Ah, this terrible eviction of the elite….

What’s happening? People are occupying residences in Delhi’s posh locations even though they are no longer entitled to. This is (what someone else calls) “The Lutyens’ Crisis” in Delhi, India.

Who are these occupants? Former ministers, ex-Members of Parliament, bureaucrats and officials who served under governments, artistes, sportspersons, journalists, totaling about 800 persons who have overstayed their allotted time, some by decades. “The practice of allotting houses to non governmental persons started during the reign of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but the maximum allotments has happened during the tenures of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. While the Culture Ministry recommended names of eligible accredited journalists, Sports Ministry of eminent sportsmen and Home Ministry decided on those under threat from terrorist groups.” [says Manorama Online]

What are they saying? That these are all mala fide intentions of the ruling establishment against the opposition at this time.

Those who grew up in India before this century know of this culture of elite ‘squatters.’ Those who knew someone who worked for a central or state government knew it even better; if you were not at the ministerial or portfolio level, you had to leave when your time at a government flat was up, or you had to pay market rent (which took most of the paycheck under the payscale at the time).

Somehow, this mentality of rewarding a Darwinian ascent to a top job with material benefits for life to the individual and his/her extended family became so commonplace that no one questioned it, and indeed most even aspired to it. If you got those jobs, you were set for life.

Then as now, when people make the A-list of achievement, material honors accompany awards. This is known, accepted, aspired to.

But two complaints intertwine here:

1.That bureaucrats and their dependents should think of and claim state subsidized housing as a reward for their ‘seat’ in office well beyond their time in office.

  1. That stars in the worlds of culture and sports should think that they, too, deserve a ‘show’ of respect from the government in the form of material rewards throughout their lifetime.

And I want to connect point # 2 to the ‘Award Wapsi’ torrent in India, supposedly performed as a show of no-confidence in the current Prime Minister of India and his supporters, and also to the points made by a few film actors that they would not return their national awards because they felt they had been honored by the people and not by a particular government. I had praised the latter position without understanding the former (those who returned their awards but not the cash or the material rewards that had accompanied the awards). Now, I think I understand the mentality: high-achievers in media and culture and communication industries, if groomed to think their efforts would be rewarded materially by the central government, would naturally look upon those awards as a badge of recognition by a government, no matter if the institution giving them the awards was a government body or not. And they would expect each successive government to continue to honor them as they think they should be treasured. Trouble is, this sort of award-reward relationship is one imagined between the artiste and the government as a political body, not between the artiste and the people who choose to honor the artiste. Further trouble: the attitude of entitlement on the part of certain artistes, as if awards and honors are due payments, not gifts and symbolic means of respect. The artistes who returned the awards perhaps forgot that the awards are understood to be a sign of popular recognition, no matter if the actual people voting for the awardees were a select and elite in-group. Only those who think that the awards are signs of favor from a ruling government (as if the artistes were durbaaris at court) would show their pique by returning them. If they had meant to act against the intolerance they detect in the nation, they would have gone on public media to engage with the people at large in public debate. It is only when the idea of the nation in the minds of the elites becomes so circumscribed that it cannot extend beyond what exists within the award-giving, the award-receiving, and the award-influencing crowd that such a gesture of ‘return’ can be described as a gesture of protest against intolerance instead of an un-artistic gesture of no-confidence in a political party they may or may not like.

It is mind-boggling to find that respected and socially innovative achievers find it ethical and moral to break the rules that apply to all junior government servants. Why do those who are the nation’s most honored feel the nation owes them so disproportionately much for their hard work? Did they work only for the nation? Not really, most of them reject nationalism of all stripes. Did they never make any money from their achievements? Rhetorical question.

In anger the common citizen might well ask: What have you really given back? Returned awards do not equal service. Or do you not believe that others are owed, too? Are the nation’s coffers your personal allotment?

And I will ask: Why do some enormously talented, educated and intelligent people behave as if all that they feel is owed to them must be translated into material benefits? Is honor not enough?

The ‘mentality that ‘the nation owes me’ must go.

Opinion: On anthems and faiths

[Thus I anticipate my derisive critics: allow me to parade my ignorance. You may have your say later and in more public fora, I am sure, than this obscure page. And yes, I know you will take from my ill-informed arguments what you need to build your own powerful ones. ]

Within the context of the ‘Intolerance’ debates in India, some rejoice because it has been declared: ‘It is constitutional not to stand for the national anthem of India.’

Since it is so, therefore one may use any excuse or rationale to refuse to stand. The law is not broken, therefore all is well. And so ethics falls to belief.

What was the precipitating incident? This Indian Muslim family refused and was asked to leave the theatre.

An insistence on respect for the nation is seen by some as an intolerant imposition of majority (Hindu) norms on one of India’s minority communities. Just like before. Those Hindus, even multiple imperialisms haven’t taught them how to tolerate.

Some other members of non-Hindu communities do not see a conflict between faith and nation, religion and respect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHLd1VjRfzk. But these are the people on the street. Aam aadmi. The bourgeoisie. Philistines. #Modimorons. Bhakts. What do they know?

The nation, after all, according to enlightened postcolonial intellectuals, is dead! Never again should we stand…etc. Hinduism was a construct of the British. The Indian nation was a construct of the British. Postcolonial enlightenment demands that both be cast out. Along with things such as patriotism, but do bring in Harvard whenever possible please, especially at places such as the Kumbh Mela. ‘We’ like being pre-national and post-national at once. Our own cohort of intellectuals have crafted a logic and rhetoric to make it possible, of course the ordinary Indian cannot understand or accept the vision of the subcontinent we are trying to fund and craft.

If my tone has been a touch acid so far, the next bit is straightforward.

My point is utilitarian and democratic: if you wish to avail of the benefits of citizenship in India as a member of a minority community (Special Personal Law above the law of the land, affirmative action, paid pilgrimages, money for every girl child born into specific religions, etc.; India has over 80% constitutional reservations for people of various communities and caste groups and sects, even ‘Hindu’ minorities) then you owe something to the nation. You cannot expect the country at large to submit to your demands for wellness in this life while you invest everything you get in your personal concept of the hereafter as enshrined in this or that faith. Your faith may tell you that the opinions of those who do not support your faithful behavior do not matter, but the rest of India does not need to voluntarily submit to one-sided transactional citizenship, not even when their elites tell them to, especially if your actions and loyalties support the dismantling of said nation.

You are not permitted to forego your debts or your duties if you have enjoyed your rights until now. And these apply to every state, to every disgruntled person who claims discrimination and economic backwardness as an excuse for destructive public acts, to every apologist for a libertarian, existentialist agenda in militant activity against bad faith. Take what you can give, and take and give as much as is mutually agreed upon.

If you do not wish to stand for the symbols of the nation, show your respect to the nation by some other means, and do not enter the theatre (of film or nation) until the anthem is over. If all such symbols offend you, do not ask for any special benefits from the nation by virtue of the same belief-system (religion, non-religion) that makes you a minority. Or a majority, for that matter.

We are all, supposedly, talking and fighting over a nation we want the current hapless ‘India’ to be. Make it equitable. Make it democratic.

And please make the constructed (nation, act)and the critiqued (act, law, custom) unique to the locale (the Indian subcontinent). The version of secular democracy that should be allowed to evolve in India — through the daily negotiations of the ordinary public en route to individual life goals — may not coincide with Enlightenment-inherited or foreign-foundation-funded values of what experts think it should be. And that’s as it should be.

 

Silencing – and the universal lament

I will speak to you in another’s voice. Because I fear you will miss my meaning if I speak in mine. Individual stories are anecdotes, representative stories are easier to bear as half-truth. 

“I am afraid to speak.
Because I am afraid to speak, I speak all the time, cloaking and filling that central darkness that could be the productive void but is merely soul-chilling frightening emptiness.
Because I must not speak I catch hold of people and talk, and ask and laugh and am merry. It is proof that I can speak, this babble.
Because I am told I cannot speak, I speak in secret, in allusions and circumlocutions that baffle people and secretly amuse me. If I do not speak so that they listen, then I have not spoken at all.
Because I am afraid to speak, I do not say what I mean. If I do not say it, can they ever catch me?
Because I am told I cannot speak I turn inward and tell myself I cannot, should not, could not, must not. I become two people, one dumb child and one scolding authoritative woman. Neither turns to the world, the world looks in through her eyes.
I must not speak. Instead I do. I work, I act, I have done to me. I build, card-towers of actions, proof of silent concentration, evidence of the inutility of the solitary imagination. I prove, with every gesture, that I accept I cannot speak. And I half-learn to wait, until I can be told that I can.
But I cannot commit, cannot vow, cannot prove my allegiance to non-speaking. In a way, this is going on. For if I was bade to speak, I might speak and be silenced forever.

There is only one authority, one judgment, one chance. I would rather not have it. So I am afraid to speak.”

Wars of Justice

Arundhati Roy is an easy mascot and stereotype to measure women/postcolonials/Literary Studies folks from India, and as per usual I was asked to comment on this article on another forum. What follows shows why I did not give the expected answer.

There are many ways to arrange the dialectics of religion and land and state power; Roy uses only one. I am going to declare my scepticism about both sides of her particular alignment right away before I say the following:

1. We didn’t need Arundhati Roy to explain neo-colonialism or settler colonialism. For latter-day Rip van Winkles, corporations have long begun to run the world, India as it exists now is weak fry in this global techno-empire we all live in. No nation-state can oppose or close its borders to transnational money and remain insularly sovereign any more. To talk about India and Modi or any local point of politics, therefore, we need to also talk international geopolitics, risk and relief in this century, not extrapolate from the last century’s abortive trends.

2. The plight of the hundreds of millions on the bottom half of the ladder is not the fault of any one ‘evil thing’; many (as much as we) are complicit. That plight is also not unique to India. Many, many poor, working-class, indigenous and migrant populations are at risk, in almost every country. To agree to divide the good/evil of the world only along class and religious lines is a dangerous game. It led to the Partition; before we say ‘let it lead to the willful fracture’ of more nations I think we should be careful of what is waiting to take the place of the absence of existing power-structures. If we think, “Good fences make good neighbors” what kinds of fences and what kinds of neighbors can fit into that equation?

3. I don’t see anyone who claims to know what’s going on trying to actually allow the middle millions of India to decide for themselves. Most such speakers are trying to convince those millions to take one side or another in some great war against oppressors–state power, elite money, religion, etc. And on the basis of these efforts to ‘teach’ the population to direct their grievances this way or that, subnational groups are beginning to form affective solidarities based on negative identity and victimhood. These don’t make for good politics, national or international.

4. For all her idealism, I do not see a vision of future justice in Roy’s oppositional politics. The number of supporters of Roy and ‘the subaltern’ and ‘the minority’ I have seen do not inspire me with confidence when they share their ideas of future ‘justice,’ because usually identity politics based on grievances require as collateral damage much vengeance as well as the future subjugation of an oppressor population. The cycle of oppositional violence merely continues because the parties do not come to a table for negotiations, only for confrontations and zero-sum moves. Motivations where entire population groups salivate about drawing blood (however metaphorically) and reclaiming a lost ‘right’ by force are not what I want to see in politics in my lifetime.

5. Roy is the darling of militants from Kashmir, those who urge a ‘fight to the death’; a self-confessed ex-militant I met told me to write and remember like Roy. It was an eye-opening moment (a) to be treated like erring Hindu elite when caste and class and deed bar me from said club, (b) to be thought a usurper in a historically native subcontinent, (c) to be expected to support all victims everywhere, automatically, by virtue of my ethnic and gender identity, and through that support to righteously abdicate my previous religious/national/ethnic identity. And that moment told me that one cannot hold dialogue with, interact with or continue to live with final truths, ultimatums and guns.

6. To rephrase a familiar political and discursive motif from decades-old ‘postcolonial theory,’ who speaks for the subaltern? I. e., I wish to draw attention to the exact population groups Roy (and anyone who ventriloquizes Roy) is speaking for, and the relation (economic, political, structural, social and affective) of those groups to the rest of the population of the current Indian nation. The relation of the misery of those people to capital is not the only relation of concern; those people as individuals and as communities made some choices (free or not) and will have to continue to negotiate with whatever/whoever occupies the seat of power (Coca Cola, Bharat Sarkar, Monsanto, fill in the rest) if they want a viable future.

I don’t want to hear Roy speaking for them, I want to hear from them; it will have to be from their own ‘native informants’ first and then their own chosen representatives if possible. I cannot countenance filling in their silence and absence with Roy’s presence.

How do those people themselves understand their current situation? Who is explaining their current situation to them and to what gain? Who is going to explain to the rural dweller the hot urban ‘planet of slums’ we shall all inhabit in this century, one in which arable land, free water, affordable food and freedom of choice will become rarer by the decade? The numbers of the victimized will grow and their experiential positions will shift in the near future. Our sociological analysis of their growing crisis is one thing, ideological division of their worries and fears is another and inexcusable.

I repeat, all political solidarities now are transregional and even transnational. To then put religion and guns and gender and caste into anti-capitalist arguments but to keep out other cultural/economic/international security factors is too deliberately facile and too dangerous.

 

References:

The ‘Subaltern.’ Discursive and conceptual term in postcolonial theory. Quick read here.

Mike Davis. Planet of Slums. Verso, 2006.

The average of action

But we have already chosen, haven’t we? In turning away we choose what to do about injustice just as much as we would choose if we intervened in any fashion at all.

We choose by drawing the definition of sane lines between the public and the private, forgetting each abuts, is commingled with, the other. We choose not to by saying, this is the public sphere, and I do not have time or ability to do this, sustain this collateral damage, and so we furl the horizon close about our private sphere, our solitary life and carry on. A million bubbles in the mainstream.

And if we make this separation, we are unlike many other peoples of the world, who believe that the personal and the public are dependent on a unified belief system.

What conception of practical politics divides a man into parts and calls it sanity?

The more we turn away, the more we are unable to see when we can help, when someone may need us. Are we never afraid that someday it might be us? That’s why we raise our fists about citizen’s rights, and invasions of the private sphere, but that is a fragile peace. What kingdom is safe if surrounded by hostile enemies?

‘Cholche-cholbe’ is always an average of what is and is not done. If the cholche-cholbe is to be maintained, then there must be some action that opposes the steady attrition and disintegration we keep complaining about. Now, we cannot make people virtuous, nor extract virtue, but we can ask them to maintain some average of action in their own lives, in their own calculations. Of course, they might decide their average is abdication.

Google Mapathon 2013: Abstraction as Weapon

I don’t oppose the examination of Google’s activities, no matter who is voicing it or why. This is how I analyze action and necessary reaction:

1. Maps stored in foreign servers and under the ownership and control of foreign or transnational companies are a security risk to any nation. India does not have the resources to combat what Google will facilitate. Since Google will never be held responsible for its users’ use of sensitive data, India must oppose practices where it can; Google is visible, unified and traceable, anonymous users and networks worldwide are not.

2. The tech-savvy Resident Non-Indian needs to be forced to think about the consequences of his/her lifestyle, choices and carefree support or opposition to fashionable transnational practices. To argue that uploading detailed maps such as these is merely ‘improving’ local knowledge is to think narrowly like an individual consumer who has no responsibilities as a citizen. Taxes, citizenship and elite global memberships do not excuse the individual buyer from the framework of material consequences resulting from his/her actions in the floating consumer world. Loyalty to Google and its floating signifier of maps for all should be rigorously examined and even discouraged in certain cases by certain parties. In this, the rights and duties of an individual must be weighed against the rights and duties of many individuals. The root of the world’s freedom and glory is not the individual-as-consumer, and advocates of rights and liberties would do well to untangle the parts of every individual that come out to play in different conflicts. To abstract one role out of the many that any psychologically globalized person plays is to reduce reality to binary principle, to reduce ethics to rationalization.

3. Online reportage has presented India’s opposition as an umbrella Hindu nationalist (and therefore corrupt, suspicious and hypocritical) agenda, or as a backward outcry to technological advancement. The opposition is neither. The rhetoric of reportage is as infantile and orientalist as western sociologists’ puzzlement at the ties of family and kinship that still govern India’s economic and political systems , i.e., seizing at bogeys like ‘caste’ and ‘Hindu nationalism’ to defame anything that seems to remotely oppose transnational neocolonial cynicism (rummaging in the world’s resource banks without due responsibility) is really the dubious prerogative of the North and West.

Indians would be foolish to mistake the messenger (Google, Mapathon, or the favorite bogeyman ‘BJP’) for the message and tilt at windmills when energies might be put to real work elsewhere.

Delhi: to my fellow citizens

Brutal New Delhi Gang Rape Outrages Indians, Spurs Calls for Action

I hear a lot about marches and anger and support in India, and about how we would not bring up our children in India. But I see a pattern: when we speak of change we tend to change our own location to a more favorable one, but we do not change the location/situation surrounding us for the better. Where is the most required thing of all now — Indian citizens’ voices irrespective of gender speaking to each other with assurance that they can rely on one another in the future? Where are the civic discussions among ‘us’–with your maid, your driver, your sister, your brother, your boss, your office boy, your bus driver, your autowallah? Or don’t the elite and the middle class talk to ‘these people,’ and talk about these things at all?

I want more than words and fashionable anger. A few small points to start with:

1. a. Let’s have mandatory self-defense classes for women in schools and colleges. Instruction about escaping sexual predators at home and outside. Freedom for a girl to call the police from her school or a safe house if she is threatened or attacked, and attention being paid to her even if she is a minor. Self-defense will not solve anything, but publicly shared knowledge creates a mindset that might prevent or help someone in distress some of the time.

1.b. Mandatory co-ed interactive workshops for boys and girls in high schools, colleges and undergraduate institutions run by city police or similar agencies about public safety, public duty, emergency protocols, and safe habits. Rope in the NGO’s, rope in the girl and boy scouts, bring in successful working women from all industries, bring in the liberal minded CEO’s from all types of sectors. Let’s see good examples of what to do and what is possible.

2. A focus on public ethics: where is the public’s morality in these instances? Instead of  ‘moral science’ classes in school where we speak about god, instead of using religion as a way to teach women their place outside school, we need open discussions about masculinity and femininity and on not using sex as power, i.e.we need to create and maintain a climate of opinion about women and men and children that is more benign.

4. Citizen duties being made clear. Period. India prides itself on its democratic sensibility where the people do not have to obey the government, but it is time the people took control of maintaining their own freedoms. Anarchy is not democracy.

Let me speak for many women: In spite of perhaps a loving family and perhaps even progressive parents, ‘I’ was abused as a child, in which ‘I’ become like so many millions in the world for whom there is no proof and no witness to trauma little or great. ‘I’ was molested regularly on the street, on buses, in tutorial classes throughout ‘my’ teenage years and into ‘my’ twenties, like so many hundreds of thousands of others. If ‘I’ was pretty and unaccompanied in public ‘I’ was considered automatic game, even if ‘I’ dressed modestly and minded ‘my’ own business. India in the 90’s  told ‘me’ this was ‘normal.’ If ever and in great peril ‘I’ reacted strenuously to harassment (and then ‘my’ name would be kept out of the newspapers), ‘I’ would be called ‘strong’ in private and foolish in public. ‘I’ was neither, because resistance to wrong should be normal, not extraordinary. ‘I’ speak for ‘you.’

Let me speak for many women when I say: Where are my brothers, friends, ordinary ‘bhai’ citizens? If women cannot feel safe in the company of men they know, who can they trust when faced with strangers? I want more men to say of their own volition: “The responsibility lies with men as well as women,” and to act accordingly.

Women who are lucky enough to be safe in cars and ensconced in money, whose struggles consist in competing for money or applause, where are you when it comes to giving back to society? Where is your ‘noblesse oblige’? Charity and donations help no one in the long term; they merely reinforce the hierarchy of power and powerlessness. Take some time out from your drinks and parties and turn it to real work for the future. Come to your alma mater, give talks and advice to both boys and girls on power and success and what it means to remain human as you fight to gain recognition. Talk about discrimination in the workplace and outside it. Make the success of a person seem non-threatening to others, make it seem normal regardless of sex or gender. Talk about honor, not just ‘Leaning In.’

And make the money count. Where do you put your charitable donations? Where are the labs and high-tech services all our engineers and scientists and computer and biotech gods could imagine and build in a year with their money? Where the backbone, the sense of a unified community of disparate entities agreed to work for the maintenance of a common good? Where the demand for a common good, and the demand for it in the everyday life of buttered bread?

There is an accelerated breakdown of the sense of the public sphere in India, a sense of something held in common, something that needs work and giving and (god forbid!) sacrifice of total gains to keep alive. Individualistic democratic energies have been channelled too far into fragmented sectarian sentiments. We fight each other for a share of the common pie, we do not want to do anything for the common pie lest the other man or woman get a bit more, let alone more than me.

If there is work to be done, it is this, and this in a time of scepticism about the ‘nation’ or similar formations–we need to encourage the public to regain its sense of what allows it retain the privileges of a democracy, what grants it its rights, why it has the freedom to pursue its narrow individual goals at the cost of the nation or its society; there must be some sense of public and civic duty, of value in what exists in common. There is no escaping that common; and the only way for a reasonably just society or nation to exist is to limit the looting and sacrilege of that common allowed to any one.

_____________________________

Some further notes:

I and we haven’t touched upon many other related issues here or in many public discussions:

Male rape, little discussed in India. Rape is rape, bodily harm is bodily harm, trauma is trauma. Gender, age, ability are not mitigating factors.

The penal code. Many are calling for the death penalty, many others are using moralistic arguments to counter what they see as calls for ‘barbarity.’ I do not support simple imprisonment as a punishment for violent rape because prison is neither hell or punishment for many violent offenders: it is partly a place of organized crime where many strings are pulled, many rackets run, and which often has safe ties with the outside world. Imprisoning more people will likely lead to a surge of private prisons and another industry of arms and security and war. How many prisoners can India feed and care for? Why build a Bastille? I would rather make an exception and ask for some ‘hurtful’ ‘revenge’–naming and public shaming, mandatory public service, crippling and long-term financial penalty, and public police records so that the person is maimed for life as much as they have maimed the raped for life with shame and bodily trauma. Punishment must be fearful enough to be a deterrent. If vasectomy and castrating are required in extreme cases, so be it. If I am being ‘barbaric,’ my premise is this: the rights of one do not override the rights of another.

I would ask women lawyers to start enacting real reform, perhaps by teaching ordinary girls they know about the law and what needs to be done, to find ways to enforce civil safety. Women still rely on word-of-mouth networks that function as underground railroads.

And we all need to ask for laws barring those with records of sexual crimes from holding responsible public office. Start voting with minds and words and an eye to the future. We have to take the commons back, for women as well as men.