India lives in several centuries at the same time. Somehow we manage to progress and regress simultaneously.
As a nation we age by pushing outward from the middle–adding a few centuries on either end of the extraordinary CV. We greaten like the maturing head of a hammerhead shark with eyes looking in diametrically opposite directions.
I don’t mean to put a simplistic value judgment on this peculiar form of “progress” by suggesting that Modern is Good and Traditional is Bad–or vice versa. What’s hard to reconcile oneself to, both personally and politically, is the schizophrenic nature of it. That applies not just to the ancient/modern conundrum but to the utter illogic of what appears to be the current national enterprise. In the lane behind my house, every night I walk past road gangs of emaciated laborers digging a trench to lay fiber-optic cables to speed up our digital revolution. In the bitter winter cold, they work by the light of a few candles.
It’s as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks (a huge big one and a tiny little one) that have set off resolutely in opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into the darkness and disappears. A cursory survey that tallies the caste, class and religion of who gets to be on which convoy would make a good Lazy Person’s concise Guide to the History of India. For some of us, life in India is like being suspended between two of the trucks, one leg in each convoy, and being neatly dismembered as they move apart, not bodily, but emotionally and intellectually.
Fifty years after independence, India is still struggling with the legacy of colonialism, still flinching from the “cultural insult.” As citizens we’re still caught up in the business of “disproving” the white world’s definition of us. Intellectually and emotionally, we have just begun to grapple with communal and caste politics that threaten to tear our society apart. But meanwhile, something new looms on our horizon. On the face of it, it’s just ordinary, day-to-day business. It lacks the drama, the large-format, epic magnificence of war or genocide or famine. It’s dull in comparison. It makes bad TV. It has to do with boring things like jobs, money, water supply, electricity, irrigation. But it also has to do with a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has few parallels in history. You may have guessed by now that I’m talking about the modern version of globalization.
What is globalization? Who is it for? What is it going to do to a country like India, in which social inequality has been institutionalized in the caste system for centuries? A country in which 700 million people live in rural areas. In which 80 percent of the landholdings are small farms. In which 300 million people are illiterate. Is the corporatization and globalization of agriculture, water supply, electricity and essential commodities going to pull India out of the stagnant morass of poverty, illiteracy and religious bigotry? Is the dismantling and auctioning off of elaborate public sector infrastructure, developed with public money over the past fifty years, really the way forward? Is globalization going to close the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged, between the upper castes and the lower castes, between the educated and the illiterate? Or is it going to give those who already have a centuries-old head start a friendly helping hand?