The New Indian Middle Class
will surely take us far;
from hauteur, humbug, heartlessness
to bloody civil war.
(Badri Raina, Hippopotamus, Modest Proposal & Other Rhymes
For the Times, Sahmat pub., Delhi, 2000)
A week or so ago, one Prashant Tawang, a police personnel from the Siliguri district of West Bengal, was adjudged the “Indian Idol” winner at the end of a grueling all-India music competition.
This achievement of the ethnic Gorkhali, however personal, did not fail to enthuse the community and the Eastern parts of India generally, as indeed it enthused a whole of other Indians elsewhere. In many middle-class homes in the metropolises, nonetheless, the smell of conspiracy was ripe: here was another case of the appeasement of yet another “minority” when, infact, the winner should have been the other finalist, Amit. As you would expect, there was nothing either “ethnic” or “minority” about the latter. Self-evidently, he belonged to India’s meritorious “mainstream.”
These “mainstream” sentiments were capped by a jolly disc jockey of the Red FM radio: this yuppy wondered aloud while on air where the country would find its supply of “chowkidars” (doormen/security guards) if Gorkhas began to become musicians and win big prizes.
Predictably, this so-jocular anxiety on behalf of the country set Siliguri alight, to a point where the local government had to impose curfew and take other harsh measures to prevent extensive damage to life and property.
Inevitably, the government at the centre has had to take note, resulting in a decision to impose a ban on the said radio channel for a week.
Equally inevitably, India’s savvy and influential corporate TV channels are now in the fray. In one of the interviews held with a representative of the Gorkhas that I happened to listen in to, the “mainstream” young lady doing the anchor just could not understand how an innocent “joke” should have been so misconstrued, and why the government was being such a repressive brute. The lady could not cease smirking at the argument that it might be one thing to make such jokes in private confines (although equally symptomatic of “mainstream” mind-set), but quite another to do so on air. It may be mentioned that in circa 2007 when India is so so up there, India’s Dalits continue to be routinely alluded to as “chamars” (untouchables who work with dead-animal leather, a term that carries a historical load analogous to the term “nigger”) in the lordly conversations among the educated upper castes.
This incomprehension of India’s globalised avant-garde connects with matching incomprehensions in other areas of social and cultural life. To list out just a few:
–they cannot understand why they are obliged to feel any concern for some 800 million or more (some 77%) Indians who subsist on less than 50 cents a day, since it is self-evident that they show no enterprise and are responsible for their plight; or what indeed India’s economic path has to do with producing billionaires on the one hand and swelling the disposables on the other;
–they cannot understand why the state should put affirmative action measures in place to improve their lot, when it is self-evident that they are by nature (read caste) without merit;
–they cannot understand why their own achievements should so constantly be held to ransom just because some two-thirds of other Indians have no access to clean drinking water, sanitation, health care, schools, steady work;
–they cannot understand why farmers should be committing suicide when the world’s premier financial institutions so laud India’s advancement and GDP growth;
–they cannot understand why the police and other law-enforcing agencies should be held responsible if once in a while they kill innocent civilians in fake encounters, or come down heavily on muslims in riot situations, since it is obvious that all muslims are terrorists and responsible, in the first place, for India’s partition;
–they cannot understand why their successful sons and daughters should be held guilty of mowing down riff raff sleeping on pavements, since suchlike have no business to be sleeping on the pavements, or be sleeping at all;
–they cannot understand why multitudes of human vermin who subsist in slums should resist being evicted without notice so that a shopping mall might come up;
–they cannot understand why the governments tolerate busy- body civil society activists who relentlessly thwart the march of the country towards superpower status by obstructing “development” work at dam sites, in the forests, on farmlands and so on; or, who immiserate the nation’s will to be among the elect by constantly bringing up the brutal social oppressions in the hinterland, as though any great damage is done if occasionally a dalit or two are bashed to death, a woman or two raped or burnt off as witches, or a child or two sacrificed by tantrics, or a daughter or two sold off for a pittance by parents inorder to ensure the next roti dal, or fatal justice dispensed by lynch mobs on boys accused of petty theft with an approving or complicit police officer on the sidelines;
Infact, they do not understand why a democracy should at all need any political party system (or more than just two parties that are at bottom one and the same, since, alas, having only one congenial party would lay the state open to the charge of being a communist state), or why all forms of collective social protest should not be banned forever (since the jobs they need done are best accomplished through back-stage clout), or why the Constitution should not stipulate that the Supreme Court of India may always have the right to override both the Legislature and the Executive;
–they cannot understand why the army is not ordered to eradicate and eliminate various armed insurgencies who stand up for bogus reasons, or indeed because they hate India;
–and they cannot understand what is so wrong with allying with a regime in America that is after all only doing the right and proper by going after the muslim world on any pretext so long as such regime promises more H visas, more Green Cards, more Shopping Malls, Super-Markets, other latest gadgetries, armaments and, not to forget, the once-in-a-lifetime nuclear deal;
The itinerary here is indeed a long one, forming a formidable package of advancement.
So, is there anything at all this avant-garde needs to improve upon whatsoever?
Indeed there is, much as it might surprise you.
And I was made wise to it by a bright and personable young lady in the family who calls herself an “Indian patriot.” And not a doubt that she meant well.
The knowledge of how, mind you, the “system” needs to be “changed” came in the form of a video email, originating from no less than that ubiquitous hero of the new upwardly mobile Indian, namely, the former President of India, Abdul Kalam.
This “power point” (I have never quite understood what that means, although the “power” part speaks for itself) presentation lists out some ten stunning ideas that must be implemented if the “system” is to be “changed” allowing India to be among the foremost.
Of the ten I now recall only some: it asks with telling force whether “you” would litter the street were “you” walking down in “Singapore”, and answers that you would not; so why do it here at home?
It asks whether it is not true that walking your dog down such a street abroad you would not be obliged to clean up the doggy mess yourself if it happened while on the street, and answers of course you would; then why not do the same here at home?
As I said there are some more points equally momentously directed at changing the system, but do pardon me if I cannot recall the same now. These may have included driving carefully, avoiding corrupt practices, asking what you can do for the country’s “development” rather than what the country can do for you, and so on.
What I can vouchsafe for is that the power points made no mention of any of the things listed in my second section. Clearly those have nothing to do with the “system” and the “system” has nothing to do with those either. Is it any wonder that so much hullabaloo should have been in evidence on behalf of India’s new avant-garde and the channels that speak for them about setting all convention or propriety aside and giving Kalam sahib a second term as President, if not through proper constitutional procedure then by the “people’s” will. No chocolate for guessing who here were meant by the term “people.”
India’s current state then seems adequately defined by the gutter of my first two sections, and by the gold of the third which is meticulously sought to be paved over it. And it is small consolation for the likes of this writer that in some ways it may not be too different in other parts of the world, including the the United States of America where the Jena Six episode has, for example, raised afresh the question whether, despite the victory of the civil rights movement, the rednecks may not after all be back in business. Not to speak of the role of that regime in decimating “universal human rights” and values not just world-over but at home as well, even as it promises to make India “great.” Think that in that patron of democracy today habeas corpus, due process, right to legal representation, to privacy, and the bedrock principle of the separation of powers all remain suspended!
Clearly, Indians (those “other” two-thirds) will have, in the months and years to come, to find other ways of changing the system with all due deference to the former President of the Republic. So we say get busy, and do not be taken in by the gold. It is mortally fake.