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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

September 5 was Teachers' Day and Communal Harmony Day!

This is one of those occasions when we find an opportunity to remind ourselves of certain basic, essential and all-too-easily-neglected values which are needed to hold our nation together. On the face of it India is making all-round progress at a breathtaking pace, as the media keep reminding us with hysterical glee morning and evening, and yet all of us are actually very well aware that things are not well with us as a nation – too many things keep threatening to go out of control and fall apart. Whether it is extreme poverty in Kalahandi and Amlashol, or terrorism in Kashmir and Mumbai, or Indian scientists being arrested for passing on strategic secrets to unfriendly nations and students beating teachers to death or brides burning themselves for being unable to pay adequate dowries or old women being burnt as witches by fellow villagers or well-educated girls from well-off urban families ganging up to rob shopping malls, or the facts that India has the largest army of child labour and the highest rate of female infanticide in the world, the message comes across loud and clear – without more fellow-feeling and social responsibility and goodwill, India’s progress is sure to be slow and hesitant, if there is much genuine progress at all.

For too long too many of us have been pursuing a chimera: we believe that progress and prosperity and peace and safety and dignity and all the other good things of life are possible and attainable for a few in isolation from the many. We say ‘look at the burgeoning middle class in the cities and towns!’ to prove our point to ourselves, we point to the growing and rich NRI diaspora in Europe and America, we count on our fingers how many dollar millionaires India is adding to herself every year, and more fancy colleges and hospitals and shopping malls and housing complexes and holiday resorts – and we shut our eyes to the frightening reality that all this is too little, and even this is being achieved at too high a price – in terms of the damage we are doing to our health, both physical and mental, by constantly running the rat race, in terms of the damage we are doing to the natural environment measured by lost soil fertility and forest cover, extinct species of wildlife and arsenic in the water and shrinking glaciers, and in terms of social disharmony, as ever bigger numbers fall out of what we fondly imagine to be the mainstream. I am talking about the millions of school dropouts for whom the doors of this good life have been closed forever in teenage, about the 300-million odd people for whom there seems to be no hope of ever rising above the poverty line, I am talking about the enormous hordes who eke out their miserable lives in sordid urban slums, engaged in all sorts of very ill-paid, humiliating, uncertain and subsistence-type occupations. And I am also talking of the fact that we of the middle- and upper middle classes are perfectly well aware that much of our prosperity is fake, for it has been attained by dishonest means; too many of us have not really earned the money we spend on financing our artificially-aggrandized lifestyles. Which is precisely why the most open secret in India is that nothing moves without a bribe here. If this is not fast becoming a dysfunctional society, which one is?

As if all the economic problems were not enough to give us permanent headaches, we are increasingly making things more difficult for ourselves by adding on to them, making them more complicated and intractable with the poison of communal hatred. Fifty years ago there was some hope that the old bugbears of casteism and religious discord were weakening their hold on the Indian psyche: now they seem to have undergone a great resurgence. Far from becoming a more united nation, with clearer and more universal goals and ideals shared by all, we are becoming a more fractious society and polity with the passage of time. At the rate we are going, many of our children will not be able to get an education or medical treatment or jobs or housing except on the basis of their communal identities! Does it require too great a stretching of the imagination to visualize how, by that time, frustration and anger will run so high among enormous numbers of people, both young and not so young, that they will increasingly take recourse to foul and violent means to wrest all those conveniences and privileges which the mainstream had always refused to grant them peacefully and legally? All the unrest that we are seeing all around us, in Andhra and in Bihar, in Kashmir and in the north-east or on the streets of New Delhi, all the insecurity on trains and highways and aeroplanes, is only a pale foreshadowing of the horrors to come. The disaster is already looming over the horizon; we cannot console ourselves with the thought that it will all happen, if it does, in the distant future. And none of us can plead innocence: we have all been complicit in making this mess, as voters and civil servants, parents and teachers, neighbours and journalists – if we are merely guilty of having left all thoughts of the greater common good to professional thinkers, pretending to mind our own businesses and hoping that if only we did not look for long enough the monster would simply go away, we are all responsible. On sadbhavna divas, we need to remind ourselves that no matter how trite and tired it sounds, the fact is that as long as we live in societies and nations, we must all swim together or sink together. ‘No man is an island’, the poet has warned; we Indians need to take that warning seriously. Jai Hind.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

My India

I had dreamt of living in a country where there was genuine peace and prosperity and friendliness and justice and good taste all around me, a country that was admired and emulated for all the right things – its reputation for fair play and gentleness and courtesy in public life, its love of art and science, its wealth, growing and decently shared out among all its people, so that no one is ostentatiously rich and no one goes with her or his basic needs (including personal dignity) unfulfilled, its concern for its cultural heritage and its natural environment, its admiration of the great, its encouragement of all those who seek to be great, and the care it takes of the weak and helpless, as well as its capacity to inspire other nations which regard it with respect or to strike them with awe if they are not capable of respect. Instead, too many prospects seem to have grown visibly darker in my own lifetime.

In a larger sense, the rot, insofar as I am conscious of it, has spread worldwide; it is most certainly an age dominated and led by greedy philistines with no regard for things of the spirit or for all the good things of the past, nor a thought to spare for the morrow, and that is an awful situation, because more than ever before, mankind’s predicament is such that we all need to learn from the past and avoid doing things that put our collective future at risk. Instead, it’s becoming more and more a case of ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’: they’re teaching this vicious gospel in the best business schools today, and people are signing pre-nuptial contracts over what exactly they should owe each other in case they part ways a few years down the line! I remember Henry Kissinger talking to a gathering of college students a generation ago ‘You kids ought to be grateful to us – we’re leaving quite a few problems behind for you!’ and it’s no longer amusing.

Will there be a 22nd century for mankind, and will it be worth living in if you were Everyman? Nothing gives me worse creeps than the awareness that already millions of middle-class parents around the world are dreaming that their ‘little emperor’ will somehow manage to become a billionaire in his early twenties and thus perhaps avoid ‘reality’ forever. And simultaneously hoping (at least in this country) that the darling, thus brought up, will deign to take care of all their needs in their old age! God help us.