Saturday, March 6, 2010

a passage to tolerance and power

My piece in the Guardian saying Goodbye India is here.

A longer version is below

It was hard not to be infected by the hubris of India - a nation that feels part of history, an essential actor on the global stage. Yet if my experience was to feel admiration for a nation which had thrived as a democracy despite unbounded poverty, mass illiteracy and entrenched social divides, experiencing India as a reporter was a string of enervating and dispiriting episodes.

Whether one found oneself stepping into the Dantesque hell of a rural police station where half-naked men were hung from the ceiling during an interrogation or talking to the parents of a 12-day-old baby bulldozed to death in a slum clearance, day-to-day India was a shocking news story. Even in the country's most cosmopolitan city, Mumbai, I was aghast to see mobs of locals attack their fellow citizens for being “north Indian migrants”.

The romance of India's idealism was undone by its awful daily reality. The venality, mediocrity and indiscipline of its ruling class would be comical but for the fact it appeared to make politicians appear incapable of doing anything for the 836 million people who lived on less than 25p a day.

The selling of public office for private gain appeared so bad that it seemed the only way to make poverty history in India was to make every person a politician. Last year it was shown that the wealth of local representatives during their last five year term in the northern state of Haryana rose at an astonishing rate of £10,000 a month. Their constituents were lucky if they saw an extra few pounds extra a month.

The burden of democracy in India - to borrow from Yeats, the Irish poet much influenced by mystical Hindu thought - was that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

Yet remarkably the country continues to confound those who write it off. True India’s transformation is no Chinese quick-march into the future. Hundreds of millions of Indians still openly defecate in fields, at roadsides and beside train tracks. Common tropical diseases overwhelm the country's poorly-funded public health system.

In my six years working and living in the country, I saw it redeemed repeatedly by three remarkable quirks of history: a written liberal constitution, religions rendered ethical and a talent for sabotage. Take the last first. India won her independence not through war or revolution but non-cooperation, street protests and the quiet subversion of the economy.

Civil society in India has acquired an unrivalled mastery of such skills and its campaigners have become more savvy than politicians in realizing that democracy will not prevail unless its proponents show success at governing. The result is that it was activists who shamed the government last year into enacting a law making children’s education compulsory.

Coming from Britain, debates about the merits of a written constitution appeared to be a little academic. Yet India’s constitution, the longest in the world, vividly provided a moral compass for justice in a society where violence had been the best measure of one’s power and standing.

When homosexual sex was legalised by Delhi’s high court last summer, the judges justified striking out the previous law criminalizing the gay community saying it was in violation of the Indian constitution. By appealing to the highest sense of being Indian, the bench ended years of homophobia.

To claim religion enabled Indians to come together rather than come apart might seem far fetched. British India was rent asunder by religion at the time of independence and one of my first reporting tasks was to visit Muslim victims of state-sponsored pogroms languishing in refugee camps in Gujarat. Yet such violence in India appeared more political than theological.

During my time in India it was Europe that appeared intolerant, unable to embrace religious diversity. Whereas I awoke each day to the sound of the muzzein and was warmly welcomed by veiled Muslim neighbours for Eid celebrations, the Swiss voted to outlaw the construction of minarets.

In France a law banned headscarves and turbans in schools. Across the Channel, justice secretary Jack Straw wanted Muslims to remove the burkha. Nobody appeared to want the Turks to join the European Union. It seemed Europe’s enlightened liberalism was a cultural straightjacket of unspoken but distinctly Christian values.

By contrast tolerance in India was rooted in its own unique contribution to religious thought. The country’s philosophical genius, established today in law and custom, was that it mattered not what you believed but instead how you behaved. Lead a compassionate, religious life and the state would leave you alone. The result of this thinking is that today Indian streets are shared by people look look, dress and pray different - making them a celebration of the nation’s diversity. In Europe this was a crisis of identity.

It’s an open question whether the society being created by these forces is a fair one. India is perhaps the most unequal country on the planet, with a tiny elite engorged on the best education, biggest landholdings and largest incomes. Those born on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy are severely handicapped in their life chances for no fault of their own - suffering a cruel legacy of caste bigotry, rural servitude and class discrimination.

To challenge this Indian politics is increasingly becoming a debate about the have and have nots. The rise in Maoist guerilla violence has come about because of the widening gulf between rich and poor in the country. This domestic issue is having a major impact on geopolitics. Delhi’s stance in almost every global talks is reduced, quite rightly, to the impact on poverty reduction in India.

Whether it is climate change, trade talks or nuclear armament India has forced wealthier nations to acknowledge that international relations is not just about power but morals. India’s negotiates with the hand dealt in the future: in a matter of a few decades New Delhi will be the third largest economy in the world. This coming gigantism means India must today be bought off with a level of compensation that is high enough to signify guilt from the west.

Coming back to London has meant coming home to a country that lives in the shadow of its former colony. Britain may see itself as a major power, sending troops to pacify Islamic insurgents and teaching the world about a thing or two about good governance. For all the bragging, these are days of delusion that will see us morbidly disappointed. Unlike Indians we do not live on the cusp of a stirring transformation. Overspent and overstretched, we live instead on the crest of a falling wave.

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