Vinoth Ramachandra

The View From Below

Posted on: June 12, 2009

On a visit to Delhi one recent winter, I watched construction workers as they erected an office tower that would house one of the famous companies in the global computer industry. The workers were inadequately clothed and their accommodation took the form of flimsy canvas tents. I found myself musing: what will this company to do for these workers most of whom have been drawn as casual labour from surrounding villages? Will they slap copyright laws on their software products so that the children of these workers, even if fortunate enough to go to school, could never afford them? And what justice is there in the concept of “intellectual property rights” when it is the general public (both in the rich world and the poor) whose taxes are subsidizing these corporations and their global operations?

Learning to look at events and economic theories “from the underside of history” (in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous phrase) is what should distinguish Christians in any society. For in a world that is obsessed with celebrities and biased towards the rich and the powerful, the God of the Biblical revelation displays a counter-bias towards the poor and the marginalized. Nobody who worships a crucified Saviour, one who suffered the penalty reserved for “terrorists” against the state, can ever be co-opted in to the “wars against terror” waged by nation-states today. As suggested in my last blog post, in any war, the killings and disappearances of innocent civilians cannot be masked by the triumphant rhetoric of military “victory”. Both states and anti-state forces are accountable to the forgotten victims whose memory God and the people of God keep alive. Thus, when nations gloat in their military prowess, Christians can only weep.

The Western media is besotted with the so-called “new India” of glamour and wealth. Local Indian media follow suit, with TV channels reporting around-the-clock on how the Mumbai stock exchange is faring, despite the fact that less than 5 per cent of Indians own stocks. The media largely fail to report stories of the brutal suppression of peaceful protest by India’s poor in the capital, or the forcible annexation of rural lands by a state hand-in-glove with wealthy corporations.

India’s tiny elite (sometimes called “first-world Indians”) aggressively promote the triumphalist myth of a “superpower India” that is the lynch-pin for order and security for the South Asian region. Pakistan is the great bogey man, fanning Islamist militancy within Indian’s borders. Most well-to-do Indians are either ignorant or unconcerned about the routine use of torture by the police and armed forces (especially against dalits and Muslim youth), their covert military involvement in neighbouring countries, and their government’s violation of UN sanctions by selling weapons to the Burmese junta in exchange for oil and natural gas.

The Indian electoral machinery is awesome, and quite properly deserves the world’s admiration every five years. But for India’s millions, democracy means very little beside voting. When two-thirds of women are illiterate, and grinding poverty so pervasive, politicians with empty promises buy block votes (e.g. an entire slum or a particular caste group).  The private wealth of some parliamentarians outweighs the budgets of many states.

But it is not only the poor who expose the limitations of Indian democracy (and indeed of all neighbouring South Asian nations). Take Gujarat, for instance, one of the most prosperous and better-educated of Indian states. In February 2002, an estimated 2000 Muslims were killed, 400 Muslim women raped, 563 places of religious worship were damaged and 250,000 Muslims directly displaced by marauding mobs. The BJP state government, directly responsible for the carnage, enjoys an absolute majority in the legislative assembly and was voted back into power three times. The Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, was banned by the US government from entry to the US. But he is actively wooed by many Indian corporations, including the mega-corporation Tata.

Today, seven years later, the situation has not changed for the Muslims living in Gujarat. More than 150,000 people are living in relief colonies set up by Muslim organizations which receive no help from the state government. Under draconian laws selectively targeting Muslims, many Muslim young men languish in jails without charges being levelled against them.

Where are the Christian journalists, artists, filmmakers or novelists who draw our gaze to such  “forgotten people” and help us to view the world from the underside?

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2 Responses to "The View From Below"

Vinoth,

I have been translating some of your posts to spanish, and we hope to see them displayed soon in the web page for IFES Latin America.
What I wanted to say is that I found this last post very challenging, mostly because eventhough your examples are of South Asia a lot of that resembles to the reality lived in Latin America, and the need for us to see it and point others to that reality. Also, the need as Christians to have a Christian view and answers to our world, and questions that rise from our commitment to God and to others who suffer.

Dios lo bendiga,

Alejandra

Dear Vinoth,
Thanks for a very challenging article. In response to your call in the final para, I would welcome a further conversation with you. I am a journalist and was involved with IFES as a student. I am working on a book proposal regarding the under-belly of India and would very much welcome your thoughts on what you consider the main issues for discussion.
Kind regards, Oliver

p.s. in response to Alejandra, could I point you towards my recent book, Viva South America!, published by Faber in April 2009. The book is an attempt to allow the “everyday” South American to tell the story of their continent in their own words. I hope to finalise a Spanish publisher soon, with publication expected next March.

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