Whose Nation? Whose Independence?
What, to the dalit, is the 15th of August? What, to the adivasis, have these sixty years brought? What, to working-class men and women, do today’s celebrations mean?
In 1841, the anti-slavery crusader and abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked of his white American audience, “What, to the Negro, is the Fourth of July?” In a moving section of his speech, he speaks of slavery as a phenomenon that mocks the very notion of independence.
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them…. To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view…. I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery–the great sin and shame of America! … I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
Read through the eyes of India’s millions of impoverished citizens, Douglass’ words ring true in contemporary India as they did in pre-Civil War America.
Thinking about justice
This is not to say that the Indian elites are totally oblivious to the plight of the oppressed and the downtrodden. In fact, a public debate has been raging for years now about affirmative action, reservations and set-asides, quotas in hiring, and other remedial measures that the state might undertake in order to help redress centuries of discrimination.
The fact is, the presence of inequality, oppression and poverty on such a vast scale (see my previous post, “India Shining, indeed“) is an embarrassment for a ruling class that sees itself as competing on the world stage for status and prestige as a global power. So there has to be some attempt at solving these problems, right? Right.
Enter the Indian think tank.
Indicus Analytics, which calls itself “India’s leading economics research firm,” conducted a study titled “Peoples’ Expectations from the State in the Context of a Globalizing Indian Economy” for the National Foundation for India (NFI). A pdf file of the full report can be found here. The study was aimed at understanding what people expect of the government, particularly in relation to “underprivileged” sections of society. In other words, whether Indians favor government involvement in aiding dalits, so-called “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs), and other oppressed communities.
The study seems to have been conducted quite well. It’s survey sample size, and its attendant methodology seem, to my untrained eye, to be quite sound. The results of the study were fairly unambiguous. One of its major findings was that, regardless of class or caste,
majorities of the respondents are sympathetic towards the underprivileged sections of the society and favor the need for special schemes for their development. Majority of them suggest government jobs for them. Those in high-income group believe better access to health and education service is also important for their overall development. Only about 21.71 percent of respondents consider that the government should only focus on better opportunities for all. (p. 11)
So it appears that most Indians believe that oppressed castes, dalits, and other marginalized communities ought to receive special government assistance. Affirmative action (reservation) policies, one might argue, would be welcomed by a broad spectrum of Indian society.
But we know that the loudest voices are those of people who oppose quotas and reservations. Why is this so?
Well, take a look at what the head of Indicus Analytics, one Laveesh Bhandari, has to say about the issue in a recent op-ed piece in the Indian Express. Titled “Social Justice Without PhDs,” the article lauds a recent Supreme Court ruling that stayed the implementation of quotas for OBCs in higher education. The government wanted to set aside 27 percent of seats in government-funded institutions, including the prestigious IITs and IIMs, for OBCs.
Now, there is no doubt a lot of political opportunism involved in the debate over quotas–the ruling UPA government is hardly a champion of the poor and the oppressed. Bhandari, however, critiques the quota proposals as unfeasible and impracticable. The crux of his “argument” is:
It is quite apparent to anyone who has gone to an Indian university that there is a lack of infrastructure, there is a lack of proper management, and there is a lack of quality teaching and teachers. None of these can be addressed within a year or two.
Why not? The prosperous Indian economy is awash in freshly laundered money–why not tap into some of that and make a real turnaround in infrastructure so as to be able to provide better educational opportunities for all?
Bhandari then goes on to make the same bland assessment of the state of teaching in India. There aren’t enough quality teachers and professors, he tells us, and therefore it is unrealistic to try to increase the number of seats in higher education. He briefly considers the possibility of hiring teachers from abroad, like China has done, and dismisses this too as unrealistic.
Having dismissed all possible means of implementing quotas as “unrealistic,” what does Bhandari offer as a solution to the lack of advancement of “OBCs”?
The OBCs (and all of Indian youth) would benefit more if our politicians devoted their highly innovative minds to figure out how we could ensure vocational and skill-based training for all.
In other words, keep the elite institutions as bastions of the … well, elite. Then, provide “skill-based” training to the OBCs so as to feed the growing labor demands of a growing economy. Good, skilled cheap labor then becomes available to … the elites. Who needs quotas and reservations?
To hear Bhandari pontificate about achieving “Social Justice Without PhDs,” when he himself has a Ph.D. from Boston University, is quite amusing.
Thus the head of a firm that conducts a survey that shows widespread support for government action to boost the opportunities for OBCs writes an article that essentially goes against the spirit of that study! Astounding, isn’t it!
(The NFI, it turns out, is a “grant-making and fundraising organization” that funds NGOs in India, and is in turn funded by, among others, the ubiquitous Ford Foundation (with its shady history of collaboration with the CIA), European Christian aid missions like the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO), and the American India Foundation, whose honorary president is none other than–you guessed it–Bill Clinton.)
Thinking of Kashmir
A nation that oppresses another can never be free. This is the essence of Marx’s argument about national oppression.
What does it mean to celebrate the “independence” of one’s nation, while at the same time denying another people their right to self-determination? A recent poll showed that 87% of the people of Srinagar continue to demand independence from both India and Pakistan.* Granted, Srinagar is not Kashmir, and still less is it representative of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. But the sheer unwillingness of Indians to even consider an independent Kashmir shows that their own conception of national independence is hollow, shallow, and exclusivist. Our independence is a good thing, but they can never be free: Kashmir is, and must remain, a part of India. Isn’t that what the British thought about “their” India?
So what is the meaning of Independence Day to Kashmiris, who have lost some 80,000 lives while fighting for self-determination?
On this “glorious” independence day, why not take a look at what one Kashmiri has to say about his own struggle for independence–check out my January, 2004, interview with Yasin Malik.
Thinking of Partition
Good fences make good neighbors, wrote Robert Frost. He certainly didn’t have the Indian subcontinent in mind.
Bring up the issue of partition in a discussion about Indian/Pakistani Independence Day celebrations, and you will be roundly rebuked. “We must look forward, not backward,” you will be told. But the very idea of an independent “India” and an independent “Pakistan” is inconceivable without reference to the holocaust that was Partition.
A passage from Amitav Ghosh‘s novel, The Shadow Lines expresses this paradox. In it, the protagonist marvels at the fact that national boundaries have had such a strong hold on people’s imaginations. Looking at a map, he is amazed that
there had really been a time, not so long ago, when people, sensible people, of good intention, had thought that all maps were the same, that there was special enchantment in lines; I had to remind myself that they were not to be blamed for believing that there was something admirable in moving violence to the border and dealing with it through science and factories, for that was the pattern of the world. They had drawn their borders … hoping perhaps that once they had etched their border upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland. What would they think, I wondered, when the realized that they had created not a separation, but a yet-undiscovered irony … the simple fact that there had never been a moment in the four-thousand-year-old history of that map, when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines….
*Thanks to Naveen for drawing my attention to this poll.
Thanks also to Desi Italiana‘s intrepid questioning of nationalism for inspiring this post.