Mother India

Friday, 11 January 2013

In September 1990 I flew from London to New Delhi.  By arrangement I cleared customs without producing my South African passport – officially there was an anti-apartheid embargo in place. The capital was in ferment – the attempted “self-immolation” of a Delhi University student, 19 year-old Rajeev Goswami, had galvanised flagging protests into running battles with the police.

The provocation was Prime Minister V P Singh’s announcement a year earlier that he would extend affirmative action quotas in public education and employment. Over the next months I learned, a little, about caste; polite and poisonous, brazen and brutal but most of all invisible.

Hindu society is a divinely inspired pecking-order that consigns its members to one of four castes or “varnas”. Each is said to emanate from a different body part of the god Brahma, the creator. Top of the pile unsurprisingly are the Brahmins, the religious and intellectual elite, who set-up the system in the first place so they could lord it over the rest, as they still do. The Sudras, workers and peasants, rank lowest. The entire edifice is an elaborate and endogamous classification system including 3000 sub-castes further partitioned into 90 000 distinct groups. Caste is a birthright. It regulates work, segregates love and decides whether you are treated with deference or contempt.

Beyond the pale of the caste system are the Dalits (“broken people”), the untouchables condemned to the most menial and defiling labour, and the aboriginal, forest-dwelling Adivasis. The Dalits and the lowest status caste groups are identified as Scheduled Castes and the Adivasis as Scheduled Tribes. A proportional 22,5 percent of educational places and public sector jobs are reserved for them. In a report provided to Indira Gandhi in 1980 – the Mandel Commission identified Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and recommended a 27 percent quota for them. Ten years later, a struggling government’s attempt to attract votes by introducing quotas for the OBCs backfired inspiring a counter-revolution instead.

Pariah kites arced in the clear blue sky above the bustle of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Goswami lingered in hospital with serious burns. From their base – a tent pitched squarely in the flow of passers by – anti-reservation agitators espoused their cause. A group of earnest and articulate young women explained the protests were not about enshrining privilege but defending meritocracy. They reeled off figures with remarkable confidence considering the statistics patently undermined an already strained argument. They were charming and fervent.

A cart heaped with chilies flashing in the sunlight trundled past. A shy young man asked to speak to me beyond earshot of the upper-caste encampment. He was an “OBC” from Haryana, part of a group of friends studying in Delhi. They wanted a chance to present their side of the story to the BBC. I suggested we meet later at my hotel. There was a nervous silence. Then he explained they would be chased away if they tried to enter the foyer. I assured him that would not happen. I got to know them and something of the world they inhabited. They were smart, warm and trusting.

On my last night in Delhi they took me out for a drink in a lower-caste establishment. There was a roof-garden; modest but lush and open to the evening sky. It was refreshing – at my claustrophobic five-star establishment in Connaught Place, the joy of anonymity in India had long given way to a minor anxiety about being casteless, and whether such a state might even be conceivable. We walked through the fluttering dust of Delhi under the trees – a ritual of parting. I stopped at the hospital on the way to the airport. A man dreadfully injured in a chemical explosion could not be admitted. His friends drove-off with him into the night.

Rajeev was looking better.  It had been an accident; the “drama’”had been staged but his friends had not been able to quell the flames in time. The doctor was positive; the worst was over. Mardan was at his usual place, an alcove in the outer wall of the hospital where he slept wrapped in a thin blanket to be close to his son, a tragic hero of upper-caste India. He was a poor, frail Brahmin and I felt his bones as we hugged good-bye. A new era of identity politics was on the way. But there was worse. India’s progressive sheen, the claim to speak for the Third World and much of humanity was giving way to a new realism of national self interest. Liberalisation now came before liberation.

Some 20 years later the horrific rape of a 23 year-old medical student on a bus in New Delhi  – she died a fortnight later in a Singapore hospital – sparked protests, demonstrations and clashes with the police on the streets of the capital. It is a coincidence that that the issue of quotas was again in the air as the Women’s Reservation Bill – passed in the upper house two years ago – struggled for endorsement of a 33 percent quota of seats in the Lok Sabha.

Observers were swift to note that endemic and pathological violence against women in the world’s largest democracy does not usually attract such fuss. Dipankar Gupta, a Delhi-based sociologist explained, “behind it all was a whole accumulation of grievances – corruption, inefficiencies, things not working, no jobs, the economy sliding, nothing happening, promises made and promises broken”.  The shameful plight of women in India was not the central issue.

Last year the UN Human Rights Council said India was “all words and no action” although more than 160 million Indians were victims of cast-based violence and discrimination. “Atrocities against Dalit women include: verbal abuse and sexual epithets, naked parading, pulling out of teeth, tongue and nails, and violence, including murder. Dalit women are also threatened by rape as part of collective violence by higher castes.”  Journalist Pankaj Mullick writing in the “Hindustan Times” in June noted the Indian media had simply ignored the UN review.

A recent paper by Sesha Kethineni and Gail Humiston, academics at Illinois State University, makes grim reading. They found that affirmative action is a fraud; more than half of the reserved jobs in central government and close on 90 percent in other parts of the public sector remained unfilled. Quite clearly reservation posed no threat to caste materially. Yet they report the persecution and alienation of the 170 million Dalits has not stopped and is in fact at an all time high. By way of example: “In 2003, 7,000 Dalits were forced from their homes in Calcutta so that plans for beautification and development could be undertaken. Bulldozers, fire brigades, ambulances, and a 500 man Rapid Action Force entered the community, and demolished hundreds of houses, temples, statues, and a school. Seven hundred families were with nowhere to live.”

The Research Unit for Political Economy in Mumbai has meticulously documented the spiral into misery and worse that is the reality of “Shining India”. At its core is the surrender of a pantheon of caste-friendly gods to a far more terrifying supreme deity – the market. India is being plundered, raped and looted ruthlessly and unrepentantly, from within and without. The rising middle class is a fabrication accounting for less than 5 percent of the population; silicon cities are irrelevant to real job creation.

Hundreds of millions of Indians are being rendered destitute, in a frenzy of land and resource grabbing that has fuelled – in tandem with China – the largest migration in human history, swamping cities like Delhi and insidiously strengthening the seduction of caste. Deadly pollutants and GMO crops wreak ecological disaster; terminator seeds and addictive pesticides drive suicides; the industrial nations are recklessly invited to dump their toxic waste. Trillions of dollars are siphoned into Swiss accounts while the rural economy and commons – vital for Dalit and Adivasi women – is stolen.

The unprecedented reaction to the rape of “Damani” – as the victim on the Delhi bus was dubbed –  has been heralded in much of the media as India’s “Arab Spring” with “flash-mobs” in the vanguard of an emerging, redemptive “civil society”.  It’s unlikely to make any difference in a country whose skewed male-female ratio suggests women are culled one way or another – and where the incidence of rape is officially twenty times lower then in England. Journalist Vivek Paul says that in the “Damani” case, “The only reason for showing the speed that the system has is that the rapists come from the lower strata of the society. They are the ordinary citizens of this country.”

The writer Arundhati Roy was blunt. “It plays into the idea of the criminal poor, like the vegetable vendor,gym instructor or bus driver actually assaulting a middle class girl. Whereas when rape is used as a means of domination by upper castes, the army or the police it is not even punished.” Although feudal India had a huge history and legacy of violence, she said there was something psychotic about the new excesses of savagery.

The facts are painfully on her side. Everywhere the pattern is the same, the pace escalating. The “war on women” is embedded inescapably in the logic of globalisation. The psychosis spreads beyond India and is horribly all too visible – if you open your eyes.


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