India Shines in some places no doubt, but I wander rural India, writing about Dalits and Adivasis, wronged women and children, raped and ravaged Gujarati Muslims, and I am constantly reminded of the people left behind by all our progress. It saddens and disgusts me to read about Indian billionaires flaunting their wealth in vulgar, ostentatious parties…
Those of us who grew up in an age of innocence, before the internet, were educated on a diet of films and books that made us proud to be Indian. Films that brought a lump to your throat. Gandhi. The freedom struggle. They made you wish you could have stood in the forefront, shoulder to shoulder with women and men proud to be lathi-charged, jailed, or even martyred, for India’sIndependence. Our Constitution was truly a labour of love, lyrical, passionate, imbued with a vision of a new India, where freedom and justice would prevail. Where our people would be liberated from poverty and penury, of the body as well as of the spirit. In Kolkata, we read Tagore and sang ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.’ We meant it, those decades ago, when we were young and innocent.
We lived in hope still, in the sixties and seventies and even during the eighties. There was corruption. But it had not reached the scale and magnitude that we see today. The odds did not seem insurmountable. The world over, ‘We shall overcome’ was more than just a plaintive, old protest song.
Globalisation brought us a new India. We who look back in nostalgia to the age of innocence are also conflicted. Torn between pride and angst. Even die-hard Marxists are proud that the new India has an IT sector that is the talk of the globe. Those bright young Indians, sitting in Silicon Valley or Bangalore, dreaming dreams and making it big, are icons for young India. Ask a barely literate slum kid what she wants to study and pat comes the answer, ‘computers’. The new innovative, creative face of India makes us proud. We’ve come a long way since Independence, when India, plundered and looted by 200 years of colonisation, struggled to feed its millions. We’ve crossed the sixties image – the famine, upon famine, upon famine, palm outstretched, begging bowl image.
When I see young women pilots striding confidently to their cockpits, wearing their well earned four Commander stripes, I smile. It makes my heart glad. An Oxford cabbie, Pakistani, no less, glowed with pride because the Tatas had bought up Jaguar. Yet, Tata expansion has usurped Adivasi land in Jharkhand and elsewhere. What price acquisition?
India Shines in some places no doubt, but I wander rural India, writing about Dalits and Adivasis, wronged women and children, raped and ravaged Gujarati Muslims, and I am constantly reminded of the people left behind by all our progress. It saddens and disgusts me to read about Indian billionaires flaunting their wealth in vulgar, ostentatious parties. Because, those celebrity bashes our billionaires proudly flash, in singularly bad, nouveau riche taste, are juxtaposed with our country’s malnutrition and maternal mortality statistics. We are somewhere near sub-Saharan Africa as far as the health of our poorest 50 per cent goes. Half of Indian children are malnourished. Bangladesh fares better than us. Paradoxically, our rich city kids living on junk food now fight obesity.
My erudite, conservationist son informs me that the average food wasted per head in North America has almost the same calorific value of food consumed per head in sub Saharan Africa. Which is to say, one person’s garbage is another person’s food for the day. Nauseating, whichever way you look at it. But, middle class Indians will soon give the world’s wealthy a run for their money as far as over consumption, waste and a destructive carbon footprint goes.
The freedom at midnight I cherish with all my heart, means nothing to the Adivasis being torn away from their millennia old forest habitat to make way for Posco in Orissa, and other mining interests in Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, West Bengal, MP or Bihar. This is where the angst comes in. Development as well as democracy is meant for the welfare and well being of India’s citizens.
Narmada uprooted lakhs of Adivasis from verdant, productive lands. The dammed Narmada water goes to rich farmers and far away cities while the evicted Adivasis languish on barren, parched land in miserable makeshift huts. Entire communities have been destroyed. Who gives the State or corrupt politicians the right to annihilate these people in order to make life more comfortable for a select elite? Who decides it is the common good when farmers are thrown off their land for wealthy people to get a second luxury home in Lavasa outside Pune? Where Adivasis struggle for drinking water, while rich city kids splash in swimming pools all through a scorching summer on land that was once Adivasi. How is this right or just?
Dalits continue to die everday. Drowning in liquid shit in manholes all over India. Burnt, beaten, stripped, raped and humiliated for daring to claim the minimal freedom the Constitution promised them sixty odd years ago. They dont just die.They are being murdered. Either deliberately by dominant castes, for daring to defy village diktats, or by the State which requires men and boys to jump to their deaths into sewage pits, because their lives count for nothing in our country. Dalit women are raped everyday. It’s a fact of life for them. And for the dominant society which refuses to be moved by the daily humiliation and degradation meted out to Dalits. No Nirbhaya honours for the unsung Dalit women. We laugh it off, Bollywood style, joking, ‘We Indians are like that only’. Only, its not funny at all.
In Nagaland, I stood mute, scanning the memorial stones erected to Naga heroes. One read ‘in memory of our father who resisted tyranny and was beaten to death by the Indian army.’ The whole of Nagaland is dotted with such memorials. I felt ashamed of what our army had done to these proud people. Kashmir and Punjab echo the same horror stories. Fake encounters, rapes, custodial deaths. Kashmiri Pandits have been driven out of their homelands. In far too many parts of India, its ‘Cry, the beloved country.’
In West Bengal, my janmabhumi, even a decade ago, a mob would beat to a pulp any man who molested a woman on the street. Now, the State’s first female Chief Minister, dismisses rape as a CPM ploy to discredit her party. She screams at distraught women ordering them to shut up and go home. A reign of terror is in place. So village women instruct their daughters not to go out after dark. Rabindranath Tagore wrote, ‘He mor durbhaga desh’, paraphrased, the poem warns, O my unfortunate country, those who humiliate the poor and wretched, will one day be brought to their knees. Alas, for the victims of rape, murder or casteist humiliation, the day of reckoning seems a distant dream.
Will our Adivasis, Dalits, women and poor ever get justice or see a new dawn of hope? Can we take back our country from the corrupt and evil who are systematically destroying it by spreading the politics of hate and destruction?
These are the questions I want to raise – the stories and aspirations of ordinary people, the marginalised, and the despised. In the hope that someday our young people can achieve an India where the mind is truly without fear.
(Mari Marcel Thekaekara has worked with indigenous people in the Nilgiri mountains for thirty years, and researched and written about Dalits and other marginalised communities.)
– DTE: A few questions to begin with