Facebook Badge

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neo Middle Classes Protest

High on Aspirations, Low on Talent

Let me just say it straight out. The Delhi protests against the shocking rape of a young woman in a bus were led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities and colleges where underpaid teachers spew their leftist propaganda to taint impressionable minds.. They are high-minded but like all university students in India, somewhat moronic on the organization front. Their post-modern protest, inspired by the leftists of Europe and North Africa, simply didn’t work. They neither have the ideological fervor of their Western European counterparts nor the rage against the machine of their Tunisian and Egyptian idols. What they are confronting is a political system that is bereft of vision beyond electoral calculation, a bureaucracy that is inept and obstructionist, a business class that is free of ethics and morality. And this is not today’s news; the gridlock has been in existence since 1947. How otherwise do you explain the lack of basic infrastructure, not just roads, power, public transport but also the lack of education, public health and social security?

It is mind-boggling that the protesters and the media, egged on by shadowy political interests, can hold public debate  to ransom over a sordid criminal offence by marginal people like the monsters on the bus. The protest is all about the government and how insensitive it is. The young men and women seemed to be more interested in having major government officials talk to them. The real issue to be debated is what kind of a society has been created in which marginal men from urban slums take not just the law into their own hands but visit terror on hapless citizens. You don’t have very far to look: the outskirts of Delhi, beyond the Lutyens zone, is a free for all. Scofflaws rule the roost. They harass women; drive like lunatics (including city-certified public transport drivers); they also rain chaos and arbitrary violence on unsuspecting citizens. This is a society and culture in which the girl child is killed at birth; those that survive rarely make it past five years of age; the remnant end up being victims of dowry and bride burning. Very few girls born in India make a steady income and or attain social dignity. Dare I say it: if you are born a girl the chances of you having a normal life are minuscule.

These are the issues the heinous rape should have brought forth in public debate. Instead, the neo middle class protesters, egged on by the RSS, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev,  focused on the government and its shortcomings. I dare these kids and their mentors to go protest against the “khap panchayats” of Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, never mind Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; or the Maoists in the central spine of India; or the cultural fascists in south and central India. Easiest thing to do, especially if vested interests ply you with funds, is to assemble at India Gate and capture the attention of the marketing-driven media.

Looking at the chaos of cities and small towns and the complete neglect of rural populations, not just this government but going back to 1947, it is apparent the entire governance structure is about privilege and corruption. Even high-minded leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are unable to make a dent; their writ simply doesn’t run. As the Singapore Prime Minister said in a recent interview, India is held in thrall by vested interests. What he was saying, in a polite way, is India suffers from a lapse of governance: bad roads, poor street lighting, discontinuous water supply, no sanitation, poor public health facilities, and dysfunctional schools.

In the end, there are two ideologies in India; one, the Congress that has its hands full just running the government peopled by know-nothings and do-nothings. Two, the others are all against the Congress and hoping to run the system, not for change and development; but for personal aggrandizement. What remains is the permanent government, the bureaucracy, and they have been having a ball since Rajiv Gandhi, with 220 seats refused to form the government in 1989. Since then the toadies have emerged from under their stones with caste and communal demands while the vested government officials simply twiddle their thumbs. Or milk their positions for rent in issuing licenses and permits.

So poverty endures in a country that is getting richer by leaps and bounds. No government will pay heed to middle class demands for better governance. The refrain is we represent the poor who have nothing so you should accept an abysmal quality of life. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank, who has succeeded in keeping interest rates higher than anywhere in the world, was quoted as saying, “Inflation is my concern because I represent the poor  people, who are most affected by spiraling prices.” Or some such words; never heard a central banker talk like this.

The cogent way to fight this government apathy and ineptitude, as Mahatma Gandhi did, is through lawful protest and constitutional propriety. The neo middle classes of India, schooled essentially in value-free disciplines such as engineering, management and vocational studies, have no appreciation for that. Their cause is just; their methods are hugely questionable.

An edited version of this article appeared on Times of India website on December 28, 2012.

Insolent India and the lack of grace

A columnist recently called the protest against the heinous rape in Delhi a manifestation of “insolent India.” Though his context was different, he is right: transforming from a subservient and feudal culture, the growing neo middle class India has chosen insolence as a response to the times. They have shunned all civil niceties to indulge in rhetorical curses and violent protest. 
One measure of this is the media’s propensity to refer to all public figures by their first name. Not even in the USA, where first-name familiarity is part of the culture, do media call the President, Barack or the Secretary of State, Hillary. Heck, even in Chicago, the mayor is called Mayor Emanuel and in New York, Mayor Bloomberg. You’ll never hear a print or broadcast journalist call them Rahm or Michael, never mind Mike. Just read the stories in the newspapers; watch the news shows on television. It is Sheila this, Manmohan that, Sonia, Rahul, Kapil, Salman and horror of horrors Chidu, for the finance minister. It is Rattan and Mukesh and Anil and Adi and Sachin and Saurav and Amitabh and Jaya and Kat and Kareena and what have you. It is amazing also to witness at soirees in Delhi, Bombay and elsewhere, the breezy familiarity with which people use first names. 
Such behavior seems to have originated in one-upmanship and is now an indicator of insolence. 
Just troll social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and the insolence is compounded to infinity. Even as we speak, some misbegotten people are circulating what purport to be photos of the young woman who was raped December 16 on a Delhi bus by ruthless criminals; such men seem to fester like sores at the margins of India’s ramshackle urbanization in the major metros and the Wild West style small towns. I am deeply aware of this because I live in a place surrounded by lawless but wealthy villages infested with illiterates, who threaten you with death and destruction if you challenge their scofflaw ways.
Coming back to the photos on Facebook, the circulation of these photos is not just distasteful but illegal. It betrays a lack of sober judgment and indicates an excitable mind that is easily carried away by emotions of the moment and is a prime candidate for hopping on cultish bandwagons.
This emergent neo middle class in India appears to lack civility and grace; plus, it seems to be infected with the virus of authoritarianism. The very word “civil” has been subverted by the likes of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, who pass themselves off as “civil society” activists while using the foulest of rhetoric and crudest of means. Not that different than the rabid M S Golwalker, who wrote India’s “Mein Kampf.” Only he called it “We, Our Nation Defined.” 
Even the bald prejudice of Golwalker’s Hindutva, which reserves hate for minorities, takes a back seat in the face of the insolence of the neo middle class. This segment is much larger than the middle class of yore and its reckless rhetoric and behavior threaten long-held societal norms of tolerance and compassion, values have enabled Indian culture survive despite the Mughal and British conquests. Its modern-day avatar, India’s globally-admired constitutional democracy, with its adherence to the “due process” tradition of law, has held firm despite the onslaught of Hindu fundamentalists; anarchists with a Luddite agenda; votaries of Soviet-style socialism; poor human development indicators like persistent poverty, lingering illiteracy and preventable disease; now, inept governance The Sanskrit word kripa is worth understanding. In transliteration, it combines the meanings of several English words: grace and especially mercy. It was used in the liberal Bhakti tradition that arose as an alternative to the Vedic mainstream. It is a word we would do well to remember as the baying hordes call for all manner of capital punishment for the men who mercilessly raped and killed the young woman in Delhi. The horrendous crime set off protests all over India. One strand of the protest was valid in that it raised public consciousness about the plight of women in India. Even in America, there are of gender bias cases reported among Indian immigrants including one in which a woman forbade her son’s wife to enter the kitchen during her menstrual cycle or a family that insisted on a sex determination test or others who indulged in rampant gender prejudices. Back in India, there are uncounted cases of female infanticide, dowry deaths and honor killings.
Another strand, which includes the bulk of the protesters, is a vicious call for revenge. Capital punishment, torture, castration are bandied about as options. Sounding strangely medieval, the neo middle class protestors have directed their unfocused anger at the government, the easiest target given all its angularities. In the view of the neo middle class protestors, the government is venal. 
What’s admirable is the protests did galvanize the government to take action. Whether this citizen action can be sustained and actually makes cities safe for women or will it peter out is a question worth pondering. Soon, the media will move on; that’s when the logic of these protests will be tested. Late and slow, the government nevertheless responded; now it’s the turn of the citizen.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, January 2, 2013.)