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Creaky India may not last another 50 years

Zafar Bangash

Mention India and it conjures up images of the Taj Mahal, sitar music and dope-smoking hippies tranced by gurus pontificating on the virtues of transcendental meditation. On another level, India has successfully projected its image as the ‘largest democracy in the world’ and the most vibrant emerging market.

But it needs at least $150 billion to upgrade its creaking infrastructure: roads, telephone lines, the energy sector etc. India has pinned its hopes on attracting massive foreign investment. This, however, has not materialised. Instead of the anticipated $10 billion foreign investment last year, only $2 billion came in, according to Ramesh Thakur, head of the Peace Research Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra, in ‘India and the World’, (Foreign Affairs magazine, July/August 1997).

India’s attraction for the west is its 300 million-strong middle class, potential consumers for its goods. India has also crafted an image of openness and freedom but this is all smoke and mirrors. There is little substance to it. In the world’s ‘largest democracy’, at least a dozen insurgencies are underway simultaneously and its armed forces involved in attempting to crush them.

Murders, rapes and robberies are also a regular feature of life. In the second largest state, Bihar, at least 16 violent crimes occur every hour. The ‘largest democracy’ competes with the world’s self-proclaimed ‘strongest democracy’ - the US - in crime. Madhya Pradesh stands on the same level as Rwanda, ranked 174 in the United Nations human development index. By comparison, Canada stands first (human development index measures the quality of life by taking into account such factors as income, healthcare, education, crime, environment etc).

India has more illiterate people - 450 million - today than it had 50 years ago at the time of independence from British raj. Two-thirds of the women are illiterate; 380 million people live below the official poverty level and hundreds of millions are forced to sleep on pavements.

Of India’s 950 million people, increasing at the rate of 17 million annually, 62 million children under five go undernourished. According to the Progress Nations Report 1995, issued by UNICEF, there are 500,000 child prostitutes in India. Yet it continues to build missiles and launches rockets into space to be counted among the advanced countries of the world.

India remains a bundle of contradictions. Its image has little to do with reality but the Indian-doting west sees nothing wrong. As long as Indian politicians recite the mantra of democracy, everything can be passed off under this label. Its large population holds attraction as a potential dumping ground for western consumer goods.

India’s contradictions are apparent at another level as well. It elected Kocheril Raman Narayanan, a Dalit (member of the backward class), as president in July. Yet no member of the upper caste would give his daughter in marriage to Narayanan’s son; nor would any upper caste Hindu marry the president’s daughter into his family. Caste remains entrenched in Indian society despite being outlawed in 1951. Social taboos anchored in religious belief are hard to break.

Divisions along caste lines remain one of the major fault lines in India. Some 140 million Dalits are condemned to a life of degradation and humiliation. A person born into a lower caste is condemned forever. Ironically, the Brahmins constitute less than 5 percent of India’s population yet they monopolise almost every aspect of life.

India is likely to repeat its history. The country is united only when there is a strong central government. Cohesion is provided when there is a strong personality or dynasty at the centre.

In modern times the Nehru dynasty provided the glue. Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, allowed her hangers-on to coin the phrase, ‘Indira is India.’ It boomeranged on her. With Indira’s violent death at the hands of her own bodyguards on October 31, 1984 and the subsequent murder of her only surviving son, Rajiv, on May 21, 1991, the dynasty was wiped out (Indira’s other son, Sanjay, had died while learning to fly).

Irredentist tendencies have raised their head. Kuldip Nayar, a well-known Indian columnist, alluded to this in an opinion column in the Pakistani daily, the Nation (August 15), when he wrote that regional parties have come to dominate the Indian political scene. ‘The split of Janata Dal once again underlines the new reality of Indian politics: anti-centralism.’

Listing regional parties that now dominate several states in India, he pointed out that regionalism can also take an ugly turn. ‘Not long ago [January 1993] did the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra witness a motivated violence against Muslims. The Sri Krishna Commission report, yet to be published, is said to have put the responsibility on the administration and has referred to conspiratorial moves behind the killings and uprooting of Muslims.’

Anti-Muslim pogroms are a regular feature of life in ‘secular’ India. But others too, notably the Sikhs, Dalits, Nagas and Mizos fare no better. In Muslim Kashmir, the 700,000 Indian army of occupation has been involved in gruesom murders, rape and mayhem for more than seven years. The self-proclaimed ‘largest democracy in the world’ refuses to submit to the simple test of a referendum to determine whether the people of Kashmir wish to be part of India or Pakistan. Instead, it suppresses their aspirations with bayonets and guns.

India has numerous other fault lines. The North-South divide has been accentuated with the unceremonious dismissal of a southerner, H D Deve Gowda, as prime minister through the intrigue of northern Brahmins, primarily in the congress party. The caste divisions remain as entrenched as ever and regionalism with its separatist tendencies is gaining ground. Add to this the vast income inequalities, and one gets an explosive brew.

Should no party, family or group emerge around whom the country can rally, the chances of India remaining united for another 50, or even 15 years, appear remote. In a sense, the Nehru dynasty has also contributed to this phenomenon. With its total dominance of the political scene for 40 years, the Nehru/Gandhi name became synonymous with India. Once the family was decimated, India’s myth of cohesion was shattered.

The congress party is still hoping to entice Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv, to assume party leadership. Sonia has so far refused. Her daughter Priyanka, who although married, has retained the Gandhi name, is being groomed for a political role. An Indira look-alike, the congress party hopes to cash in on her name as well as looks.

It is a telling reflection of a country’s affairs that its future should depend on the looks or family background of one person. India appears to have no future. It would not be surprising if it disintegrated into a number of States within the next 15 to 20 years. Given its gory record, few people should lament the demise of this artificial entity. The Indian weekly, India Today, reported in its golden jubilee edition, that 36 percent of Indians believe the country will disintegrate in the next 50 years.

And in an editorial comment on the golden jubilee, the Tribune said the Indian dream had ‘gone sour... This is not the India the majority of Indians bargained for.’


Muslimedia - September 16-30, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 14

Jumada' al-Ula' 14, 14181997-09-16

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