India@61: An idea gone astray

By Nissim Mannathukkaren

The signature of India at 61 is one of unbridgeable divide, between billion-dollar homes and millions living in slums. Without inclusive development, the idea of India will remain the privileged domain of a few.

On January 8, 2011, Gokul Singh Gond, of Druminia village, Madhya Pradesh, places his dead daughter Sohagvati on the back of his bicycle and pedals 10 km to the nearest district hospital for an autopsy. On the same day, cricketer Gautam Gambhir was auctioned for $2.1 million for the fourth edition of IPL, the highest amount of money offered for the services of a cricketer in the history of the game. If there are two images that could capture the idea of India in the 62nd year of its Republic, they are these. On the one hand, India is poised to send its business classes to take over the world when, on the other, it condemns vast sections of its citizens to subhuman existence. The signature of Indian Republic at 61 is the almost seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the worlds of the Gokul Singh Gonds and the rest. Of course, there was always contempt for the poor by the rich, but the biggest change in the post-liberalization era is that the have-nots are not looked down upon, but they simply don’t exist!

It is fascinating to see countless young Indians, especially in the West, so passionate and committed to the idea and cause of India. Keeping in with the tectonic shifts in the Indian economy in the last two decades, this generation is hardly marked by the diffidence and risk averseness of the generations, who lived under “Hindu growth rate.” It is also weighed down less by the psychological scars of colonialism. This is the generation that will soar and take India to its tryst with destiny. But most curiously and painfully, it will soon dawn on one that this generation’s idea of India is divested from any interest in how majority of Indians live. It does not feel that there is anything obscene in building a $1 billion home in a city, in which 40 crore people live in slums. For it, the idea of India does not extend beyond the Tatas taking over Jaguar or the nation doing well in cricket. The angst about the staging of the Commonwealth Games is not seen when millions of tons of grains rot in granaries in a nation where more than 75 percent of the population live under Rs. 20 a day. The heart that swells up with pride when the rupee got a symbol or when Slumdog Millionaire wins an Oscar goes cold when it actually sees a person from the slum.

No spirit left

It is the ultimate Faustian bargain in which the Indian soul has been sold comprehensively at the altar of the worship of mammon. In the Republic, Plato told us that the soul consists of three parts, logos (reason), thymos (spirit) and eros (appetite) and for justice to be attained, all the three have to be in proportion. But the idea of India in circa 2011 is overrun by reason and appetite. It does not have thymos. The spirit has gone out of it. There is nothing in the imagination of the youth that has got any semblance of idealism. That is why it falls in love with “3 Idiots,” the anthem of our times. Here the protagonist mounts a scathing criticism of our educational system, which is nothing but a totalitarian factory for producing engineers and doctors; but his idealistic disassociation from the system is ultimately rewarded not only with the girl, but also multi-million dollars worth of patents.

Ironically, when the material underpinnings of the idea of India are falling in place, the idea itself is in danger of being stunted; for, it lacks the courage of imagination that can further enrich it. This is especially tragic considering that India has one of the youngest populations in the world.

Of course, there is still a section of the citizenry, and including the “generation text,” that would virulently defend the idea of India, even at the cost of their own lives. Thymos is alive and kicking in this idea of India. But such heightened love for the nation often takes a pathological turn and is mainly expressed through activities like the defense of sedition laws crafted by our colonial masters. Consider for example, a position articulated by a young and committed officer of the Indian Police Service: “The (Kashmiri) separatist cause is morally, historically, legally and tactically, against the idea of India itself…Despite the 6,000 (security personnel) dead and counting, there is no shortage of young men in India who will proudly don the uniform and continue to man the peaks and valleys of Kashmir, ready to kill and die for the idea of an indivisible India.” Here India becomes a feudal lord violently trying to prevent his long-suffering third wife from running away lest it provoke a dissension among the other two. What is shocking about this dangerous imagery — a staple feature among genocidal projects in other parts of the world — is that it has resonance among large sections of the educated middle classes.

The message is loud and clear, especially to the vast dreary hinterland where the Gokul Singh Gonds live: you might live the life of a worm in a democratic India, but you better be patriotic and sing the national anthem. This idea of India with a gun to your head is also patriarchal. The vulgar misogynist venom spewed on Arundhati Roy shows the depravity of the idea in which patriarchy and jingoism coagulate into a toxic mix. More than her “anti-national” views, it is her femininity that transforms even liberal commentators into a khap panchayat.


One could argue that ideas like secularism is thriving considering that urban India spends more on Christmas than Diwali and that malls in Delhi heralded in a white Christmas last year with snow, elves, reindeers, and trees studded with 400,000 Swarovski crystals! But real India will take another half a century to see Santa. Till then, the Chamars and Madigas will continue to be lynched alive for daring to wear sandals, or ride a scooter. We are still in denial that something like caste or heinous oppression based on it exists. While the Indian state would do anything to question the equation of casteism with racism in international fora, the “forward” castes among the generation text are willing to immolate themselves if there is a semblance of threat to the order decreed by Manu. Thymos, alright!

The idea of India, as it is put into practice, is built on the segregation and humiliation of large sections of its citizens on the basis of caste and color (even if it recoils in injured innocence when the same treatment is meted out in the form of New Zealand television anchors and Australian police officers). That is why we expend reams of paper and thousands of sound bytes on the Radia affair without thinking it important to comment about Radia’s jocular allusion to  Raja’s color.

After 61 years of the Republic, can we name one dalit icon, in the domain of popular culture (music, arts, cinema, and cricket), business, and the private sector that has captured the imagination of India? The fact that we cannot shows the horrendous record of the idea of India. But we can always comfort ourselves saying that it could be that there isn’t anybody, who is talented enough from among a dalit population of nearly 18 crores, large enough to constitute the sixth largest country in the world! And meanwhile we always have Karan Johar’s idea of India to fall back on, the India that lives in New York and London and populated by the Khannas and Kapoors, and the Sharmas and Pandeys.

All international opinion surveys of Ind
ians (read, the elites and middle classes) show their tremendous optimism on the economic front (even in these globally bleak times) and overwhelming confidence in a free market economy. But it would be a chimera to believe that the idea of India can be sustained by a galloping economy. This much-celebrated growth is in any case fracturing the idea of India by building oases of wealth amidst a desert of want.

Destructive path

For the past few years, I have been teaching a class on India to a group of white university students who have been fascinated by the idea of India. While some of this fascination is due to romantic notions of the East, it is also largely due to a disenchantment with the soul-sapping and environmentally destructive path of development trod by the West. Little do they know that the idea of India is hurtling down the same path?

A few months ago, Beebi Lumada, an Indian “housemaid,” was stranded at Muscat airport, having lost her passport. After five days at the airport, she turns delusional and dies of shock. Even when India plans to send a man to the moon, it could not send a man from its own embassy to help a poor woman in distress. The idea of India in the present is one which curiously does not include most Indians. It is the idea of India without the Gokul Singh Gonds and the Beebi Lumadas. Perhaps its greatest failure is to understand why people like Binayak Sen exist and why he has been incarcerated: jinhe naaz hain hind par vo kahan hain?

(Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren is Director of Graduate Program, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University. Email:

A different vision

This idea of India could not but be a monstrous perversity of the one imagined by Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar or Bhagat Singh. In fact India of the present has no use for them or any of the fundamental ideas put forward by them: nonviolence, secularism, social justice and a classless society. Of course, the Bhagat Singhs and Gandhis do make an appearance in the present, but defanged and domesticated, completely in sync with the shining India. Watching Rang de Basanti and Munna Bhai, one would be forgiven for thinking that all that they stood for was changing society through either killing politicians or magical hugs.

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