Indira’s India

Alok Rai

As Indira Gandhi’s surviving son Rajiv became Prime Minister, and her body lay in state at Teen Murti House – her father’s home and, before that, the home of the Commander-in-Chief of colonial India – international notables converged on New Delhi. It was perhaps the final triumph of one who was so good at hosting such things: Mrs Gandhi’s last summit. Behind high and anxious barriers, the leaders of the world watched sandalwood flames on the orderly bank of the Yamuna reduce the earthly body to ashes. There is something irreducibly strange about the Hindu funeral ceremony, a finality that allows no notions of a soothing organic continuity. Only cinders, crumbling into sterile ash, as the insistent, age-old mantras reinforce the superfluous message of the vanity of earthly aspiration. Meanwhile, on the other bank, in the resettlement colonies, the savage mobs howled.

Within hours of Mrs Gandhi’s death – before, in fact, her death had been announced over All India Radio – dark rumours began to be heard. All over North India, the mobs appeared, emanations from the barely suppressed sub-world of the Indian polity. The ensuing violence, a country-wide riot of communal murder, was a throwback to a tribal past in which only the males of the offending community were targeted for vengeance. (The word ‘communal’, incidentally, has one distinctively Indian meaning, indicative, not of any prelapsarian realm of shared joys and values, but rather of the tense and prickly solidarities that divide and inflame.) The anti-Sikh violence at several places in urban North India was, of course, tragic, and its fall-out will contaminate the political environment for a long time to come. The Sikh communities that were set upon and put to the torch could only be guilty under a terrifyingly absolute reading of collective responsibility. Thus, because of the material conditions of their existence, the Sikhs who lived outside the Punjab – but, still, in India, and not in foreign sanctuaries – were not in favour of a communal ghetto state, a fundamentalist rump called Khalistan: and this should not be taken to suggest that all Sikhs inside the Punjab were, or are, in favour of such a conception. Furthermore, the vandalised Sikh communities, from which only the fortunate escaped to the refugee camps, very often consisted of people who had already, in one unbearable lifetime, been refugees – in 1947. Perhaps only the Palestinians could claim a similar melancholy distinction.

But it also has to be said that the communal violence, post-assassination, was perhaps unavoidable. For the last two years, there had been reports from the Punjab of calculated anti-Hindu violence. Indeed, it is remarkable that there had so far been no significant Hindu backlash – remarkable, because the Hindu majority community, too, is not without its reactionary and militant organisations which feed on precisely such bloody fare. The killing of Mrs Gandhi provided a sufficient opportunity for the senseless but not incomprehensible passion for communal vengeance.

In addition to being tragic and predictable, however, the communal violence of the days immediately after the assassination was also convenient. It became possible to cast the events into available, well-used moulds. One of these turned up, somewhat oddly, in the New Statesman, where David Selbourne argued that what had been persistently overlooked was the fact that India wasn’t a country at all, but a sub-continent. This thesis has some truth in it, but there hangs about it an ancient and fish-like smell. It was, after all, a standard colonial fiction: that India was simply an entity conjured up by the British administration, that India wasn’t a country at all, but a fractious collection of communities and nationalities, barely held together in relative amity by the restraining hand of that colonial administration which a kindly Providence had, in a famous fit of absent-mindedness, supplied. What is this thesis supposed to imply, in policy terms: several Pakistans, splitting up at intervals into smaller and smaller states?

The ‘martial’ Sikhs, creatures of myth and ballad, are another colonial stereotype: vigorous, strapping, lusty peasants, hard-working and earthy, bearded and be-turbaned, and enjoined by the valiant Guru Gobind Singh to bear always the name of ‘lion’, Singh. The story went something like this: the racial pride of this community had been injured by the Army’s behaviour in the Golden Temple, and now they have wreaked their terrible and inevitable vengeance against the person they saw as the author of their humiliation. Once again, there is a degree of truth in this ballad-like narrative of humiliation and retribution, not least because the Sikh community is itself trapped in these myths. But it obscures the divisions among the Sikhs themselves: between the reformist Nirankari and the diehard Nihang, the gentleman farmers and the gun-toting acolytes of Bhindranwale, between the different interests that expressed themselves in the moderate and extreme theses of the Punjab agitation.

Apart from the communal violence, the other great theme of the news from India has been the royal succession, Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension of the ‘throne’ of India. Before Mrs Gandhi’s death, the Congress Party was in disarray, and her own grip seemed to be slipping. Now, riding the crest of the ‘sympathy vote’, her Congress Party can be expected to gain a confident majority, and Nehru III will have been ensured his dynastic inheritance. I am disinclined to credit mere mortals with magical powers, but it is difficult to deny her, ‘she’, Mrs Indira Gandhi, the gift of prophecy. ‘When I am murdered they will say I arranged it for myself,’ (7 January 1975).

It must be said that Mrs Gandhi herself rather encouraged personalised explanations of what was going on around her. After all, the absurd slogan – ‘Indira is India, and India is Indira’ – was coined by one of her pet buffoons, Dev Kant Barooah, apparently with her approval. In the aftermath of the liberation of Bangladesh, all the pain and courage of that episode seemed to have concentrated itself in one ubiquitous image, repeated on poster after poster, wall after wall: Indira as Durga, the holy Mother, terrible in her wrath, yet infinitely gentle, who had promised and indeed produced deliverance. Her party, moulded by the force of her personality and the terrifying electoral efficacy of her political style, had become, simply, the ‘Congress (Indira)’. A party without programme or policy, analysis or theory, possessed only of a few phrases of empty rhetoric, and, of course, the magic name, the face that launched a thousand legislators. This was, in a sense, the Congress Party, not to be confused with the person Indira Gandhi, who could be civilised and self-deprecating with the best of them, distancing herself with a smile and an elegant shrug of her shoulders from the flood of panegyric which her fawning courtiers chose to lavish upon her. At another level, this enigmatic person, omnivorous autocrat and melancholy prisoner of responsibility, was, despite the delusions to which both she and her party might have been prone, quite distinct from India as such. India is not Indira, and it is not even the Congress (Indira).

However, it wasn’t only the ruling party, leaders and led, who were prone to that delusion. The Indian Opposition, so-called, a shabby collection of yesterday’s puppets, has had its politics defined, at least in the period following the Janata debacle, entirely by its frustration at the astonishing return to power of the human being whom the hanged leader of Pakistan described, in a moment of comparable frustration, as ‘that woman’. The sorrows of India, the whole ghastly saga turned, for them, on the multiplying villainies of one person, Indira Gandhi, author of all our ills. The roots of this Opposition variant of ‘Indira is India’ lie, unambiguously, in the intellectual sterility of these clockwork politicians, mechanically grabbing for power in the most direct way that comes to hand. (The Communists – and this is certainly a misfortune for them, and perhaps for the country as well – are entrenched in their peripheral ghettoes, West Bengal and Tripura: unlikely to be dislodged, unable to move out.)

The personalised explanation of complex historical processes posits some superhuman agent, god or demon, Durga/Kali. It is also, in respect of the person to whom the dubious honour is accorded, deeply dehumanising. This was demonstrated most obviously by the assassins on 31 October, when they exterminated, in a burst of sten-gun fire, the frail woman who, hands folded in greeting, walked down the path in the garden. They were no doubt convinced that they were also rubbing out the source of their humiliation. They were wrong, and the injury that was inflicted on the Sikhs in the carnage of the ensuing days was a kind of extravagant proof that the personalised thesis of the militants was a fundamental error; that the problems thrown up by the agitation in the Punjab went to the heart of what was happening in the country as a whole: that, even if certain elements in the Punjab wished to be separate from India, the process would entail, not the erasure of a superhuman ogre, a ballad villain, but rather, in settlement and slum, in street and open field, economy and polity, in dreams and relationships, a tearing of flesh from living flesh.

Time was, and not so long ago, when India and China used to be compared – to India’s advantage. India was a heroic democracy, struggling to modernise without having to pay the hideous costs of revolution; and China, obscured by the bamboo curtain of ignorance, a pullulating Middle Kingdom of Communist helots. The touch of Tricky Dick made China respectable, and the hoped-for bonanza of Deng Xiao Ping’s technocratic millennium has made China appear, well, really rather attractive. As for India, it is simply a doomed mess, a harrowing empire of gloom, its vaunted democracy a mere façade for a medieval monarchy. There is – and this needed to be said even before China had been ‘re-opened’ – no denying China’s enormous achievement in terms of ensuring at least the bare necessities of life to its vast population. However, China is another story, too long and complicated to be explored parenthetically. Meanwhile India’s achievements often remain unnoticed, even by Indians – and, heaven knows, with good reason. It is difficult to appreciate the distant prospect when you are struggling to keep your head above water. But for what it might be worth, and if only to set the record straight, India’s achievements should also be part of any account. The most important of these is, unquestionably, the enormous increase in agricultural production. Now, and for perhaps the first time in centuries, which must include the two centuries of the now oddly renascent Raj, India produces enough food to feed its enormous population. This is not to say that there is no hunger in India – there is, heartbreakingly. But the possibility exists for it to be able to feed its entire population without recourse to the fickle and manipulative generosity of international benefactors.

Then again, in the ideologically-charged aftermath of the Second World War, most of the nations of the emergent Third World chose to listen to the siren song of the developed world. India, in stark contrast, under the influence of those associated with the Nehru-Mahalanobis model of development, elected to develop its own industrial infrastructure. Today, despite its gallery of sorrows, the trailing whine of its miserere, it possesses the means – though perhaps not the will – to chart the path of its own independent development. In sheer quantitative terms, there has been more economic development in the past 35 trouble-torn years than in the glorious two centuries before that.

The strength – indeed, the very survival – of India’s democratic institutions is instantly called into question each time there is a crisis. The Emergency was the night of Indian democracy, but the dawn came soon enough: if only to reveal the same shabby, smudged reality. When the communal violence exploded after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, Indian democracy once again appeared to enter a state of terminal crisis. Drawing freely upon historical analogies, observers confidently expected a replay of the violence of the Partition, a sure and brutal descent into terror and anarchy, a society in the throes of final dissolution. Then, miraculously, the violence subsided, and one discovered that constitutional continuity had been maintained; there was a sort of government; and business was much as usual – chaotic, but functioning. It is true that the son of the Prime Minister had become Prime Minister, but he was still the Prime Minister in a broadly democratic set-up – not, yet, a dictator. There is a sort of melodramatic, catastrophic expectation built into one’s thinking about India – as if the enormities of its existence must be matched by the enormity of its crises.

The overwhelming fact about India, for visitor and resident alike, is its extreme poverty, the sheer magnitude, the intensity and reach of its deprivation. This is familiar territory. Mother Teresa’s destitutes, dying on the pavements of Calcutta, are well-known. The famished multitudes, festering in fetid slums, squabbling like, and often with, dogs on garbage heaps, children with distended stomachs and twig-like limbs, and always, always with large, accusing eyes – these are too familiar to need rehearsal. India’s poverty is not new. It has persisted through centuries, through the ‘glories of India’ and the splendour of the Mughal courts, the nostalgically recycled Raj and the skin-deep magnificence, the callow extravagance of the Congress Raj, the ‘modern’ flyovers under whose concrete shadow the houseless huddle, and the five-star hotels outside whose palatial entrances the beggars display their lucrative deformities.

India’s problems may be seen as falling into two analytically distinct sets: one, broadly technical problems relating to the processes of production and distribution, to the raising of output to levels of adequacy and to creating the means whereby it might be fairly allocated; two, problems that may be classed as ideological, relating to the stresses at the level of consciousness that are inevitably generated in the process of development. In practice, these two are intertwined in a dialectic that can go either up or down, right or left.

The religion of the Hindus, which has infected with its ideology of inequality all the other creeds that have interacted with it on the sub-continent, is surely one of the most intricate and carefully crafted mechanisms ever to permit and perpetuate man’s inhumanity to man. For all its metaphysical excellences, it is in practice an elaborate system of ritual sanctions for gross material inequalities and detailed social fragmentation. The structures of exploitation that have grown up, on and around it, are constant only in their end-product, which is social dissension and endless misery. During one of the droughts of the early Seventies, for instance, the Government introduced a scheme for channelling relief to the superfluous agricultural labourers. Food for work. A bizarre phenomenon was, however, uncovered by social workers. The labour of the landless, though temporarily superfluous, was of course ‘owed’ to some landowner. And now that, through the innocent thoughtfulness of the Central Government, a situation had arisen in which that labour could be converted into money, it was cheerfully used in order to channel the ‘relief’ into the ever-grasping hands of the landowners. Instances like this can be multiplied, ad nauseam. Thus the Government fitfully, erratically, patchily, distributes parcels of land to the landless: but the latter are dependent on the rural notables for credit too. And since the Government has ‘forgotten’ to set up a credit agency, the land goes right back to the landed.

The amazing thing about all this is the fact that India is – at least in the sense of having universal adult suffrage and fairly regular elections, as well as a reasonably free press – a genuine democracy. The present dispensation, the ‘system’, actually gets voted – give or take a little manipulation – into power. Its in humanities – and the inability of the political institutions to do anything about them – actually rest on a ‘popular’ sanction. The democratic political system, in ironic confirmation of Marx, simply reproduces the pre-democratic injustice of an unjust social order. And the framework of democratic institutions, at national and at local level, from village panchayat through city ward all the way up to parliament, has become one more enormously powerful mechanism whereby the social ‘surplus’ gets concentrated in the hands of a scavenging élite. The doubts which a famous democrat, Jayaprakash Narayan, confided to his prison diary during the Emergency bear repetition:

The question is can the system be fundamentally altered through the ordinary democratic processes? Even if the opposition wins, will the picture change? I fear no. Laws will be passed and applied, moneys will be spent – even if all this is done, possibly without corruption creeping in, will the structure, the system, the ‘order’ of our society change? I think no.

One thinks of Carlyle, thundering in the middle of the last century: ‘It is not our disorder, but our order that is horrible.’ The dark forces of anomie and destruction spread resistlessly to the pinched, modest habitations of the middle class, whose unemployed youth hang around on street corners and threaten to invade the gardens of the anxious exploiters. A social and political order which is unable to relieve the dire economic distress of the overwhelming majority of its population, unable to convince its constituents that it is honestly trying to do so, despite having the means at its disposal, cannot survive as a democracy, and does not deserve to survive in any other form.

The other danger to India and its democracy stems, ironically, from the very workings of its democratic arrangements. Somewhere at the root of the Punjab problem there is the demographic fact that the population of the Punjab consists of almost equal numbers of Sikhs and Hindus. Consequently the balance of power is an extremely delicate one. The Sikh party, so to speak, is the Akali Dal, and in order to control the State it not only needs to consolidate its own communal base but also to win some support outside it. The Congress Party, on the other hand, is a party for all seasons, changing its ideological colour and its communal affiliations from situation to situation, State to State – though always, of course, in the national interest. Given the avowedly communal nature of the Akali Dal, the Congress has an automatic Hindu constituency, but in order to have a firm grip of political power, it needs to fracture the communal base of the Akalis. It is the political imperatives deriving from this demographic specificity which account for the, by all accounts, extraordinary leniency shown by the Congress Government at the centre to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, during the time when he rose to power. His extreme postures had started out as tactics in one kind of political game, and had hardened into the strategy of an altogether more sinister struggle: the Akali Dal could survive only by joining the fundamentalists who had been sent to destroy them.

The minority status of the Sikhs brings them a certain amount of reflexive, fashionable sympathy. The fact is that their complaints of discrimination are less than credible. Per capita investment from national resources is higher in the Punjab than in most other States. As a consequence, Punjab is one of the most affluent States in the Indian Union. Sikhs are widely dispersed all over the country. (The local joke is that when Tenzing and Hillary made their way to the top of Everest, they discovered a Sikh, running a dhaba, or tea-shack.) Sikhs occupy important positions in all the professions and are, not only because of their distinctive appearance, highly visible and successful members of Indian society. Far from having their cultural style drowned in a sea of Hinduism, they have made an ineffaceable cultural impression wherever they have gone. Delhi, capital of the Mughals, once the heartland of Hindustani culture, the home of Ghalib and Mir, is now an unmistakably Punjabi city.

There have been attempts to see the imbroglio in the Punjab in terms of issues relating to autonomy and federalism. These issues are full of portent for the future of India, but not even the most enlightened federalist could have conceded the major demands of the Sikh extremists. One of these, for instance, relates to the disputed capital city, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh. It had been agreed years ago that the city would be the capital of both Punjab and adjoining Haryana, and there is little reason to suppose that a gift of Chandigarh to the Punjab would not have provoked violent agitation in Haryana. After all, the Jats of Haryana are another ‘martial’ race. (The people of Chandigarh, another not irrelevant party to the dispute, have made it quite clear that they are perfectly happy the way they are, governed by the Central Government as a Union Territory.) A case can certainly be made that it is madness to play politics with such inflammable material, but not that a wisely federalist Government at the centre could have conceded the demands before the tragic dénouement of 31 October, or even in early June.

There is an apparently intractable problem here. It is in the nature of party-political interaction that the various parties should seek compulsively to fracture the body politic into newer solidarities which are conceived to be beneficial to them. And indeed no party is more guilty than the Congress Party for promoting what it deludes itself are short-term hatreds, in the hope of immediate political gain. It is natural for political parties to seek to further their interest, but there is as little warrant here as elsewhere that the interests of the whole are automatically served by the selfish aggrandisement of its constituents. The Congress is, by virtue of its dominant position, most prone to these disastrous conflations of the national and the party interest. What India needs is some sort of trans-religious ‘national’ myth, a consensual ideology fabricated out of the difficulties of its elective destiny, a vision which all – or nearly all – might unite to realise. What it has instead is the democratic marketplace of competing affiliations – caste, region, religion – in which the competition is increasingly, literally, cut-throat.

The overwhelming feeling, meanwhile, is one of decay, of putrefaction, of a social order in the throes of a wasting disease with extravagant symptoms. Over large parts of India, as the bitter joke goes, true communism has been established: the State has withered away, mere anarchy prevails. Cynicism is rampant – the product, and also the enabling condition, of a corruption that is terrifyingly widespread: ‘terrifying’, because we are fast approaching a condition in which it will no longer be possible to think of it as an aberration, a dysfunction: it will, if it hasn’t already, become the system. It is important to grasp the systemic nature of this development, its pernicious grafting of the traditional kinds of exploitation upon the newer possibilities afforded by the unique combination of capitalism and socialism, feudalism and democracy, which is India’s chosen road to adequacy if not utopia.

It is tempting to blame the fabricators, the dreamers of this strategy of development, which seeks all at once to preserve and conserve, to modify and radically alter, to make available the benefits of capitalism and socialism, of democracy and social regulation, which attempts to reform an entrenched and unjust social order without incurring the inescapable costs of social upheaval. After all, it is their crazy maps, their erratic compasses, which have brought us to this wilderness of sorrow. However, it would be unfair to credit them, many of them worthy and honourable and even humane men, with such prescient malignity. Even so, looking at India today, it is difficult not to feel that this childish attempt to have everything that was on offer was fatally marked by a naive eclecticism. The ‘soft’ state of Gunnar Myrdal’s famous description in Asian Drama is, in practice, a state that tolerates the persistence of traditional injustice. But a time is coming – has come? – when certain choices will have to be made, some ends preferred, some paths not taken. Like slum-dwellers in the interstices of great metropolises, we must endeavour to construct a habitation out of what is available – sticks and stones, a piece of cardboard, a sheet of plastic.

In much thinking about the evolution of human societies, it has been a common assumption that, like living organisms with auto-immune reflexes, these, too, are capable of generating answers to problems thrown up in the course of their development. Such a comforting assumption – that it will be all right on the night – is built into the Hegelian/Marxian versions of the cunning of reason, as also into Whig/evolutionary readings of history. However, on looking at societies such as India’s one is forced to question this optimism. The anarchic condition of India today, riven by futile, murderous discords, fracturing into tyrannical fiefdoms, is, for instance, a recognisable throwback to its pre-colonial condition, between the disintegration of the Mughal Empire and the establishment of the Pax Brittanica. Its traumatic history demands to be characterised, not so much as a progression, but rather as a kind of helpless oscillation around a point of unbearable stasis. Unhappy the land, wrote Brecht, that is in need of heroes. Well, unhappy it is – not least because it has too many heroes, and a heroine who is now rapidly, inevitably, being absorbed into myth. Enter Rajiv.