How does one characterize the Indian state and understand its actions? In three posts (here, here and here) we have used the interaction of the Indian state with its tribal population to try and find some answers. None have been fully convincing and in this post we try a different vantage point to push the analysis further.
The facts at hand point to a situation of neglect at best, exploitation at worst. There has been undeniable injustice and the resulting problems are being addressed with force, not through politics. And yet, there are very few voices speaking up for a fair deal. How are these outcomes possible in a liberal, democratic state?
Our extended discussion has thrown up some tentative answers: the state is ignorant of the injustice inherent in its actions and needs to be made aware by civil society; it is captured by large corporations; it is characterized by crony capitalism; it is urban-centric; civil society is ignorant of Indian history; it is self-centered; etc., etc.
There is some element of truth in all these observations but they don’t come together in a manner that evokes conviction. Going through them one by one, it seems they are all characterized by a common element – a ‘lack’ of something or the other that one expects to be present. It is either a lack of knowledge or integrity or ethics or accountability or awareness or empathy or some other characteristic belonging to that set.
But can a state and a civil society be characterized entirely by something that is missing? Should we rather not seek what the state and the civil society stand for? Could there be a set of convictions in which what is happening makes sense and which can provide a more convincing explanation of the observed outcomes?
The extended discussion on this blog has pushed my search in that direction and I feel I have some results to report. This process has also strengthened my faith in the value of conversations that benefit from multiple inputs, each one partial and incomplete, to lead to a collective understanding that provides a platform for further analysis. I hope the thoughts presented in this post would be subjected to as rigorous a critique as was the case in the earlier ones.
My principal insight is due to a re-reading of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe to which I was sent back by one of the earlier comments. Very early in the first chapter of the book, Chakrabarty raises the issue of the undemocratic foundations of democracy: “What is effectively played down, however, in histories that either implicitly or explicitly celebrate the advent of the modern state and the idea of citizenship is the repression and violence that are as instrumental in the victory of the modern as is the persuasive power of its rhetorical strategies.”
Chakrabarty proceeds to cite an example of the violent and coercive foundations of development and it helps that the example is about the same tribal people we have been discussing. It illustrates the “coercion that continues in the name of the nation and modernity” and is related to the Indian campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. It comes from the description of two American doctors (one of them presumably of Indian origin) who participated in the campaign in a village of the Ho tribe in Bihar. The description is worth quoting in full because just by itself it points to the explanation we have been seeking:
In the middle of the gentle Indian night, an intruder burst through the bamboo door of the simple adobe hut. He was a government vaccinator, under orders to break resistance against smallpox vaccination. Lakshmi Singh awoke screaming and scrambled to hide herself. Her husband leaped out of bed, grabbed an axe, and chased the intruder into the courtyard. Outside a squad of doctors and policemen quickly overpowered Mohan Singh. The instant he was pinned to the ground, a second vaccinator jabbed smallpox vaccine into his arm. Mohan Singh, a wiry 40-year-old leader of the Ho tribe, squirmed away from the needle, causing the vaccination site to bleed. The government team held him until they had injected enough vaccine… While the two policemen rebuffed him, the rest of the team overpowered the entire family and vaccinated each in turn. Lakshmi Singh bit deep into one doctor’s hand, but to no avail.
Chakrabarty concludes: “There is no escaping the idealism that accompanies this violence. The subtitle of the article in question unselfconsciously reproduces both the military and the do-gooding instincts of the enterprise. It reads: “How an army of samaritans drove smallpox from the earth.”
It is this connection between violence and idealism that lies at the heart of the process of citizenship and modernity. And once one picks up the clue from Chakrabarty, doesn’t it begin to stare one in the face. Isn’t this the history of all modernizing elites (democratic or revolutionary) who are impatient to propel the ‘backward’ into the ‘modern’ age against the latter’s wishes but always in the latter’s interest (as defined by the former)? And isn’t this the history of all evangelical powers that wish to save the souls of the damned through inquisitions, if need be?
Tony Judt points to another example from the moral domain in his review of Eric Hobsbawam’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (NYRB, May 25, 1995). Judt quotes Hobsbawm on the New Poor Law of 1834:
I daresay the Poor Law reformers honestly believed that paupers were morally improved by the separation of wives and husbands in the workhouse… So far as the victims of these views were concerned, the results were as bad as – perhaps worse than – if they had been achieved by deliberate cruelty: inhuman, impersonal, callous degradation of the spirit of men and women and the destruction of their dignity. Perhaps this was historically inevitable and even necessary. But the victim suffered – suffering is not a privilege of well-informed persons. And any historian who cannot appreciate this is not worth reading.
So, is the Indian state a modernizing, evangelical state worshipping the god of progress? It is well intended, genuinely believes that the ecological and social costs are worth the price of global economic recognition, and that ‘backward’ communities can be ignored or propelled into the present for their own good as circumstances necessitate. If so, why would we expect it to doubt its mission, its convictions, and its methods? And why would it not be sympathetic to the voice of the industrialists who are the vehicle for the achievement of this vision?
This line of thought sent me back to Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India and to a chapter (“Temples of the Future”) I had glossed over in my earlier reading. Khilnani is talking about large dams and how “India in the 1950s fell in love with the idea of concrete.” To those who imagined them, these dams “embodied the vision of modernity to which India had committed itself. They were the spectacular facades, luxurious in their very austerity, upon which the nation watched expectantly as the image of its future was projected. It was a big, audacious image. India, it promised, would become an industrial giant.”
Writing in the late 1990s, Khilnani reflects back on this vision: “Nothing ages worse than images of the future, and half a century later that image, many agree, seems to have been mistaken: grandiose, irrelevant and even destructive… The great dams, sluicing through forests and villages, have come to be seen as the emanations of a developmental fantasy insensitive to ecological limits and careless of turning its citizens into refugees in their own land. Poverty in the countryside and city continues to destroy the lives of hundreds of millions.”
But the failure did not trigger any serious misgivings of the mission. The vision remained constant, only the means to attaining it changed. Khilnani captures this vividly in a seven-word characterization of Manmohan Singh – “A kind of Mahalanobis for the 1990s” – a reference to the legendary technocrat behind the planning of the 1950s. Once again, rapid progress at all costs was needed to make India great.
But, what of civil society? Where does it come out in this spectrum of convictions? Here, I picked up a clue from an article by Isaac Chotiner (Globish for Beginners) in the May 31, 2010 issue of the New Yorker. Chotiner starts with Macualay’s well known words from the Minute on Indian Education: “We must at present do our best to form a class of persons, Indian and blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
Chotiner’s conclusion: “The implication was obvious: Indians must learn the language of their occupiers.” In the context of our discussion, the word ‘language’ can be given a much broader connotation. Chotiner ends his article with the following observation: “Macaulay remains a much disputed figure in India, but he understood where his policies would lead. He knew that Indian independence could not be postponed forever, but he wanted to insure that what he considered the right class of people gained power when the British departed, and sought to leave behind “the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.””
So, in this sense we can say the dominant segments of civil society inherited a colonial mindset. All the key stakeholders – with power, money, and voice – share the same modernizing vision, the same desire for global recognition, the same characterization of the modern and the backward, and the same impatience with consensual procedures. When we consider things in this perspective, none of the outcomes we see today – the actions of the state, the stance of capital, the sympathies of civil society, and even the accolades of outsiders – seem particularly difficult to understand. They all fit into a coherent worldview, a vision of the future, and a role for the modernizers.
We are back to the tension between the idealism and the violence, the desires of the modernizers and the struggles of those who have to pay the price of modernization. In a recent address Akbar Ganji, a representative of the Green Movement in Iran, characterized history thus: “Human history has been interpreted in many ways. I read this history as a sustained course of struggle for liberty—the struggle of slaves, women, people of color, the poor, the disenfranchised, of religious minorities and dissidents of various sorts, to rid themselves of the tyranny they have endured.”
In a history of the revolutions in Paris, I came across a provocative phrase: “The time of the oppressed is by nature discontinuous” – apparently the participants in the street battles of July 1830 set fire to the clocks on monuments. How will the struggles for liberty proceed in India and where will they lead? When another Sunil Khilnani reflects on the past how would the unfolding of the vision of the 1990s look different from that of the 1950s?