How slavish are we?
Whichever way we look, the ordinary citizen has less and less protections from the might of the State and lately of corporates who rule the lives but are not easy to hold to account
"The emotion and structure of the Rajpath were symbols of slavery,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 8 while inaugurating the new central vista and renaming what was known as ‘Rajpath’ or Kingsway as Kartavya Path—“the symbol of slavery… erased forever”, as an official statement put it.
These steps are said to be in line with the Prime Minister’s second of five vows (‘Panch Pran’ for a New India) in the I-Day speech this August when he said, “In no part of our existence, not even in the deepest corners of our mind or habits should there be any ounce of slavery… We have to liberate ourselves from the slavery (sic) mindset which is visible in innumerable things within and around us.”
It is true that there are innumerable things that make ordinary Indians live and work with a slavish mindset, not the least of which is the way ordinary Indians grovel for their rights before the brown sahibs who took over and continue to rule long after the white ones left.
One of the biggest contributors and perpetrators of this slavery is the way officialdom treats citizens—labourers beaten during the Covid lockdown, citizens beaten outside ATMs immediately after demonetisation, the difficult conditions under which we get simple services like an Aadhaar number, a driving licence, a transport permit, not to speak of laws that could keep an ailing 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy in jail till his death, shifted in his last days to a hospital bed but still under custody.
At one end are a range of legacy issues that made the Doordarshan-era teleserial Rajani popular in pre-liberalised India because the protagonist put up a fight for simple, everyday issuances – a cooking gas cylinder, a phone connection, a petty loan. In a liberalised India, some of these services are in abundance after the State contracted them out to the private sector.
But we also suffer a creeping corporate control and growing corporate power so that workers inside and customers outside take what they get. Every customer is not created equal. Quality of services gets linked to spending power and the revenue the customer generates. We have not been able to protect the rights of most workers and consumers. It makes privatisation sometimes look like a takeover by a new set of moneyed sahibs. This cannot be freedom, particularly for those who remain at the bottom of the pyramid.
The topmost echelons of our bureaucracy remain protected, are fed with housing, cars, peons and helpers at home and office, and the job continues to be coveted with promotions etched in time, not performance.
This legacy of the British Raj, in which “orderlies” are paid by the State to polish an officer’s shoes and iron clothes, cannot be a sign of decolonisation. We have not fixed these ageold issues that feed into a colonial way of working, right at the very top of the government bureaucracy. It is not surprising that the rest of the bureaucracy continues in the same tradition—exercising power, control, privilege for anything but service of the people. This, too, is not a sign of decolonisation. Some things may have changed but it is too little and too late.
In fact, whichever way we look, the ordinary citizen has less and less protections from the might of the State and lately of corporates who rule the lives, provide critical services but are not easy to hold to account, particularly when those down the line do the asking.
India has bought into the idea of what a developed nation might look like. Currently, it is all about the aggregate numbers at the top. We can gloat over how our GDP is now greater than Britain’s while refusing to acknowledge that it means nothing for how ordinary people live, of how in per capita terms, India is almost one twentieth of the nominal per capita GDP of UK.
A blind race for the GDP number also signals that India has chosen its path to be an unfettered kind of industrialisation under which care and maintenance of the abundance of nature is sacrificed at the altar of extraction, production and consumption for the benefit of a few.
In this, we appear to find our nirvana in a development model that has brought no joy anywhere in the word but has merely delivered destruction of natural systems. This industrial era growth in the Western mould is a path of follies of the West that have become a path of the East. So, while there is a movement towards the green economy in the West, slow as it is, we continue to run an extractive economy that we wish to grow faster and faster.
A recent example is the “development” assault on the Aarey forest region of Mumbai, and the attempt to dilute orders on the use of forest land. A former Union environment minister once said laws on the environment should not hinder development. This path runs against what is traditionally Indian. It cannot be a sign of decolonisation of India. It is colonisation on a bigger scale than ever because we have overthrown one set of masters in the British but built a new set – in India, the brown sahibs and globally, still the white sahibs who have somehow led us to believe that consumerism is the way of the future.
If India has to truly give up its colonial mindset, it must reform the bureaucracy, remove undue privileges for those in power, offer firm, enforceable and many more protections for ordinary citizens and decide on a growth journey that does not mimic the destruction that the West and China have wrought on the environment.
All the new innovation will come from this space, and we should not be surprised that we missed the new era because, well, our colonial mindset stopped us from seeing the path ahead. This means we must embrace our planet and all nature as living, thriving, breathing systems that nourish and sustain us – a deeply Indian way of thinking that goes back to our very roots.
This takes us back to the classical Gandhi – the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed – a very decolonised way of thinking that is now fashionably quoted (if not followed) all around the globe. It is true that Gandhi emphasised duties over rights, but he also showed us how it was a duty to stand up when rights were taken away by an unjust and unfair colonial system.
(Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Syndicated by The Billion Press)