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India as “Great Nation:” revising the project of democracy

Zainab Cheema

“India is an idea whose time has come,” declared Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently. The lofty statement, tailor-made for diplomatic conference rooms, suggests that India has emerged as a mature democracy and major nation state on the global stage. It also snarls with a hidden barb for Pakistan — India’s erstwhile rival that has fallen on hard times.

Most crucially, it trumpets the status of a US protégé. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, India has progressively moved into the US orbit. With 9/11, the strategic objectives of India, Israel, and the United States have steadily merged, leading to the emergence of a de facto triumvirate. In diplomatic rhetoric, US-India relations are called the alliance of the two democracies — suggesting a kind of equivalence between the two societies’ institutional framework. In a recent speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao attributed India’s political traditions to a US fountainhead.

“It was therefore no accident that the Constitution that India adopted in 1950 was also inspired in great measure by the ideals of freedom, equality and justice that formed the bedrock of the United States Constitution,” she declared. And like the script for a Hollywood/Bollywood romantic comedy, union of the two states was deferred by various machinations and misunderstandings. “Yet, for several decades after our independence, relations between our two democracies failed to realize their potential because of estrangements derived from the atmosphere of the Cold War and its manifestations in our region,” said Ms. Rao.

This bit of political amnesia is characteristic of India’s modern statecraft. Fantastically, these words wipe out the long struggle against British colonialism that gave birth to both India and Pakistan. The statement recasts the Indian state as a replication of the American successor to British empire, blithely ignoring the bloodbaths that accompanied the struggle to boot the British out of the subcontinent.

This brings us to the question, what kind of idea is India? Or rather, whose idea is it? From this perspective, Ms. Rao’s obsequiousness is quite revelatory. Post-Cold War India and its transformation has been a test case of US democracy — the 200-year old ideology with all its masks, pretensions, and theatricalities. As India follows the gym routine of the prevailing Mr. Universe — picture here a balding, rheumatoid-stricken Uncle Sam with Schwarzenegger-esque muscles, posing in a Speedo — we are given a fascinating window into the warts and victories of the American democratic project.

There is a sacred bond at the heart of the American project — the tie uniting capitalism and democracy is as intrinsic as that uniting hydrogen and oxygen in H2O. The dream of universal suffrage serves to mask one incontrovertible fact — the modern state is designed to protect the wealthy and guarantee the flow of resources to a gold-plated elite class. As Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, “Civil government, so far it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” After its neoliberal upgrade in the 1970s and 1980s, as advocated by the philosophies of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, American democracy has steadily loosened the safeguards on social and environmental exploitation. This result: a mushroom cloud of economic disparity that has blasted the famed American middle class out of existence.

After opening up to the United States in the late 1980s, India has transformed itself in the former’s image. All the macro and micro-economic numbers look impressive, with enormous wealth entering the country through foreign investment and global business relationships welding Indian telecommunications, textiles, and technology to Europe and American markets. India is anointed as globalization’s poster child, the proof that proper application of neoliberal economic principles will lead to power and clout. Yet, the social space tells a far grimmer story.

While islands of liquid wealth congeal in Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore’s elite regions, India’s agricultural regions and broader urbanscapes are desiccating under the thorny hand of poverty. Since the 1980s, the Indian government has drastically cut its investment in agriculture — land holdings are rapidly concentrating in the hands of large landlords, turning the small, independent peasants into landless laborers or industrial drudges.

And while the superhighway of India’s economy ought to transport the enterprising urban poor into economic sufficiency Slumdog Millionaire style, the fact remains that there are meager social services to support them in a decent manner. For instance, a recent study ranked India’s public health care and nutritional programs below sub-Saharan Africa. The technocrats and industrial magnates who rent out Versailles for their daughters’ weddings, and even the middle class floating on the bubble of multinational corporate investment, overshadow the ghostly class of the dispossessed.

There is a name for the waves of migrants pouring into cities as mining interests devour tribal lands, port construction decimates fishermen’s livelihoods, and dams submerge farmland: development refugees. These join Muslims who are being dispossessed by the Hinduization of India’s development. Several Indian investigations, including the respected Gopal Das and Justice Sachar reports, reveal that India’s 160 million Muslims are India’s most disenfranchised population — their economic and cultural segregation is ghettoizing them from the flow of resources, power, and even respectability. “Muslims are the new untouchables” is a familiar tag line these days.

Democracy has always had a schizophrenic relationship with religion. The excesses of Catholicism and the militancy of Protestantism inflamed Europe’s Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that deposed God and instituted humanism on the ashes of theology. The acme of the Enlightenment’s liberal secularism was the American Revolution, which produced the US government’s Lockean Constitution. Religion was distanced to the outlands of national life. Yet, like a secret marriage, it remained bonded to politics. Religion has helped ameliorate the excesses of the liberal state, and has even been used to transmute the effects of state violence into further political capital.

Let’s illustrate. Throughout US history, puritanical and millennial movements have hit the social landscape in waves, fueled by a political system that strips the people to endow the elite class with more wealth. For instance, the rise of religious right in the 1970s and 1980s was fueled by the destruction of the labor class, as industrial jobs moved to India and China on the dictates of the CEOs and Wall Street. The neoconservatives reaped the bounty of mass impoverishment. In fact, their political support of evangelical churches, to which the broken-hearted people turned, gave them popular power to achieve their political goals.

The rise of political fascism is also part of the “idea” of India. The spectre of communalism, particularly Hindu-Muslim violence, is traced to the increasing power of the Sangh Parivar, a group of organizations weaving violence into India’s social and political fabric. The BJP, one of India’s two national parties, is the Sangh Parivar’s political wing and translates the exclusive blend of racism and class elitism called Hindutva into law. Roughly translated, Hindutva means Hinduness as the core of national identity.

Visions of India as a Hindu dreamscape operate at the Muslims’ expense, as illustrated by the 1992 massacres accompanying the destruction of the Babri mosque (December 6, 1992), though Christians, Parsis and other minorities have also been victimized. In Orissa, one of India’s poorest states, militant Hindus have organized cleansing pogroms for Christians, burning down 180 churches and 4,500 homes.

Social polarization in India is fueling the religious right; the state and its patrons find it expeditious to deflect economic pain onto racial hatreds. In other words, the elites benefit, just as Orange County millionaires politically cash in on desperate Midwestern farmers in the US.

No surprise then that India’s economic growth is vivifying the caste system, projecting untouchable status on Muslims, Christians, and Parsis even as the dalits are grudgingly admitted to the fold. The RSS’s ideology of Hindutva is popularizing only one of the religions folded under the broad term, “Hinduism” — specifically, the most caste-conscious of them all, Sanatana Dharma. This only formalizes India’s transformation of its religious elite, the Brahmins, into the political elect.

Indian conservatism too has a European precedent. B.S. Moonje, the mentor of RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar, visited Italy and was an ardent admirer of Mussolini’s brand of fascism. In fact, the RSS’s social structure was modeled on Mussolini’s Nationalist Socialism, with an emphasis on radicalization and military training for the youth. “This twin trope of self-defense and a lost manhood that is in need of recovery are part of the daily rhetoric of Hindutva,” Professor Biju Mathew notes pithily.

Even as Mughal landmarks are commercialized into tourist hot spots, the Brahmin elites are conducting psychological warfare against India’s Muslims, using the political rhetoric of terrorism to channel grassroots aggression marshaled by the RSS.

There are older echoes of European history in this procedure. “A study of the Ruling Class policies reveals that it has great similarity with the one followed by Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain,” noted an editorial in the Dalit Voice Newsletter about India’s de-Islamicization of its social landscape. “The only difference is that the Hindu upper castes are more sharp and sophisticated because of the limitations imposed in the 20th century by the checks exercisable by the United Nations Human Rights Charter and international public opinion.”

The trick to nationalism is that it is always attended by an advantageous confusion over the nation’s proper borders. Manifest Destiny — the creed that history itself is authorizing the expansion of the nation’s sphere of influence — perpetually arms democracy with guns and cannons (or missiles).

Let’s turn again to the American archive. Still fresh from its revolutionary zeal to prove the moral evil of British exploitation, the young United States announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823: its declaration of imperial authority over all of Latin America. It made good on its promise too. The 1980s were a particularly gruesome chapter in Latin American history, with US sponsored coups, drug wars, and death squads cowing the continent to accept NAFTA’s economic liberalization. The “varied carols of America” that Walt Whitman so tenderly praised sounded an awful lot like gunshots south of the border. Critics and activists agree that Manifest Destiny turned Latin America into a US bordello.

Similarly, as part of the American-Israeli axis, India’s geopolitical designs could hardly limit themselves to its own political boundaries or even those of its subcontinental neighbors. Over the past few years, India has revealed the scope of its own Manifest Destiny: it has been positioning itself as a power player on that beleaguered Eurasian chessboard, Afghanistan. The platform to the resource-rich Middle East and Africa, and the nexus of pipeline routes exporting Central Asian oil to powerful markets, Afghanistan is the key to world dominance in the 21st century.

As US General Stanley McChrystal noted in a confidential report to Barack Obama, “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment.” India has constructed four consulates in Afghanistan, which Pakistan has charged are operating as spy bases for Indian intelligence to launch covert operations in Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan. In addition, there are more than 4,000 Indian workers and security personnel working on different aid and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. India is also poised to deploy its troops in the region, accelerating the area’s militarization. Pakistan has charged India with supporting the Afghan warlords who are destroying Afghan civil society in contract to the nations attempting to subjugate the Afghans to their master plans for the region.

The US pattern of terror, death, and coercion of Afghan civilians is not even in past-tense — the pattern for all “great nation” operations in the region.

How then should we understand India as democracy’s newest dream? Democracy is a mask, a disguise employed in the theatre of a 400-year old idea — the modern European nation state. After the excesses of the American project, there is surely no need to wait for a new harvest of violence and disenfranchisement in the Indian subcontinent. There can be little surprises to the outcome of the Indian nation state, as it sets out to attain its dream of political glory. But let’s take a sneak peek. The conflagration of nationalization is denaturing South Asian civil society. The composite culture, the region’s rich aesthetic imagination embroidered by both Hindus and Muslims has been evaporating under communal hatred measuring 451Farenheit. Islam is being erased to an echo, a dream of a dream east of the Indus. It looks equally grim for the Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan, regions that India has appropriated under its footprint.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 2

Rabi' al-Thani 16, 14312010-04-01

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