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Porcupines and Jaguars

August 7, 2012

Do we really want a superpower India populated by angry Indians?

The mob frenzy at the Maruti factory in Manesar, the scale and intensity of violence in Bodoland, the daily reports of molestations and murders across the country: all these point to a problem that goes beyond law and order. After almost every case of molestation — like the recent incidents in Guwahati and Mangalore — one or the other so-called leader adds insult to injury by sermonising about ‘appropriate’ dressing or behaviour, of course, only for women. The strong gender bias reflects a deep-rooted sociological problem. Road rage, another growing and increasingly violent phenomenon, is also as much a psychosocial issue as a law and order one.

India’s historical self-image is of a peace-loving and tolerant society. Like the apocryphal story about the first Parsi immigrants, who apparently said that they would be like sugar dissolving in milk, for centuries, India welcomed and absorbed people from different religions, regions and cultures. Indians were also perceived to be spiritual and resigned to preordained fate. It was said that violent revolution could never take place in India, despite its inequities and poverty.

Whether this perception of India and Indians was self-delusion or media-created, today’s reality is the opposite. Now, we are a country of angry people: like porcupines, a touch and we bristle; like jaguars, ever aggressive and violent at the slightest provocation. Identity politics has made each group supersensitive, with advantage to be gained by taking umbrage at every imagined slight. Recently, this was played out through the created controversy over cartoons in school textbooks. This also saw the re-emergence of a new identity-group: politicians. It sought removal of all cartoons on politicians.

One manifestation of growing intolerance is the lack of respect for dissent. The life blood of democracy, dissent is often sought to be suppressed, sometimes by labelling it antinational. Draconian laws make it easy to arrest demonstrators; banning books, artworks and films is now commonplace: all it needs is some group that claims ‘hurt sentiments’. Thus, government, rather than being a protector of constitutional and democratic rights, abets — and encourages — intolerance.

Meanwhile, the rich and powerful have become ever-greater proponents of freedom: their freedom. This particularly extends to their freedom to be above, or beyond, the law. Political pressure and money ensure subversion of enforcement agencies on issues ranging from minor traffic offences to major crimes and corruption. Parts of the judicial system are compromised. So, the proverbial ‘common man’ sees the justice system as being skewed in favour of the rich. Mind-boggling delays in the justice system worsen the situation, especially for the disadvantaged. They have neither money nor time to go through protracted court proceedings. For them, justice delayed is injustice. As a result, the socially-oppressed and economically-deprived have little hope of getting justice.

Meanwhile, mobility and media, especially TV have exposed people to the flashy world of rich, ostentatious-consumption Indians. This, and education, has fuelled a revolution of rising expectations and an awareness of growing inequity. At the same time, corruption of the exploitative variety severely affects the poor. The resentment and disaffection provides fertile ground forleft-wing extremism, and is the base for its support amongst the disadvantaged. The reason this has not yet spread across the nation is greater trickle-down from growth and a residual belief in fate, with democracy serving as the safety valve to let off steam.

One consequence is a sense of marginalisation, with hundreds of millions feeling that they are outside the system. Such alienation, though, is by no means limited to the poor and disadvantaged: increasingly, large sections of the urban middle class too feel that the system does not deliver. Tired of graft, enduring endemic shortages of water and electricity, assailed by abysmal infrastructure and spiralling prices, they are constantly on a short fuse.
This may explain the frustration and unhappiness of the aam aadmi, including the middle class, but what causes the deep anger and its growing translation into violence?

That traditional opiate, religion, seems unable to calm emotions; in fact, it exacerbates them. Even the modern morphine, mindless media, has not been fully successful in numbing the mind. Mobility, and resulting rootlessness, has certainly removed some restraints on action and behaviour. In addition, does the environment of unregulated competition, acquisition and instant gratification serve to promote aggressive behaviour?

There is some merit in the argument that our model of development is individualistic, materialistic, hyper-competitive and greed-based. Therefore, it is antithetical to cooperation, caring and compassion. In such circumstances, violence is a more-than-likely outcome. Custodial torture and encounter killings by the police — even by the more disciplined armed forces — indicate the extent of dehumanisation of society. We are being transformed, not so slowly, into Angry Indians.

Much of the correctives need to come through improvement in governance. However, it is equally important for civil society and corporate leaders to ponder over this and reverse the transition towards a violent society. Parents and teachers have a special responsibility to ensure a tolerant new generation. Policymakers and business leaders need to rethink the economic paradigm that has taken root. The present trajectory is not socially sustainable. Even if it were, who wants a superpower India populated by Angry Indians?

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