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India Today
August 24, 1998


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COVER STORY
The Ugly Indian

Fifty-one years after Independence, national life revolves around a series of meaningless rituals. We grease the policeman's palm to keep the wheels rolling. We create institutions, only to destroy them with endless politicking. We look to conveniences, quite forgetting the common good. We are "like this only".

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Ugly Indian

We grease the policeman's palm to keep the wheels rolling

The most fascinating thing about India is its capacity for self-delusion. As a nation, we seem less concerned with being than with reputation. Hundreds are butchered in one of those senseless bouts of sectarian madness that periodically grip the country. Hundreds of crores of public money are siphoned off into private coffers because Indian ingenuity is more potent than complex rules. Yet, come Independence Day, the nation wallows in the "tryst with destiny" recording and awaits further reassurance that it is indeed the land of the Buddha and the Mahatma, the land that nurtured ahimsa (non-violence) and dharma (righteousness). Privately, the Indian epitomises -- or imagines he does -- goodness and morality, collectively he is the Ugly Indian.

We love being sanctimonious. India must surely count as the country most given to infuriating bouts of self-righteousness. We sneer at the US for its obsession with material goodies and we thank the Almighty that we are not sub-Saharan Africa. We are the world's largest democracy, the power of the next millennium. The Indian genius. Set phrases that our children learn by rote in schools are bandied about. Like the self-obsessed Middle Kingdom that looked disdainfully at the technology of the foreign devils, we just know we are superior. The rupee takes a nosedive, our indices of social development are pitiable, we are near the top of the corruption charts and we retire from the Olympics with a medal tally lower than Tonga and Burundi. But superior we remain, superior we are.

"Indians defecate everywhere...they never look for cover"
V S Naipaul, An Area of Darkness

The Ugly Indian

Role Model: Papa doesn't preach anymore, he only shows that he is one with nature.

It is a superiority that rests on very fragile foundations. India, we say grandly, is more than a country; it is a civilisation. An ancient civilisation. So ancient that we can't take modern rebukes. Some 35 years ago, an impressionable V.S. Naipaul was horror-struck while discovering his roots. "Indians defecate everywhere ...," he wrote in his An Area of Darkness, "they never look for cover." We hated Naipaul then, just as we loved his subsequent conversion to the idea of India. Indira Gandhi hated it when Louis Malle's Phantom India depicted the seamy underside of Indian democracy. She banned the film. Earlier, we hated Katherine Mayo and Beverly Nichols. We echoed Mahatma Gandhi's distaste for a sanitary inspector's report. Mera Bharat is mahan.

Yet, if the sanitary inspector is allowed to prepare a report on India 51 years after we came into our own, it would not be very flattering. We continue to defecate everywhere, spit everywhere, pollute our rivers, empty garbage at the neighbour's door, bribe policemen and jump traffic lights. In short, be inconsiderate towards everyone but ourselves. Rule of law exists, but not visibly. It is an Upanishadic abstraction to be plucked out of thin air for invocation and then shelved. Indian justice, unlike nuclear bombs, doesn't include deterrence.

"There are issues more important than decorum and niceties"
Mulayam Singh Yadav, Samajwadi Party chief

The Ugly Indian

Moving violation: Paan spitting is an art, and the Indian loves to display in public.

Indians, or so the myth goes, are not naturally individualistic. They think of family, community and country, in that order. Well, it's not very much in evidence in everyday life. We think of our immediate convenience and hate it if someone tells us that we don't really lead all that elevated an existence. "Civic sense and national responsibility are generally alien concepts," says Asim Barman, municipal commissioner of Calcutta -- a city that blends loftiness with the grotesque. To say we are ugly misses the profound ugliness of it all. It is, as philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi says, "My well-bred Oxford friend saying to me, 'But Ramu, murder is a very rude thing'."

But then, India has surpassed itself in rudeness. In 1950, we, the people of India, gave ourselves a wonderful Constitution. It had everything to suit all tastes. There was separation of powers, federalism, guaranteed freedoms, affirmative action and even a scientific temper. During the Emergency, we even smuggled in "socialist" and "secular", just in case some people had other ideas. It was a very Hindu document: lots of choice for the believer and even guarantees for the non-believer.

That was the famed Indian genius. But how have we managed our Republic? On the credit side, it has endured. On the debit side, the list is more awesome than all the sub-plots of the Mahabharata. In Calcutta, the already long list of public holidays is supplemented by at least six annual bandhs. To show that it counts, a political party must call a bandh. It's a ritual, beginning from the decision and culminating in the neighbourhood cricket matches on the vehicle-less streets. Actually, much of Indian public life follows a ritual. In the old city of Ahmedabad, there is a riot if one person crosses the street and another riot when he crosses back. In Bihar, they go one step further. There is a massacre if one caste twirls a moustache at the other. Then, after the human-rights teams have done their rounds and the chief minister's resignation has been demanded, the other side has a go. Then it's truce till the next twirling of whiskers. "We have to fight to survive," says Ravinder Choudhary, a schoolteacher who doubles up as an activist of the murderous Ranvir Sena.

Survival involves ingenuity. For India, private life and public conduct follow a ritual. Even democracy has been savagely ritualised. Come election time and the goon squads are out in action. Not merely to win, but to prevent the other side from winning. Exaggeration is implicit not just in the first-past-the-post system but in the rhetoric of the hustings. In eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the talk is not just of weighing a majority but ensuring the other candidate suffers the ignominy of a jamanat japt (lost deposit). In Ireland, they used to say "vote early, vote often". In parts of India, even that is a luxury. Someone with a gun is there to vote for you and the entire neighbourhood. "We follow the principle: jiski lathi uski bhains," observes Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill. He should know. Neither the Election Commission nor successive home ministers have succeeded in preventing some one million illegal immigrants from becoming voters. How can they? Voters are not individuals, they are banks.

"Intolerance has multiplied 20 times in the past decade."
Govind Nihalani, Filmmaker

The Ugly Indian

Might is Right: Democarcy has endured, but its quality is suspect. And all is fair in politics, even brawling in the House.

"Violence? What are you saying?" asks Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray innocently. "If you can elect a Phoolan Devi, what is left? Don't we feel ashamed about it?" We don't. Last week, Thackeray was indicted by a judicial commission for instigating violence in Mumbai five years ago. His Government threw the report into the dustbin. The rationalisation was flawless and entirely in line with the Bhagwad Gita: my violence is more just than your violence. "The level of intolerance has multiplied 20 times in the past decade," laments filmmaker Govind Nihalani. Everybody feels he has the monopoly of the truth.

It all shows how much the old India hands got it wrong. In the world of Lord Curzon and Rudyard Kipling, Indian democracy was a non-starter. The "real India", they felt, would be overwhelmed by effete, loquacious babus with their silver tongue and clownish mimicry of British institutions. It has not quite worked that way. As Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav repeatedly storm into the well of the House and another MP flashes a weapon, it is the turn of the Cambridge-educated Indrajit Gupta and the tilak-sporting physics professor Murli Manohar Joshi to look horrified. Of course, it is not cricket, it is democracy with a touch of appropriate technology. "There are certain issues more important than decorum and niceties," says Mulayam in self-defence. Who is to judge?

He has lowered Parliament to the level of the bazaar," Jawaharlal Nehru said of Ram Manohar Lohia during the first no-confidence motion against his government in 1963. Poor Lohia was only guilty of some voluble banter. Last year, the MLAs of Uttar Pradesh forgot the important distinction between a vote of confidence and a beer hall putsch. They even forgot that cameras were recording them for posterity -- as India's unique contribution to parliamentary democracy. "People say I am too aggressive in Parliament," argues Samata Party MP Prabhunath Singh. "I am just doing the job for which people elected me."

Why did they elect him? Last century, Swami Vivekananda described the country as a "madhouse of castes". Today, caste has been reinvented. Politics has, of course, become casteist but more important, caste has been politicised. "Khasi by blood, Indian by accident," reads a red scrawl on the Guwahati-Shillong road. Replace Khasi with Yadav, Bhumihar, Koeri, Nadar, Kamma or Mahar and the graffiti can be discovered anywhere. Even in the matrimonial columns of the elite newspapers. A software engineer in a Nasdaq-listed company in the Silicon Valley he may be. But come marriage and there is none so suitable as a convent-educated girl from the same caste. Democracy and capitalism collapse traditional hierarchies and create a meritocratic order. India has refashioned the free market according to the laws of Manu. Even sisterhood, that great post-Marxian ideal, hasn't been spared. Last month, the Women's Reservation Bill in Parliament was destroyed by the forward-backward-Dalit-minority divide.

Education, it was believed, would be the great leveller. Before Independence, our leaders fumed against Lord Macaulay's designs. We promised free education, decent education and education for all. Rabindranath Tagore thought learning meant harmony with nature, the Arya Samaj wanted to blend faith with modernity and the Kothari Commission thought vocational education a good idea. They were all good ideas, just as the Janata government's adult education was a good idea and Rajiv Gandhi's Operation Blackboard a better idea. Noble intentions, however, sink in the quicksand of the Indian reality. "The largest reservoir of skilled manpower", say the glossy brochures. What is unsaid is that 48 per cent of the population and 60 per cent of Indian women are illiterate. The census has no categorisation for the neo-literates, the badly educated and those who graduated by deceit.

That is the awkward Indian reality. That is why we give short shrift to standards. In Britain, Indians set up corner shops; at home they cut corners. Shoddiness and mediocrity aren't points of rejection, they constitute the national agenda. And capping it all is politics. Whether in industry bodies or councils of historical research. Without politics Indians are in a moral void. They need to intrigue, machinate and plot. Native cunning is the national obsession. Even arts and culture aren't spared. That's why we can't build institutions of excellence. That's also why we don't need holidays. Life is one great relaxation, one great exercise in running each other down. Private sector, public sector, even charitable bodies. What's the difference? Under foreign rule, says psychologist Udayan Patel, we learnt inhibition, now we "have failed to create a framework for managing desires".

Maybe it's a question of leadership, what Americans call the Vision Thing. Utopian or otherwise, the Mahatma had a vision. He even wrote tomes about cleaning toilets and public hygiene. Nehru imagined that public-sector units would be the temples of modern India. Today, both their dreams have turned into nightmares. Gandhism has come to mean spurious austerity and brazen hypocrisy. And Nehru's cherished public sector has turned into an albatross round our necks. Its only discernible purpose is to promote disguised unemployment. The government still occupies the commanding heights, but the government sector has lost sight of the meaning of service. The state now exists to perpetuate itself and the 48 lakh civil servants. When confronted with the problem of telephones that didn't work, one of Indira Gandhi's ministers had an instant solution: if you don't like it, lump it. In 1992, a chief minister in tiny Himachal Pradesh tried to enforce the norm of "no work, no pay". So intense was the electoral backlash that he was drummed out of state politics. The bureaucratic maze, like the ubiquitous holy cow, has come to stay, to blackmail us and to drag us down. India has ceased to be a goal-oriented society. "What entitles us to feel the world owes us a great power status?" asks novelist Amitav Ghosh rhetorically.

Occasionally, just occasionally, someone arrives to instil an iota of hope. For a brief while it seemed that Jayaprakash Narayan's movement would reinvent the Indian existence. It ended up in despair and chaos. Five years ago, a pugnacious T.N. Seshan decided to wave the rule book at the politicians and reform the electoral process. The public response was staggering and it went to Seshan's head. He ended up a self-publicist and even lost the patronage of Rotary Clubs. He also reinforced the prevailing mood of cynicism. Sab chalta hai was well and truly institutionalised. "We are the last hope," believes firebrand BJP minister Uma Bharati, "It scares me to think what will happen if we fail." To many, she has already failed. Vote with your feet, insists the dynamic Indian, an IIT degree in one hand and a green card application in the other. Secede to a mobile republic, agrees the aesthetic advocate of political hippiedom. "Leaving was an idea you grew up with," writes NRI novelist Rohinton Mistry. India, it would seem, is a wonderful place to get out of.

It's actually a million mutinies, protests Naipaul, an explosion of self-esteem. It's still a very strange way of articulating it. India is among the most over-governed countries of the world. There are laws and regulations for everything, from constructing houses to staging a play. Setting up an industry calls for some 60 or so permissions and cancelling a railway ticket involves one form and four ledger entries. At the same time, nearly half the electricity connections in Delhi are illegal. India is grossly over-regulated, under-administered. For every rule there are two loopholes, and for every two loopholes there are three palms to be greased. "A despotism of office-boxes tempered by an occasional loss of keys," said an exasperated Lord Lytton, a former viceroy. Nothing has changed in over 100 years. "Contact" in India is now bereft of sexual overtones, it is the passport for getting ahead, for surviving. So much so that we have supplanted the VIP with the uniquely Indian concept -- the VVIP. Transparency International's Corruption Index puts India sixth in the scale of dishonesty. "It must be remembered," observed the Gorwala Committee on Administration in 1952, "that morality in the wider sense is inherent in the nature of the problem". As they say on TV, "What to do? We are like this only."

Corruption provided a sense of distributive justice," write Shiv Visvanathan and Harsh Sethi in Foul Play, a study of corruption after Independence. "Socialism created the dominance of the 'filariat'. It enshrined the divine right of clerks ... As a cog in the big machine, he was impotent. But as a spanner in the works, he could be devastating. A little man becomes a Leviathan in this system ... It is a high."

It truly is, and not for the clerk alone. There is a distasteful quid pro quo in the system that makes an enlightened soul like Shabana Azmi jump the queue, secure the most privileged of government accommodation in Lutyens' Delhi and, at the same time, campaign for the preservation of laws that distorted the housing market in the first place. She epitomises the cosiness of the Indian status quo, an arrangement that leaves no one entirely dissatisfied -- not even those out of power -- and in the end lead to nowhere.

To understand Kaliyuga, don't look distastefully at the man next door. The man who can't look beyond himself, whose house has violated all building laws and who has lost sight of ordinary decencies. Just look in the mirror for the Ugly Indian.

 

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