It’s the ultimate cliché. We are a nation that’s a unity of diversities.
Fine. I don’t disagree with that.
OK, so we’ve Gujaratis in the west who’re excellent at cutting diamonds and burning Muslims, Sikhs all over who make the most recognisable Indians anywhere in the world and also the most damnawful truck drivers it can be your misfortune to meet; Kashmiris with long noses and grey eyes who are trying to trade in their AK47s for the carpets they used to sell; Mumbai people who jump through hoops at the orders of an old man in a building called Matoshree, who are good at making money and who don’t know there’s a world outside their appallingly crowded and incredibly chaotic city. We have South Indians who think words like “rascal” and “fellow” areabuses and who literally worship film actors as gods, besides making good bureaucrats and computer engineers; we have Oriyas who are always being battered by flood, drought, cyclone, or all three at once; we have Biharis who spend all their time kidnapping each other and fighting over caste when they’re not stealing everyone else’s jobs; we have Bengalis who think they have the ultimate in culture (which they pronounce kalchaar) and love to moan about how the rest of the country is in a conspiracy, in their own words, to “down” them. We have Nepalis whom the rest of the nation think are fit only for jobs as doormen and menials; we have Assamese who think one can achieve success by doing absolutely nothing but lazing around; and we have the various tribes of the North East, who keep fighting each other and whom the rest of the country considers to be all Chinese anyway. And then we have the Anglo-Indians, who are always fornicating and boozing, when they aren’t genuflecting in church; we have the Parsis, who are all stinking rich and answer to names like Moneywalla and Wadia.
If I’ve left out any of your favourite stereotypes, my apologies. But I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of this one.
Anyway, the point is that this country has thousands of ethnic groups, languages, food habits (South India, for instance, is largely vegetarian, at least among the higher caste groups; in North East India vegetarianism is regarded as a bizarre aberration not far removed from mental illness; the North of the country eats wheat, the East and South eat rice), religions (Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, animist, Parsi, a vanishingly tiny Jewish minority, Jain, Sikh, and whatnot, you name it, we’ve got it), politics (everything from the Hitlerite Aryanism of the extreme Hindu right wing fringe and from Talibanic Islamic mullahs to Maoism) – the country has it all.
Is there anything, anything at all, that everyone here has in common? Some thread of unity that runs through Kashmiri separatist, Tamil priest, Assamese trader, and Gujarati politician? What binds the xenophobic Marathi who hates anyone whose name doesn’t end in -kar, the Rajasthani supporter of child marriage, the Haryanvi who gets her girl babies aborted as a matter of course, the forest dweller from Andhra Pradesh, the Naga who thinks the Bible is literally true and that the world is flat?
In a word: tokenism.
If we Indians are anything at all, we’re fervent worshippers at the altar of tokenism. We will always settle for symbolic gestures – grandiose symbolic gestures, the more grandiose the better – rather than do anything concrete. The token in fact will be the remembered – and appreciated – in every instance more than the concrete performance. A few examples will suffice.
So, for example, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh state is determined to build a statue to lower-caste icon BR Ambedkar which will be higher than the Statue of Liberty. If she’s got to demolish the only halfway decent sports complex her entire state has to find the land for it, well, them’s the breaks. Of course, the money involved could be far better spent building schools and hospitals for poor lower caste people, but that won’t get any votes. A statue gathering one hell of a lot of guano will. You can just hear them saying: “Mayawati hasn’t given us roads or schools or water, but so what? She’s given us a statue. This means she’s given us dignity. Who needs schools or even useless sports facilities? She’s given us a statue! Wonderful!”
So, we have a woman president. Excellent. Of course, female foetuses will still be aborted after illegal sex determination tests; if they are born, girls will still be murdered in infancy by being buried alive or given boiling milk; if they are allowed to live, they will still be underfed, undereducated, sexually abused, and married off at puberty or earlier to men often three times their age. Then they will be tortured or murdered for dowry, their health ruined by perpetual pregnancies, and if they are widowed their lives will rapidly degenerate into a living hell. But, so what? We have a woman president!
So, we have that exemplar of Indian tokenism, reservations. As I pointed out elsewhere, reservations are absolutely useless since the only people they benefit are those too rich and well-educated to need them in the first place. The vast majority of the underclass get nothing out of reservations except even more neglect and also the scorn of the upper classes, but they’ve got dignity.
So, we have Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s face on every currency note and a road in every capital city named after him. While Gandhi was a disaster in many ways, we insist on officially venerating him while specifically rejecting the few things about his philosophy that made sense: religious amity, for example, or non-violence whenever possible. Gandhi used to shield riot victims with his own body and persona. Today’s Gandhi-worshippers organise and direct pogroms from police control rooms by radio.
So we have sex education banned and works of art destroyed in the name of “preserving culture” while ancient – supposedly protected – monuments crumble to ruin and literally vanish from under the noses of the authorities. So we have the Taj Mahal SMS-polled into becoming a new “wonder of the world” while the actual Taj is eroded away by acid rain and it slowly tilts due to politician-directed damage to the Yamuna river.
So, whenever we have floods, politicians conduct “aerial surveys of the flood-affected areas” which achieve absolutely nothing except tie up valuable helicopters from the more important job of rescuing marooned people and dropping food supplies to the starving. But if the politico didn’t show himself to the cameras sitting at a helicopter window, he would be called “callous and insensitive”.
So, we have that ultimate in tokenism, a “democracy” where all that matters is for parties to win the elections. After that nothing matters except clinging on to power until the next election comes around. Fulfilling election promises? What’s that?
You get the picture.