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Byline by MJ Akbar : Revolt of the 19th Century
Everything has been happening when nothing happens. Good management is not about solving problems; it is about preventing problems. And so when a part of India does not jump at us from the front pages, it is a safe guess that the chief minister has his eye on trouble spots and someone is doing something to lance the boil before the simmering and potentially septic puss erupts.
Haryana’s chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, is still an infant in office, which is when most mistakes of omission are made. He made every mistake possible in the confrontation between the workers of a Japanese multinational, Honda, and its management at Gurgaon. He ignored the slow burning anger of the workers for weeks. His first response to the crisis in which policemen were first beaten up, and then took barbaric revenge, was uncertain and irritable. When the fire, fuelled by stark television images, began to singe him and his leaders in Delhi joined the roast, he went into vocal appeasement mode and forgot the practical, as for instance the need for extra, emergency medical facilities, thereby feeding media with another day’s story. Finally, while he had to hold police officers accountable, since they were obviously and visibly guilty, he forgot to add that the workers were guilty as well, for they began the violence.
The Haryana police, which is going to be around when all the workers have gone back to work, will remember this lapse of memory. A chief minister with an indifferent police force is only a minister, not a chief.
Here is a suggestion for all executives in public life. If you want to manage the troubles of our nation, create a war room. Place a huge map on one of the walls, with lots of lights around it so that you don’t miss anything. Get the chief secretary and the police chief to flag all the places where social tension is likely, has spurted out but been controlled, or where it is growing and could go out of control. Get a status report every morning, and ensure that the officials briefing you are not telling lies, or covering their backs with evasion. Eruptions will still take place, for India is exploding with anger just below surface level. But at least chief ministers — or indeed Prime Ministers — will not be surprised when the splinters hit them in the face.
The story of the police onslaught on workers at Gurgaon, Haryana, is a little deeper than swinging lathis, however dramatic that might have been, or the failure of the Japanese management system, whose paternalism rarely has the breadth to reach industrial colonies in foreign lands.
We are in the summer of 2005. The last time Indian working class anger dominated the news was in the summer of 1974, when George Fernandes led a national railway strike and Mrs Indira Gandhi responded with harsh measures to break it. That is 31 years, or a generation-and-a-half, ago. (I am ignoring Datta Samant’s irresponsible and self-indulgent misrule of textile workers in Mumbai, because that was egotism, not trade unionism, and therefore turned sour and counterproductive. The millowners used the foolishness of Samant to close a meagre-benefit industry and became doubly rich as masters of vacant property in the heart of Mumbai.)
In a developed country three decades of peace would be good news. It is bad news in a country that lives across centuries: those below the poverty line are in the worst phase of the 19th century; the urban poor live in the early part of the 20th century; the middle class live in the middle of the 20th century; a minuscule few have entered the 21st century. There is too much anger at base volcanic level, waiting for a chance to turn into lava.
One reason is that the dialectic of India’s democratic politics shifted, in the 1980s, from economics to communalism. Then, in the 1990s, both organised labour and the middle class were pacified with sops — aspirations, consumerism and rising incomes thanks to fresh foreign capital, innovation and competition. Aspirations are a problem in an uneven economy, for while they comfort 20 per cent at the top (the creamy layer, to use a quaintly Indian economic formulation), they create great resentments in the thick slabs below. The slabs may not be even, nor the resentment uniform, but resentment exists.
Moreover, in 1975 television was not around, except as a droning black and white propaganda box that dished out half an hour of utterly boring news that viewers watched only to look at glamorous news readers. No one actually heard anything on television. Today, independent channels bring you news. But they are not half as potent as the entertainment channels that take the world of the rich and the beautiful into the homes of the impoverished and the plain. The poor now know what they are being denied. Television also promotes a greater sense of reality than cinema, which is always closer to fantasy. At one level this angst creates a market for products that promise to make young, or even old women look beautiful within 28 days. (Since in our unhappy self-image, beautiful is synonymous with fair, these globs of acid sold as cream have to make you fair as well. It would be interesting to find out how much of television ad revenue comes out of false promises.) At another level, this creates a sense of injustice that the political or the economic system has long stopped trying to assuage.
If this was all the news, it might still leave some room for comfort. The worry is, or should be, not the violence that we have seen but the violence that we could see. Those Indians left behind in the 19th century are beginning to mobilise, and Indians cocooned in the 21st century have no idea what to do about the spreading people’s armies. The plural is accurate, for there is more than one army. But they have a single motivation: to create a parallel state until they can destroy the state that has left them behind. We use a loose term for them. We call them Naxalites.
The Naxalites do not sit outside the gates of multinational factories for a month waiting to be heard. They collect taxes, they have funds, they buy sophisticated weapons, and they shoot. When the Naxalites feel threatened by the state machinery, or when they want to take revenge, they do not use the lathis that the workers at Gurgaon wielded. They plant powerful bombs in the way of a Chandrababu Naidu’s convoy in Andhra Pradesh; or they attack banks and police stations at Madhubani in Bihar. The Naxalites do not depend on Leftist Members of Parliament for publicity or a trade union movement for solidarity. They keep their wounds hidden, their secrets to themselves, and work through a network that crawls through village and jungle between Andhra Pradesh and Nepal, extending to Orissa and Bihar in the east and Maharashtra in the west. According to one report, more than 7,000 villages are already under their control, and two villages at the very least are joining this parallel state every week.
Underneath a thin sheen, we Indians remain casteist and sectarian. The two groups that have suffered the worst humiliation, through centuries, are the Dalits (formerly the Untouchables) and the tribals. The process of the politicisation of Dalits started with the venerable Dr B.R. Ambedkar and is in the aggressive hands of Ms Mayawati at the moment. They are beginning to find their niche in our democracy, even though their impoverishment has not ended.
The human and economic exploitation of tribals has been a shocking story, and one that is not told very often because the tribals do not have a voice. Their women suffer rape in silence; the men have no answer to sophisticated and crude economic exploitation. (The Church, incidentally, is one of the few groups doing exemplary work in tribal areas of Jharkhand, and is therefore targeted by the establishment.) At long last the tribals are mobilising politically and doing so under the banner of the Naxalites. Tribals are brought out by Delhi to dance at the Republic Day festival. They are now getting ready to make Delhi dance to their tune. It will be a danse macabre.
I did not use the image of a war room lightly. There is a social war going on, but since government survives behind the screen surrounding Delhi, or any capital city, it is blind to that war. Sometimes defeated candidates in a Parliamentary election return shell-shocked at the power of Naxalites; but winners of course never see anything, for they live under the illusion that their party or their charisma has got them victory.
The masses of the 19th century are at war with the elitists of the 21st in India. The latter are armed. The former are angry. Don’t take the outcome for granted.