In ‘India: A Million Mutinies Now,’ V.S. Naipaul, who visited the country of his indigent forefathers toward the end of the 1980s, as a reckoner to his 1962 — the year of China’s first invasion of India — trip, sees each life he meets in terms of an individual rebellion to seize his or her space in the sun. In short, the Independence struggle continues.
As India heads for its 73rd Independence Day on August 15, the per capita income is around $2,000, and the country has suffered yet another incursion by China into the Galwan Valley.
Neither in terms of wealth, then, nor in terms of national security (old problems with neighbours like Pakistan and Nepal persist), not much seems to have changed, though there are more roads and cars in numbers but always disproportionately low to the need.
The Galwan episode has not played out well for Modi. The threats and scorn that India and the Indian media could unleash on a Pakistan, for instance, and the resultant euphoria at the expense of ridiculing a much smaller nation, is not the way forward with China
The mutinies toward a better life grind on, as more than half a billion Indians continue to live at subsistence level.
To them, at the end of it all, the freedom that India won is an ideal without a practicable virtue. It is somewhat like the Wagah border ceremony, in which the Indian and Pakistan soldiers march on each other with seemingly violent intent, but eventually, the warlike gestures come to nothing as the sun sets on the two clueless nations, and they retreat to resume their fantasies the next day before breakfast.
Gesture without motion
In the poem The Hollow Men, Eliot talks about ‘shape without form, shade without colour./ Paralysed force, gesture without motion.’ These words pretty much sum up the paralysis afflicting the Indian situation at all levels. The Coronavirus (death toll: 20,000) only just brought it all out.
Last week, in yet another gesture without any real meaning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Ladakh (Nimu, near the capital, Leh) and addressed the soldiers. He said, without naming China, that the age of territorial expansionism is over, and that nations must focus on development.
And, of course, India would give a ‘befitting reply,’ if need be. China wrote back through diplomatic channels that they are not interested in any territorial acquisition, but that they will protect their territory.
Indian media has naturally read deep cautionary implications in Modi’s message; the liberal press has equivocated their habitual dissent to the government, but dutifully confessed their patriotism while inviting the government to decode the PM’s message at a suitable date. It is mumbo-jumbo all around.
The truth is that there is nothing to decipher. The Galwan standoff with China cost India at least 20 soldiers, and scores were wounded.
The Indian government is yet to release what casualty if any, that the Indian army inflicted on the Chinese. It is not yet completely clear if the Chinese army came into Indian land and then retreated in a political move.
On both sides of the border, army build-up is happening at a good clip. The Chinese president has said nothing in public on the confrontation. Contrary to the wishes and hopeful rumours in the Indian and international press, Xi does not seem weakened by Covid.
On the contrary, if his militant security policy on Hong Kong, his strong protest against the British giving citizenship visas to the Hong Kong population, and China’s standing up to the US and Europe, while simultaneously taking on Australia’s punitive trade measures, in all probability indicate a resurgent Xi.
Gloves are off on all sides
Indeed, the truth is that China knows that the gloves are off on all sides and that the claws are out. Given their history and tradition, it is a delusion to think that China will back off. They can take on the world. They have done it before — until the US through Henry Kissinger’s cunning offices in the early 70s brought them back on the world trade map.
To get back to India. The Galwan episode has not played out well for Modi. The threats and scorn that India and the Indian media could unleash on a Pakistan, for instance, and the resultant euphoria at the expense of ridiculing a much smaller nation, is not the way forward with China.
The months-long build-up and posturing on the Indian side egged on by a hyper-nationalistic discourse, has contributed significantly to the Galwan fiasco.
As celebratory preparations start in the face of yet another August 15, India must shed its self-perception as a superpower and related identity notions of grandeur — think of Madame Bovary and her delusional efforts to overcome her provincial delimitations — and focus on the economy.
The Corona-induced mass reverse migration of the poor to the villages from the cities showed, if it had to be shown again, the grimness of Indian reality.
According to a recent Oxfam report, India’s richest 1% holds over 40% of national wealth. Creation and distribution of wealth remain, as ever, India’s real cultural challenge, perhaps because India is yet to fully emerge from its feudal phase.
Naipaul, pained always at Indian poverty, in A Million Mutinies Now, quotes an actor he met: ‘Everyone is suffering here.’ It is a terrible thing to say, and, unfortunately, still true.
Last fortnight, the Modi government declared many welfare schemes for the poor including free food grains and, to many, a basic income. These are good to do and long due. There have been no media reports on whether the goods have reached the right hands, though.
But it is to those outstretched hands the Modi government should be directing its energies. On August 15, India can expect to witness the usual Independence Day ceremony, even a much greater one this year, considering the situation at its borders.
And Indians would naturally be proud of their tanks and jets and their uniformed men and women. But at the end of it all, they must know that defending a great nation is more worth one’s while than defending an unjust one. Just stop the suffering.
— C. P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.