Let us Hope the Darkness has Passed
India's Real and Virtual Worlds have Collided in a Humiliation of Power
For many of us who feel estranged from mainstream politics, there are rare, ephemeral moments of celebration. Today is one of them. When India went to the polls, we were negotiating the dangerous cross-currents of neo-liberalism and neo-fascism - an assault on the poor and minority communities.
None of the pundits and psychologists predicted the results. The rightwing BJP-led coalition has not just been voted out of power, it has been humiliated. It cannot but be seen as a decisive vote against communalism, and neo-liberalism's economic "reforms". The Congress has become the largest party. The left parties, the only parties to be overtly (but ineffectively) critical of the reforms, have been given an unprecedented mandate. But even as we celebrate, we know that on every major issue besides overt Hindu nationalism (nuclear bombs, big dams and privatization), the Congress and the BJP have no major ideological differences. We know the legacy of the Congress led us to the horror of the BJP. Still, we celebrate because surely a darkness has passed. Or has it?
Recently, a young friend was talking to me about Kashmir. About the morass of political venality, the brutality of the security forces, the inchoate edges of a society saturated in violence, where militants, police, intelligence officers, government servants, businessmen and even journalists encounter each other, and gradually, over time, become each other. About having to live with the endless killing, the mounting "disappearances", the whispering, the fear, the rumors, the insane disconnection between what Kashmiris know is happening and what the rest of us are told is happening in Kashmir. He said: "Kashmir used to be a business. Now it's a mental asylum."
Admittedly, the conflicts in Kashmir and the north-eastern states make them separate wings that house the more perilous wards in the asylum. But in the heartland too, the schism between knowledge and information, between fact and conjecture, between the "real" world and the virtual world, has become a place of endless speculation and potential insanity.
Each time there is a so-called terrorist strike, the BJP government has rushed in, eager to assign culpability with little or no investigation. The attack on the parliament building, on December 13 2001, and the burning of the Sabarmati Express, in Godhra, the following year are fine examples. In both cases, the evidence that surfaced raised disturbing questions and so was put into cold storage. Everybody believed what they wanted to, but the incidents were used to whip up communal bigotry in a haze of heightened Hindu nationalism.
Many governments - state as well as center; Congress, BJP, as well as regional parties - have used this climate of manufactured frenzy to mount an assault on human rights on a scale that would shame the world's better known despotic regimes.
In recent years, the number of people killed by the police and security forces runs into tens of thousands. Andhra Pradesh (neo-liberalism's poster state) chalks up an average of about 200 deaths of "extremists" in "encounters" every year. In Kashmir an estimated 80,000 people have been killed since 1989. Thousands have simply "disappeared".
According to the Association of Parents of Disappeared People in Kashmir, more than 2,500 people were killed in 2003. In the last 18 months there have been 54 deaths in custody. The Indian state's proclivity to harass and terrorize has been institutionalized by the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In Tamil Nadu, the act has been used to stifle criticism of the state government. In Jharkhand, 3,200 people, mostly poor adivasis (indigenous people) accused of being Maoists, have been named in POTA cases. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, the act is used to clamp down on those who protest about the dispossession of their land. In Gujarat and Mumbai, it is used almost exclusively against Muslims. In Gujarat, after the 2002 pogrom in which an estimated 2,000 Muslims were killed, 287 people were accused under POTA: 286 were Muslim and one a Sikh. POTA allows confessions extracted in police custody to be admitted as evidence. Under the POTA regime, torture tends to replace investigation in our police stations: that's everything from people being forced to drink urine, to being stripped, humiliated, given electric shocks, burned with cigarette butts and having iron rods put up their anuses, to being beaten to death.
Under POTA you cannot get bail unless you can prove that you are innocent - of a crime that you have not been formally charged with. It would be naive to imagine that POTA is being "misused". It is being used for precisely the reasons it was enacted. This year in the UN, 181 countries voted for increased protection of human rights. Even the US voted in favor. India abstained.
Meanwhile, economists cheering from the pages of corporate newspapers inform us that the GDP growth rate is phenomenal, unprecedented. Shops are overflowing with consumer goods. Government storehouses are overflowing with grain. Outside this circle of light, the past five years have seen the most violent increase in rural-urban income inequalities since independence. Farmers steeped in debt are committing suicide in hundreds; 40% of the rural population in India has the same foodgrain absorption level as sub-Saharan Africa, and 47% of Indian children under three suffer from malnutrition.
But in urban India, shops, restaurants, railway stations, airports, gymnasiums, hospitals have TV monitors in which India's Shining, Feeling Good. You only have to close your ears to the sickening crunch of the policeman's boot on someone's ribs, you only have to raise your eyes from the squalor, the slums, the ragged broken people on the streets and seek a friendly TV monitor, and you will be in that other beautiful world. The singing, dancing world of Bollywood's permanent pelvic thrusts, of permanently privileged, happy Indians waving the tricolor and Feeling Good. Laws like POTA are like buttons on a TV. You can use it to switch off the poor, the troublesome, the unwanted.
When POTA was passed, the Congress staged a noisy opposition in Parliament. However, repealing POTA never figured in its election campaign. Even before it has formed a government, there have been overt reassurances that "reforms" will continue. Exactly what kind of reforms, we'll have to wait and see. Fortunately the Congress will be hobbled by the fact that it needs the support of left parties to form a government. Hopefully, things will change. A little. It's been a pretty hellish six years.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004