September 04, 2013

Syria As A Cautionary Tale For India

How are we sure that India won't end up in the same chaos that Syria is experiencing today?

As I read this excellent article about why the Syrian crisis is pretty much intractable, I was thinking about how India with its enormous diversity could well be a much larger version of Syria.

India too can be said to be an artificial creation of a European colonial power. India is of course an 'old' civilization with a long history but does that afford any obvious advantages?

Does India's long history or civilization or diversity unite or divide Indians?

How many of us look at ourselves as 'Indians'? Frankly, nobody does; if only because that would be essentially ridiculous in such a diverse nation. We have certain 'roots' that tend to trace to one state or one mother tongue.

While exceptions exist, mostly Indians live in self-contained communities within linguistic and state boundaries. With modernity and industrialization, migration is taking place and hopefully, people become more and more aware of their 'Indian' identity.


This will only happen when people learn to look at the entire world and see that it comprises of 200 nations and realize that India is one of them. Yet the language issue seems to be a huge barrier. Imagine a Maharashtrian and a Bengali trying to get together. Is that going to be possible in this country? What language will they converse in?

It's only when people become fluent in some 'common' language that they can rise above the limitations of their mother tongues. That common language will either be Hindi or English.

Hindi can only be a common language among people from North India as very few people in the South ever become fluent in Hindi although things might be changing now.

English is a language which is in some ways common across all of India but it can hardly be a language for everyday use. You cannot talk to the local shopkeeper or perform myriad other daily transactions using English.

I picture a Punjabi guy married to a Tamil girl and both residing either in Chennai or Chandigarh. While the couple may be highly educated and English might well be the primary language for conversation between them, they will still use their mother tongues to talk to their 'folks.' And if they are living down South, the Tamil speaker will have to take care of teh bulk of dealing with shopkeepers ... at least initially until the Punjabi guy learns to speak Tamil. Vice versa if they are living in Chandigarh.

Is it going to be a bother? You bet.

Which is perhaps why at the end of the day, you won't see that many alliances that cross over State boundaries ... even among folks who are supposed to be educated and above and beyond such 'narrow' considerations as language.

Mind you, I have not even touched on 'caste' yet.

If you say to educated people that they are likely prejudiced, they might protest vigorously. But then the data seems to point unmistakably to a 'reality' that people prefer to live in certain kinds of 'ghettos' as it were ... at least in their private lives.

The history of India over the last 100 years shows that the British had 'divided' India into certain 'Provinces' such as Chennai, Bengal, the Central Provinces, and so on. After independence, these provinces have been carved up into various states. These formation of new states mostly based on language has happened in waves.

There was a time when people were fighting about the city of 'Chennai.' Now people are fighting about the city of 'Hyderabad.' Time will tell how the formation of 'Telengana' will pan out. India is so vast that frankly, the whole debate has no 'personal' ramifications or holds no personal interest for me. It's purely intellectual.

The 'water wars' between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are of long-standing. Will a 'Commission' solve all such disputes? Even if the monsoon fails in a particularly severe fashion in some future year?

Then there are questions of mineral resources and rights of indigenous people and forest cover.

Indians are famously docile. They won't start getting revolutionary zeal if they run out of toilet paper. Americans might. But the Anna movement showed that the 'youth' in particular has a lot of 'energy' which needs to be dissipated in some productive fashion or else, things may go out of hand.

There are always opportunistic demagogic political leaders who might wish to 'take advantage' of a perceived power vacuum. Hitler showed this in spectacular and all-too-tragic fashion.

When economic growth stalls or prices rise, opportunistic politicians may blame the government even if that makes no logical or economic sense. Clearly, if the prices of petrol or diesel or LPG is increasing, it's to do with the international prices of those products and the government of the day has no control over them.

It's okay to 'play politics' ... that's what politicians do. But it's dangerous when politicians resort to blaming the 'other' or raise issues of 'victim-hood' or 'historical injustices.'

To take an example from the present difficult state of the Indian economy, look at how things are panning out. The government is blaming the 'international situation' for India's slowing growth. Economists are blaming the government's freebies to the poor.

I tend to think that India's economy would have been doing quite well if the US and European economies had been growing. Be that as it may.

I do think the situation would have been more or less the same on the economic front if the forces in the opposition had been the ones in power today.

I do not believe some political formation has it it them to miraculously take India to a double-digit growth path. India is simply an export-dependent nation ... for growth as well as the dollars it needs for its energy imports.

Here's a hypothetical: what if those in opposition today were in power and the situation on the economic front were as grim? Who would they blame? I only hope that they would do the exact same thing as the present government and put the blame on Mr. Bernanke and others.

Talking about what the British may have 'stolen' from India or taken from India during the days of the British Raj is a pointless exercise.

I believe population growth in India is a dangerous thing. But it's even more dangerous to nurse the misconception that only one 'community' is responsible for this exponential growth. It takes a village, as Hillary would say, to grow a country's population from 320 million in 1947 to 1,250 million in 2013.

How do Indians reconcile between the various identities they carry simultaneously? They are from Bihar or UP or Andhra and speak different languages and may have the same religion or different religions and possibly belong to different castes.

Do we seek to actively suppress or destroy these sub-national identities? Or just 'pretend' that there is no problem?

Pretending is one of the things we do best. We 'pretend' that we do not care about silly things like 'caste' and yet probably 90% or more marriages happen based on caste and other equally illogical astrological calculations.

Dowry is officially banned but is unofficially prevalent in 90% or more marriages.

This display of the attitude of the 'average' Indian is worrisome to me.

Consider other examples of irrational behavior. Look at the proliferation of the tribe of 'god-men.' What happens when people choose to voluntarily treat some mortal human being as an incarnation of 'God'? Well, the saga of Asaram, one such god-man is in the news right now as he has been accused of rape.

What other horrors happen that go un-reported? How can people be so un-skeptical in the 21st century?

The trick of the god-men is simple enough. They merely pander to the need of people for someone to deliver a Judgment that they are the Good People living the Good Life and doing Good Deeds.

The talk that these god-men deliver includes a bunch of inanities about 'God' and how Bollywood stars are so 'immoral' and how 'money' is such an 'evil' thing. And yet these god-men hoard billions of rupees in 'donations' from the 'devotees.'

Look at the Afro Sai Baba and his cheap magic tricks and how he pandered to the basest instinct of an Indian — his (more often 'her'?) craving for gold.

A Shivling popping out of one's mouth? A gold-chain out of thin air? Really?!?!

But that is apparently ALL that it takes to convince millions of Indians.

And they always include some 'famous' examples such as some dumb singers, bureaucrats, businessmen, actors, cricketers, and so on ...

Think of Osho and his 'prime' disciple Vinod Khanna.

At the end of the day, it is all linked. You cannot be a great programmer during the day and a follower of Double Sri Ravi Shankar at night.

But clearly, many 'educated' people of India are happily leading such double lives where they are deeply engaged with science & technology in some way ... may be they even work at ISRO ... and yet are deeply 'religious.'

No wonder, India is about 50 years behind NASA in rocket science.

People will point to the story of how the great mathematician Ramanujan claimed that his mathematical formulas came to him in his dreams and how that was all thanks to Goddess Namakkal. And you will hear this anecdote being repeated ad nauseam as if that 'proves' anything.

People will cite the story of how Schrodinger was into 'Vedic' stuff; or how Oppenheimer loves the 'Vedas''; or how Nikola Tesla 'admired' Vivekananda.

People do not seem to understand how the scientific process works; it's not that we 'respect' Ramanujan or Einstein or any other scientist.

We respect their results because those results stand to the test of 'logic.'

What their personal beliefs were is of very little consequence. Neither the atheistic Judaism of Einstein nor the love for Vedas or Goddess Namakkal of the others is of any importance.

This has turned into a rather rambling article starting from Syria and going into the irrational behavior of Indians but I think things are inter-connected at a subtle level.

We saw protests after that rape leading to the death of a girl last December. A similar sexual assault has taken place more recently in Mumbai leading to much outrage.

We do not see outrage when these sexual crimes happen in the interiors of India.

Let alone these cases of forcible sex, cases of dowry deaths attract no media coverage or public outrage. Why?

Is it okay to burn women down?

Why do we not mind when children work everywhere — from tea-stalls to roadside eateries?

Why is it acceptable to go for illogical astrological consultations to fix dates for 'marriage'?

Why is it okay to wear those weird things called 'rings' made out of gold and having various gemstones embedded in them?

How irrational can people get? And if this is how irrational people can get, why not more?

What will prevent people from claiming tomorrow — or when the shit hits the fan the day after tomorrow or a few years hence — that India belongs to Hindus and others can leave this country.

If people can be swayed so easily by cheap demagogues such as Narendra Modi and his 'Hindu Nationalist' bullshit, how much of a stretch is it to imagine someone making the claim tomorrow that when the British 'divided' the subcontinent, they gave Pakistan to the Muslims and India to the Hindus?

That makes sense, does not it? One country for Hindus; another for Muslims. Right.

Think about that. I hope none of this comes to pass. But I fear they just might.

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