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Christmas in Telangana

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The Telangana issue defies any resolution and now drags into its sixth week of open agitation. Hyderabad is once again on strike until the New Year; the buses have halted, the stores closed, and the city’s 2.5 million workers are taking a week off. The pretext for this recent outburst lies in the Congress Party’s qualification of its promise two weeks ago for an independent Telangana.

The Telangana masses, drunk with emotion, burned and rioted their way to a favorable statement from Congress, the ruling party. And only now, three weeks later, did they realize that the Congress Party has no say in this matter, that this is a question only India’s Parliament can definitely decide. When they were told as much, the Telangana leaders became infuriated and began spouting epithets about “betrayal”, “lies,” and so forth. K. Chandrashekar Rao, the leader of the separatists, thundered in a speech yesterday that Telangana would “go nuclear” if its demands were not met, that all 100 Telangana Members of Parliament and Legislators would resign simultaneously, adding to India’s storied history of constitutional crises. He also vaguely threatened that the strikes would devolve into violence, but this will likely happen with or without his benediction.

How indicative of the essential dysfunction in Indian politics, that it took three weeks to realize Parliament’s role in this affair! Any declaration of state separation is, after all, completely illegal without parliamentary approval, yet until now this apparently had not occurred to anyone. Two weeks ago everyone took it as given that if Sonia Gandhi (India’s un-elected puppetmaster) decided to separate Telangana, then bang it would go. Only now do they realize that India is not, after all, an open dictatorship; that Parliament, degraded though it may be, still carries at least some significance.

So, once again, Hyderabad is treated to the chanting processions, the emotional speeches, and occasional outbursts of violence. Superficially, one can see this as a stark affirmation of the endless divisions plaguing India, of the tribal mentality ( if you’ll pardon the expression) that pervades India’s politics. Anthropologists call it “coalition thinking”, Orwell was content to call it “nationalism”, but the result is the same tendency to mix one’s identity in with a larger group, to consider an attack upon one an attack on the whole, to be willing to light one’s self on fire rather than sacrifice group “prestige”.

A friend tried to explain it to me in American terms: “You know how in America you have white people and black people? Just like that, here we have ‘Andhra’ and ‘Telangana’.” He exaggerated, but not very grossly. Relations have not yet degenerated into institutional slavery, but people who hail from the coast undeniably consider themselves different from interior-dwellers. They speak the same language, but the most minor differences in slang are inflated to demonstrate their separateness. And every group wants its intrests to be put first; every group holds the other with cool contempt.

The Andhra-Telangana dispute is just one symptom of this line of thinking, and it goes far beyond state rivalries. Every language group is its own coalition, every geographical area, every caste, every sub-caste. I recently read of a massacre perpetrated by the higher-order castes in a nearby village, something which happens too often in India. A dalit (“untouchable”) had dared to use the public water-pump, and for that the villagers got together and lynched 40 members of his caste; their houses burned, and the corpses of their children were thrown in a pile outside the village. The thought process behind such an atrocity defies reason. One person’s “mistake”  counted as a collective transgression – and punishment went not only to him, but to his caste at large.

“In this country, we only care about ourselves,” explained a man on the street, “If I have food to eat, if my children are well, what more should I bother? What’s mine is mine. You worry about yourself.” His English stuttered, but he expressed his meaning with sparkling clarity. “Once we stop thinking like this, our country will be number one. What progress can there be when nobody cares about her? [and here he pointed to the pictured woman above.]”

But apart from the selfishness and nationalism of Indian politics, the Telangana issue is but one battle in an ongoing political dispute in India over the ideal size of its states. This argument has precedent going back to independence, when large swaths of India were carved into administrative provinces; first corresponding to the British system, then along linguistic lines, and now, to judge by the history of the past month, any group who agitates with sufficient vigor can form a state. The dispute sees a fairly even split along party lines: the Congress Party, India’s most powerful, prefers large states, and the various other parties, with their alphabet soup of names (BJP, TDP, TRS, CPI, CPI (M), CPI (M-L), etc.) favor smaller districts. Each claims their plan will allow for “efficiency”, “rural development”, “better use of resources”, and so forth – but no one seems to know which is actually better.

Of course, it would not be very difficult to conduct a survey, taking all relevent variables into account, and arrive at a definitive answer as to the ideal size of administrative districts. But it is a powerful feature of Indian politics that such a survey would never happen, that the various coalitions will sit content in their self-assured outrage. An issue which could, conceivably, be decided once and for all, finds itself artificially prolonged.

I do not know whether Telangana will succeed in its ambitions, much less do I care. I do know that India’s problems – its fearful poverty, its grossly unequal distribution, its lung-withering pollution, its systemic corruption – are much larger than this petty regional dispute. Still more do I know that the students and citizens now engaging in battle with the police could not be compelled to march in favor of clean air or an end to India’s stratified society. Some of this spectacle’s more cynical observers acknowledge that even if they get Telangana, nothing substantial will change; they will only have exchanged one corrupt set of rulers for another.

But to secure that exchange, the public burns its buses, and crack goes the police baton on the protesters’ heads. Taking in the emotional chants and the endless marches under the beating sun, one cannot help but think: How different it would be, were they to march against hunger, against farmer suicides, against the blue haze that permeates every major city! With what a voice could they rise against the staggering corruption, the millionaire legislators, the all-powerful police constables! The extent to which one becomes sensitized to such circumstances never ceases to amaze. Dostoevsky was right: Man can get used to anything.

After coughing abundantly on the blue smoke of the auto-rickshaws perpetually swarming through Hyderabad, I turned to a friend in disgust. And he shrugged! “What can one do? That’s the way things are” – it was the same response I receive when discussing corruption in Indian politics, how more than 40 convicted criminals contested last month’s municipal electons. “Politicians are corrupt – what can you do?” I have not spoken with one Indian who denies that their country’s terrifying overpopulation. Yet they take it as a matter of course that one must marry and have children. “Cheh, you must have children! Two or three at least! Otherwise how will you live?”

A peculiar strain of escapism pervades this Telangana movement. The Indian youth desires nothing more than to escape the corruption, the poverty, the mind-boggling overpopulation, the roads choked with filth, and make a nice life for themselves in America. But if they can’t? Well, then at least they have their regional pride – at least they can agitate for Telangana! It is a proxy issue, a veiled symptom of a far deeper illness. That the masses of India remain petulant, divided, in the face of it all might suggest, as V.S Naipaul once suggested, a “defect of vision”, which no measure of “development” has yet corrected.

Looking forward to India’s future, I am pessimistic. An auto-rickshaw driver gave me a toothless grin as he pulled out seven soiled, crumpled black-and-white photographs. His seven children.

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Written by pavanvan

December 24, 2009 at 9:26 pm

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