only partially true: India still remained one of the most regulated economies. The changes were muddled, often favouring special interests and crony capitalists. The whole idea centred around giving global finance a progressively greater role in everyday life. Life for a start-up entrepreneur did not become easier; the honest businessman remained an oxymoron. Just the stock indices were higher and real estate was pricier. The only thing that flourished is a life of smokes-and-mirrors and most people, outside a few metropolitan cities, were mostly spectators.

Most importantly, we went through the years of liberalization without any fundamental rethinking of education, politics or social policy. Some states did better than others, but there was no coherent conversation other than a dehumanising talk about 'skills' as if human beings exist to be sacrificed on the altar of the global economy. There was very little thinking about work as well: strategic industries developed little, regional imbalances worsened and the agriculture was sustained on handouts rather than any serious attempts to modernise it. Banks handed out loans to crony capitalists, who promptly used it to buy apartments in London and New York. The rewards for corruption and criminality far outweighed the possible benefits of a decent life; the country reached a point where 'decency' became a laughable object.

It may appear different from Mr Taseer's vantage point, but Bharat died first. Bharat was not, regardless of the ideological descriptions of it, opposed to the post-independence idea of India. Instead, it was the 'ballast' that steadied the republic. And, my borrowing of Gustav Stresemann's metaphor is deliberate: The waning of Bharat has created the opening for a group of cynical opportunists to grab political power in India. What we see now is not a hegemony of ideology; it is a hegemony of money, of naked appropriation of the national economy. 

Take, for example, the revocation of the Special Status of Kashmir last year, the Indian government's most high profile move. It was some sort of perfect political move: The constitutional provision for the territory was a legacy of another era and most people, who opposed the way it was done, were perfectly comfortable with its objective. With Pakistan strategically its weakest - friendless in the world and divided politically - India's move made abundant geopolitical sense. But it was apparent - in the immediate aftermath of the move - government's favourite businessmen are already lining up mining and extraction projects in the territory. Under the ideological headline, a big win for the RSS, the agenda looked like as anti-Bharat as one could imagine. There was nothing sacred in blowing up mountain-tops and diverting the courses of rivers that nourished the ancient Indian civilisation!

In conclusion, India is changing and deliberately so. Mr Modi made it clear that he wants to 'found' a second republic. But we will misread the events if we see it as an ideological turn, a win for Bharat, a way-back machine. What's underway is exactly what's underway in America: An opportunist administration imposing a corporatist agenda on a directionless polity. Mr Taseer is right: The English-speaking Indian elite blew it. They destroyed the life that kept them in power and left a void to be filled by money. And, so it has been.


riverine said…

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