By PANKAJ MISHRA
Published: October 2, 2010
ON Friday afternoon, public spaces across north India were flooded with policemen and paramilitaries. Thousands of alleged “troublemakers” were arrested. The sending of bulk text messages from mobile phones was banned. These precautions had nothing to do with the opening on Sunday of the Commonwealth Games, the athletic competition among the nations of the former British Empire that so many Indians have hoped would be their country’s symbolic coming out as a world power.
Rather, the police were out in force because an Indian court had pronounced its verdict on the site in the town of Ayodhya that has been long claimed by Hindu nationalists as the birthplace of Lord Rama. The government did not want a repeat of the horrific mob violence that in 1992 had followed the destruction by Hindu nationalists of a 16th-century mosque standing on the land in question.
Shortly after the verdict, which split the disputed site unequally in favor of Hindus and to the detriment of Muslims, I went for a walk through the Himalayan village near my home. Even here, 600 miles from Ayodhya, people seemed to be playing it safe, the market partly closed, and shopkeepers clustered around television sets behind shutters.
Only the migrant laborers, who have come hundreds of miles from central India to the Himalayas, were still at work, men, women and even children carrying heavy stones on their heads at the construction projects that litter the hillsides.
Easily identified — the parents small and thin and dark, and the children with distended bellies and rust-brown hair that speak of chronic malnutrition — these migrant laborers have been a regular sight here for some years, building summer homes for the affluent of Delhi all day, and then huddling under tin shacks at night.
I stopped to talk to a couple I know. All morning news channels had been working themselves into a frenzy of fear and anxiety. Even the more sober commentators fretted whether our “rising economic superpower” would be torn apart again over the question of whether the mythical Lord Rama was born in a ramshackle provincial town.
But the laborers hadn’t heard of the court verdict. As colder weather approaches, their greatest anxiety seemed to be to protect themselves: the punitive rains this summer have blown away the roofs of their living quarters. And it seemed only right that these helots of India’s globalized economy should be indifferent to the possible despoiling of India’s image in the West.
So who is anxious over India’s image in the wealthy world? That particular burden is borne by India’s small affluent elite, for whom the last few months have been full of painful and awkward self-reckonings. Certainly, the fear of violence over Ayodhya was only the latest in a long line of reminders that, as the columnist Vir Sanghvi put it, “as hard as we try to build a new India ... old India still has the power to humiliate and embarrass us.”
Since June, a mass insurrection, resembling the Palestinian intifada, has raged in the Indian-held Valley of Kashmir. Defying draconian curfews, large and overwhelmingly young crowds of Kashmiri Muslims have protested human rights abuses by the nearly 700,000 Indian security forces there. Ill-trained soldiers have met stone-pelting protesters with gunfire, killing more than a hundred Kashmiris, mostly teenagers, and ensuring another militant backlash that will be exploited by radical Islamists in Pakistan.
A full-blown insurgency is already under way in central India, where guerrilla fighters inspired by Mao Zedong’s tactics are arrayed against a government they see as actively colluding with multinational corporations to deprive tribal people of their mineral-rich lands. In recent months, the Maoists have attacked the symbols of the state’s authority — railroads, armories, police stations — seemingly at will, killing scores of people.
Yet the greatest recent blow to wealthy Indians’ delusions on the subject of their nation’s inexorable rise has been the Commonwealth Games, for which Delhi was given a long and painful facelift. For so many, the contest was expected to banish India’s old ghosts of religious and class conflict, and cement its claims to a seat at the high tables of international superpowers.
But the games turned into a fiasco well before their scheduled opening. Two weeks ago, a huge footbridge connected to the main stadium collapsed. The federation that runs the games has called the athletes’ housing “uninhabitable.” The organizers have had to hire an army of vicious langur monkeys to keep wild animals from infesting the venues. Pictures of crumbling arenas and ****** toilets are circulating more widely than the beautiful landscapes of the government’s “Incredible India” tourism campaign.
As the ratings agency Moody worries that the debacle has “tarnished” India’s image, commentators here angrily hunt for blameworthy politicians and officials over what they call “national shame.” The contrast to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which the Chinese government largely overcame controversy and staked a claim to a dominant place in the world order, is all too depressingly clear.
These shocks to the Indian self-image are traumatic. But then the illusions about the new India have been too blinding. Vigorous economic growth, high-profile Indian businessmen congregating at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, and the greater visibility of successful and articulate Indians abroad have combined to make India, or English-speaking Indians, anyway, appear a perfect fit for the Western model of modernity — a “roaring capitalist success story,” as Foreign Affairs described the country in 2006.
It has helped our self-image, too, that Indians have many democratic institutions that are missing in most non-Western countries. Thus the major narrative that has developed internationally about democratic India in recent years assumes it to be more “stable” than authoritarian China. Yet Beijing faces no political problems as severe as the many insurgencies in central India and Kashmir, or tragedies as great as the waves of suicides of tens of thousands of overburdened farmers over the last two decades.
Certainly, the narrative of India as vibrant democracy and booming economy suppresses more than it reveals. Business-lounge elites around the world revel in statistics about economic growth and Indians rising up Forbes’s rankings of billionaires. At the same time, they simply ignore the alarmingly deep and growing inequalities of income and resources in India.
The newspaper Financial Express estimated that the private wealth of the 49 Indians on the Forbes list is nearly 31 percent of India’s gross domestic product — a ratio that makes them three times more crucial to the Indian economy than their billionaire counterparts in the United States are to the American economy. In July, a United Nations report revealed that there are more poor people in just eight Indian states than in all the 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with the large state of Madhya Pradesh comparable in intensity of deprivation to war-ravaged Congo.
India not only lives, as the cliché goes, in several centuries at once; it is also a land of multiple narratives, which continuously and often painfully overlap. The Commonwealth Games, the showcase of India’s progress, uprooted as many as 100,000 of the most deprived Indians in Delhi no less ruthlessly than the Chinese cleanse their ultramodern cities of the ungainly poor.
The laborers building the vacation retreats of the privileged in my village — part of the explosion of cheap labor that has helped build private fortunes in India and abroad — are refugees from the part of India where longstanding feudal cruelties are now compounded by the battles between Maoists and multinational corporations seeking precious minerals.
Well-to-do Indians fear that Hindu nationalists emboldened by the verdict on Ayodhya might scare off foreign investors. But it was Hindu nationalists who, coming to power in 1998 through successive bloody anti-Muslim campaigns, followed policies that expedited the country’s grossly uneven economic development and entrenched corporate special interests in India’s politics.
More fatefully, the Hindu nationalists exploded nuclear bombs underground and threatened Pakistan with all-out war, creating a legacy of hard-line nationalism — which the Indian military in Kashmir and successive governments in Delhi have embraced.
Certainly, the four million Muslims of Kashmir, who every day suffer the brutalities of what’s arguably the world’s largest military occupation, cannot be blamed for failing to make meaningful distinctions between Hindu nationalists and the current government, led by the more moderate Congress Party. Their fate remains that of a minority kept under perpetual siege by a paranoid nation-state.
Like hundreds of millions of other voiceless Indians, the migrant laborers in my village are even less able to distinguish between the oppressions of old feudal India and the pitiless exploitations of the new business-minded India. I wonder if the recent destruction of their fragile shelters doesn’t hold some symbolism. Perhaps the greatest danger to India’s image is that they may one day cease to cower in those shacks, and, like their counterparts in central India, erupt in armed revolt.
This summer’s setbacks to India’s image may soon fade from memory. But their lesson for the rhapsodic narrators of India’s modernity seems clear. “There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin once wrote, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” This is the melancholy truth that all narratives about “rising” India must acknowledge if they are not to be trumped by pictures of a collapsed bridge and a leaking toilet.