Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for August 2010

Australia’s former swimming legend Dawn Fraser has called on Australian athletes to boycott the Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi in October. If her call issued from moral outrage at the atrocities committed by the Delhi municipal authorities against the poor (see the previous post, “The Invisible”, written by my wife), or the large-scale siphoning of funds into private pockets, then that call would be both understandable and deeply commendable.

But, no. Fraser’s appeal is based on nothing more than ordinary, self-centred fear: the fear of “terrorism”. She is fearful that the Indian authorities lack the ability to protect the Australian athletes from suicide-bombers and other forms of terror. Fraser’s self-enclosed little world is the mirror image of the self-enclosed world of the Indian political and business elites. The latter care not a whit for the 800m poor in their country.  They want the Games to be a lavish spectacle in order to show off the corporate image of a “shining India” to the rest of the world. The local profit-inspired terror that destroy the lives or livelihoods of countless poor people does not register on anybody’s radar. The only terror that seems to matter is what is foreign and affects the rich.

Sonia Gandhi, the former Indian premier, has stated that the Games are a matter of Indian “national pride”. But, surely, a nation should take pride in the kind of society  its citizens build together, not in the achievements of a few at the expense of others. When a nation’s “pride” or global “status” depends on possessing nuclear weapons, or sending rockets to the moon, or successfully hosting international sporting events, rather than the ability to feed its population, defend their human dignity or promote social harmony, then we are witnessing what the Biblical prophets called Idolatry.

Idols blind people to what is truly important in life. They lull people into a false and fragile security. They enslave whole societies, making them addicted to patterns of behaviour that are eventually self-destructive. They create fear in the hearts of their worshippers, not joy and a desire for social justice.

The Indian “new rich” and the super-rich seem so insecure that they desperately need their collective egos massaged by the “international community”. (Hence their fury at the film Slumdog Millionaire which showed an India which they would prefer remained covered up).

How refreshing, then, to read a recent piece by the renowned Indian novelist and journalist, Pankaj Mishra, published in the British newspaper The Guardian Weekly (6-12 August 2010).  Mishra calls to task the British government for pandering to the vanities of Delhi’s affluent class. Following David Cameron’s recent state visit, British weapons manufacturers are selling more arms to India’s burgeoning “military-industrial complex”. India’s massive defence budget “which grew by an unprecedented 34% last year and is almost entirely exempt from parliamentary scrutiny or public debate”, observes Mishara, “is an exclusive bonanza for India’s alarmingly numerous corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and army officers. Delhi’s opulent five-star hotels swarm with lobbyists for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Dassault and other arms companies.”

Mishra further notes that this is “particularly disturbing as the expensive new weapons are likely to be turned against people India claims as its own- and not just in the valley of Kashmir where an anti-Indian insurgency has consumed more than 80,000 lives, and where Indian security forces have shot dead 17 Muslim protesters, mostly teenagers, in just the past six weeks. The Indian government is also considering deploying the army and air force to suppress the growing Maoist rebellion [in central India].”

I can only hope that the Dawn Frasers and other athletes of the world, present and former, will read commentators  like Mishra. Whether this will make a difference to their participation in the Commonwealth Games is, of course, their choice. But at least it should be a properly-informed choice.

(Karin writing again. This is reinforcing the thoughts of my early posts Slumdog Millionaire and The View From Below).

In October the Commonwealth Games are to be held in Delhi. The chief minister  Sheila Dixit is anxious to make Delhi a “world class” city so that the “shining India” image of a dynamic, booming economy is maintained. Billions are being spent on new constructions, from much-needed Metro stations to luxury apartments to house the foreign athletes. But, in the process, millions of urban poor are being  forced out of the city with no compensation. Not only homes but schools and small businesses set up in slum areas are being bulldozed by city officials.

The poor should be invisible. They are an embarrassing contradiction to the stories we like to tell of ourselves and to ourselves. Did you know that in just one year 400 Indian farmers committed suicide as a result of failed crops, import competition, and crippling interest payments? They all lived in Maharashtra – the richest state of India – and it was very easy to miss the stamp-sized news article about this enormous tragedy posted in a few newspapers in December 2005.

Indian photographer Arko Datta won the World Press Photo of the year in 2004 portraying a woman prostrate in grief before her dead relative’s body, killed in the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Datta’s subject has no name, but this nameless woman served to make him famous.

The pain of invisibility is emotional and spiritual. Humans who are treated constantly as mere objects internalize a view of their shame, inferiority and uselessness.

Tehelka Crusade – an Indian paper – tell about sewage cleaner Urmila as follows: “Urmila… involuntarily hides her face every time she sees an outsider…why? Because Urmila, quite plainly, is ashamed of her existence, her private and social being. ‘I am nothing, meaningless, like the filth I carry,’ she says”.

Some Christmas cards are trite and meaningless, but one year I got a season’s greeting from a Kenyan friend in the form of a poem written by Hana Ananda. Hana had known “invisibility” before justice was done to her through someone who acknowledged her humanity.

She writes:

“I was nothing but a piece of rubbish

I lay there desperate, I cried, no one stopped

Passing by some looked with scorn and disgust

I know I was not worth picking up

I was nothing but a piece of garbage…”

The opening words of Ralph Ellison’s searing 1947 novel Invisible Man are:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook….I am a man of substance…and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…”; and he goes on: “you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world.”

At one point in Ellison’s story Mr. Norton – a rich, white man who donates money to a university exclusively for blacks – is confronted: “To you, he [the black young narrator of the novel] is a mark on the score-card or your achievement, a thing and not a man…” and Mr. Norton in his own confession says just about the same thing speaking directly to the narrator: “…You are important because if you fail I have failed by one individual, one defective cog…”

Towards the end of the book the narrator says: “If only we had some true friends, some who saw us as more than convenient tools for shaping their own desires!”

The Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth says something similar about the colonizer:

“The settler makes history; his life is an epoch, an Odyssey. He is the absolute beginning: ‘This land was created by us’; he is the unceasing cause: ‘If we leave, all is lost, and the country will go back to the Middle Ages.’ Over against him torpid creatures, wasted by fevers, obsessed by ancestral customs, form an almost inorganic background for the innovating dynamism of colonial mercantilism…the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.”

Are we any better? Are we neo-colonially engaged in making history using other people, their labour and country’s riches as our raw material? Do we make our “careers” and “security” on the backs of the invisible poor? These are questions any privileged person with a conscience, whatever our colour and nationality, must face.



August 2010