This piece is an invitation to anyone out there who can explain the idea of India* in one sentence. I am not talking about the Preamble to the Constitution, but a sentence that all Indians can understand, cherish and nurture as their own. Try and experience the futility of the attempt.
It is easy to hold forth on the importance of an inclusive society from the ramparts of a gated community. It is even easier to discuss war and peace from the warmth of our homes and not from minus 50 degree Celsius of icy mountains where it gets sorted out. It is facile to speak about the daily dangers our house-help faces, living on the fringes of our society. How long can we live without house helps and what will happen to us the people when the cleaning ladies want their salaries linked to economic indicators, health benefits and four-weeks paid leave? They can live and do live without us, but can we? People who come to India for the first time ask how such poverty, opulence and injustice can co-exist. They no longer can and we see this drama playing out right in front of our eyes.
The story, dear readers, is that we are the fringe elements, the irrelevant Indians who have long lost our connections with what moves and shakes India and what makes it laugh and cry. For decades now, India has been a very violent place, the India of the villages we talk about as data points and parts of surveys. What we, the arrogant, thought were just numbers now have hands, legs, children, aspirations and mobile telephones and this India is on the move in large numbers. This India is challenging us. We think they speak in strange tongues and tell their histories ignorantly because they did not go to schools we though were right. This India frightens us. When they ask for their rights, we shudder in private and attend seminars in public.
It is time to stop our nonsensical and irrelevant conversation around something called the idea of India. That the lives and aspirations of 1.27 billion people can be influenced by the shenanigans of a few hundred publicity mongers out to make a fast buck is a ridiculous and reductionist assumption. It is our near-total disconnect that makes us write commentaries on how a Muslim lady gave birth to her baby in a Ganapati temple or how students in a college helped a girl from Pakistan who had a health condition. The real story in the first instance should have been the abysmal nature of Indian hospitals and the status of maternal and child health in the country. The second was an equally critical missed opportunity to show how small sets of committed doctors work in difficult conditions to do their best.
And then there was a non-gated community in Dadri where a human being was torn apart by other human beings based on a rumour. A colleague who went there described what happened. I asked him why people stood by watching the slaughter instead of jumping in to assist the helpless man and he said the contrary happened. Mobs joined in to complete the job. Like the cars that drove past Jyothi who lay on the road half-dead just a little distance from where we the intellectuals and explainers of history and data cohabit with thought-leaders and international speakers.
Where does this violence that led to the butchery of Jyothi and Akhlaq originate? Why do we send babies with head injuries away from hospitals or insert bottles in their vaginas or slit their throats? It comes from our failure, the collective failure of we the people who live on the fringes of India extracting every drop of social, economic and political power for our progeny. Jyothiâ€™s family was reinstated comfortably and Akhlaq's son has said he wants to move his family to Chennai. We the irrelevant are happy they blew over.
Nothing can be more delusional. We have pushed people into ghettos because our minds have become pigeonholes of suspicion and despair. We have failed. If we accept that, the next step will be easier. Unfortunately our answer to any crisis of this nature is candlelight vigils, morality speeches and name-calling. In a country where most people have no electricity, the sheer stupidity of walking with candles is a commentary in itself.
India is not a thought or a river and neither is it a product to be marketed. It is a vibrant democracy â€“ yes, take that â€“ and almost more people in the country vote than entire populations in Western Europe and America. The number of people eligible for voting in the on-going assembly polls in Bihar is 66 million. That is the population of France. Magnitude matters when priorities are decided. People selling themselves on their self-propelling belief that India is falling apart are disturbed their club memberships could be threatened - nothing more, nothing less.
In recent weeks western rating agencies have rated India highly. I do not believe in rating agencies or consulting companies. I happen to know how these numbers are arrived at â€“ they can make the glass look half empty or half full at the drop of a few extra dollars. There is one thing I will say â€“ if the Narendra Modi government does not rush to create jobs and more jobs, they would have let the country down. There is enough data to show that people with job security shun violence. Wars (between countries and within), sustaining hatred and spewing venom are expensive. It costs lives, cleans out national treasuries and divides people. The opposite does nothing of the sort.
Journalists and writers will tell you that some of their stories tell themselves. This is one such for me. If you have stayed with me till this line it means you, like me, believe that India will survive and thrive despite being pulled in all directions by a prejudiced and petrified self-serving elite which has the gumption to think and talk for a billion people. Thank you.
*No links to Sunil Khilnani's 'The Idea of India'.