"Ode to the happy country", 'The Hindu', November 12, 2015

Ode to the happy country

By Pulapre Balakrishnan

In October 1959, when Jawaharlal Nehru had gone to Nagarjunasagar to inaugurate a dam, a worker is said to have come up to him and spoken in Telugu, “Here you have lighted a lamp.’’ Nehru was so moved that he adopted this as the test of a person’s work and wrote, “Do we, in the course of our lives, light lamps, or do we snuff out the lamps or candles that exist?” There are many versions of this episode. I have chosen to use the one by the historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee. But whichever version you may use you will agree that this is an intuitive compass by which to conduct ourselves. As we snuff out lamps we fill our world with darkness. Almost half a century before the stirrings of a dam in India the metaphor of a lamp had been used by a leader in another continent. In August 2014 Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Greyremarked to a friend that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time". This proved to be valid as a premonition of the approaching First World War, perceptive of the consequences of its savagery. These had included the rise of Hitler and yet another world war. We may want to reflect seriously on whether rising and unchecked intolerance in India today is snuffing out the lamps across our own country. Only a few months ago, at Dadri not far from Delhi a man was lynched by his neighbours for allegedly storing beef in his home. Earlier, rationalists and historians who had dared to express scepticism of certain ideologies had been murdered. Over the past few years, violence against Dalits, writers and academics have taken place with nary a response from elected governments. But the statements of Prime Minister Modi after Dadri are worse than none at all. He is reported to have said that hindus and muslims must fight poverty and not each other. This is disingenuous, for at Dadri an innocent muslim had been killed by a mob of hindus. There is no numerical parity between hindus and muslims or any other minority in India. So, the onus is on the hindu population of India to make the minorities feel secure in this country. As for the Government of India, to fail to protect the life and liberty of its minorities amounts to a craven abdication of a mandate to govern.  

            Into the mix has been thrown the observation by the investment-rating agency Moody’s which has pointed out that India’s growth prospects are threatened by social conflict. There is also the trope that calls for peace on grounds that we are being watched by potential overseas investors. This is odd, as we need to maintain social harmony for its own sake, to save our way of life. And, in any case, while a growing economy is absolutely essential to improve our living conditions a cohesive society may be even more important. A unique understanding of the value of social cohesion is contained in an observation made by the grand old man of Indian industry. JRD Tata’s biographer R.M. Lala quotes him as saying that “An American economist has predicted that in the next century India will be an economic superpower. I do not want India to be an economic superpower. I want India to be a happy country.” These words resonate today when abdication of governance means that we could end up living in an unhappy country with a dynamic economy. The point is that one cannot enjoy one’s hard-earned wealth or social standing if some members of the society one is part of remain unhappy. If violence against minorities of every hue were to continue we would have a significant section of India alienated from the mainstream.  The economy, which is a network of material relations, can always be revived but society, which is a network of human relations based on trust, may not be repaired so easily once damaged.

            While events of the past year or so can leave us without the slightest doubt that the sections who feel most threatened in India today are our muslim and christian compatriots, historically, there have been other groups that have long felt marginalised. While communal fascism threatening India’s religious minorities has received the attention of its intelligentsia the devastating influence of patriarchy has not done so.Outrage in the ‘Nirbhaya’ case has not led to a focussed attention on the subjugation of women in Indian society even outside of the discrimination embedded in personal laws. Morever, personal law itself has been exclusively interpreted as pertaining only to marriage. Sexual freedom is never addressed, thus perpetrating an incredible rights discourse cleansed of the non-heteronormative other. Majoritarianism is enshrined in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which disenfranchises India’s gay men. Originally legislated by a colonial power guided by Judaeo-Christian values it has recently been upheld by the Supreme Court petitioned by a coalition representing all the indigenous religions of the country. Sadly, religious reaction won the day, signifying that some Indians demand freedoms for themselves but are unwilling to extend it to others. India’s political class, happy to resort to ordinances in the normal course, has revealed its pusillanimity by not jettisoning the Section. It is clear that, as pronounced on another occasion by some judges of the Supreme Court itself, we have to stamp out religion from civil laws if India is to call itself secular. The beef ban, triple talak and Section 377 are all underpinned by religion.   

            If we are to live in a happy country, both the social and economic aspects of public policy would require overhauling. Of social policy first. It must exude zero tolerance of intolerance. Instead it has mostly been too quick to mollify the intolerant. But keeping the goons in check, though necessary, is yet negative in its orientation. Social policy must be geared to enabling those on the margins to rise to claim their rightful place. The religious minorities should be made to feel free to pursue their own way of life so long as it does not clash with the provisions of the Constitution. Historically disempowered dalits should be equipped with capabilities to participate as equal members of society. The sexual minorities, by which is meant the LGBT community, should be free to pursue their natural proclivities without harming others. And women need to be brought into the mainstream of governance. Gandhi was far ahead of the other nationalists in pursuing equality for women but his historic initiative petered out after independence. However, in matters social we cannot leave it to the state to advance the cause of peace. India is fortunate to have a civil society populated by innumerable cultural and educational institutions. Though often beneficiaries of public largesse, some even enjoying the privilege of minority status, they have not always felt it necessary to rise to defend freedom of speech and expression. We would have to retrofit these as fora for the promotion of mutual understanding and citizenship.

            When we come to the economic aspect of public policy the answers to what is needed to make India a better are relatively clear-cut and somewhat easier to implement. By now it is close to twenty five years since a significant change in the policy regime was initiated. Unquestionably, there have been rewards. We have grown faster and are right now the world’s fastest-growing economy. Most importantly, having been driven to reform following a balance of payments crisis, the economy has clocked the longest period without facing external stress since 1947. But some Indians have done better than others. Rural India shows signs of distress. Urban India where the majority of Indians live are not happy spaces as the infrastructure lags way behind the need for it. It is not clear that we are addressing these issues with the seriousness that they deserve. In constantly turning to the rest of the world, the government seems to be suggesting that there is some wisdom lying beyond India’s shores, to be picked up free to fix India’s future. This is a delusion. From social harmony to sanitation we should now focus on public goods, realising fully well that this is not going to be provided by foreign investors. By bringing us all together, public goods help us see that beneath our imagined identities we are the same.

The author teaches economics at Ashoka University, Rai, Haryana.