Saturday, January 22, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Caste of millions

Caste of millions
By Pankaj Mishra

Published: January 21 2011 22:03 | Last updated: January 21 2011 22:03

The culmination of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai

Makers of Modern India, by Ramachandra Guha, Harvard University Press,
RRP£25.95, 512 pages

The Rediscovery of India, by Meghnad Desai, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 512 pages

India: A Portrait, by Patrick French, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 448 pages

The search for eternal life in John Gray's 'The Immortalization
Commission' - Jan-21Mind games - Jan-14Soldiering on - Jan-07India is
the "most interesting country in the world". Or so the Indian writer
Ramachandra Guha asserts in the prologue to his new book Makers of
Modern India. You might think Guha would say that: he has written
several books on the subject, including India After Gandhi (2007), a
history of postcolonial India. But he may be on to something. India is
one of the world's oldest continuous civilisations; its diverse
communities live in several centuries at once, generating multiple and
contradictory narratives. Where else can you find a naked Hindu
mendicant pulling a truck with his penis and suave tycoons buying
blue-chip companies in the US and Europe, even as militant communists
occupy and administer large parts of the country?

Strangely, the notion of India that is increasingly commonplace in the
west, which these three books address in different ways, floats well
above the singularities, oddities and contrasts that make the country
so interesting. According to the west, India is a vibrantly democratic
country full of confident tycoons, adventurous entrepreneurs and
friendly English speakers, which will counterbalance vaguely menacing
China and assist the economic recovery of the west.

For decades, India was seen in the west as poor and spiritual.
Suddenly, it appears to be increasingly rich and materialistic. This
India 2.0 version is animated, of course, by the demands of the
moment, by politicians as well as businessmen desperately looking
eastward for expanding markets. Needless to say, it ignores the
particularities of India's political and economic reconstruction: for
instance, the radical Indian experiment with electoral democracy in a
poor and irrepressibly diverse country.

Only multiethnic and newly democratic Indonesia has come close in
recent years to matching India's complex conflicts and tensions. Guha
enumerates no fewer than five revolutions – urban, industrial,
national, democratic, social – occurring simultaneously in the country
today. His new book also attempts to locate the intellectual sources
of these transformations. Following up on India After Gandhi, Makers
of Modern India anthologises the speeches and writings of 19
influential thinker-activists who, according to Guha, had a "defining
impact on the formation and evolution of the Indian Republic".

Readers in the west will find some familiar personalities here,
including Gandhi himself, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's secular and
liberal-minded first prime minister, and Rabindranath Tagore, the
Bengali poet and Nobel laureate. But they will also encounter much
less well-known and equally distinguished figures, such as BR
Ambedkar, the articulate spokesman of formerly untouchable Hindus, or
Dalits, and the main architect of India's extraordinary constitution
that in 1949 bestowed equal rights upon all its citizens.

As an anthology of Indian political debates, Makers of Modern India
makes for instructive reading. But Guha's commentary doesn't quite
clarify just how the luminaries included in his book made modern
India. These fiercely iconoclastic figures are not easily herded into
an official intellectual pantheon of the Indian Republic; many of them
might recoil from their supposed handiwork. In any case, India as we
know it today is not so much the imperfectly realised dream of its
supposed founding fathers as a contingent product of history, which
stumbled into existence in 1947 burdened by the original sin of

It was British imperialists who gave continent-sized India its
political cohesiveness and built most of its administrative
structures; their hasty departure and the bloody creation of Pakistan
determined postcolonial India's trajectory more enduringly than the
ideals of Gandhi or Nehru, which are derided, if not forgotten, in
India today. Gandhi's preoccupation with rural economies and
grassroots social reform was ignored by his own disciple Nehru, who
invested disproportionately in heavy industries and top-down

Other noble dreams of collective emancipation and glory, too, were
compromised by the many exigencies of postcolonial nation-building.
The colonial state, with its aloof bureaucracy and repressive
apparatus, was retained, and radical new institutions of universal
adult franchise and social welfare uneasily grafted on to it. Not
surprisingly, torture and extrajudicial execution remain as
commonplace a feature of contemporary India as free and largely fair
elections, and the red-taped state still struggles to provide
effective education and healthcare.

The hierarchies underpinning India's older cruelties of caste and
gender have also survived the egalitarian proclamations of the
constitution; universal franchise has yet to lead to a civil rights
revolution. Dalits are still being lynched and raped by upper-caste
feudal lords, and thousands of women burnt to death for bringing
insufficient dowries, even as Dalit and female politicians move into
the highest offices in the land. Indeed, Ambedkar's battle against the
inequities of the caste system has had the strangest afterlife.

Beneficiaries of en bloc voting by previously subordinate groups, a
generation of low-caste leaders has now enjoyed political power in
India's most populous provinces. Accused of corruption and
incompetence, they have ended up advancing group claims and identities
rather than individual rights for all. The most conspicuous of the new
profiteers of caste is Mayawati, the Dalit chief minister of Uttar
Pradesh's 180m citizens. She has amassed a great personal fortune; her
penchant for solitaire diamonds and huge statues of herself has
further undermined the state's investment-starved economy.

Why has democracy enshrined rather than effaced caste divisions in
Indian society? Meghnad Desai, Labour peer and professor emeritus at
the London School of Economics, argues in his new book The Rediscovery
of India, an opinionated but always interesting history, that India is
a "modernised conservative society" rather than the "modernist
rational one" of Nehru's dream. If liberal democracy based on the
rights of the individual has shallow roots in India, this is at least
partly due, Desai claims, to Nehru's post-partition all-consuming
obsession with India's national unity and territorial integrity.

Desai grew up in post-1947 India; he has an instinctive understanding
of the imperatives of postcolonial consolidation that greatly
constricted decision-making in the early years of the Indian republic.
Deploring the isolationist economic policies of Nehru, he is,
nevertheless, alert to the political context in which they were
formulated. He describes persuasively how the proud Indian resolve to
create a self-sufficient industrial economy turned into an unhealthy
aversion to international trade.

Desai is aware, too, of the political turmoil unleashed by India's now
globalised economy: how by distributing its benefits narrowly, it
expands the population of the disenchanted and the frustrated, often
making them vulnerable to populist politicians. He describes how the
corporate group Tata was forced to relocate its original factory for
Nano cars by a politician (all set now to be the next chief minister
of West Bengal) cannily exploiting the fear and despair of farmers,
who could not see an "alternative to cultivation during their

Old narratives about India are defunct, Desai argues. But then the new
ones, especially those circulating in the west, often obscure more
than they reveal. Never mind that more desperately poor people – 421m
– live in India today than all of sub-Saharan Africa, and that nearly
half of the country's children suffer from malnourishment. The new
western accounts of India speak of the tycoons of Bangalore and
Mumbai; they hail an India rising, finally, to the consumer capitalism
that is apparently the summit of human civilisation, if not the
terminus of history.

Patrick French's book India: A Portrait, subtitled The Intimate
Biography of 1.2bn People, is the most eloquent restatement yet of
this thesis. It applauds Indian democracy – Mayawati comes in for
special mention – but the book's true heroes are the Indian
entrepreneurs who liberated themselves from Nehru's old protectionist
economy and who now seem ready to emancipate the rest of India as

Interviewing these businessmen, French is strikingly able to
individualise them, illuminating large sociopolitical shifts in the
process. Still, French, an acclaimed literary biographer of Francis
Younghusband and VS Naipaul, is never more engaging than when he
ventures into ordinary Indian lives.

Shocked by a press report about a menial labourer called Venkatesh,
who had been chained to his place of work, he travels to south India
to interview him. He is appalled by the living conditions of workers
constructing a fancy condominium in Bangalore. A visit to Kashmir
brings him face-to-face with the everyday brutality of India's
military occupation of the valley. In these chapters, French potently
recreates the experiences of many foreign visitors to India, who,
preparing themselves for a vibrant democracy, are disconcerted to
encounter its hollowed-out forms: rampant corruption, widespread human
rights abuses, degradations of class and caste, and the hatred laced
with fear of the very affluent for the very poor.

More reportage of this kind would have anchored India: A Portrait,
which flits distractingly between journalism, history, analysis, bold
prophecy and large generalisations. Unfortified by first-hand
experience, French too often succumbs to the overworked templates of
foreign journalists in India. Corruption in India, he concludes
quaintly, is caused by "poverty and social imbalance". But the recent
Commonwealth Games fiasco and subsequent scandals reveal how some of
India's most prominent businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats and
journalists together plunder such national resources as land, oil and
gas, and mines.

Though surprised by the resurgence of militant communists today in a
vast swathe of central India, French foregoes any close examination of
the scramble for precious commodities or of the accelerated
dispossession, in recent years, of forest-dwelling tribal peoples and
farmers alike. Nearly 800m Indians still depend on agriculture for a
living. Yet the quiet catastrophe in rural areas – the poisoning of
cultivable land, spiralling debt, and the suicides of tens of
thousands of farmers in recent years – is absent from India: A

French does talk at length to a man with a farming background but the
latter turns out to be an employee at a California-style vineyard. The
member of a poor tribal community, he leads French into upbeat
speculations about the "democratisation of wine drinking" in India.
But the collapse of water tables is a more pressing concern for
hundreds of millions of Indians in rural areas, who are very far from
imitating the consumption patterns of middle-class Europeans and
Americans. The task of even adequately educating India's large and
growing youth population is daunting enough, not to mention creating
labour-intensive jobs in manufacturing and services and making urban
economic growth environmentally sustainable.

India: A Portrait generally avoids these larger challenges confronting
India today. Like many recent accounts of the country, it is suffused
with the mystical faith that a small but "dynamic" Indian minority of
producers and consumers will somehow accomplish social as well as
economic change. French hails shampoo sold in cheaply priced sachets
as a "a major feat of democratisation", since previously poor people
can "now aspire to the pleasure of having shiny hair and softer skin".

But cheap beauty aids are unlikely to compensate India's impoverished
for a heavily privatised healthcare system that, according to a new
report in medical journal The Lancet, pushes 39m Indians below the
poverty line each year. The unilinear discourse about the
boisterousness of Indian markets and democracy – one that excites
audiences at Davos and Aspen – cannot easily accommodate any
potentially complicating facts.

Thus, French's admiring account of Mayawati's rise skips over the
allegations of corruption, persecution of other low-caste groups and
her manic self-love. One misses, too, in India: A Portrait,
urban-oriented though it is, any quickening sense of India's popular
middle-class cultures.

This is a pity. For there is an India that is indeed rising, reflected
most gaudily by billionaire businessman Mukesh Ambani's new 27-storey
home in Mumbai as well as Mayawati's statues of herself; these are
aspiring as well as already privileged new classes with inordinate
cravings for wealth and fame, and very fragile self-esteem. Some of
the best literary writing about India in recent years – Suketu Mehta's
Maximum City, Aravind Adiga's Man Booker-winning The White Tiger – has
plunged us into this teeming universe of Gatsbys and Babbitts with
euphoric desires, resentments and fears. French's book heralds without
really describing India's own jazz age – the particular exuberance,
tawdriness, cruelty, and melancholy that continue to make India, if
not quite how its "makers" saw it or its new western admirers predict,
the most interesting country in the world.

Pankaj Mishra is author of 'Temptations of the West: How to be Modern
in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet and Beyond' (Picador)


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