(This essay was written one day before the beginning of riots in New Delhi)
In the middle of December 2012, New Delhi was once again choking on a thick stratum of smog. Everyone around me was coughing, while I was supposed to be filming, for one of my documentaries. But in such conditions, filming became almost impossible, unless one was yearning for some peculiar special effects.
While I was modifying my script, the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, was attending a meeting of a group of local industrialists, somewhere on the ground floor of the hotel where I was staying. Security that was always tight suddenly became impenetrable.
Between the smog and the overzealous security personnel, I felt that I had almost no breathing space left; I was choking.
Since my first visit to India more than a decade ago, I noticed that the country has been radiating some sort of militarized Djibouti-style vibes. Occasionally it felt as if some sadistic security freaks had been running the place, after a vigorous training on Mars or at West Point, or somewhere else – one would not want to ask where.
I was intending to film the Indian Parliament, as well as several other government buildings, from the 20th floor of my hotel. I needed ‘perspective’ from which to observe the local hubs of power.
I took the elevator to the top floor and entered the bar; and, from there, a Chinese restaurant. It was long before the opening hours and the staff were aimlessly hanging around and chatting.
I approached the window. It was dirty, but behind it, I spotted a narrow tiled terrace. I tried the door, but it was hopelessly locked. I pushed, but it did not give in.
“Could you let me out?” I asked the flock of waiters.
They exchanged sarcastic glances. I probably said something thoroughly idiotic.
“You can’t go out, sir,” I was told. Then I waited for more. In India, there was always ‘more’ coming, after the initial rejection. This was no exception. “For your own security, for the security of other guests, and for…”
“And for?” I insisted.
A young lady uttered something related to the country.
“On Independence Day and during all other important holidays, we have snipers on these terraces, and also on the roof”, explained her colleague. There was a clear flair of pathos in his words. His chest swelled with pride. As he uttered the word ‘snipers’, his voice shook with emotion; I had no clue why. It was obvious that snipers moved him, as others would be, by the verses of Neruda or Tagore.
“Look”, I tried to reason. “The window is filthy, there is smog outside, and I need to film… Just open the stuff for a few minutes would you?” I tried to make light of it; I added: “I will not jump. I promise.”
“It is forbidden, sir,” explained the waiter, stone-faced. “Please forgive me for hurting your feelings”.
I have never mastered those archaic expressions India was saturated with. Questions like, “Where do you belong?” translates as, “What is your nationality, or where do you come from?” a very rude opening question to start with, but the most common here. And now this: “hurting my feelings”. He was not hurting my feelings; he was simply getting on my nerves.
“Forbidden by who?” I wanted to know.
“Forbidden by the Government of India”. And again, came that swelling of the chest and breaking of the voice.
Of course one could not argue against the orders of such a supreme authority.
The government of India was an extremely busy entity. It was diligently forbidding people like me to film anything in this country: the military and naval bases, the Government buildings, the public and private offices, the bridges, posh restaurants, and the trains.
The Museums were out of reach, too. And many of the statues! Before travelling to Mumbai and New Delhi, I stopped off in Kolkata, to film the Victoria Monument and the statues of all those British bandits and mass murderers, who used to rule and plunder this country.
“They maintain their monuments”, Noam Chomsky, who came to give talks here some time earlier, told me. “Many Indian people actually still admire them.”
I located the statue of the arch thug, Robert Clive, as well as of the kings, queens and viceroys of the British Empire.
“No filming and no photographs inside the monument!” The guard that looked like a member of some Reagan-days Central American death squad, shouted at me. The Victoria Monument was full of them. I offered to film his mug; but he showed me his gun. I backed up, strategically, and filmed Clive – sir, from behind the corner.
The statue of Robert Clive was wrapped: it was resting inside some huge see-through plastic condom.
Local women found it amusing; they were giggling and making cheeky jokes. But one could not film it. I did of course, employing some very basic guerilla tactics of a seasoned war correspondent, although a museum appeared to be quite a bizarre place to put my experience from the trenches to practice.
In India, wherever I went, it was always ‘no, no and no!’ There were some slight variations, like: “Definitely not, Sir”, “Please stop!” or “I will have to arrest you!” Sometimes “Sir” was uttered, sometimes not, and periodically my eyes would meet a neat, polished and round muzzle of a gun.
“Get a special permit” was the repeated advice that I was often offered.
Of course I knew what that meant. ‘Getting a special permit’ was synonymous to erect finger facing endless blue sky. And to endless hours burned in some shabby government office, while facing an incompetent and often semi-illiterate clerk, who would have not the slightest clue what I was asking for, while pretending that he was parked on top of the world. ‘Getting a permit’, meant losing hope in humanity. Doing it the ‘official way’ in India, one would need a few lifetimes, in order to complete one single feature-length documentary film.
The Indian state appears to be thoroughly paranoid, scared of anyone trying to document the reality.
It developed an allergy to writers, investigative journalists, filmmakers and photographers, especially those that happened to be ‘independent’, therefore ‘unpredictable’ and potentially capable of challenging the clichés fabricated in Washington, London and New Delhi, depicting the country as the ‘largest democracy on earth’.
To fight against such threatening elements, the Indian regime, consisting of the moneyed elites, feudal lords, religious fanatics and the military brass, became pathologically obsessed with security, with surveillance, with relentless checking on things, and people. I have never witnessed such security zeal, even in the countries that are under direct threat from the West: such as Cuba or China. In both those countries, I film everywhere and freely, including opera houses, museums, trains, and even some military ships if they are in open waters.
Security in India is everywhere: you go through metal detectors when entering the metro (subway) in New Delhi, before arriving at the lobbies of hotels, office buildings, upmarket malls, even some outdoor monuments like The Gate to India in Mumbai, or India Gate in New Delhi.
At the New Delhi Metro, a guard with a rifle stands at every entrance. Below the surface, there are mountains of sand bags with machine gunners behind them, then an armed guard after you purchase a token, and then another. There are many unarmed and sometimes plain-clothed security personnel on the platforms. That entire charade is spiced up with metal detectors.
I suspect that the security apparatus in India must be employing tens of millions of people.
Police barricades are all over the capital, as well as in Mumbai and Kolkata; entire roads are periodically blocked. The Army is patrolling the highways; armed forces (so many different types, that one can hardly keep track of who is who) are operating on the streets, national roads, everywhere.
At the major train stations, not only are there ‘normal’ hordes of police and security personnel; there are entire units of the army, holed up behind sand bags, heavily armed and obviously ready to shoot at the slightest pretext.
And the security at Indian airports, even when one is about to take a domestic flight, would put to shame most of the ‘Homeland Security’ dudes in the US, and could only find a match with the airport security in Israel.
When you fly from Kolkata to Mumbai, you have to show your printed ‘E-ticket’. Arguing that the E-ticket is by definition electronic will get you nowhere. Forget about the word ‘logic’. And remember – an image of your ticket on your iPhone would not do. If you don’t have the printout; there is an office at the curb that will supply you with one, for a fee.
Then your luggage goes through an X-ray; pre-screening so to speak. Then you show your passport and the ticket again. A few steps later, you do it once more, so you might as well keep your ticket and the passport in your mouth if you have several pieces of luggage to carry.
Then you check in – passport required; and the chances are – it will be photocopied. Later you go through the real security, and that is heavy. Forget about just taking computer out of your bag: you will be put on a wooden pedestal and manually thoroughly checked. Then your boarding pass and your carry-on luggage tag will be stamped. You will be ordered (not asked, but ordered) to produce your ID again, and once more at the gate and once again right at the entrance to the aircraft.
I have worked in 145 countries, on all continents, but I never experienced the security-mania that would come close to that in India.
But where is the Indian security apparatus when it is desperately needed?
When women are harassed, even gang raped in public transportation or right in the middle of the street, they are nowhere to be found.
I once witnessed ‘the largest democracy’ at work, right after the massacres in Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 2002.
People spoke to me of religious-motivated slaughter, of the stomachs of pregnant woman being cut open, of brutal mass rapes. They were not protected. What were those tens of millions of parasitical armed forces doing during those massacres?
But during the Gandhinagar standoff, which came a short time later, when the attack was attributed to Muslims and some fingers began to point at Pakistan, hordes of the military personnel suddenly descended on Gujarat.
Grotesquely Fascist leaders of RSS and VHP, were all of a sudden opening their doors, inviting me to their long tea sessions, during which they explained and promoted their ‘programs’ of hate and bigotry: “You are white and Aryan, you should understand us…” I was part Asian and happy to be one, but I let them talk, asking questions and taking notes for posterity.
All that hate-speech! These Nazi organizations have been operating in the open, and fully accepted by the great majority of Indian people. The Security apparatus knows about them, and does absolutely nothing to put an end to their existence.
It was when I was working in Gujarat, during the Swaminarayan Temple complex massacre, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the maverick politician Sonia Gandhi, decided to visit, in order to boost their popularity. Enormous crowds of people came to welcome them, or maybe just to catch a glimpse of their famous faces. Before the motorcades reached the site, the police began ‘softening the crowd’ – basically beating up the citizens with sticks, and herding them behind the barriers. Security at work!
I also observed that fabled ‘Indian democracy’ at work in Dalit (Untouchable) villages outside Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, listening to the stories about how the elections were conducted there; how entire towns are bought; literally purchased, or simply scared into submission by those who are holding the reins of power. No security apparatus ever intervened, upholding free and fair elections for the poor.
And there were no soldiers and no police, when the owners of Indian companies kicked the poor farmers off their land. Or actually, I am wrong: they were there, but to protect the interests of the rich bandits, against the poor and vulnerable.
Torture, rapes, disappearances and political killings mark India, and so is the total spite for the great majority of its population. In India the security forces perform most of those beastly crimes.
The situation is so bad that even some mass media outlets are beginning to take notice.
The Guardian ran Seema Sengupta’s story, “India's human rights record makes a farce of its democracy” on 22 July 2011:
…The Asian Centre for Human Rights has documented a jump in cases of custodial deaths by 41.66% over the last decade, including 70.72% in prison and 12.60% in police custody. It is indeed a paradox that the largest democracy is defiled by frequent cases of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial execution and forced disappearances. Moreover, nothing could be more disgraceful than the incarceration of thousands of people for political reasons in this multiparty democracy. Unfortunately, the state seems to be competing with the outlaws in trampling the basic rights of its citizens guaranteed by the Indian constitution. The common people, particularly minorities and the underprivileged, are enduring all forms of inhuman and degrading treatment at the hands of security personnel…
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are periodically reporting on the situation in Kashmir and elsewhere in India:
…Thousands of Kashmiris have reported to be killed by Indian security forces in custody, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances and these human right violations are said to be carried out by Indian security forces under total impunity. Civilians including women and children have been killed in "reprisal" attacks by Indian security forces and as a "collective punishment" villages and neighborhoods have been burn down and women raped…
After reading such reports and after having been acquainted with India for so many years, one does not feel necessarily safe when being stopped at some roadblock by the police or the military, especially at night.
Frankly, I feel much safer in the middle of the toughest slums of Mumbai, than in the company of the Indian armed forces, although I acknowledge that this could be a matter of personal preferences.
In sharp contrast to most of other Asian countries, in India there is nothing like ‘free Internet’. You go to some café or to a hotel for lunch, and if you ask for the Internet password, you are told that there is no way to get on line.
It is, of course, for your own security, and for the security of the nation.
If you insist, some luxury hotels will ask for your passport, they will photocopy it, and then supply you with several pages of long forms that you will be encouraged to fill. Forms include all your personal data, phone numbers, home address, passport number, perhaps even the names of your spouse and parents. To fill them takes approximately 20 minutes. I tried, at the ITC Hotel in Kolkata.
Try to purchase a local SIM for your mobile phone, and the process will be even more traumatic. As one person posted on Whirlpool:
Getting a simcard in India is a bit of a nightmare, with all sorts of identification and personal information requirements. They need a photo ID document with your current INDIAN address. So my Australian drivers license/passport etc. won’t work, and I have no photo ID doc with Indian address.
“Taj”, I was told in a whisper. “Taj”, I was winked at. “It is because of Taj!” I was yelled at. Almost everyone I met and discussed the security situation in India with, was referring to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks in which 166 people died.
The Mumbai assaults are supposed to offer a blanket explanation for all the extreme security measures. But I knew India before 2008, and it was not much different then, from what it is now. And after all, the last surviving participant in the Mumbai attacks –Kasab – had already been executed by hanging, on November 20, 2012.
I gather it is pointless to argue, that, even those Asian countries that are in the midst of a civil war – like the Philippines and Thailand – are much less obsessed with security than India.
After arriving in Mumbai, I ate at one of those tasteless and terribly over-decorated ‘6-star’ hotels. I could not avoid it; I was invited.
There, 4 pieces of paneer (Indian cottage cheese), and one local beer went for 1.900 Rp, which is approximately US$35. And that was just a tiny and not so tasty appetizer. All around me, the local elites were on a power trip, stuffing themselves on kebabs and washing them down with grotesquely overpriced Champagne. A dinner for two could easily cost US$2.000.
The staff of the restaurant, as well as the guests, were radiating unmatchable vulgarity and arrogance. Most of them looked frightening – both men and women. I would not want to meet most of the diners at night on an empty country road.
Naturally, security was extremely tight. To get to the hotel was not easy; one had to be a foreigner or ostensibly wealthy Indian.
The next day I filmed and photographed inside Dharavi Slums.
There was no security at Dharavi and the people were extremely civil and relaxed. They did not bother me. When they realized that I came for a purpose, and not to spy on their misery, they returned to their routine, and allowed me to work. Kids went back to playing cricket, housewives got busy washing laundry, and men got back to building things or to smoking, or chatting.
Here, I was told, US$35 could feed entire family for two weeks, and probably for much longer.
The restaurant where I had dinner in Mumbai is representing the reality of less than 1% of Indians, but that one percent is in full control; it is ruling the country, and plundering it mercilessly.
The great majority of Indian people lives in absolutely different realm, is still very poor and absolutely unprotected; it doesn’t drink champagne and does not travel in chauffeured Bentleys and SUV’s. And it is seen as a threat.
All that security apparatus is essential for maintaining status quo; all those soldiers, police, and guards are there to protect the upper class, upper casts, and upper rank, from the masses down below. It guarantees that life of V-VIPs and demi-Gods flows comfortably, far from maddening roar of the illiterate, sick and ragged majority.
Word ‘democracy’ comes from Greek language and it means ‘rule of the people’, not ‘a multi-party Western-style Parliamentary system’. ‘Democracy is a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.’ India appears to represent exactly the opposite.
Interestingly, India of the rich is not ashamed of misery of the majority of its citizens. Here, one could film the misery day and night, with no interference.
But the regime strongly objects to any visualization of the power.
Film the beggars but not the flow of champagne bought with money stolen from the poor. Film the slums but not the military bases and police posts that are there to oppress the majority. Film the people that are rotting on the streets but not the office buildings with investment companies and major multi-nationals.
Film the people decomposing on the streets; film their gangrenes and sores, but not the private hospitals equipped with the latest operation theatres charging some of the highest prices on earth. Film illiterate slum dwellers but not the overconfident faces of kids attending elite private schools.
And do not even think about filming statues and portraits of Robert Clive and the rest of the gang from the ‘good old days’ – as some viewers could draw certain uncomfortable parallels, between the past and the present rulers of India.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.