January 01, 2007

They Are Us Too

Wrote this for the Financial Express, it appeared yesterday 31st. On the road all day, I couldn't pick up a copy, and I can't find it on the web, but I know it did appear because one of you out there called to let me know.

Aside: The travelling has been crazy, and promises to continue that way for some weeks more, but I will once again try to resume a semi-normal schedule of posting here.

The best in 2007 to you reading this.

***

Eighty-something man I know, retired a quarter-century ago after an enthralling and distinguished career with the Government. Told me recently that he wants to write a book titled "Why I Am Ashamed to be Indian."

When I asked in astonishment, he rattled off a litany of downers about India, circa 2006. Riots and the lack of justice for them, caste violence, poor health care for so many people, religious hatreds, government opacity (as opposed to transparency), miserable education for so many people ...

When this man joined the Government, India had just won freedom. His first significant posting was in Punjab, helping with Partition arrangements, escorting some of the streams of humanity who paid the terrible price of politicians' manipulations for power. Yet he remembers clearly the pervasive euphoria, a belief that a country had awakened to new promise.

He also remembers clearly that it wasn't long before the euphoria faded. How long, I once asked. Gone by the mid-1950s, he said. He still found his jobs greatly satisfying, but the optimism dissipated. If possible, that feeling only deepened after he retired.

Why would a man like this feel so despondent and pessimistic -- indeed, ashamed -- about India?

Ah, but that's the point.

Now there's plenty of feel-good stuff making the rounds, plenty of talk about India finally arriving on the world stage, the booming economy (think how often you've heard the word "booming" in recent years), on and on. Certainly there's truth in it all too. I'm no gung-ho cheerleader for a superpower India, but it's a fool who doesn't recognize that there are some profound changes happening around us today, and India's in the thick of them.

Yet with all that, we have a temple in rural Orissa which the High Court had to order opened to visits by lower-caste villagers. And after the first such visits happened, the upper castes closed the temple so that they could "purify" it. Yes, in 21st Century India, a "purification" because fellow humans visit.

We have increasing numbers of small farmers -- in many ways the heart and soul of this country -- swallowing rat poison to kill themselves. In Vidarbha last April, I met the family of one such, took his life over a debt of -- are you ready? -- Rs 2000. Two thousand rupees, and he couldn't pay. Think of that. What does two thousand rupees mean to you? To this man, it was life. Death.

We have a 12-year-long trial that has finally delivered judgements on most of the perpetrators of the blasts of March 1993. But contrast that with no trial at all, let alone judgements, for any of the perpetrators of the riots that preceded those blasts. Not even any signs of a trial. Not even a public consensus that there should be such a trial.

We have a President who, while addressing a huge gathering of IIT alumni, says that IITs "take the best and deliver the best to the world but direct benefits for the nation are minimal." In that spirit, he urges IIT graduates to "design low-cost dwellings with proper sanitation for the needy. India may need 100 million such units in the next five years." If our President is right, he means that these "needy" amount to something like 500 million people, or half the entire country. Half the country, in need of something as basic as housing with sanitation.

India at 60: what must a man who felt that euphoria in 1947, who served his country with distinction, feel now? Is "ashamed" a legitimate answer?

Certainly there's no country without problems, even massive ones. Certainly we should not ignore our successes, nor the plethora of Indians working quietly in their own ways to make this a better place. Sixty years is a substantial age, an achievement by itself. Many other countries that are about that old have succumbed to civil war, or coups. India has not, and that by itself says something about us.

Yet I often feel India is unique in one respect: the desire in so many of us to look away from our problems, to pretend that there are none. Thus the "booming" headlines, the lascivious attention offered to a rising Sensex, the complacency over the power and promise of "free markets". Thus the senior editor who, while instructing me recently on how I should write for him, said: "Just positive stories, DD! You can send the negative ones somewhere else, but for us, only positive stories!"

I mean, the rising Sensex is fine and dandy, and please let's free markets and regulations so the smallest of entrepreneurs has a fair chance to succeed -- but what do we do about that Orissa temple and its assorted purifiers? What do we do to bring justice to too many victims of homegrown terrorism: Delhi 1984, Bombay 1992-93, Gujarat 2002 and more?

When they touch 60, most people have come to understand that life is not solely about the happy news. They understand that life comes with lows just as surely as it brings highs. This is just the way of the world. The way things are.

Why should we not feel similarly about a country -- this country?

So here's something to chew on through the year we touch 60. Speaking to him, I know that the eighty-something year-old is ashamed most of all by the indifference I alluded to. Because when a nation chooses to ignore its problems, they come back redoubled and re-tripled in strength. Lack of justice? Get ready for more terrorism. Huge shortfall in affordable housing? Prepare for ever-more slums. Caste discrimination? Wait for the next Kherlanji, or Laxmanpur-Bathe, choose your own obscure village name.

This year and forward, let's put into practice what we already know: a successful country is one that recognizes and addresses its problems, just as surely as it celebrates its triumphs. Let's find space in our hearts for the negative stories. Because they define who we are and what we can be, as much as any others.

Because they are us too.

7 comments:

Santhosh said...

Dilip,
I'm glad there is places to read such pieces, which increasingly doesn't find place in the 'mainstream' media.

Well, I have to agree such a mindset also influences a few in the blogsphere:
http://ecophilo.blogspot.com/2006/12/how-to-write-about-india.html

aparna said...

Brilliant piece. It was good to read an Indian write this. One more article from the TOI about how India is poised and yes the 'booming' economy, and I shall stop subscribing. How dare we use terms like the 'other India' and talk about the other India being the leash that is pulling back the new India. It is extraordinary but it is a fact that there has been a 'sesession of the successful' who are divorced from the reality of most of the country's population.

Srinivas said...

Naipaul summed it up beautifully in his very first book about India: An Area of Darkness. Nothing really has changed since then. India remains a country of emaciated people, devoid of any sense of self-worth, lacking in vision, with no sense of pride in their work, still circumscribed by barbaric customs, ruled by superstitions.

Even the tiny, latte-sipping, English language media reading minority, currently enjoying a purple patch thanks to IT/BPO boom, is no better than glorified coolies as Praful Bidwai said. They are taken in by the euphoric pronouncements of western pundits, which themselves are based on cursory study and warped perspective derived from limited interactions with the South Bombay elite types. On a side note, it is curious how Indians remain in the thrall of western pundits. How their self assessment remains tied to western perceptions of them. Nothing has changed in 100+ years. Back then, Bengalis waited for the west to recognize Vivekananda and Tagore before suddenly claiming ownership. Today, a Friedman writes a meanignless drivel called the world is flat, and we start congratulating ourselves.

It is interesting to note that western pundits were predicting the imminent break up of India into disintegrate into many nations back in the 1950s and 1960s. Some, such as the famous envriomentalist, Paul Ehrlich, were pronouncing mass starvation and famines. So much for the wisdom of western pundits.

Meanwhile, our own pundits, both left and right have been sorrier. the left keeps waiting, like Godot, for the worm to turn and revolt against the current order. They have been waiting for 60 years. They will have keep waiting. Indians, like cockroaches are good at surviving. They like to prove people like Ehrlich wrong. But like cockroaches they have no self-respect. They are content to live another day.

The right meanwhile looks at recent growth and thinks that "India is resurgent." Nothing could be farther from reality. There is nothing to "resurge" to in first place. Second, when an overwhelming majority of the country still votes on tribal lines (call it caste religion whatever you want), it reflects an utter lack of belief in ones own ability, an person's sense as an individual and a feeling of being able to shape ones destinty that is so vital to any rightist vision of progress.

Fifty years from now, India will remain one of the poorest countries in the world. then, as now, we will be still discussing the same issues. Groundhog day.

One More Reason said...

Dilip,

Suicide for a mere Rs2000 is terrible . Kept thinking about it.

Would you happen to know of a reliable micro finance organization in India? I believe micro finance can help a little bit. I came across this organization called Kiva.org It helps connect individuals with smaller loan needs with individuals who can fund such needs. At the moment they don't have a micro finance partner in India.

Just a thought......

Roshan said...

Happy New Year to you too, Dilip :-)

Jai_Choorakkot said...

Great piece Dilip. Belated new year wishes to all on dcubed.

1. Lack of justice? Get ready for more terrorism.

Sadly I think we are. You have several pieces on this theme; without much disputing this point 'cause' I hope you will also be able to encompass the 'effects' of terrorism at some point.

I would say that terrorism dominates and overwhelms any underlying issue. Once a counter-violence cycle is started, it can become self-sustaining and will persist even after any core issues are addressed.

2. OT sorry
Dilip would you pls consider a response to the India vs. India piece by TOI-Times Now (I think they call it India poised), in this space or HTOHL. This article itself is a part response but with a heavy hitter like Amitabh fronting that, perhaps it deserves a specific response.

"the other india IS the leash" ... sheesh!

regards,
Jai

digital signature Adobe Reader said...

I agree on his point about Riots and the lack of justice for them, caste violence, poor health care for so many people, religious hatreds, government opacity (as opposed to transparency), miserable education for so many people .But who is behind this all .Not one person obviously