Saturday, August 27, 2016

House of horrors

(Published in Business Standard today.) 

On Wednesday this week, a tribal man in Odissa started walking from a hospital, where his wife had died, towards their village 60-odd kilometres away, carrying her corpse on his shoulder. This wasnt their tribal custom. It wasnt a protest. He wasnmaking a point. He simply had no other way of bringing the body home. He didnt have the wherewithal to negotiate the bureaucracy and fees necessary to avail of an ambulance, and the hospital said it couldnt help him, so he just wrapped his wifes body in a cloth and started walking home with his teenaged daughter by his side. They had covered 12km in six hours before someone intervened and summoned an ambulance.

According to various news reports, the hospital denied that it stonewalled Dana Majhis requests for help. The district collector said that as soon as she heard, she released Rs 2,000 under a government scheme set up to ensure that the poor can cremate their dead, and why didnt he wait? The day after the story broke, the  Orissa state government finally launched its scheme to make a vehicle available to the poor to transport a body home

When Majhi set off on his excruciating walk, he wasnt trying to prove anything, but he did: he proved that even in the face of bereavement, the most natural reflex of Indian officialdom towards the poor is apathy, dismissiveness, denial, severity, passing the buck, finger-pointing, and perhaps a spasm of belated official guilt. It is not attention or service to its people, and it shows an almost pathological inability or unwillingness to empathise. Faced with the distress of the poor, the state either snaps at the sufferer, or shrugs its shoulders, or both. This same Indian officialdom has a completely different natural reflex in the face of money and clout: in that case, it excels at embarrassing servility and unnecessary pomp. 

Dana Majhis walk home is a shrivelling indictment of our humanity and of our priorities.

The outrage of the week, according to the internets most active outrageists, was reserved for the fact that after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said that Pakistan is hell, actor and member of parliament Ramya said that Pakistan is not hell. For this, she has has been accused of sedition (because how dare she appreciate enemies of India). That tells you everything you need to know about how far from rationality we have allowed ourselves to drift. But leave the lunatics aside for a minute. 

What strikes me again and again is how, in the face of physical and emotional atrocity, the poor present their cases. I cannot count the number of times Ive watched a television news report, or a film, in which someone who has lived through the most egregious horror, reports it to the camera with an affect so flattened by shock and grief that they might as well be reading a script about someone halfway around the world. We may be a nation that suckles at the melodrama-filled breast of Bollywood, but our most aggrieved people are deadpan, scorched by horror.

And there are so many horrors. One category is politically engineered. I remember a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013screened two years ago and since then effectively bannedin which villagers described their experience of the Jat-Muslim violence that preceded the general election of May 2014. Person after person described how their spouse or children or other family members were caught, beaten, stabbed, cut to pieces, doused with petrol and set alight. They pointed to the spots where these things happened, and spoke from a place of such emotional devastation that it could be mistaken for composure. 

But another, more pervasive category of horror, is the permanent crisis of dealing with life from a position of abject poverty and disempowerment, and being either swatted away, or entirely ignored, by those whose job it is to help. This is the horror that isnt tucked neatly away behind a denied certification from the Central Board of Film Certification, but that laps at the door of every home, office, and institution in the country. This is where sufferers of personal loss like Dana Majhi are further bloodied by being denied a little dignity, yet do not have the emotional resources to do anything but simply get on with it.

And the third category of horror is that this is the kind of country we can be: increasingly obsessed with commanding the worlds respect, and still unable to confer any on each other. When we speak of that, it doesnt matter whether it is melodramatically or with composure. What matters is that we speak of it. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Happy 70th to us

We’re young, so why do we feel so outdated?

(Published on August 13, 2016 in Business Standard)

Well here we are, another year older. A country at 70 is just a spring chicken, and most of our citizens are young. The world is constantly describing us as rising, emerging, growing, exciting, and promising. So why, then, does it so often feel as if we’re being governed by old men, wielding old ideas, for old goals?

Did you think, o people of India, that on our 70th birthday, after the tech boom and the Internet revolution and our own mission to Mars, after Sunny Leone and live-in relationships and globalisation, we would find ourselves sitting around yelling at each other about cows? Me neither. On the other hand it’s also after the 2014 election, so actually, me too.

There were two upsides to that election. First, the thin skin of modernity that we had grown under the tired UPA government was ripped right off. Now we’re staring at our ugly obsession with cows, temples, jingoism, and chauvinism, wrapped up in the see-through cling-film of ‘development’. This usefully demonstrated that a significant number of us are still rooted in cultural and political paradigms that are anti-democratic and anti-constitutional. That makes part of me want to throw up, but another part of me is grimly delighted. Only when the facts are so in your face can you stop pretending that they don’t exist, and maybe start addressing them.

Second, like the tragicomic act that is Donald Trump in the United States, we have seen our political leaders give full-throated voice to our basest, lowest instincts, widely felt but officially under wraps. The leaders making these statements are not just fringe groups and maverick affiliates, but members of Parliament, cabinet ministers, and party leaders. We’ve seen them call for murder and exile, for rape, for beheadings and incarceration, for death and chaos, for hatred and animosity. This is not new to Indian politics, but it is now official. How do you explain the fact that the Prime Minister, on Twitter, follows and felicitates some of the trolls whose job it is to repeat and amplify the ugliest of these calls? In what universe is a leader like that the hope of the nation? So now we are well acquainted with the quality of our leadership.

In the US, Trump has led the charge to say unsayable things, held to be unsayable because they are noxiously anti-human, anti-pluralist, and anti-peace. In India, the BJP has led the same kind of charge. But in India, we have another category of unsayable things. They are unsayable, inexplicably, because they promote dignity, equality, and human rights. Saying them would discredit the rotted bits of our foundations, so that we can rebuild better. Our hope for a more peaceful, equitable future depends on our saying them.

We should be saying that religion is the worst of all political tools, and that tradition is not sacrosanct by virtue of being tradition. It can and should be subject to critique and law. God-bother and cow-bother as much as you like privately, but when Haryana raises and maintains a security force devoted to cow protection, and starts to give out government identity cards to gau-rakshaks, that is akin to validating vigilantism, and privileging one religion. It is also very funny—the amount of serious time we’re spending on cows and cow poop and cow piss makes me weep with laughter.

We should be saying that this culture of which we are proud, the one that has stood for eons, the one we are showcasing to the world—this culture of ours is vile in many ways. We are vile in our racism, our obsession with caste purity and pollution, our insecurity about social position and power, and our easy comfort with all kinds of unconscionable inequalities. We are vile in our sexism, in our aggression, and in our casual cruelties. We are vile in the ostentatious, hollow piety we use to hedge against our venality, corruption and greed. We are vile in our anti-intellectualism, and the stupid, muddle-headed thinking that results. We are vile in perpetuating oppression and screaming treason at those who point it out. We are vile in our treatment of Kashmiris, of citizens in the Northeast, and of the disempowered everywhere amongst us. We are vile in our acceptance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s rule by proxy.

Saying things like this is not the end of our relationship with what is good in us—it is the point where we can begin to nurture what is good in us, and start to be better. I can’t wait to see what the very silent Prime Minister has to say from the ramparts of the Red Fort this year.

So happy birthday, India! Maybe life begins at 70.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Until the cows come home

(Published on July 30, 2016, in Business Standard)

Hindu chauvinism may prove to be its own downfall

Indian society has an absurdly high tolerance for suffering—one’s own suffering, as much as that of others—and our tolerance for casteism is Exhibit A. It must require a mind-bending fatalism to accept imposed deprivation, hardship, and humiliation as your lot, for thousands of years. It also requires dehumanising emotional callouses to violently maintain the pecking order so that the lowly never get too big for their boots. This stuff we do very well.

Some people say that caste is a sophisticated social mechanism, too subtle for the rootless heathen to understand. It’s certainly too subtle for me. All I see is a grotesque rationalisation of cruelties that would curdle your eyeballs; socially approved torture and murder; and a billion pollution certificates. All that tends to kill my interest in the subtleties.

Dalits are still murdered over a matter of Rs 15, as a couple was in Mainpuri. They are still raped and destroyed for sport. They are still locked into the most unpleasant and most necessary jobs, freeing up higher caste Hindus to pour scorn on them for doing those jobs. Just recently, an institute in Ahmadabad conducted a social experiment. It advertised jobs for sanitation workers, and said it would give preference to high-caste Hindus. The invitation alone, the very idea being floated, was met with so much rage, threat, and physical violence, that the director had to go into hiding.

That there hasn’t yet been a caste revolution in this country is inexplicable. But it’s something to hope for. It would restore my faith in natural justice if the tireless promoters of exclusivist Hindu nationalism were to cause the complete cave-in of exclusivist Hindu culture.

I like to think that that process has begun, and that the Sangh Parivar’s naked, unelected, anti-constitutional push to saffronise India has started it.

The July 11 atrocity, in which four Dalit men were beaten and paraded half-naked in Una for skinning a cow, wasn’t particularly special. Another day, another violent humiliation. The fact that the assailants themselves posted video of the assault on social media tells you everything you need to know about how such an event makes normal, social sense to both oppressor and oppressed. It’s the ancient message that the top of the caste pyramid constantly sends down the line: This is how it’s always been, and this is how it will always be: we can mess you up anytime we feel like it, so behave. It’s the message that the Sangh Parivar is thrilled to finally be openly drilling into India, with government backing: Don’t allow the promise of ‘economic development’ to confuse you about the who you are. You are the repulsive dregs of society, and we will never forget your filth or let you forget it.

From the time the BJP government took office a the centre, its representatives have either silently allowed, or openly encouraged, cultural and religious vigilantism—the Gujarat Animal Husbandry department has actually called for volunteers to ‘be the eyes of the government’ in monitoring the beef ban, and it has gotten a healthy response. There is great support for ‘ancient Hindu values’ from people who have a voice, and money, and power, and a very personal interest in maintaining the status quo.

But this time, the viral video from Una aroused something that Hindu chauvinists and cow-botherers never take into account: Numbers. Upper caste Hindus are a tiny minority in this country and are vastly outnumbered by Dalits. This time, Dalits staged huge protests: they refused to work, dumping cattle carcasses in front of government buildings instead. ‘The cow is your mother,’ they said. ‘You conduct her funeral rites.’ Peaceful and witty, neither of which can be said about the oppressions they face. The fact that media reported these protests somewhat anaemically only tells you what castes tend to dominate the media, and what they fear.

Could it be that in its zeal to reinforce the tenets of its most beloved fantasy—a Hindu nation bristling with temples and a ridiculous obsession with pollution and cows, and textbooks designed to dumb kids down—the Sangh Parivar and its affiliates, including the central government, could provoke a cultural revolution from the inside? Can you imagine what would happen if Dalits all over the country refused to work at their traditional jobs, or refused to accept scorn and revulsion on account of their jobs? What if the hundreds of millions at the bottom of the caste pyramid rejected caste en masse?

We should all be rooting for it—rooting for the day, someday, when the large majority of suffering Indians will decide that they are, literally, done taking shit. That would make a hell of a viral video.