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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 46, November 6, 2010

An Open Letter to Ten Per Cent India, Myself Included

Wednesday 10 November 2010, by Badri Raina


The Commonwealth Games (CWG) are over. Our revels have ended for now. Many White people have gone satisfied; some even impressed. What might have been a bland and colourless event elsewhere was rendered magical as the hooded cobras put in an appearance to greet the visitors. In which other country would you have pressed Langurs into service to shoo off mere monkeys? You might say that the abiding world of Kipling rendered what might have been the anasthetised efficiency of gadgetry a seductive, Orientalist bonanza. Brand India once again proved itself distinctive, syncretising anti-deluvian flood with exotic food, laid-back timelessness with the flurried event, Brahminical self-regard with the fear of failure, devotion to imagined glory with the shame-faced last-minute attention to reality on the ground.

But the worry about corruption remains, and it shames our sense of our collective self. Canny operators made killings, as too many cooks stirred the froth to gainful purpose. But the screaming channels would have us believe this is the first we have seen of corruption in India. Really? When and where has it been otherwise? Your point must be that this once we were shamed because it was for all to see, most wretchedly the First World media to whom we wished to sell ourselves as something other than what we are.

By all means, get at them in the days to come. But do answer me this one question: why, just why does it happen that corruption, understood as take-on-the-sly, so undoes our uprightness while the metropolitan eye carries on winking at the congenitally inhuman depravity that suffuses our soulless self-absorption in the successes of a nation-state where some ten per cent of us own some ninety per cent of the national wealth, and the “other” ninety per cent or so (whom we hid behind the grand Games posters or shunted out of town) subsist (cruel word) on the rest of the ten per cent? Does such an order of inequity protected by systems of orderly injustice comprise corruption? Or should the thought simply perish, while we rail at those among our own kind who did us in? One way of sorting this out might be to say: “Crony capitalism no, no; capitalism yes, yes.” Is it that simple?

Of the eight million or so children worldwide who die before the age of five, two million die in India. Fortytwo per cent of the world’s under-nourished children and 31 per cent of the “stunted” ones are Indians. Nowhere, not even in sub-Saharan Africa, are pregnant and lactating mothers as anaemic and as prone to die as in India. Nowhere else do as many millions defecate in the open for want of sanitation as in India. Nowhere are millions obliged to drink water from chemically contaminated ditches and drains for want of potable sources. Nowhere do as many millions die from preventable gastro-enteric diseases for want of access to clean water and the most primitive of preventive medication. And what of food, since nutrition is out of the reckoning? Do I hear us complain of astronomical food prices, and yet never wonder whether some 800 million or more Indians who have no greater than half a dollar to spend on everything a day eat anything at all? If we do wonder, where is the energy of attention that ought to go into all that in comparison with the righteous anger we spout at low quality of macadam on the highways of the Capital city? Or trash thrown uncaringly out of gleaming automobiles? And the lack of promptness with which the menials must be ordered to remove it from sight?

Yet none of this qualifies as corruption; and rightly: would you not agree that our collective disregard, our accomplished Podsnappery, in relation to those details connote something far worse than corruption as we define the term? Would it be wrong to designate an order of things that makes such cruelties of exploitation, expropriation, inequity, the law’s oppression, the contumely of policy necessary to “advancement” depravity and barbarism of a conquistador dimension? And all in the name of pursuing democracy, wherein the legitimating “demos” is left without a loaf. Or do we have a ready answer for that, namely, dangerously anti-national Left-wing voices the sooner quelled the better. After all, we do at bottom think we are the nation, don’t we?


ANOTHER thing: how we have been lauding the fact that so many medals have been won. To that computation you might add won to some two-third measure by our women sports-persons. And of those some three-fourth nameless women from the “hinterlands” that never seem to form any part of the “emerging great power” narrative with which we cloy our earholes day in and day out.

Medal winning women from the land of Irom Sharmila who has been on a fast for over a decade in Manipur. When was she last in focus on our TV screens? Medal winning women from the badlands of Haryana where unborn female foetuses are put to the sword by order of the scions of martial patriarchy. Did you hear Krishna Poonia (Gold medal in Discuss throw) allude to that irony? And Deepika Mahato from Jharkhand Adivasi forgotten land (father auto driver) who shot the arrow home for another Gold, leaving the Brits and the mighty Aussies and the New Zealanders behind? And the foursome who raced to that magnicicent Gold in the 4x400 Relay? And many others.

And practically none of them English-speaking.

So is it too much to ask that we might now use the power the state bestows upon us in diverse ways and through diverse means to campaign for the following:
—that the powers-that-be begin to demonstrably include the “hinterlands” in their grandiose schemes of “development”, and not just in sports; and not just for electoral propaganda, allowing the women especially on the ground to lead from the front;

—that the khap warlords in the badlands of the north where women are either killed off in the womb, or subsequently ordered dead should they stray into thinking for themselves are rounded up and put into medieval torture chambers where they belong;

—that the mettle that these our undemanding and selfless women have shown for us to flaunt to the world now become cause for us to lay siege to political party offices, legislatures, and the Parliament until the promised 33 per cent reservation for women in these bodies is made the law of the land;

—that those thousands of labouring hands who put the Games infrastructure in place while the busybodies were busy cutting each other and strutting upon the stage be now given their due in housing, health care, education, dignified wage, and in the hallways where policies are made for the nation; and not just those who thus laboured in delhi (a hundred of them paying with their lives; think of the jingoism that invades our living rooms at the news of a single soldier’s death), but the entire class of famished and degraded workers whose sweat and blood and dour defiance of hunger and pestilence oil the wheels of our modernity and greatness. Can we campaign that their disenfranchised children be now allowed free and full use of the facilities their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters have built for the glory of India?

—that the cacophony about “corruption” is somewhat remedied to include our own un-named complicities and culpabilities in the silent ways in which we subscribe to and legitimise the gluttony, greed, and class-based grab which enriches the one and consigns the nine into animal existence, or worse. Can we pick up the courage to remind ourselves and the nation at large that the Constitution enjoins upon us to be not just a “secular” but also a “socialist” republic?

Any hard-boiled Left ideologue would retort that much of what I ask is baloney bred of unfounded idealism. And he/she would have a point. After all, the same middle class that applauds the maverick and marauding cinematic icon, the “angry young man”, who disregards the rule of law etc. (showing all representatives of the state complicit in the villainous cruelties of the Thakur, the smuggler, or the heinously corrupt and criminal politician), unleashes unconscionable violence, kills off one tainted scion of the state after another, is ready to go for the kill if the “Maoist” or the “Naxalite” does the same in real life as opposed to reel life. So the ideologue would indeed have a point. Yet, I say with the Gypsies in Tom Jones, let us try the power of shame for now. Its effects are invisibly slow but often long-lasting.

So, dear ten-percent India, of whom I am one, is it time to say “yes we should, yes we can”? Ergo, yes we should, yes we can first of all revisit our own socialisations and our own loci, a circumstance without which our bark will remain hollow.

Can we acknowledge to ourselves that democracy is not only a matter of free speech wherein the fourth estate stands for all of it, but about the other three estates doing their assigned and foresworn bit to ensure that the dispossessed who make the nation go round have access to the bite which is by right their’s?

The Commonwealth Games have come and gone, but let us stop playing the games we play all year round. We no longer fool even ourselves.

The author, who taught English in Kirorimal College, University of Delhi before his retirement in the recent past, can be contacted at e-mail:

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