The Reasoned Review

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Posts Tagged ‘india

India’s Sexual Revolution

with 2 comments

Tehelka has an outstanding piece in this week’s issue about the hyper-sexualization of Indian culture which you should definitely read. In a land where only one generation ago arranged marriages were the norm and pre-marital abstinence a steel command, India’s youth have undergone a startling shift in accepted mores.

At this moment thousands of Indian parents are uneasily wondering whether they really want to know what is going on. Mini’s parents still don’t know how to deal with what they found out. Mini is a dainty, extremely pretty 14-year-old. When she was 12, her first boyfriend and she were both eager to claim BTDT (Been There, Done That) about oral sex. One evening at home alone, they tried it out, anticipating a definite move up the social ladder. Sure enough, the next day at school her friends congratulated her even while making faces at the slight grossness in ‘going down’ on a boy.

_____________________

Dr Prakash Kothari, founder of the World Association For Sexual Health, a man familiar to India through his ubiquitous sex columns, says that one reason children are sexually active earlier is because better nutrition leads to earlier puberty. He says of his new, young clients: “Thirty years ago, only married couples came in looking for advice on safe sex and contraceptives. Today, young girls and boys walk in and ask about sex toys and tonics. Some even ask us if being high on LSD andcharas will enhance their sexual experience.”

Tehelka gets major points for noting the influence of American television:

Alisha describes the extent of OC role-play in her circle: Alisha’s slender best friend was considered to be like rail-thin Marissa from the show. Alisha, who used to be plump until recently, was automatically typecast as Marissa’s best friend Summer since the girls considered Summer chubby. (Look up Rachel Bilson, the waifish actress who plays Summer, and decide for yourself whether our kids are gripped with hatred for their bodies.) The identification with these shows is so close that Alisha’s best friend decided to “do it” with her boyfriend after OC’s lead couple, Ryan and Marissa, did it for the first time. The pressure then began for Alisha (aka best friend Summer) to also ‘pop the cherry’. All this is recounted without any sense of its bizarreness.

But fails to take into account what I believe to be a major factor in this trend: the ever-rising age of marriage. 50 years ago this kind of blatant promiscuity may have been uncommon, but teenage sex was practiced and widespread. Except the teenagers tended to be married. I have no statistics on hand, but my grandmother, to take the most parochial example, was married and had her first child by age 16. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, was married as an infant and first discovered sex at age 13. No one thought very much of it at the time.

Today, among the upper classes, women and men are generally expected to marry in their mid-to-late twenties, respectively. But they are also expected to keep to the same traditions as their parents’ generation, including arranged marriages and strict abstinence. A child that reaches sexual maturity at age 14-16 but is expected to wait a full decade before “popping the cherry” (as the vulgar expression goes), will almost inevitably engage in promiscuity at some point.

The average age of marriage has gone up across the socioeconomic spectrum, but nowhere has the trend been as acute as among the upper-classes. I think it is telling that they are who comprise most of the anecdotes for the Tehelka piece. Among the middle and lower classes (where the average age dips down to the early 20s to late teens),  I should imagine one would find this sort of thing quite a bit less.

I don’t want to make too much of this point, because I think the rise of American television in India is the real culprit, as Tehelka mentions. But I want to also point out the conspiracy of silence that still surrounds sexual matters in Indian culture. Most Indian children would be horrified to discuss these issues with their parents, and their parents no less so. It’s the ultimate taboo. In my own experience, my parents didn’t speak a word of it to me – they left that for the school.

But sex education is almost nonexistent in India, and many states have actually banned teaching sex education in schools. The Internet is a dirty place, as you know, and the television shows these children watch (Tehelka mentions The OC and Gossip Girl) contain scenes that would be impossible for a child to understand. With all adults refusing to speak of it, it is natural they should get a warped perception.

However despite all these rationalizations, this is a very disturbing trend in Indian society, and though Tehelka must have sensationalized it a bit, I think it is a valuable lesson in how children, in an absence of understanding adults, will interpret their new cultural surroundings.

Written by pavanvan

April 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Posted in culture

Tagged with , , , , ,

Short Fiction: Two Views of a Street

leave a comment »

I.

The white sedan crawled down the Indian thoroughfare. In front, the driver gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, ever alert, ever watchful. A child ran in front of the car, and with a slight a motion, he pressed the brake. A cacophony of noise surrounded the vehicle; thousands of bodies swarmed in and out of shops lining the street. The road lay choked with vehicles blaring their horns and contributing to the white haze hanging above. It was a starry night.

Behind the driver, in the spacious rear compartment, Mohan was taking his family out to dinner – or trying to. His wife, docile and uneducated, gave her restaurant preference as she did all else: “You know what is best.” Mohan, having just grown richer through a series of land deals outside the city, wanted to spend the evening in style. Their son, Kumar, age 16, sulked in the back, not saying a word. They decided upon Pizza Hut, which they referred to as “Pidja Hut”.

It was an awkward journey. Mohan, his mind still reeling from the millions of rupees he pulled in that week, thought of what he could do with it. The smart thing, these days, was to give it to the Americans. Now they knew how to make money! You give a cool million to some white entrepreneur, watch your money double! Stock market, buildings, IT sector – it was all booming. You just had to be careful not to invest in a fraud, something Mohan was sure his American partner would be able to avoid.

At the back of his mind he thought of his teenage son. His wife had found a small bottle of liquor in his backpack two weeks ago, and they still hadn’t confronted him. Mohan began to wonder if they would – or should. After all, were these not the same freedoms he worked so hard to provide for his son? The freedom to be rebellious, to be free of tradition, from the need to work incessantly not to starve? A confrontation would only alienate their son – and he was all they had.

Mohan looked out the window and saw a man and his daughter huddled beneath an overpass. Their filthy rags gleamed in the streetlight. Mohan’s wife, Parvati, looked out the same window at the same scene – and perhaps thought the same as Mohan: That is what we worked to avoid. Our son may be a lout, but at least he’s a rich lout!

As if reading their thoughts, Kumar piped up: “Listen, when will you get me those Reebok shoes? You know I need them for school.”

Mohan laughed, a booming laugh: “Oh, we’ll get them tomorrow, I suppose, but for now, aren’t you excited? You love Pidja Hut.”

Kumar sniffed. They were driving through an affluent portion of town, and dozens of signs and billboards assaulted Kumar’s eyes: Reebok, Nike, McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren, Levi’s. Kumar wanted them all.

“Look, the store’s right here,” he whined, “Couldn’t we just stop and get them now? In America they say: ‘Shoes make the man.’.”

“Ah, but we are not in America!” Mohan was in a playful mood. The transgression with the liquor momentarily forgotten, he ribbed his son. “Reebok-Geebok – what is all this? You know when I was your age I wore sandals made of old tires!”

“When you were my age, you couldn’t get Reebok in India,” Kumar said, “All of my classmates have them – why shouldn’t I? They’ll make fun of me! I’ll be miserable without them. What kind of father are you, anyway?” Kumar’s tone was not playful.

Mohan laughed, nervously this time, “Take it easy, Kumar – I’ll get them for you.”

Parvati watched the exchange in silence. She had seen it play out a thousand times, for brand-name clothes, for a television in Kumar’s room, to justify Kumar’s school-marks which descended every year, for Kumar’s ever-growing allowance. She wondered where her son spent the thousands of rupees monthly, and refrained from asking only out of fear for the answer.

Mohan was proud of the things he could buy his son, proud of the business acumen which allowed him to rise above the teeming millions, but he wondered whether his long work hours and scarce interaction had poisoned his relationship with Kumar. At such times he always made an effort to connect with his son, efforts which he increasingly believed were a waste. They followed a similar pattern.

Mohan cleared his throat. “So, Kumar, tell me… how are your studies?”

Kumar looked up from his cell phone, on which he was writing a text message to his friends: “meet at pub 10:30 PM”. “Fine,” he said, “why do you ask?”

“Any subject you’re interested in particularly?”, asked Mohan.

“No, not really…”

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be rich like you.”

“What do you think will be your vehicle to riches?”

At this point, Kumar invariably grew irritated. “How should I know?”, he snapped, “I’m only 16! What, don’t you make enough money to support us? I’ll think of some way when the time comes.”

“Your grades have been slipping,” Mohan said hesitantly. It was a sensitive subject.

“Not this again! I told you, I’ll improve them! What more do you want from me? I’m doing the best I can!” Kumar crossed his arms and began to pout.

“All right, all right,” said Mohan, not wanting to fight, “So how are your friends doing?”

“They’re fine,” said Kumar.

Mohan could not think of what else to ask. Kumar broke the silence.

“Oh, speaking of them, I need some money. Maybe 2,000 rupees?”

“2,000?” Mohan feigned shock. “I just gave you 5,000 last week! What did you spend it on?”

Kumar shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, you know, this and that – I went out a couple times with my friends – you know how it is.” He did not want to say he would spend it that night after dinner at the pub.

“Well, I’m sorry, Kumar”, said Mohan, “I need to teach you to be responsible with money.”

Kumar turned red. “Mom!” he exploded, “Tell Dad to give me some money! I’m a good soon to you aren’t I? I don’t deserve this! All my friends get to go out with money in their pockets – how can I show up like a pauper?”

“Oh, Mohan, just give him what he wants, poor thing – he doesn’t ask us for much, does he?” said Parvati, “How much did you make this week? What’s a paltry 5,000 rupees?”

Mohan quailed. He could not stand up to both Parvati and Kumar. He knew would give his son the money he asked, but did not want to know what he would spend it on.

This world of pubs and girls, of drinking and partying, of drugs and alcohol, was totally alien to Mohan. They had none of those things when Mohan grew up. For him it was study, study, study – and face a beating if you did not make the grade. He worked hard, miserable, throughout high school and university, and slogged his way through the ranks of a construction company, where he was an overseer, before leaving to work as an independent contractor. A few well-placed bribes, some insightful business deals, and Mohan could give his son the youth he never had. He would send Kumar to England to study – maybe even the United States. There he would learn business. There he would live the life Mohan could only dream of.

Kumar thought of the fun he would have after this ordeal with his parents. One of his friends had scored some marijuana; there would be girls, cigarettes, and plenty of beer at the pub. He felt not a tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. Was this not what life was about? These nerds who sat up all night studying, they were dead – worse than dead; they were their parents’ creature. Kumar was free.

Parvati thought of the television shows she was missing on this excursion. She wondered if their servant had completed the housework.

Kumar said, “Listen, you just take the driver home after dinner; I’ll meet up with my friends and take a cab.”

Mohan said, “What will you and your friends be doing?”

Kumar said with irritation, “Look, I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we meet. Why do you ask? You don’t trust me?”

Mohan was silent.

Parvati said, “Well, have fun. Don’t stay out too late.”

Kumar said, “Why not? I don’t have school tomorrow.”

Parvati was silent.

The driver heard everything.

II.

On a busy thoroughfare in India, a white sedan passed Gopal, who lived with his family underneath an overpass. This was their home, noisy and open though it was, and Gopal was proud of it. A migrant laborer, his experiences included working on a cotton plantation, standing in ankle-deep water for hours picking rice, and moving to the city to join the million day laborers who made the buildings rise. An accident at a construction site (for which he received no compensation) ended his industrial career and left him with a gamey leg and no employment prospects.

He had taken to rooting through garbage dumpsters for recyclable goods at night to earn an extra few rupees. He spent his days under the scorching sun by the roadside, begging what loose change could be extracted from the wealthy inhabitants of the neighborhood. Lately, they had grown stingy. On a good day, he could scrape together enough for some rice and lentils for him and his children. On a bad day, they went without lentils. His wife had died nine years before, giving birth to his second child, Pallavi. His son Sunil, age 15, and his daughter were all he had in the world.

It had been a good day. Gopal had returned three hundred bottles and netted 75 rupees. Sunil would return with at least 100 rupees. They would have lentils tonight, and could maybe even splurge on a bottle of Kinley brand fresh water.

Out of the rushing chaos in the street, Gopal saw Sunil approach.

“What kind of work did you find today, son?” he asked.

“Oh, father! I got a job at a shopping mall! Security, top class! They gave 150 rupees for the day!”

This was an unexpected windfall. Gopal hated that his son had to work, but with a 9-year-old sister and a crippled father, Sunil had little choice. Regular employment was far out of Sunil’s reach; instead, like many children of his economic means, he took odd jobs as they came: one day as construction worker, another as an amateur mechanic, a third serving tea in one of the city’s innumerable cafes. Few employers were looking for regular help – it was so much easier, after all, to hire unskilled labor by the day. You pay them less that way. Sunil was flush with pleasure – mall security was one of the most sought-after jobs for children like him: simple and lucrative.

Pallavi stirred from her bed, a heap of rags.

“Sunil! I was worried abut you. What did you bring me?”

She grinned a gap-toothed smile.

“Ah, little sister, do you think I had forgotten you? Here, one of the pakkas at the mall dropped this.”

In his outstretched hand lay a plastic guitar pick.

“What is it?” she asked before putting it in her mouth.

“No, no, this is what they use to play guitar. You know, like the rock stars.” Sunil pantomimed a rock star. “Here, with this you’ll grow up to be the most famous musician in India!”

Pallavi laughed with pleasure, but a passing bus obscured the sound.

Gopal looked around for a police officer and started a small fire. Fires were illegal, but one of the few ways for the city’s homeless to cook their food.

“Here Pallavi” he said, “go get two bottles of water and some buttermilk. When you come back we’ll have nice, hot rice and dal.”

Pallavi smiled and sprang to action.

When she was gone, Gopal turned to Sunil.

“Did you have a good day at work?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, father,” said Sunil, “The sun was not so hot today, and they let me go after only ten hours.”

Gopal’s face assumed a pained expression. “You shouldn’t have to work like this,” he began, “A boy your age… you should be in school. I wish you were in school.”

“No, no. Not at all,” said Sunil. This was a frequent conversation between him and his father, one in which he refused to feel the slightest self-pity. “I tell you, I am happy working to feed my family. Listen, at the mall today I saw so many kids my age. They had the nice clothes – the jeans, the T-shirt – walking in and out of the stores. They must have spent thousands of rupees on those clothes. And food! KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. But then I think – it all looks the same when it comes out the other end, doesn’t it?” Sunil smiled, “This rice and dal we eat, those pizzas they eat – it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?”

“What a good son I have,” said Gopal, “I only wish he had as good a father.”

“You are a good father, and I am a good brother,” said Sunil, “We must think now of Pallavi, the little one. If we can avoid taking her out of school, at least we will have that success. She’s a smart girl – who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next CEO of Pepsi!”

Gopal laughed. “And maybe my leg will heal itself.”

Sunil smiled, “It isn’t so improbable as all that. Anyway, my life is pretty much set. What university will take an 8th class dropout? But Pallavi – if we can make sure she stays in school and gets good grades, she could easily get a place at a top university.”

Tears sprang to Gopal’s eyes. “You are truly your mother’s son,” he said, “Now let us tend to the food. The water is boiling – do you have the rice?”

They poured four cups of rice into the boiling water, covered the tin pail, and began preparing to boil the lentils. Gopal sang softly to himself. He had raised two fine children, alone, and with a game leg to boot. He felt proud. He was happy.

Half a kilometer away, a crowd began to form. Gopal and Sunil could hear sirens in the distance.

Gopal shouted to a friend across the street: “What’s going on? Some big-shot actor with police protection?”

His friend shouted back: “I think there was an accident. Let me go find out!”

He left and returned.

“I couldn’t get through the crowd,” he reported, “But I think a little girl was struck by a car. All anyone could make out was a white vehicle speeding away. A hit and run! The bastards!”

Written by pavanvan

March 24, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Telangana Reflections: Three Months Later

leave a comment »

Three months after the eruption of Telangana’s latest independence movement, I want to take a few minutes to examine the issue at large. This dispute has caused so much fury and hatred on both “sides” that it’s easy to forget the genuine historical issues that lie at its root. Every two weeks or so, the students at Osmania University begin new demonstrations. The suicides have not ceased – in fact, they’ve accelerated. A bright young chemical engineering student, age 20, hanged himself a few days ago, leaving a note that specifically identified the delay over Telangana’s statehood as the reason for his death. He joins at least one hundred who have successfully killed themselves for this issue, and several hundred who have tried.

The many supporters of Telangana’s statehood with whom I’ve spoken invariably bring up the historical injustices their region has suffered. These date back to the pre-independence era, when the Nizam of Hyderabad, an “independent prince”, ruled Telangana as a fiefdom within the British Empire. The areas now comprising Andhra were under direct British rule, and as a result, those from Andhra gained exposure to the English language and institutions. This, of course, put them at a natural advantage after Independence, when India adopted an English administrative language and a government modeled after Britain’s.

India’s independence was a bloody, sorrow-filled affair that brought with it a raft of state-related problems, in many ways similar to Telangana’s present dispute. In 1956, the States Reorganization Act divided India along “linguistic” lines, wherein they tried to give every major language group its own state. Ironically, Andhra Pradesh was itself born of such a struggle, as the Reorganization Act largely sprang from agitations for a Telegu-speaking state, what later became Andhra Pradesh.

Any Telegu-speaking state would have to include Telangana, and so it joined the new Andhra Pradesh by what is now known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement”, which stipulated that Telangana be given a certain percentage of state spending with respect to population along with several other demands. Most notably, Telangana demanded – and got- an escape clause which would allow it to secede from Andhra Pradesh at any point it should wish. Later, Andhra tried to forget this aspect, but it forms the central part of Telangana’s legal argument for secession.

The Andhra Pradesh government violated the agreement before the ink dried. In not one year after the signing did Telangana receive any of the promised investment. The region was already “underdeveloped” with comparison to the Andhra region due to its separation from the British Empire and the pervasive corruption of its previous ruler, the Nizam. After centuries of feudal serfdom under the Nizam, Telangana found it had merely traded one oppressor for another.

The statistics bear this out. Telangana has received only 13% of irrigation projects in the state, and it faces discrimination in employment, education, health services, and many other areas. The average citizen of Telangana is noticeably worse off when compared an average citizen of Andhra.

In 1969, Telangana exploded into secession demonstrations that the Andhra police brutally suppressed, killing 300. And then began a long and humiliating list of “programmes” – the “Six-point plan”, the “Eight-Point programme”, etc – each valid only on paper. They essentially put the issue on permanent back-burner, allowing Telangana’s frustrations to slowly simmer for forty years, until now, when they again boiled over.

Irrigation is a major thorn. Telangana lies naturally on a plateau, and rivers tend to flow away from it. To add to that, the Andhra government built two dams that diverted away what little water reached Telangana. As a result, Telangana farmers find themselves at the mercy of the rains. Two or three years of uncertain rainfall, as they’ve just experienced, can utterly ruin them. The monsoons were three months late last year, and no one in India can afford the luxury of climate change denial. Each summer is hotter than the one before it. Telangana, being rain-fed, stands to lose the most. In many ways, this issue can be seen through a climate perspective.

Detractors of Telangana’s statehood generally employ “practical” arguments as to why it would be unwise to grant Telangana independence. Often, they refer, with no intended irony, to Telangana’s historical deprivation as a reason it “needs” Andhra to help it ‘develop’. I have even heard one vehement opponent claim that “they [people from Telangana] are just lazy – they don’t want to work and expect jobs to come to them.” Some level of overt discrimination is thus apparent, at least among certain circles – wealthy ones, I should imagine.

Others wonder whether Telangana will still rely on the fertile Andhra plains after it becomes independent, given the terrifying food inflation rate in India – a sore point to raise since a major aspect of this crisis is agrarian.

One also hears the problem of Hyderabad as a good reason this dispute ought to be evaded, or even ignored. Hyderabad is the capital of the consolidated Andhra Pradesh state, and it happens to be right in the center of Telangana. One reason why Andhra wanted Telangana so badly, many contend, is Hyderabad’s attraction as a capital. The Andhra region has no suitable city. And whether by deliberate planning or unconscious will, Andhra’s significant investment in Hyderabad (“colonization”, some would call it) became an unspoken claim to the land.

Hyderabad now stands as perhaps the fourth most-developed city in India, and it has attracted a surge of foreign investment. The city, hazy and overcrowded as it is, now sports dozens of shopping malls, every major fast-food chain, a “world-class” international airport, a burgeoning IT sector, four 5-star hotels, and a jet-set of American and European businessmen, promising to “do business”.

At various press conferences I’ve attended in my capacity as a newspaper intern I’ve heard Indian scientists, businessmen, and politicians, all talking about how Hyderabad knows no recession, how it will become a “world city” by 2015. Over the last two months, these pronouncements have had a tinge of worry to them. Everyone “knows” – or thinks they know – that if Hyderabad goes to Telangana, investment will be ‘scared off’.

One hears often how we must protect “Brand Hyderabad” at all costs. At press conferences and business luncheons, the Caucasian benefactors from America or Europe, those who write the checks, can be seen clucking their tongues in dismay. These protests are “bad for business”.

“Pragmatism” aside, however ,I think it should be clear that Telangana has suffered severe discrimination, and that they deserve some sort of redress for the historical disadvantage at which they find themselves. Further, they’ve been lied to, systemically, for more than forty years. Their anger is legitimate, and it cannot be deferred any longer. However, whether actual statehood is the solution to Telangana’s problems remains to be seen.

I admit my original reaction to these demonstrations was ignorant and uninformed. I saw this movement then as so much emotional nonsense – that even if Telangana had legitimate grievances (which, even at the time, I was beginning to suspect that they did) these pointless demonstrations distracted the political establishment from what should be the real focus of their endeavors: controlling India’s population, reducing the toxic brown cloud lingering above the subcontinent, ensuring equitable water and food distribution, and solving the land problem. I did not realize then that Telangana was agitating precisely for these things, albeit, only for themselves.

Written by pavanvan

March 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm

How Do Americans Like Your Country?

leave a comment »

A new Gallup Poll:

I wonder if Iran’s low approval has anything to do with the ceaseless, virulent propaganda directed against it. After all, Egypt has just as repressive a government  (some might say more so) to Iran’s – but then, they happen to be a US-Funded dictatorship – so that makes all the difference, I guess. Israel, for that matter, is only once step removed from an outright state-sponsor of terrorism, what with its frequent, devastating raids on the Gaza strip (the last one killed more than 1,500 civilians), its continual blockade of Gaza (which starves the Gazan citizens and has been defined as a war crime), and its agressive expansion into the occupied territories (remember when aggression was considered “the supreme international crime”?)

So I guess all this poll really shows is how effective US propaganda is. Americans like countries that are “friendly” to the US, and dislike countries who are “unfriendly” – facts be damned!

Written by pavanvan

February 21, 2010 at 10:38 am

Rioting in Kashmir

leave a comment »

The Guardian has a pretty good report up on the latest riots in Kashmir. As a prelude to the upcoming Indo-Pakistani peace talks, they demonstrate the power of Kashmir’s perceived injustice, and the meaninglessness of any “peace plan” that fails to redress their grievances.

So the rocks thrown by Mehraan and his friends have a wider resonance. Enemies of India claim the violent demonstrations in the city reveal the iniquity of the “occupation” of Kashmir and the commitment of locals to independence or accession to Pakistan. Enemies of Pakistan dismiss men like Mehraan as being in the pay of politicians and Pakistan’s intelligence services.

“The stone-pelters are being paid and being used by people who want to keep things on the boil and to create the impression that things are not OK [in Kashmir],” said Kuldeep Khoda, who runs the state police force.

Mehraan and his friends tell a different story, however. As he strode through the rundown Nowhatta, collecting fellow stone-pelters as he went, the shopkeeper said he started attacking security forces when his cousin was shot dead two years ago. Then he was arrested and, he claims, tortured. Since then, he says, he has wanted two things: “Azadi” (freedom) and “blood for blood”. Alongside him, a 14-year-old says he started a few weeks ago when his friend was killed, allegedly by security forces. “These things happen and nothing is changed and then they happen again,” he said.

One startling omission from the Guardian article – and, indeed, from most of what you read about this dispute – is UN Security Council Resolution 47, which allows for a plebiscite for Kashmir to decide its fate, and which India and Pakistan have for the most part ignored since 1948. The only fair solution to this dispute is an internationally-monitored plebiscite, wherein Kashmiris can vote for which country they want to belong. After all they have been through, I think “independence” (that is, “neither”) should also be an option. It’s astounding to me that none of the papers are pushing for this, and instead are trying to paint this in a “on one hand… but on the other hand…” style narrative. The solution here should be clear.

Written by pavanvan

February 21, 2010 at 9:59 am

Telangana Resumption

leave a comment »

Poster at a Telangana protest. The dam diverts water from Telangana to Andhra, leaving some farmers impoverished.

As I write, the city of Hyderabad has virtually shut down – but then, a city of 4 million can never really shut down, can it? The police have cordoned off the arterial roadways; they stand erect, decked in full riot gear, shields glistening in the sun before a tangle of razor-wire. Every 200 meters or so reveals a new checkpoint, a new cadre of stern-faced policeman prepared for – what? – for anything. The students of Osmania University have decided to march on the state assembly, for one last (though it won’t really be the last) cry of agitation for Telangana. The police have determined that they will not get that far. Hyderabad swarms with them; they have learned from past mistakes, and are now taking no chances. The previous agitations may have seemed a joke to most, a petty squabble between fresh-faced youngsters and India’s grimly determined gendarmerie. Only now does the seriousness of this affair sink in. Hyderabad resembles an occupied city, a militarized zone, whose citizens are doing their best, in spite of the inconvenience, to go about their daily business. The main roads blocked, their vehicles cram the side-streets, loosing a cacophony of horns, shouts, and irritated grunts.

But what of the students? From a terrace outside the university campus I got a birds-eye view of the coming agitation; a prelude, perhaps, to the free-for-all that is sure to ensue should the students somehow make it to the state assembly. (As of this writing, at 2:30 PM, the mob has been stopped approximatly four kilometers from their target.) Thousands of students stand in a tightly packed oblong circle, surrounded by hundreds of riot-clad policeman. The crowd roars, “Jai! Telangana!” and the police nervously fingered their batons, ready for the violence to break, perhaps even willing it, but sternly warned not to attack until the first stone had been thrown.

Suddenly – a break. As though by common consent, the stduents in the center of the mass begin pushing, and soon they force a hole in the police line. The police, still cautious, refrain from swinging their batons. One catches just the faintest wisp of bemusement in their eyes – the students, after all, have six kilometers and fifteen roadblocks to traverse before they reach their goal at the assembly. Let them march! But still, one officer cannot help but swing a half-hearted whack at a passing student. The gap widens; the students pour through. The shouts become ebullient, joyful: “Johar! Johar!” One young fellow, only twenty by the looks of him, runs at the head of the mob, leaping with joy, pumping his fist into the air. Another group of students stays behind at the university gate, chanting slogans, waving flags, and glaring, with anger-widened eyes, at their khaki-clad oppressors.

The Telangana movement has entered into the third month of its current incarnation, and it shows no signs of slowing. What moves these students to risk their lives, their well-being? By what do they endure the blows of police batons, the cracked skulls, the shattered ribs? To find out, I visited the Osmania University campus during a lull in the activity, one week ago. In interviews with students and professors, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of the disposession, the frustration that drives this movement – but I gained as well a healthy dose of cynicism.

Before I begin I should admit that my initial writings on this topic (here, here and here) were premature and largely uninformed. I regarded this business then as so much wasted time, a pointless agitation for a rather meaningless goal – would Telangana, after all, relieve India’s systemic corruption? Would it ease Hyderabad’s pollution-withered lungs? I had a sense, at the time, that Telangana had suffered some historical injustice, but I had no idea how systematic it was, how deeply it affected the farmers and villagers of this area, what a scarified psychic wound it left. As with all political movements, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, how much of it is a spontaneous effusion of decades of frustration, and how much planned by clever, power-seeking politicians. My interviews with the Osmania students did little to relieve this ambiguity.

The grievances, at least, are real enough – Telangana has been deprived of water, land, and cultural identity. The statistics are revealing, and Telangana protesters never turn down an opportunity to quote them – 80% of state jobs go to Andhra, even though the state capital is in Telangana; only 13% of the state’s water supplies get to the Telangana region. Telangana finds itself bereft of universities, capital investment, development projects, or any kind of government support.  They’ve been lied to from the start – the 1956 agreement that bound Andhra and Telangana together was a sham and was violated almost immediately after it was signed.

The knowledge of this deprivation has moved countless students to protest – but it seems there must be something more to it.

My interviews at Osmania were partially instructive. I wanted to know why these students felt so strongly about the Telangana issue – beyond the various statistics that illustrate Telangana’s subjugation. What did Telangana mean to them? Why were they willing to risk being arrested and beaten? Why were students dousing themselves with kerosene and lighting a match?

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Aravind Seti, 22, is a Master’s student in Biotechnology. He has a shy, innocent smile, and a soft-spoken manner about him. He was sitting outside the Osmania Arts College, the main building of the agitations, under a tent where a few students desultorily milled about and a cheap 1960s-era speaker blasted grainy Telangana protest music. I approached him, notebook in hand, and began to ask of his motivations.

“Well…” he started. He seemed to have difficutly putting his thoughts into words. “The political leaders here are all very corrupt. We aren’t represented in the assembly. I’m doing this for the sake of my friends and colleagues. We’ll get more jobs, you see, many more opportunities if Telangana comes.”

I persisted, “But why do you, specifically, feel strongly about this? Is it a sense of historical injustice, or have you personally seen Andhra oppression? What lead you to protest?”

“I am excited to be part of such a historic movement,” he explained, “We have suffered for so long – not me, personally, but my countrymen, we in Telangana. So much history behind us gets stamped under the Andhra heel. Who will speak for us?”

He opened his mouth to continue, but before he could speak, a short professor with a furrowed brow walked quickly towards us. His eyes were red.

“Yes, who are you?” he asked.

“I’m a journalist – I’m trying to get a sense of the public mood here. You know, why the students feel so strongly about this, etc.”

He was brusque. “Address your questions to me. I can speak for the students.”

“And who might you be?” I asked.

“I’m his teacher.”

“Which class do you teach?”

“I teach Arts at a different university.”

“But he just told me he’s a biochemistry student. How can you be…”

“Well, I’ve taken on the role of a mentor for these students. I’m a teacher for all the students of this movement now.”

I attempted to interview Aravind, but his ‘professor’ continued to interject with the standard Telangana grievances: the water, the jobs, the land-grab on the part of Andhra, etc. He was vigorous, angry, even, and hardly allowed Aravind to speak. This was not what I had come there for. The grievances I knew; the students, I didn’t.

Thinking I could not understand Telegu, the professor hurriedly whispered to Aravind: “When he asks you questions, you must give perfect answers. You are speaking for the movement.  Do not give wrong answers!”

I felt I wouldn’t get much farther with Aravind, so I asked him one final question: “How long have you felt this way? How long have you been conscious of the Telangana plight?”

He blushed. The professor winced. “To tell you the truth,” said Aravind, “I had no idea about any of this until last November, when K.C.R [the leader’s movement] gave his speech at the university and began his hunger strike. I listened to his speech and wanted to be part of a movement.”

The professor began to give a long speech regarding the historical injustice of Telangana’s union with Andhra – the broken promises, the theft of water, the deprivation of employment. I cut him off and asked: “What do you think of the recent suicides? There have been almost 100 so far, all for Telangana. Do you think that by glorifying the students who choose to kill themselves, the movement condones it?”

He turned scarlet. “We absolutely do not condone these suicides!” he said vigorously, “But how can we stop them? They are an expression of the students’ rage.”

I persisted. “But Aravind just said he didn’t even know about this movement until a couple months ago. How could they have gotten so enraged so quickly?”

The professor stammered. “Well… emotions run hot…” He did not want to comment further.

I was curious as to how long the professor had been active in the movement. For someone who evidently felt so strongly about the issue, for someone who had taken a leadership position in these student agitations, he surely must have agitated before. He was in his late thirties.

“How long have you been in the movement?” I asked.

The professor scowled, then frowned, as though he knew the question was coming, and dreaded it.

“…. I’ve only been participating since November 28th, the date of K.C.R’s speech. ” And then, by way of justification: “One has to take care of their own…” Meaning his family.

————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Pandu Rangam is 22 years old, and he’s studying for a B. Tech in computer science. His parents are farmers in Nizamabad, in the heart of Telangana. When I spoke with him he betrayed a profound cynicism toward the whole student movement, and questioned the motives of its leaders.

“These students are being totally manipulated by K.C.R and the rest of the leadership,” he said, “The tragedy is that while the politicians aren’t really sincere about this, the students are. Look at how many have killed themselves over this! I’m amazed K.C.R has no shame. 99% of the students you talk to had no idea about Telangana this – Andhra that, until K.C.R came and gave his speech here. They’re 2-month-old patriots.”

“What do you think will happen if Telangana comes into existence?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing much will change,” he replied, almost cheerfully, “The politicians will rule the state much as it has been ruled – only now we’ll be plundered by our own people, instead of those living 200 km away.”

“These students are trying so hard,” he continued, “They endure the police charges, take their blows, but in the end they’ll be disenfranchised as they always have – you know, we’ll only see a real change if the students get leadership positions in the new Telangana. They’re the only ones who aren’t corrupt. How can they be – they haven’t had time to get the taste of money. ”

Arjun, 21, another computer science student, overheard our conversation and joined in.

“But you have to admit, we’ve been totally mistreated by the Andhra government. Remember – 85% of jobs to go Andhra! They buy all our real estate and force our farmers into slavery!” he chided Pandu, “All politicians are corrupt – we know that. But maybe things will be a little better under our own leaders.”

Pandu laughed, “You want to risk your life for a ‘maybe’?”

Arjun continued, “Before we get Telangana we need a full inquiry into government corruption. We must root out corruption in our state if anything is to change.”

Pandu: “That’s why we let the students run the state!”

Arjun: “That’s a stupid idea. What do we know? We 22-and-23 year olds? You yourself said how easily the students were led into risking their lives, into enduring police charges. Who is to say some corrupt politician won’t manipulate these student leaders if they gain power in the state?”

Pandu had no answer.

I asked, “Would it be worth all this be worth it if Telangana happened, but its leaders turned out to be just as corrupt as the Andhra leaders?”

Pandu said no. Arjun said yes.

Pandu: “What is the use if none of our problems are solved?”

Arjun: “Even if we get corrupt leaders, at least they will be our corrupt leaders.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Walking about the campus, I stopped a student on the street for a spot interview. His name was Vikas, and he had taken part in the agitations since November 28th – K.C.R’s speech. He has attended meetings, but did not participate in the riots.

“I wanted to be a part of something historic,” he said, “I didn’t know very much about this until K.C.R. gave his speech. I listened to it and became very inspired. Without Telangana we won’t get jobs. We won’t get land, or water.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Thimmapa is 20, and one of the few students I spoke with who rioted with the students last December. He endured the police batons, and showed me a scar on his forehead to prove it. He bears it with pride.

“My dad is dead, and my mom is a coolie,” he said, by way of introduction, “I’ve been wanting Telangana ever since I was 14 years old. I read about it in books, but more than that, I watched society. People from Andhra are managers. People from Telangana are night watchmen outside the buildings.”

I ask you, how is this fair? Are we not people? I tell you, we are just as smart as anyone from Andhra. They think we’re second-class, but I say they are the second-class!”

“What about K.C.R.?” I asked.

“He is a good orator,” Thimmapa replied. “We will see what kind of leader he is. I trust him.”

“With Telangana we’ll have jobs, land,” Thimmapa continued, “We’ll tear down these evil dams that divert our water. Our water! And we won’t give a drop more to Andhra. Have they not drank enough?”

His roommate interjected: “We feel stepped on. They destroy our culture, say it’s no good. Well, I think they’re culture is no good. But who listens to me? If I were from Andhra, I would have a nice job waiting for me when I get out of university; I would have big land with a river flowing through it.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Anurag is a 19-year-old law student and speaks in flawless English. He, too, is skeptical of the movement, and says he is “neither for nor against Telangana”, instead describing himself merely as “pro-development”.

“I see no clear agenda from the pro-Telangana people”, he remarked, “The students who are involved in this so-called agitation to me  seem to be simply moving with the flock. What will happen once they achieve Telangana? No one knows. Well, I guess K.C.R will become Chief Minister – everyone knows that. But then what? Do they think they’ll suddenly get land and water and jobs overnight? I think a lot of students are in for a big disappointment, one way or another.”

“What do you see as the pros and cons of a separate Telangana state?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see – definitely a con will be the lack of negotiation power with the Central Government – consolidated with Andhra we speak with a much bigger voice. All alone, I’m not sure how many concessions we’ll be able to wrest from them. Another con would be the interruption of studies. If these agitations continue, the students will have lost one full year of school. Don’t they care about that?

On the pro side – a new state will open new opportunities for jobs. A new state means a new assembly, a new legislature. These positions will obviously be filled by Telangana students. But at the same time, the number of positions we’re talking about is slight – maybe 300 to 400 new jobs at the max. It’s clear the problem is bigger than this – it has to do with overpopulation – but of course no one wants to talk about that. Let’s see… well, I guess it’ll do wonders for our self-respect. I mean that’s what everyone talks about, right? But I can’t help but think that if we can’t respect ourselves without our own state, how will be be able to respect ourselves with one? During the independence movement that was also a major argument; people said India can never respect itself while it’s under the British crown. Do we really respect ourselves so much now?”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

I came away from the university with something of a clearer picture of this movement. The grievances, at least, are no doubt legitimate, but I found it extremely curious that most of the students with whom I spoke had very little knowledge of them before K.C.R gave his fateful speech. However no one can doubt the genuineness of the student’s emotions – they feel the injustice, and are willing to go to some length to demonstrate it. Partly for a desire to belong to a larger movement, certainly, but also of a feeling of historical injustice, and the desire to redress it. The student suicides are especially perplexing, and I cannot wrap my mind around why someone would kill themselves over this.

One last note on the police brutality this movement has seen: at several protests over the past few months the police have charged, seemingly without warning, striking anyone at hand, including women and reporters. I know not under whose orders such actions were undertaken, but they remain counterproductive in the extreme, and have likely done more than their part in recruiting new protesters. It is not a pleasant sight to see young women clutching their heads as blood seeps between their fingers – and those who do see it are likely to become far more enraged over that, rather than abstract historical grievances.

The New Jihad

leave a comment »

India better watch out, if this excellent Tehelka piece is any indication:

FEEL THE déjà vu. India’s nightmare in the Kashmir Valley may well return to haunt again. “jihad is the only solution to free Kashmir from the Indian yoke,” thundered one separatist after another last week, to boisterous sloganeering by armed cadres. “Kashmir cannot be resolved through dialogue.” The venue: Muzaffarabad, the picturesque capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The date: February 4, 2010. The assembly: men most wanted by New Delhi for waging a terrorist war against India for two decades, belonging to a clutch of a dozen terror outfits that go by the name of United jihad Council (UJC).

Most terror satraps were back together last week, openly defying the bans on their activities, irreverent of the fact that both the US and India have demanded the scalps of most of these men. What’s the new message from these groups? Should India worry? Yes, says General Mirza Aslam Beg, who headed Pakistan’s all-powerful army from 1988 to 1991. “It will be another Vietnam,” Beg told TEHELKA bluntly on the phone from Pakistan, suggesting that Kashmir would turn out for India what Vietnam was for the US 40 years ago: a messy military defeat. Shockingly, General Beg discloses that the Mujahideen who fought the USled forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are headed to Kashmir. With US President Barack Obama committed to a timetable to pull out of both countries, General Beg asks: “Where do you think they [Mujahideen] will go? They will go to Kashmir: that is certain. Their direction is clear and they are moving [to it] gradually.”

I’ve always thought that India was being played by the US in supporting American “intervention” in Pakistan, and this article indicates those fears aren’t far from the mark. India seems to be making the age-old calculation that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, but this often turns out not to be the case. In the current situation, India is happy to let America do most of the heavy-lifting, with their marvelous ‘predator drones’ attacking the Pakistani Islamic movement, and, India hopes, diverting Pakistan’s attention toward the Afghan border and away from Kashmir.

But recent developments suggest this may not be happening. One recalls the massive protests that occurred in Srinagar two weeks ago, which, after a period of calm, should have reminded the Indian establishment that this issue is far from over. In fact, there is reason to believe that American involvement in Pakistan has had an exacerbating effect on India’s Kashmir worries. Hiding behind American forces hasn’t done anything for India.

India’s acquiescence to American aid to Pakistan is also perplexing. For nearly a decade, India has sat by and watched America give tens of billions of dollars to one corrupt Pakistani government after another. This money has been repeatedly demonstrated to have gone to Pakistan terror groups, particularly the Lakshar-e-Taiba, the very group who carried out the horrific 26/11 Mumbai attack. It’s difficult to imagine what India was thinking. Not only did they not object to this US sponsorship of terror, they actually tried to intensify their friendship with America, signing a major trade agreement only a year later.

It should be clear to Indian “strategists” (that’s stretching the definition a bit, given their behavior) that the sum effect of US strategy has been to push the Islamic movement eastward. First they were in Afghanistan, then they bled into Pakistan, and now, if recent reports are any indication, they’re moving even farther east. Needless to say this would be disastrous for India, and its totally baffling to me why nobody in India is protesting against this.

For now, I think India should make it clear to America that its actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are making it demonstrably less safe. Then it should demand the US repeal its Kerry-Luger aid bill to Pakistan, and show America evidence, which at this point should be ample, that Pakistan is using US aid to fund terrorism in India.

It’s also time to solve this Kashmir dispute once and for all. This isn’t the spot to go into the intricacies of the affair, but India promised Kashmir a plebiscite in 1947 to see whether it would become part of India or Pakistan or become an independent state. That plebiscite never occurred. India should abide by UN Resolution 47 and allow the Kashmiris to decide their fate. This petty squabbling has gone on long enough.

Written by pavanvan

February 18, 2010 at 10:51 pm

India To Spend Billions Cleaning Up Holy River

with one comment

I think I speak for many when I say: It’s about time.

VARANASI, India—More than a million devout Hindus bathed in the Ganges River Friday, braving the risk of terrorist attack, stampede and petty crime for the chance to wash away the sins of a lifetime and open the gateway to heaven after death.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the devotees who flocked to Haridwar, India, on one of the most auspicious days of the triennial Kumbh Mela festival, was the water itself.

The river is intensely polluted with sewage and industrial waste. Water-treatment facilities have been unable to keep up with India’s rapid growth, often held back by a shortage of funds and other resources.

Now, the spiritually cleansing waters of the Ganges are about to get some cleaning of their own. The Indian government has embarked on a $4 billion campaign to ensure that by 2020 no untreated municipal sewage or industrial runoff enters the 1,560-mile river.

Oh, the irony is not lost on India – but maybe now they can wash away their sins without having to wash away the raw sewage immediately afterward.

Written by pavanvan

February 14, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Posted in culture

Tagged with , , ,

Kashmir

leave a comment »

Frontline makes a compelling case for Kashmiri independence:

Despite its accession to India, the idea of independence for Kashmir was freely aired by Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru, N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar, and others, as noted earlier (Frontline, January 29, 2010). The Sheikh could not have been unaware of this and made his own moves as a member of the Indian delegation to the Security Council, whose leader, Gopalaswamy Ayyangar, had publicly recognised the possibility of independence.

On January 28, 1948, in New York, Abdullah met the United States representative to the United Nations, Warren Austin. “His whole attitude and approach being obviously to seek U.S. support for Indian viewpoint,” Austin reported, adding: “It is possible that principal purpose of Abdullah’s visit was to make clear to U.S. that there is a third alternative, namely, independence. He seemed overly anxious to get this point across, and made quite a long and impassioned statement on subject. He said in effect that whether Kashmir went to Pakistan or India the other Dominion would always be against solution. Kashmir would thus be a bone of contention. It is a rich country. He did not want his people torn by dissension between Pakistan and India. It would be much better if Kashmir were independent and could seek American and British aid for development of country. I, of course, gave Abdullah no encouragement on this line and I am confident when he left he understood very well where we stand on this whole matter.” However, the leader of the so-called “Azad Kashmir” government, Sardar Ibrahim, “emphatically said Kashmir could not remain independent” (Foreign Relations of the United States: South Asia, 1948, Volume 5; pages 292-293).

In New Delhi on February 21, 1948, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Patrick Gordon-Walker, had extensive talks with Nehru as well as the Sheikh. The record bears quotation in extenso: “7. At this point Nehru fetched in Sheikh Abdullah and said he would leave us to this together. Just before Nehru left Sheikh Abdullah said he thought the solution was that Kashmir should accede to both Dominions. I had not time to get him to develop this idea before Nehru left the room, but questioned him afterwards. He said Kashmir’s trade was with India, that India was progressive and that Nehru was an Indian. On the other hand Kashmir’s trade passed through Pakistan and a hostile Pakistan would be a constant danger. The solution therefore was that Kashmir should have its autonomy jointly guaranteed by India and Pakistan and it would delegate its foreign policy and defence in them both jointly but would look after its own internal affairs. The two Dominions share a common interest in Kashmir and it would agree to unite and link them.

“I asked whether Nehru would agree to this solution and he said he thought so. He did discuss it with him. I will ask Nehru about this, this morning, when I see him and shall hope to add a paragraph to the end of this telegram. Sheikh Abdullah had no idea whether Pakistan would agree to this solution, but he said it would avoid a plebiscite which he did not really want. He thought India would win but the vote would be close, perhaps 60 to 40, and either way the minority would be so large that it would never really accept the verdict. If Pakistan lost, there would be constant trouble and no peace for Kashmir. The Muslim Conference would accept a joint accession and he could carry his own party.

Written by pavanvan

February 2, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Politics

Tagged with , , ,

India: A View From the Top

leave a comment »

A very wealthy friend of mine in India sat to discuss the various maladies that plague this dark and beguiling continent:

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. What do you make of all this Telangana business? People are really getting agitated about it. On the way here I saw an open-top truck full of activists – there was one policeman and and about twenty people shouting “Jai! Telangana!” at the top of their lungs. I guess they were being taken in or whatever, but the truck stopped at a light and they all climbed over the sides and started laying down in the road! They were shouting “Jai! Telangana! and waving flags the entire time. One SUV screeched to a halt just before hitting one of them.”

– “It’s a problem. But what you have to realize is that this has been boiling up for more than 60 years. I definitely think the central government botched this issue – in fact I can’t see how they could have done a worse job of it. All these contradictory pronouncements, the half-decisions and endless recanting – it’s making these agitations much worse. It’s clear nobody knows what they’re doing. But with that said, you really have to go back in history to understand why these people feel so strongly about this.

Why do you think Andhra Pradesh is even a a state to begin with? Nehru – the first prime minister – he wanted “linguistic” states; every language its own state. This was one of those rare instances where the wants of the population and the politician’s schemes line up perfectly. Before 1956 India was organized much as it had been under the British. But people were angry – a lot of language groups were split up – and the borders themselves were a colonial legacy. At the same time, the politicians saw the value of the idea – Hindi is by far the most prevalent language in India. If you could get all the Hindi-speakers under one political structure, the vote bank would basically decide elections. And so it has, since then. The north is mostly Hindi-speaking; you have Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar – these are some of the largest states. With the way things are organized, the North can overrule the South. I believe you had a similar situation in America.

And you have to ask: were the borders drawn correctly? Did they do a good job? It is very ironic that Andhra Pradesh – the state from which Telangana wishes to secede – was itself the product of a bitter secession movement. Before 1956, this whole area belonged to what was then a Tamil-speaking state. Even now many Telegu villages exist in Tamil Nadu, and all over India there are villages in a similar situation. Remember, this country has 18 distinct “languages” and hundreds upon hundreds of dialects.

So when Andhra Pradesh got its independence from the Madras state, it took the Telangana region, which used to be the Hyderabad state, along with it. They spoke the same language, after all! But no one really asked Telangana if it wanted to come. Later its only rivers were dammed up to provide electricity to the coastal region, diverting them from the Telangana farmlands. That’s a major reason why they’re upset now.

We need to ask ourselves: ‘How do we want our country to be organized?’ ‘Was it even a good idea to have linguistic states’? In my opinion it was not such a great idea – and even if it was, the implementation has been atrocious. Ask me, I think the administrative divisions should be done by population or resources. I think that would make the most sense.”

“It’s interesting that you bring up Nehru. I’ve really noticed a shift in people’s attitudes regarding their erstwhile Prime Minister. Time used to be when his name was almost synonymous with god. What happened?

– “Nehru was a man whose time had come and gone, but nobody knew it. He didn’t know it – and the country certainly didn’t either. They kept voting him back in, more from habit than anything else by the end. Only now are we beginning to realize that many of the problems we just can’t seem to solve sprang up under his rule.

Who else can we blame for Partition? Jinnah, maybe – well, probably. But who gave Jinnah his voice? Who listened to him? Nehru. He was the leader of the largest – indeed, the only – mass political party India had ever known. It was certainly within his power to block Partition. But he went along with it. Why? Well, that’s a mystery – maybe he just wanted to get independence over with and – who knows? – maybe he actually thought the Muslims had a point. But I think he just didn’t care what happened to those desert-and-swamp areas; just so long as he could have his India. You know the day after Independence, he moved right into the former Viceroy’s mansion. That’s when you knew.

Think of Kashmir – Nehru’s home state. Do you think that had something to do with it being incorporated into India? They originally offered a plebiscite, but then they backed down when it looked like the Kashmiris were going to vote to become part of Pakistan. So he let the Hindu king of Kashmir decide. Hence the dispute. But what was done cannot be undone, and now Kashmir finds itself surrounded on three sides by countries who want a piece of it – Pakistan, India and China.

And think of the colossal corruption that went on under his watch! Twenty years after Nehru died, his grandson, Rajiv, calculated that out of every 100 Rupees the Indian government spends, only 15 gets to its intended target. 85% is stolen by bureaucrats! Under whom did this system start? For that matter, who consolidated the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty? Why is India being ruled by an Italian whose sole virtue is that she happened to marry Nehru’s grandson?

He was a vain man, you see. He thought the country would be lost without him; that only he knew how to rule India. So he surrounded himself with people who believed just that. And pretty soon nobody questioned it. And he kept running – and kept winning! After all, he’d convinced the whole country it was unsafe in any other hands. Your George Washington – what did he do in a similar situation? He quit after two terms. Nehru couldn’t do that – or he wouldn’t. Anyway, I can’t be sure anymore that we benefited all that much for his 18 years of rule.”

“But it’s just as you said, isn’t it? There was no one else. Nehru had to run – you know? To what extent is he responsible that no one else came forward? And at any rate, you have to admit Nehru was popular. People adored him, worshiped him even. Surely that played a role as well.”

– “It’s a vicious circle. The people here are extremely susceptible to the cult of personality. You’re surely seen the political posters last election. There’s a reason they all show only faces. Most people, that’s all they recognize. Don’t bother asking about policy. The leader is leader. It’s our duty to vote for him, and that’s that. The people blend their identities in with the leader – they believe in him, you see, because they have little else to believe in.

“Do you think this might relate to the Telangana issue? One thing I remember hearing from the protesters I spoke with was the ‘self-respect’ angle. A lot of people saw this as a battle for their self-respect. I think that’s a big appeal of this K.C. Rao, who’s apparently leading this mob – they see him as a beacon of Telangana self-respect. And I guess I notice that not only Telangana lacks self-respect, but at times Indians do as well. I’ve often heard people describing their own country as a “backwater” and their fellow citizens “second-rate people”.

– “Well to get those sentiments in context you really have to remember what India went through over the last millenium – what it’s still going through. Let’s see, we had 600 years of Muslim rule and… well, let’s say 200 years of British Empire. That’s 800 years of invasion – 800 years of foreign rule. Of slavery, really. I mean, I know people get touchy about that word but “Colonial rule” is nothing but a dressed-up euphemism. For 800 years India was made to feel like dirt, worthy only of scorn. The Muslim invasion badly wounded us, and the British nearly finished off whatever dignity we may still have retained. And it goes deeper than just the mentality – it gets into the genes. 800 years – that’s almost 30 generations of slaves. Slave genes – that’s what developed. That’s why you see such apathy among the public, such slavish devotion to the thieving politicians and thieving West.

“But it goes farther back than that, doesn’t it? What do you think of the caste system? Wasn’t that essentially inward colonialism – inward slavery? I read somewhere that something like 60% of the population were so-called “untouchables”, forbidden to interact with “caste Hindus” and relegated a life of hardship, labor and disappointment.”

– “Oh yes, the caste system is a terrible blight upon our civilization, and it still goes on today. How dare we preach peace to the world when our own house is in such frightening disarray? The Brahmins were slave-masters, yes – and the whole country bowed down to them. And you have to realize the rigidity of the system they devised. Where do you think the idea of karma came about? You hippies in the West, I hear you love talking about karma. Do you know what it means? Karma was a justification for Brahimincal tyranny – a justification for slavery. If you can make people believe that they deserve their station, that it’s no use trying for anything better, that their suffering is due to misdeeds in some imaginary previous life – well, then, you’ve got them exactly where you want them. That’s why for centuries – millennia! – there was no reform movement in Hinduism. Everyone stuck to their place, and in fact, they were proud to do so! This is where the concept of Dharma comes in – the concept of one’s “duty”. They convinced the latrine-cleaners and street sweepers that it was their duty to endure the abuse of the higher castes! You couldn’t possibly imagine a more insidious or effective ideology for controlling slaves.

“But there were reform movements, weren’t there? What about Buddhism?”

– “Buddhism, right – you know what happened to Buddhists in India, don’t you? The Brahmins kicked them all out! They were getting too uppity, and challenging Brahmincal authority. You see all the lower-castes – those 60% of Indians who were the dirt of society – they all began converting to Buddhism en masse. They began to want equality, some fairness in who does what jobs. Obviously you couldn’t have this, so the Brahmins got together and kicked them out. A thousand years later you saw the same thing happen with the Muslim invasion – all the trodden-upon members of society began to convert to Islam. At least as Muslims they’d be equal in theory – as Hindus they were nothing. Likewise when the British showed up with their Christianity. So Hinduism got some big chunks taken out of it – but the system of control was so ingrained that most people stayed. In fact, we didn’t really get a reformer until Swami Vivekananda, and that was in the 19th century, 3000 years after the Vedic Civilization! And then you had Gandhi, who I’m sure meant well, but… well look at the condition of many Indians today. 500,000,000 without regular food supplies. Clearly the reforms haven’t worked.”

“I want to know your views on Pakistan and China. The Pakistani intelligence service – the ISI – is widely blamed for the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. They’re taking aid from both America and China, and seem to have a single-minded desire for India’s destruction. Will India and Pakistan ever get along? What is the role of the US in all of this?”

– “I’ll say this about Pakistan – they’ve got some clever rulers. Clever! Sometimes I wonder why their people are so impoverished, since their leaders seem to be so smart. But I guess it isn’t cleverness per se – merely dull opportunism. They’re clever like a bully is clever. They understand power. I mean look at the game they’re playing right now; pitting America and China up against one another. And America is playing the same game – pitting Pakistan and India against each other.  All that money America gives to Pakistan – you think it actually goes toward “combating terrorism?” No! It goes to commit atrocities in India. The 26/11 attackers were paid for with American dollars.

But at the same time, America wants India as a bulwark against China. So they court us with civilian nuclear deals and “technical assistance”. To tell you the truth, I really resent that India needs America’s permission to build nuclear reactors – that we’re forced to play their one-sided game. But how can we refuse? They go to Pakistan otherwise. America certainly looks as if it’s warming up to India – but they want to keep a Pakistan strong, too. It’s in America’s interest to keep the Indo-Pakistani rivalry going; only then can America take advantage of both. You’ve heard the phrase ‘divide and rule’? So, no, I don’t see peace between India and Pakistan – at least not for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, China wants a strong Pakistan to keep India weak, which makes perfect sense. China sees India as a threat – not a traditional threat, mind you, but like this nuisance to the east that can only slow their growth. Recently we had a diplomatic situation with China wherein they wanted to dam up a shared river – cutting off flow to India. We really had no choice but to let them do it. And it’s only a matter of time before all the rivers will be dammed. The next wars will be over water. Remember that.

We in India don’t have the political will to meet these threats – in fact, we’d just as soon not hear of them. We’re too wrapped in our own cocoons – too beholden to the grip of tradition to notice or care.”

“That’s a little unfair, isn’t it? I mean, you have to admit that ‘development’ (such as it is) is occuring in India. Millions of people are getting their lives lifted out of poverty. Literacy rates are up, unemployment is down, and people really seem to be breaking out of this cycle of tradition. Wouldn’t you say?”

– Don’t make me laugh! Whatever “development” you see is solely due to the West – due to a desire to emulate the West. What kind of indigenous “development” have you seen in your time here? You think we’re “developed” because rich people can eat Pizza Hut now? You think Microsoft and Wal-Mart constitute social change? We’re exactly in the same position we were in under the British, only now we pledge allegiance to America instead. But the the hundreds of millions of Indian peasants, who still find themselves ground under the heel of starvation and want, this decade of “prosperity” has meant nothing to them. And always remember that these gains of the Indian middle class cannot last. We dithered for too long – we got into the game too late. Most of the oil has already been burned, most of the coal already extracted. We’re playing this ridicilous game of “catch-up to the West”, but the joke is on us. India will never be a first-rate global power. Maybe if we ask nicely China and America will let us into the club. But we’ll always be second-rate. We’ve got too much baggage – too much dead weight.

Sometimes I think we’d be better off as a one-party state, like China or your America. Here nothing ever gets done. We debate and debate, compromise and vote, and in the end we end up with half-decisions, or more usually, no decision at all. This Telangana issue is just one example. I think we have too much democracy. We need someone to tell us what to do – that much is painfully clear. First it was the British, and now America – they say jump, we say ‘how high?’; they say ‘develop’, we say ‘right away, sahib.’

“That’s pretty bleak. Anything else you’d like to add?”

– “We’ve been independent for 60 years. It’s astonishing that we haven’t even begun to solve any of our problems – in fact, they’ve gotten far worse under our watch. Overpopulation, starvation, bonded labor, inequality – these were all crimes we laid at the feet of the British. Who are we to blame now?”

India: Progress and Development

with one comment

Hyderabad is perpetually ensconced in a dim, grey haze. It penetrates every crevasse of every home, fills every lung, and obscures all vision beyond 150 meters or so. It flows, milky-white, from the nozzle of every vehicle (more than a million in Hyderabad alone), and stands as a testament both to India’s vaunted “development” and to the price she pays to attain it. Sitting atop a 5-story terrace one can view in three-hundred sixty degrees the dull miasma hanging low over the city, refracting the sunlight into a cloudy yellow glow.

And still they churn, the endless vehicles and their poisonous effluent. I am told that Hyderabad adds several hundred every day – and India as a whole, tens of  thousands. But it is hard to view such statistics with anything more than curious detachment. From day to day the crowds and pollution do not grow noticeably worse, and one can only meet the prospect of several million new cars by the end of the year with a dreary fatalism.

“What, are we not allowed to drive? Do we not deserve cars?” The civil servant, already receiving his share of bribes, asked with hilarious indignation. It was the same argument put forth by India and the other so-called “developing countries” at the Copenhagen conference. I have heard it often from apologists of India’s pollution, and I can hardly blame them. It is a terrible thing, to constantly be called a “developing country”, a member of the “third world”, to be looked down upon as a “backward nation”. These phrases have so entered the Indian psyche that I have even heard Indians referring to themselves, in all earnestness, as a “second-rate” people.

“Why should only America be allowed to burn carbon?”, he demanded,  “Do we not also deserve to develop? We are not your colony anymore that you may do with what you like! You cannot keep us in subjugation.”

It was an unanswerable argument. The only possible response – a vague gesture to the handkerchiefs one must clutch to their face in order to breathe – somehow failed to deliver the point. It would be difficult to explain that the sort of “development” India seeks is itself a Western construct, a bow to a new form of subjugation, that it implies a terrible poisoning of its “motherland”, oft extolled in song and poetry, but which in practice has been used as a giant latrine. It would be still more difficult to explain that India as a “developed” country is all but impossible, that we would require three Earths to give each of its 1,200 million inhabitants a car, and apartment, a flat-screen television and 3,000 calories per day.

But still one hears, from every podium: “By 2030 India will join the developed world.” Grandiose claims, but bless their hearts, they do give an impression of believing their own rhetoric. Do they know what it means, this “development”? Here one is obliged to start guessing – no one in a position to give a coherent answer seems capable of doing so. Taking aside the superlative definitions (“more steel production, more automobiles, more television, more money”), the unconscious consensus seems to be: To live as they do in the West. To have rebellious, well-fed children. To drive about in motorcars; and above all, to escape the crowds and corruption of the India they know.

“Once India is developed,” a wealthy banker informed me, “we will no longer have to look at that.” He pointed to a stinking open drainage ditch, running parallel to the road. It was rimmed with shanty tenements of cloth and aluminum – tents, really – where women did their washing in the fecal water and their numerous brood ran about naked as the day they were born. What did he think would happen to the ditch, to the people surrounding it? The ditch would be covered, of course, paved into a proper underground sewer. And the people? Well, perhaps they, too, would “develop” like this banker had; they would shed their rags, gain employment, move into a flat, buy a car (well, maybe a scooter), and join the middle class. Heaven is a world where everyone is rich. I’m sure many in India would be happy with a nutritious meal every day; but as India “develops”, their chances of getting even that begin to diminish.

Hyderabad is “developing” faster than most Indian cities and is now now considered an “IT capital of India. Shopping malls now tower where modest two-story houses sat only a decade ago. Several Indian IT companies chose to make their headquarters here (including, unfortunately, the Satyam ponzi-scheme) and the five-star hotels, of which Hyderabad now has four, sprang like mushrooms after the rain. The unceasing air traffic came to overwhelm Hyderabad’s ramshackle little two-runway airport, and, sniffing a “development opportunity”, it began expropriating land to build what would become India’s biggest airport. The facility at Samshabad opened in 2009 to great fanfare and adulation; encompassing more than 5,000 acres, it stood as the latest avatar of India’s “progress”. Hyderabadis speak with open pride of their beloved airport, of the “progress” it signifies, the “modernity” it heralds.

But what of that 5000-acre stretch’s previous inhabitants? I’ve asked quite a few people, but no one quite knows. Some say confidently, “that was government land” with the assumption that it had no inhabitants, while others say vaguely, “Oh, I’m sure they were somehow compensated.” None of the major newspapers focused on the villager’s situation, save for the Deccan Herald, which ran an article on June 24, 2000, when the airport was still being planned.

This article deserves to be read in full, but here is a taste of what went on (all emphasis mine):

About 1500 families of more than 10 villages near Hyderabad are spending sleepless nights. The people are faced with losing their homes, land and their livelihood as the government plans to acquire about 5000 acres to build the prestigious international airport in Shamshabad mandal near Hyderabad, abutting the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway. ”What is thisdevelopment? How is an airport useful to us?” asked Mrs Nagamani, mother of three sons, with tears in her eyes. Her village, Chinnagollapally, is one of the 10 that is going to be acquired. ”It is like mowing down a tree and making the birds homeless,” she said.

And another view:

Balaraj Goud of the same village said the only alternative open to them was to turn into rag-pickers, and then they would have to live with the ”sin” of displacing the present rag-pickers and depriving them of their livelihood. ”Perhaps the government should drop a bomb on us to spare us this trauma and then take our village for development,” Goud said bitterly.

At least the villagers received some remuneration, right?

The Shamshabad International Airport Land-losers Welfare Association points out that the government was dealing a double blow to the affected people. Not only is it displacing them, but offering a pittance of a compensation of Rs 45,000 per acre whereas the prevailing market rate is between Rs 160,000 and Rs 220,000 per acre.

On the bright side, at least the jet-setting businessmen, those gurus of development, will have a nice airport to land in, and a nearby 5-star hotel too!

Such examples abound. They are an inextricable by-product of “development” – at least, in the prevailing model – as inevitable as soot from a fire.

The dominant political slogan for the BJP a few years ago was “India Shining!”, to which Sonia Gandhi countered, “Who is India Shining for?” It was all meaningless political sloganeering, but Sonia’s response, I think, hit closer to the mark. At any rate, her party trounced the BJP in that election. But, having won, they turned around, as so often happens in politics, and began to advocate what they once denounced. India must shine after all – the world is watching. India was a land of problems, but those problems had a ready nostrum: Development!

Meanwhile, it is clear that as India “develops” its problems have tended to exacerbate, not ease. Social inequality is undoubtedly on the rise; where, before, the rich were merely well-to-do, now they command trillions of rupees, billions of dollars, while 500 million (almost twice the population of the US) still lives on less than 20 rupees per day. And more money inevitably means more corruption, something with which India has always wrestled, but which now threatens to swallow its fragile polity whole. The pollution in Hyderabad is quite characteristic of all Indian cities, and has begun to spread to the countryside. Trash now litters the entire 200 km stretch between Hyderabad and Warangal; the fields lay rotten and fallow, littered with so many plastic bags.

It is important to realize that these problems are borne of “development”, and they cannot be erased with yet more “development”. The pollution, the social stratification, the political corruption, the dilution of culture, the overpopulation – these are all the fruits of progress. Against them, what can one boast? That rich young men can finally buy Nike? That businessmen now wear suits instead of dhotis and travel first-class to New York? That 5 city-dwellers get a “European” flat for every 500 that sleep in the street?

“They laughed at him then, but Gandhi was a green thinker ahead of his time,” a wise coworker told me. And I wonder how many of India’s problems might have been avoided had they followed his prescriptions. In Gandhi’s numerous articles he consistently spoke out against mechanization, against the machine civilization, against cities, and even a centralized state. The India of his dreams was an exclusively rural country, “a village republic”, as he once called it, bereft of centralized politics beyond the level of a village council. I think Gandhi’s view of ‘development’ can be summed in his reaction to mechanized agriculture. “Show me a tractor,” he said, “that makes milk and fertilizer while it plows our fields.”

He was laughed at then, and even now evokes much derision among Indians. Predictably, the complaints against him are that he was “anti-development”, he “wanted to keep us poor”, he was a “selfish man”.  But taking aside his personal flaws (which, one must admit, were substantial), Gandhi stood as a nationalist, a defender against the corrupting influences of Britain (then the premier representative of “the west”), a pursuer of a vision of India which may have been flawed, but, in the sense which I think most would give the word, was at least “authentic”.

India today has transformed into nothing of the sort; it has shed whatever authenticity it one had and has settled, as if it already knew its place, back into an imperial role. With every Coca-cola sold, every pair of Nikes worn, India slips further  away from whatever independence it may have gained.

And looking now upon this wasted continent, half-developed, half-forgotten, one cannot help but feel despair. Unwittingly, India has allowed itself to become colonized once again!

Telangana: An Exchange

with 6 comments

Telangana supporters burn an effigy

“Total bandh today! Every shop has closed. They must give Telangana now.”

– Are you pro-Telangana?

“Yes, Yes, Jai! Telangana! We have waited too long; for forty years, fifty years, they are not listening. Now we are united – we must have Telangana”

– I’ve been hearing these sentiments quite often. Why do you think Telangana should be a separate state?

“Yaar – so many reasons! The Andhra people, they don’t give us the water, the irrigation – every river begins in Telangana, but they give us only 13% of water and 87% goes to Andhra and Rayalseema.”

– But then shouldn’t you be protesting for equal water distribution?

“Sir, sir, very quickly let me tell you. I will give you one example. In 1956 they had the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ when Andhra and Telangana became one state. They said whenever there is an Andhra Chief Minister, there will be a Telangana deputy. They did not do this. We have no educational facilities here. Andhra people think we are dumb, stupid. Andhra has only 9 districts and more than 90 universities! In Telangana there are 10 districts but only 30 universities! They give us only a  fraction of the power generation, even though we have the most population. Andhra does not allow us to develop. We get no investement, no money – what do they think?”

– If you asked for these things, don’t you think you would get them?

“No way, yaar! How long we are asking! The Andhra politicians will never listen to us – that is why we must get our own state.

– But you must admit they are listening at least somewhat to you now. Telangana leaders are participating in high-level meetings!

“Yes, but that is only because we made them!”

– “Well then, let me ask it like this: If the Andhra government were to build universities, dig irrigation, allow a Telangana chief minister – in short, if they addressed all of your grievances, would this movement dissolve? What do you think would end these strikes and riots?

“We will accept nothing but Telangana. We have been mistreated for too long. The only solution is Telangana.”

– Do you think that such an absolute stance might make negotiation difficult?

“No, yaar – here, please listen, let me tell you just one example. We need Telangana for our self-respect! The Telegu film industry is all Andhra. They use Telangana accent as a joke. They only make villains from Telangana.  They take our self-respect! When it was independence time, we Indians had to chase the British out to get back our self-respect. Just like that, we in Telangana must break from Andhra to regain our self-respect. It is like Gandhi said: ‘Do or Die'”

– I think he used it in a different context. Don’t you think the Telangana movement works to an opposing aim to Gandhi’s? He wanted to keep India together. Do you think maybe this movement increases the regionalism here; makes people of themselves more as a member of their region than India? I mean, if Telangana gets statehood, a lot of other regions will want their own state as well.

“I don’t think that would be bad. Let them split the states up! Andhra, Telangana, Rayalseema – then the UP states can all be broken up, and the Madhya Pradesh states as well. Why not? Smaller states means better development. You’re from America – your country has only 30 Crore people and you have 50 states. Here we have 130 Crore people! Why shouldn’t we get more states?”

– If that’s the case, isn’t this something that should be decided all at once? Like, they have a session of parliament or whatever and declare once and for all how many states there should be and who should get them? That way everyone gets independence at once, and it’s done officially. Don’t you think that by doing it piecemeal like this it creates more problems than it solves?

“No, No, sir, please, please listen, we have waited 40 years for Telangana. Let them have their meeting after Telangana is independent. This much at least they owe us.”

– Well, I would think that monopolizing the central government’s time like this doesn’t let them solve the real problems of India. If you lived in Bihar or Orissa, you would wish you lived in Telangana, even with its problems. You know what goes on in those states – it’s basically slavery.  And look at the pollution around you. Look at the overpopulation, the masses of poor. Wouldn’t you want these problems solved?

“Yes, and they will be! Once we are free of the Andhra government we will have much less poverty here, we will be able to rule ourselves.”

– But that doesn’t help the Oriya farmer.

“They are poor because they don’t have resources, they have nothing there. Why should Telangana also be poor when it has coal mines, copper, tin, and two massive rivers? India will always have these problems; poverty, corruption, bonded labor – but at least we can make them lesser in our Telangana!”

– Do you really think the problems will be fixed, even within Telangana? You said yourself that Indian politics will always be corrupt. And so long as Sonia Gandhi exercises absolute power over the Congress Party, there doesn’t seem a likelihood for reform. I mean, think about it: Maybe Telangana can keep Congress out for the first few election cycle,s but once a Congress leader gets in, it’ll be the same situation as it is now. Look at what all of the Members of Parliament are saying now: “We must wait for Sonia ma’am’s approval – we can take no decision without her.”

“This may be true, but we can do nothing about that. At least now we will have our own Telangana. If we can remove 10% corruption, then this will be worth it.”

– Even if it means increasing corruption elsewhere?

“Yes, even then. We will stop at nothing to achieve Telangana. We are willing to pay any price.”

Written by pavanvan

January 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Christmas in Telangana

leave a comment »

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.

Written by pavanvan

December 24, 2009 at 9:26 pm

India!

with 2 comments

India! Where the streets run yellow
With the urine of every fellow
Horns blare loud, and crowds roar large,
Where pollution and apathy paint a collage!

India! Thou hast reached your limit
Of people – 5,000 born every minute!
Well, no matter, you’ll make them room,
If it gets too crowded – send the poor to the moon!

India! Bullock cart and airplane!
Where life is a misery, and life is a game!
Light and darkness live side-by-side
And you know one takes the other for a ride!

India! Giant caught in a lurch
Both modern and rural, and you know which is worse!
With coal and petrol, you move farther away,
They’ll never run out – or then, so you say

India! Adidas, Reebok and Nike
Creep their way into your national psyche!
The British have left,  but 60 years hence,
You still view it all through the imperial lens!

India! oh, the world’s largest slum
Where two meals a day means having great fun!
Skyscrapers tower, and tents sprawl beside
And the one and the other will never coincide!

Written by pavanvan

December 24, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Telengana Epilogue

leave a comment »

Round one of the Telangana dispute has finished, but the struggle is far from over. Citizens of Andhra, the state from which Telengana just won secession, are in a furor, and nightly demonstrations scar their major cities. Angered citizens have already destroyed 30 buses, and incredibly, 79 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have threatened to resign. Having promised a state to Telangana, the central government now must deliver one, yet it must also answer to its Andhra constituency. No consensus seems possible.

The government has promised that the transfer “will not be in haste”, and clearly the thing it most desires now is time. Meanwhile, cities in Andhra have completely shut down, and there is already talk of a hunger strike to protest a Telangana state. Further complicating the issue is Rayalseema, a neighboring area, who now says  it also wants its own state. The situation is quickly devolving into absurdity.

Hyderabad is an problem for which no one knows the solution. Previously the capital of the consolidated Andhra state, it has been the site of massive capital and human investment. The city has four 5-star hotels, a brand-new airport (which happens to be the largest in India), a massive convention center to European standards and a diminished, though still booming, IT industry. Unfortunately, the city lies square in the middle of Telangana, and separatists have already begun chanting the slogan “Not Without Hyderabad!”. Some vague discussion can be heard of turning Hyderabad into a “Union Territory”, effectively a double capital, but geography should render that plan unfeasible.

Even optimistic forecasters believe it should take at least one year for the new state to become official. Detractors secretly hope Telangana will be mired in legislation and perhaps never happen. But in any case, the Indian government will be spending much time and resources on this issue for years to come.

Written by pavanvan

December 11, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Telangana Denoument

with 12 comments

Hyderabad heaved a sigh of relief today as the general strike and demonstration at the legislative assembly did not happen. Congress leadership has indicated that they have drafted a bill to create a separate Telengana state, K.C Rao has ended his hunger strike, and the city is once again jerking along in its regular rhythms.

Over the past decades India has seen tremendous balkanization, of which this Telangana dispute stands as yet another symptom. Winston Churchill, that magnificent racist, once opined that “India is no more a country than is the Equator”, and while events have later discredited that remark, the ghost of his sentiment has been present throughout. After independence every language group wanted its own state, and once that had been arranged, further interest groups began agitating for their own homeland. Telangana will be the fourth new state created this decade. In developments like these one can very clearly see the divisions still plaguing India today, the “communal sentiments” (as residents like to call them), and the way in which the Indian government operates.

The Telangana issue has stuck in Indian politics for 40 years or so, and its recent resurgence can be attributed mainly to climate change (or “drought”, for you non-believers). Over the years, Telangana has seen its share of water rights gradually diminished, as irrigation projects led by neighboring Andhra have diverted water away from the Telangana countryside. Several years of light rainfall eventually brought this issue to a head, after which one saw emotional speeches by Telengana leaders, hunger strikes, city-wide boycotts, and riots.

Such breakdowns of law and order betray a lethargy on the part of the Central Government, an unwillingness, or at least a perceived unwillingness to take these grievances seriously. One does not declare a fast unto death, sparking riots, police beatings, and paramilitary operations, if one believes he has a decent chance of being heard without these things. So in one sense this episode betrays a failure in the Indian decision-making process. After all, it is clear that the Telangana grievances, though quite real, could still be addressed without the creation of a new state. But it was precisely because the Telangana supporters were convinced their voice would not be heard via the usual channels that they resorted to demonstrations and violence.

Central leadership finally acceded to the protesters’ demands this morning, validating, perhaps, their violent methods. But this is the way in which things happen in India – one generally cannot achieve a result without loud demonstrations. This also indicates the severe strain of emotionalism which runs through Indian politics. Telangana supporters, when asked, will point to drought and jobs as the overriding reasons for their dispute, but the matter goes deeper than that: they know, in their hearts, they “deserve” a Telangana state, and no compromises, no palliative alleviations will suffice. It speaks to the lack of “national identity”, to the general identification with smaller social groups: state, religion, caste, political party, and who knows what else.

But even more than that, this little episode exemplifies the sort of issue that can mobilize large crowds in India. After all, to an outsider (such as myself) it is a matter of profound indifference under which administrative district Telangana happens to fall. The overriding problems facing India as a whole, systemic corruption, massive income disparities, an exploding population, etc., could never elicit such as response as Telangana did. Increasingly, such problems are coming to be seen as somebody else’s mess – namely, India’s: a country with which fewer and fewer identify.

Addendum: Former Chief Minister Rajasekhara Reddy’s untimely death in a helicopter crash this September can explain the precise timing of this movement. A formidable politician, adept at keeping a lid on disputes like these, his absence left a wide diplomatic hole. Reddy’s successor, a self-inflated septuagenarian named K. Rosiah, was not equal to the task of satisfying the Telangana supporters.

Written by pavanvan

December 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Telangana

leave a comment »

Insofar as the Telengana separatists have an ecological grievance (loss of water rights), a strong sense of emotionalism carries through the movement. Students battle policemen, the city strikes, and a wrenching cry of “Jai Telangana!” erupts before protesters light themselves ablaze. This is no ordinary issue, but one which has festered for almost forty years, and for which no obvious solution exists.

India’s leading party, the Congress Party, does not wish for a separate Telengana state. For the past week they have sat silent, hoping this agitation will blow over, but this seems less likely every day. The separatist leader, K.C. Rao, is now on the tenth day of his fast, and another strike will be held tomorrow in his honor. The biggest fear among the public is that he should die tomorrow, the day of the strike, a development which, in the words of one citizen, “would make the whole city burn”.

It is clear that a group does not engage in strikes and riots when they feel they have a reasonable chance of being heard by their government. Such acts are generally those of desperation, of a last resort. Also noteworthy here are the students of Osmania University, who have endured countless beatings over the past week. By leading the demonstrations, they have introduced a new element, as everyone knows protests become more serious once students are involved.

It will be very interesting to see the effects of tomorrow’s strike. Congress leadership is apparently in high-level talks, but they are obviously very reluctant to let Telengana go. There is also the small matter of Telengana not having any significant cities, except for Hyderabad, the capital of the state from which it wants to secede. There seems no good way this will end.

Written by pavanvan

December 9, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Posted in culture

Tagged with , , , ,

India: A Political Vignette

leave a comment »

The city of Hyderabad shut down yesterday as secessionists declared a general strike and took to the streets, demanding their own state within India. Andhra Pradesh, with Hyderabad as its capital, encompasses three separate regions – of them, Telengana has agitated for separate statehood for almost forty years. The issue has flared once again, and the new leader of the separatists, K. Chandrashakar Rao, is on day four of a fast-undo-death.

The situation has roused much anger and has bitterly, though unevenly, divided Hyderabad. Telengana separatists point to a laundry list of grievances against the Andhra government, claiming theft of water, land, and employment opportunities. Andhra supporters point to the lack of industry in Telengana, and allege that Telengana would not be a viable state.

Andhra’s capital happens to fall square in the middle of Telengana, further complicating the issue. A great majority of Andhra Pradesh’s industry lies in Hyderabad: its whole IT sector, construction, government, and much else. Most of the state’s wealth is concentrated in this city. The Telenganists are split on the matter – some propose to make Hyderabad a “neutral city” and capital of both states, others take a less compromising attitude and say Andhra should find a new capital.

General strikes have continued for a week, and the situation turned violent after K.C. Rao began his fast. The man is old, frail, riven with diabetes, and a chain-smoker to boot. No one expects him to last longer than a few more days. When rumors went round that his condition was critical, students of Osmania, the local university, went berserk and began torching cars and buildings. Since then several small riots have occurred, and upwards of 40 businesses were burned in a single night. Four students have also committed suicide in protest, one lighting himself ablaze.

Today, the central government flew a paramilitary force into Hyderabad to quell any further unrest. Mobs of students met them, and they engaged in a brief stone-and-baton battle, which produced 15 wounded, including five journalists. The city is on tenterhooks, wondering what will happen next. K.C Rao is now on the ninth day of his fast, and wild rumors now circulate as to his condition. Everyone knows that his death will only lead to rioting.

Written by pavanvan

December 8, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Indian Cynicism

leave a comment »

A young man describes the budget appropriation procedures in India:

“This road was unpaved for a long time, so we began to agitate for it. The central government appropriated $10 million. It had to go through the Chief Minister, after which $5 million remained. Then it passed to the city commissioner, and it became $3 million. The rest of city government took their cut, and $1 Million remained. The contractor did $500,000 worth of work, and pocketed the rest for himself. The whole $10 million, that was all people money; it all went to rich individuals.”

With the history of 2008 in mind, can we honestly say to ourselves that things are different in America?

Written by pavanvan

December 7, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Capitalism in India

leave a comment »

Walking down an Indian thoroughfare in 2009 will strike anyone with previous experience of the country — something has changed. It isn’t so much the visible poverty, the pollution, or the surging, unceasing crowds; having grown, they still resemble their 1990s counterparts. Nor should the lawless traffic, the variety of vehicles, or the belches of black smoke they exude come as very much of a surprise. The rickshaws have multiplied, the cities sprawl, the population grows by, oh, 50,000 per day, but this is all very much as it has been. But one can now buy from any major US or European business; and therein lies the difference.

At the screening of a film on climate change, an audience member remarked, “Three years ago, in Hyderabad, there wasn’t a single shopping mall. Now there are eight on Banjara Hills Road alone. The city probably has twenty by now.” And so it does; great glittering concrete towers dot the dusty roads advertising McDonalds, Adidas, Gucci, and a hundred other brands.  Naomi Klein, in her excellent No Logo, attested that “the most successful corporations don’t sell products. They sell brands.” By that standard the Euro-American conglomerates who have wormed their way to the subcontinent have seen wide success indeed.

Wearing Reebok shoes, owning a Ford automobile, sporting Levi’s and sipping your Coke blares a clear message to the unwashed Indian masses: “I am not one of you. I have made it.” It is undeniable that association with western brands immediately elevates one, sets one apart from the teeming peasants below. They, after all, must wear no-name brands, and many consider themselves lucky to own one set of clothes. Living side by side as they do, the rich and poor occupy wholly different worlds, each as alien to the other as it would be to the moon.

An outgrowth of Indian capitalism which seems to be on everyone’s lips these days is the dreaded mining mafia. Consisting of large mineral firms and small scavenger operations, this interest group acts wholly outside Indian law, though nearly every lawmaker is in on the deal. Their power stems from the vaunted “deregulation” India underwent in the 1990s. The Indian Government  sold its mining operations then to private corporations at ridiculously low rates. These companies turned around and began exploiting their newly acquired resources at fantastic profit. Many of these mines lie on ‘tribal areas’ – undeveloped forests where dwindling communities carry out a traditional, pre-industrial lifestyle. With their new lease on ‘development’, the mining conglomerates began brutally clearing forests and villages, eager for the valuable minerals below. The villagers organized and fought back in an attempt to preserve their homes, at which point India began its notorious “Operation Green Hunt“, a devastating offensive using modern weaponry on landless farmers, much in the manner of America in Pakistan. Here, too, government acts only in the interest of the wealthy.

A typical report from Operation Green Hunt:

Gachanpalli is a small village some 30 km from the town of Konta in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. According to witnesses, the security forces raided Gachanpalli sometime in late October. They allegedly killed Madvi Admaya, Madkam Sulaya, Madvi Joga, Kovasi Gangaya, Madkam Moiyi. Witnesses say four of the five men were past 60 and too old to escape into the jungle. Madkam Moiyi was apparently crippled and incapable of walking. They were said to have been bayoneted and shot to death in the middle of the village.

Or take, for instance, the actions of Coca-Cola, a brand much beloved in India, whose customers number in the tens of millions:

Tests conducted by a variety of agencies, including the government of India, confirmed that Coca-Cola products contained high levels of pesticides, and as a result, the Parliament of India has banned the sale of Coca-Cola in its cafeteria. However, Coca-Cola not only continues to sell drinks laced with poisons in India (that could never be sold in the US and EU), it is also introducing new products in the Indian market. And as if selling drinks with DDT and other pesticides to Indians was not enough, one of Coca-Cola’s latest bottling facilities to open in India, in Ballia, is located in an area with a severe contamination of arsenic in its groundwater.

One could multiply such examples. The corruption here would shock and disgust anyone used to its coy western counterpart. It is not uncommon for high-ranking officials to retire with tens of millions of dollars in bribes. India’s graft bears striking resemblance to “campaign donations” in the US, but it remains much more powerful, and impossibly more open. In India, enough money can induce the government to overlook anything.

This is a land of beggars and billionaires, where a single person could eliminate hunger, child labor, and slavery if he chose. “Some people in this country have trillions of rupees!” a friend of mine remarked, “They could feed every homeless man here, for generations! Why don’t they?” I admit I could not answer, but if pressed I would say: “Because the poor are invisible in this country.” How many times one sees a well-dressed young man avert his eyes to a destitute on the street! How often one hears a wealthy businessman arguing with a cab driver over what amounts to a few cents! India has finally imbibed that spirit of the free market (“make as much money as you can, and screw everyone else”). Thus, no one pays much attention to the plight of the poor in India. “They’ll get on as they always have, why should I share with them?” seems the overriding sentiment.

In many ways, perhaps more than can be counted here, India mirrors America of the early 20th century. As then, one sees now in India a burgeoning middle class, a vast nouveau riche who can live like kings for the first time. Again, one sees the same disregard for environmentalism or even basic cleanliness, typified by India’s refusal to cut carbon emissions, but truly brought home by the clouds of car exhaust that permeate every major city and the rotting piles of refuse on every street corner. America in the 1950s, before the Clean Air and Water Acts, was incomparably dirty, where open sewage flowed into rivers, where one car in twenty had a catalytic converter, where factories and power plants blew their unfiltered smoke into the shifting winds. Before President Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation, the American ghettos were a terrible blight upon their cities, the chasm between rich and poor yawned wide, and one could still encounter open starvation on the streets. Just as one can in India today.

India resembles a spacecraft entering a black hole. As it crosses the event horizon, the front of the craft accelerates faster than the rear, causing it to stretch (theoretically) to an infinite length. The rich in India have become unimaginably richer in the past two decades, while the poor have seen no such gains. Much as the Rockefellers and Morgans of old, the Ambanis and Tatas of today’s India race ahead, amassing billions and trillions of rupees, while the rest of the country makes do with mere thousands. Just as in America, this is ceasing to present a problem. No longer do large sums of money taint one as corrupt, a thief – on the contrary, many young Indians today thirst for the chance to become the next Ambani, to make the next billion. It has become a national obsession, if such a thing can be said to exist.

One need look no further than the legion of “computer science” students choking the halls of every Indian university for evidence. The students I have spoken with give no particular reason as to why they should choose computer science; in fact, they invariably betray a strong distaste for the subject, but it is the easiest way to get a job and the surest way to find a place in America, so students flock to those programs by the million.

And so it goes, the steady, unyielding rhythms of India of old making way for the hyper-consumerist capitalism of New India. Yet more than one half of the country has been left behind. More than 500 million have no regular food supplies, no access to clean water. 400 million are illiterate. Today, the population mired in poverty is greater than the entire population of India in 1947, at independence.

But what grand eloquence we hear on India’s so-called “development”!

India: A Local Perspective

leave a comment »

A young man on the street was gracious enough to share his opinions regarding India:

“Corruption is endemic here. Let’s say, for example, I get stopped by the police. I jumped a red light. Now I can either take the ticket, around Rs. 1000 or so, or I can simply bribe the policeman, say Rs. 200. Who, I ask you, would prefer to pay the ticket? 99.9% of us will just give the bribe and  be done with it. That sort of thing simply cannot happen in America.”

“Oh yes, income inequality is still huge, still a major problem, but I think there is reason to believe it is getting better. If you came here, say, 10 years ago, you would have seen it a lot worse. Come in another 10 years or so, and you’ll likely see it less. Can poverty ever be truly eradicated here? Probably not. The rich are getting a lot richer in this country; they have been for the past two decades. The poor have not seen anything like that; life for the bottom has continued in much the same way.”

“Pollution… well, what can you say about a people who throw their trash on the ground and then blithely forget it? These are cultural problems, but they are also political problems. You think there isn’t enough money to make it so that people don’t have to beg? You think we lack the knowledge and manpower – I mean, you think it’s beyond us to construct a decent municipal trash system, to make sure the sewer reaches all areas of the city, to make regularized trash pickup a basic right? Of course it isn’t, but the political will to enact such programs just isn’t there. The vested interests who run our political system would rather see our resources to go different ends. Their ends. Look at New York City – every vehicle has a catalytic converter, trash is superbly managed – hell, there’s a trash can on every street corner. We’re a long way from that.”

“In fact, I would say we in India are about 100 years behind the West.”

(At this, I demurred.)

“No, certainly we are! The things you take for granted there – social security, regularized pensions, food banks, homeless shelters, scrupulous policeman; we have none of those here. P. Sainath said that all the judges and magistrates in India don’t have the power of a single police constable, and he said it right. We hardly even have a sense of ourselves as a nation, as such. We would much rather identify with smaller communal structures: Religion, race, caste, social status, and so forth. What do the Indian billionaires really have in common with the destitute on the street? Not a damn thing.”

“But – and here is the rub – we are all implicated! Take the example of the policeman. Who will say they have never given a bribe?  I know I have. Our politicians – we say they are corrupt, we complain and moan, but in the end who elected them? We did. It is a vicious circle, without a beginning or end.”

“Perhaps I misspoke, however. If I could point to a beginning of the circle, it would surely be the population. All of our problems stem from that. But again, it is a cultural problem. Everyone gets married here; it is basically a law. And if you get married and don’t have kids, people will immediately assume something is wrong. The gossip one hears! ‘Cheh, did you hear so-and-so still hasn’t had a child? They’ve been married for more than a year! I think his wife may be infertile. Such a shame, such a shame!” One cannot escape talk like that, and one cannot, I think, live with it for more than a short time. So we are compelled to have children by a thousand different pressures. And one is not enough, you must have at least two! And woe unto you if they turn out to be girls, especially if you’re poor! In that case the dominant strategy is to just keep having children until a boy turns up. What can you do in the face of that? We distribute condoms, but nobody uses them – we hold sessions on family planning, but no one shows up.”

“About the future, I am not too optimistic. Our pollution corresponds directly with our need for an “affluent lifestyle”, and there is no getting away from it. We rely on coal to an alarming extent. Our population keeps growing and there seems no power strong enough to check it. 40% of our population is under the age of 30, but that is both a blessing and a curse. What will we do in ten years when they all start to want families?”

Written by pavanvan

November 24, 2009 at 12:59 pm

A Lesson in Tolerance

with 2 comments

“Oh, you can’t trust the Muslims,” a coworker of mine informed me, “They follow their own rules. They act as one. I mean, look at their religion! No morality whatsoever! If you want to have five wives, well, go right ahead. If you want to blow yourself up, just be sure to shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ beforehand.”

He continued: “We Hindus, on the other hand, when can you point to a single instance of violence originating from us? Where can you point to a single Hindu trying to convert someone by force?”

Meekly, (for I knew how hot emotions run during times such as these) I mentioned the Partition Riots that took place in 1947, or the periodic bouts of ‘communal violence’ which seem to crop up every two years or so.

“The communal riots, that’s something totally different!” he barked, “Those are usually started by the other side anyway. Are you saying we shouldn’t defend ourselves? Anyway, can you point to a single Hindu suicide bomber?”

I could not. Yet it seemed pointless to mention at that time the danger of the views he espoused, that by perpetuating the “Us vs. Them” mentality he did damage of a far more insidious sort than quite a lot of suicide bombers together.

I mention this episode because it was so similar in nature to many other conversations I have had with Hindus regarding Hindu-Muslim relations. Perhaps it is a symptom of the unspoken segregation that exists in India that I have not yet had the chance to get a Muslim view on the subject, though I suspect such a conversation would go quite the same, only in favor of their “side”.

Unspoken though it may be, Hindu-Musilm segregation is quite real, and it stands apparent even to a foreigner such as myself. The city in which I stay, Hyderabad, is famous for the peace with which its population lives, despite being an almost fully hybrid city. Hindu temples dot the sidewalks in one district, and merely a few kilometers away one can hear the local Mosque’s ringing call to prayer. Yet one sees very little commingling between Hindus and Muslims. The city is pocked with Hindu or Muslim enclaves, and their residents rarely venture to the other side. And it is an undeniable fact that the Muslim neighborhoods are worse off in almost every respect to the Hindu boroughs. The few Muslim neighborhoods I visited were crowded labyrinths of squeezed-together houses and suffered from a lack of fresh water, lack of access to sewage systems, poor and irregular food delivery and almost no sanitation to speak of, while the neighborhoods I saw with all the ‘modern amenities’ were populated almost exclusively by Hindus.

“India will never solve its problems,” a pessimistic friend of mine once said, “because India will never get along with itself. If you had a stone in the middle of the road and were trying to organize people to help move it to the side, it just wouldn’t happen. One person will say we should move it to the right. The other person will insist on moving it to the left. They’ll form parties over the issue, hold elections, even. Whatever the outcome, no matter how well monitored, the losing side  will insist that it had been cheated, that the elections were fraudulent. Then there will be recounts, runoff elections. One faction of the ‘right side of the road’ party will splinter off, saying it is no longer represented by party leadership, and form its own party – say, the ‘further down the road’ coalition which states that the rock should neither be moved to the right nor left. Hindus will insist on taking leadership positions in the moving of the rock, Muslims will howl at the injustice of it all. Perhaps they’ll agitate for their own rock, to move in a fashion they see fit.”

At that point he ran out of examples, but I could continue for him if he wished: “Then, a language controversy would erupt. Marati speakers would insist on writing their language on the rock; Hindi speakers will make the same demands, and so will the Tamils. The lesser represented languages will join together in a coalition which, of course, will subsequently break apart.” And so forth.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. “In such a country,” my friend concluded, “It’s impossible to believe that anything gets done.”

It is clear, however, that things are getting done, and one need look no further than India’s new crop of billionaires to see it.  But one wonders if India will ever move beyond its communal mentality, if it will ever see itself, and its problems, holistically. There is much evidence that this is already happening, however slowly.

On the other hand, I have even heard the overpopulation problem blamed on the Muslims.

Written by pavanvan

November 19, 2009 at 10:45 am

India: First Impressions

with one comment

Moustache Twist

Lack of updates these past two weeks due to my relocation to India, where I shall be for the next four months. I will be interning with The Indian Express, a mid-sized daily newspaper, and living in Hyderabad, at the heart of the subcontinent.

India is a maze, a warren, a crazy mosaic of languages and cultures. And also, apparently, economic conditions. Nowhere else, save perhaps for China, can one so easily view rich and poor, privileged and deprived, hungry and satiated, living side by side, literally on top of one another. The inequality here is so stark as to astound a visitor from the “developed” world, and one needs only to open their eyes to see it.

This is not, of course, to say that America is any paragon of social equality. Indeed, the inequality one finds in America (the top 1% of American earners reap more than 66% of income gains) roughly compares to its Indian counterpart – but devices were put in place long ago to mask this, such that you would have to go back sixty or seventy years to see the kind of open poverty one views today in India.

Aravind Adiga, in his excellent novel The White Tiger, remarked that there were, in fact, two Indias: rich and poor, urban and rural, light and dark. But that betrays, I think, an anthropogenic love for duality. Would it not be more accurate to say there are tens of Indias, thousands, millions? There is still the Anglo-India, kow-towing to all things western, obsessed with “progress”, “advancement”; there is political India, where millionaires sit drinking tea served by “houseboys”, making pious speeches to one another about “the poor” while ensuring their houseboys don’t go anywhere; there is old India, whose fading citizens still carry dim memories of the British Raj, whom the rapid development of the past decades has left in utter confusion. And there is young India, comprising more than a quarter of the population, born after 1980, already in a world light-years from that of their parents. Beset by ceaseless advertisements and consumerism on one hand, and the receding puritanism of their parents on the other, their confusion is the confusion India faces today. Does not every one of India’s 250 + dialects confer its own reality, its own India? And then: do the myriad cities, each variegated in a manner so far removed from American homogeniety, not confer their own Indias? One more India we cannot forget, one which is growing more powerful and ruthless by the day: Corporate India.

Overpopulation is the defining issue of our day, and nowhere does it strike one so forcefully as India. When one steps out into the swirling chaos of the streets, when one stands admidst the teeming masses with faces so much like your own, when one looks down from a rooftop at the quivering mass of thousands, tens of thousands, it strikes: Can there truly be so many? And: What do all these people do? How do they survive?

Badly, as it turns out. My cousin informed me that 60% of India’s population lives hand-to-mouth, on less than 1,000 calories per day. “You could hardly call that living!” she exclaimed. And yet somehow it is. Confronted by the magnitude of the population problem, which is truly that of the whole world, one has no choice but to shut it out of his mind. Doing so, of course, is much easier in the West, where the density has not yet reached critical mass, but even in India, where one must live with it daily, one finds a curious detachment. Not that they don’t realize the problem; indeed, when brought up it is usually met with a disapproving shake of the head and cluck of the tongue, but invariably a shrug and some noises to the effect that “there is nothing to be done.”

Perhaps of a sense of powerlessness, then, one is able to look out the window at the roadways choked with 15 types of vehicle, the cars and motorcycles viciously competing for inches of space, the clouds of blue smoke that never quite disperse, or the thousands, tens of thousands of faces seen once and forgotten with a mere shrug. They have grown accustomed to it, so to speak, and I can already feel myself growing accustomed as well.

Written by pavanvan

November 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Fresh Horror in Pakistan

leave a comment »

Some grim news today in Pakistan – more than 38 civilians and security officers  met their grisly end in coordinated attacks around Islamabad. This is the seventh such attack this month, each growing more vicious than the last. The story was sixth-page news for the American and European journals, but east of Suez it gained considerably more attention. Which is a shame, because except for Pakistan and India, there is no one for whom these developments mean more than the United States. Between President Obama’s escalation of the bombing campaign and his $7.5 Billion military-bribe package, the US has placed more than one bet on Pakistan.

But it is a curious feature of our discourse that these developments will invariably be framed as a suggestion that we keep on investing in Pakistan. “If we stop now,” the argument would surely run, “then we’d be explicitly condoning these acts, and would probably invite more.” Left unexamined is the possibility that our efforts to slow or stop terror attacks have actually had the opposite of their intended effect.

A definite strain of thought exists among policy circles that US troops are all that stands between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chaos – it forms a “conventional wisdom” from which our leaders never diverge. The fact that Obama refuses to even consider withdrawing troops from Afghanistan stands in full evidence of this. However it is not yet clear that US efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan are having any effect on the rate of terrorism, except perhaps one of encouragement. When one considers that post-9/11 US policy has led to a sevenfold-increase in the rate of fatal jihad attacks or that Pakistan’s epidemic of terrorism began only after we enlisted them as a serious ally, the question assumes significant importance.

In particular, it is important to remember that most of the targets in this recent spate of terrorism have been military targets – barracks, training centers, etc – specifically of anti-Taliban forces armed by US aid. The United States can hardly be said to have such scruples; their attacks fall largely upon the village population of Pakistan, who are blasted by unmanned missiles from across the border with Afghanistan.

If the United States were actually concerned with the rate of terrorism in Pakistan, they would take a long, hard look at their current strategy and ask themselves if it might be to blame. The “drone” bombings, which occur weekly to the tune of 20 or so dead villagers, cannot seriously be thought of as reducing “terror”. Similarly, our continuous “aid” and bribery to leaders who are viewed as corrupt and incompetent, who routinely steal elections, and who receive our support against the express wishes of their population, do not have an easing effect on terrorism.

On the other hand, if the United States were only interested in new bases for its military, an expanded presence in the oil-rich Middle East, and unquestioned military dominance, they would not only cease their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in fact expand those efforts. Which is, of course, exactly what they are doing.

Globalization in the East: A Cultural Perspective

leave a comment »

Urbanization and Pollution in India

Urbanization and Pollution in India

Very often, as you stroll down a major Indian thoroughfare, you can see spiritual tourists from the West patronizing the corner-store rishis. Wide-eyed, glowing with excitement about “enlightenment” and “finding themselves”, they dutifully perform the rites and chants as prescribed by their eastern philosophers-for-hire. And when they have finished, they leave for their homes in the West full with thoughts of their “life changing experience” in India: a land of swamijis and rickshaws, a country of mystics and philosophers, an ancient civilization of enlightenment. That such a vision corresponds very little to the actual picture of India is immaterial. Even the fact that the world of Indian spiritualism is being quickly dismantled in favor of a “market-oriented” culture bears little importance. To the cultural imperialists descending from Europe and America, India exists as a spiritual haven, a land apart, which no amount of development can truly change.

But change is occurring – apparent to those with eyes for it, and faster than any observer from the 1990s could have dreamt. Already a tourist can stay at a Sheraton, dine at Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or McDonald’s, shop in a mall, use wi-fi internet, and find themselves beset by advertisements and eager entrepreneurs, supposing of course, they should want to. Bollywood now blares open sexuality on television and film screens, and many youth in India have embraced rock music, rap, alcohol, dating, and myriad other social cues from Western youth. Belief in religion persists, but its meaning has changed beyond recognition. And the growing ranks of diaspora, already large in the 1980s, have given rise to a new class of Indians, raised in the west with only a very vague connection to the subcontinent or its people.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by pavanvan

September 27, 2009 at 6:06 pm