Judith Klinghoffer: Indians like to watch their country being put down

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Judith Klinghoffer, an affiliate professor at Haifa University and an HNN blogger, is currently lecturing at a law school in Goa, India.]

To a significant degree the fate of liberty and peace in the 21st century will depend on the successful development of the largest world democracy. For it is in India that the autocratic development model is truly challenged. That is the reason it is so disheartening to find that much of the Indian (very leftist) elite is so dismissive of the country and so virulently opposed to its recent economic development.

Last Saturday night I went to see “the Most Successful Stage Show in Goa for the last 26 years,” Jadugar Anand’s magic show. I know this because prior to the beginning of the show, I, along with the few other foreigners in attendance, was handed an information flyer addressed to “Dear Guest.” It began thus:

We are performing in India now. We wish to share a few points with you. Firstly, you must remember that this show is basically meant for Indian spectators, implying that the Presentation is keeping in mind the taste of Indian Spectators. A very good chance for you to see for yourself what Indians like to watch.

I did. I found that in addition to the usual tricks of appearing elephants, disappearing doves and dogs, women being cut to pieces and people walking in and out of televisions screens, Indians also like to watch their country being put down. At the very least, they tolerate it. For Jadugar has been doing it for years. In a sequence called “Beauty and the Beast” he begins by showing how corruption turns a beautiful young girl into a snarling black beast. Then, he goes on to turn the beautiful 1947 Mother India into 2006 Devil India. Jadugar has a graduate degree in English and considers such wholesale denigration of his country evidence of his social conscience. Not a peep of protest could be heard.

Similarly, while introducing Pakistani jurist and diplomat, Dr. Farooq Hassan, to a group of academicians, the head of the Political Science Department at Goa University, remarked that Indian politicians are so detached from the populace that its democratic system of government should not be considered superior to that of Pakistan’s military regime. Perhaps, he was trying merely to be gracious though Dr. Hassan strongly begged to differ. Indians, he asserted, do not know how lucky they are to have had only one short brush with tyrannical rule (during the reign of Indira Ghandi). It is true that democratic intellectuals rarely appreciate their own freedom but the vigorous defense the Indians mounted for Saddam following his death sentence was extreme even when compared to the Arabs. So obvious is the press disdain for democracy that the keynote speaker for “National Press Day” in Goa, Journalism professor Sudhir Gavhane, thought it useful to remind his audience of the interdependence between journalism and democracy. “Free journalism depends on Democratic institutions just like democracy depends on vigorous journalism,” he said pointedly.

Yes, there is a national Press Day as there is a national Children’s Day and many such other Days, all used to focus attention on some social problem or another. Indeed, I have never been in a country more imbued with social activism or came across a country more responsive to it. It probably reflects the lasting legacy of Ghandi and Nehru. India was lucky in its founders. The problem is that laws are relatively easy to pass in a parliamentary system. Consequently, both the federal government and the state governments pass a myriad of worthy but difficult to implement legislation.

For example, recently the government passed a children’s rights legislation which outlawed child labor. The Goan government ran a three-week long training seminar for social workers whose job will be enforce it. Unfortunately, the state is inundated with poor migrants who need the meager income their children may earn. So, everybody knows the battle to eradicate child labor is far from over. Similarly, India passed a Freedom of Information law but a group of activist journalists used the official National Press day celebrations to demonstrate against the failure of the government to implement it. “It is worse than ever,” one of the demonstrators told me. “They simply refuse to give us any information.” A government official speaking ex cathedra agreed. He even told of a bureaucrat (in another state, of course) who set fire to his records to prevent journalists from examining them.

Goa is the richest Indian state. Mention Goa to an Indian and his/her eyes light up. New train and air connections are turning the state into a year round primary Indian as well as foreign tourist destination. There is almost no indigenous illiteracy. Educational institutions are flourishing and hi-tech job fairs abound. There are hardly any beggars in Goa and the few that are, originate from neighboring states. Indeed, everything Europeans say about North Africans and Americans about Mexicans is being said by Goans about Indian migrants to their state (it takes 15 years to become a Goa resident). As could be expected, these developments led to a major real estate boom and plenty of foul play. But Indians do not take corruption lying down. Thus, when the council members of the village of Kundaim allotted to their relatives land supposed to be distributed to poor villagers, the villagers demonstrated and succeeded in forcing them out. How different from the story of the Chinese peasants whose failed protests reached 87,000 last year. Indeed, Transparency International found that the country is improving. It move up 18 places in the last year. That still means number 70. But centrality of the issue in Indian politics it should continue to improve.

Of course, at times this activism boomerangs. One cannot spend more than an hour in Goa before noticing the large number of thin, listless hounds roaming the streets. Apparently, animal rights enthusiasts succeeded in ending their culling. They demanded that the government control the stray dog population by capturing and neutering them. It is a much too costly and time-consuming procedure to implement. So the dog population is booming unmolested. The law school has two dogs sleeping in its hallways. Luckily, they behave like Indian cows, water buffalos and even wild boars, stoically. They rarely bark or pester anyone as if they know they are dependent of the tolerance of strangers.

Goa is the most easy-going developing region I have ever seen. The grocery stores do not open until 9am and they close for siesta. Indians consider Goans hopelessly lazy. And, yet, on November 6, the Times of India ran an article entitled “The End of Goa.” The subtitle read: “The ugliness of urban India is not infesting a paradise. Manu Joseph reports from Goa on a dementia called development.” In addition to bemoaning the disappearance “singing boatman” with “glistening black buttocks,” he derided the Goans newfound pride:

A Bihari servant brings beer to consecrate the hospitality of Miranda. “Can’t find a Goan servants. Goans don’t want to work as servants. Too much pride. They want other avenues. Easy money. But a lot of poets now. I have to listen to their poems, he says, chuckling.”

Why the anti-democratic anti-development bile? Perhaps, it is because the people do not share the values of their leftist intellectuals. They love the new opportunities and are determined to take full advantage of them. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the failure of the attempts to tilt the educational scale against English in favor of local languages. In Goa, the student body at government schools is shrinking. People send their kids to private Catholic schools where English is taught from earlier age. Government schools used to start teaching it only at sixth grade. To attract more students, the government schools agreed to start teaching English in second grade. They also provide every student with free educational materials, midday meals, a bicycle and a raincoat. It helped very little. The poor know what is good for them. English is good. Development is good. Nothing empowers the poor more than the globalizing free market. Leftist Intellectuals know this and hate it. In an article entitled “Why Dalits (Untouchables) want English, ” Gail Omverdt writes:

Why English? Not because it is sacred or somehow holy, but because it is the language of access and power, a key to the world stock of knowledge and wealth and success that depends on this. “English the Dalit godess is a world power today,” claims Prasad; it is about emancipation; it is a mass movement against caste order. . . . “

Dalits are, of course, not the only ones to seek the entry to a world heritage that English knowledge provides, street kids, intellectuals are discovering, are enthusiastic about learning English. Maharashtra state began English from first standard (grade) because of political pressure: Rural people want the language for their children, and even look to English medium school when they can afford them. . . .

Intellectuals like Mandy have expressed concern about the mother tongue. In fact, most Dalits might like the mother tongue to become English, as it has become the mother tongue of African Americans, who have mastered it so well that the creation of spontaneous poetry (rap) is their art form, and who give birth to most of the new worlds (slang) coming into the language. “

Democracy means that the people get to choose and India’s intellectuals bitterly disapprove of their choices. Communists continue to win the elections to university-run bodies or as a local TV station said, the Indian campuses are still red. In the confusing India of today, there are fewer poor people than ever before. Still, those supposedly dedicated to ending poverty are fighting a determined rear guard battle to slow down the very changes proven to reduce it. Denigrating Indian democracy and Indian development is one of the strategies they use to do so. It is a small wonder that they still fume against BJP’s national election slogan, “India Shining.” The truth is India is shining for more people than ever before and that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a very good thing. It is high time that the Indian opinion makers stopped making their own people feel guilty about it. They do not deserve it. If anything, the opposite is true.

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