Monday, March 02, 2009

On Slumdog Millionaire

I saw Slumdog Millionaire only yesterday. The hype generated by the media had already become too much to bear. Add the west-knows-we-exist hype post-Oscars, and watching the movie had become crucial, even if only for not looking like a fool in front of India’s polished minority of “mimic men” (those who mimic the Euro-American west in all seriousness).

Once I saw the movie, I was amazed at the level of intellectual (pardon my using the word for fools) colonization of the Indian elite celebrating India’s ‘arrival’ on the world stage – even if this has happened only after – and perhaps partly because – the movie made the Indian poor successfully wade through human excreta to instant money!

Slumdog is not about poverty. The India-shining English media says it is a real depiction of Indian poverty – but in their celebration for this “realistic” description, they forget that no Indian poverty finds any place in their TV channels and newspaper columns. Surprisingly, rather than feeling ashamed of themselves, they are singing praises of Danny Boyle.

Slumdog is more about neo-colonial cultural power than about poverty. Priyadarshan’s Billu is about poverty. It looks at ways in which we can see the poor without attacking their dignity. It shows how material poverty is not the same as moral degradation.

Slumdog, however, is a voyeuristic engagement with poverty. The poor are not just to be seen, observed and monitored, but also to be imagined in unbelievably brutal conditions: they wade through shit, they have their eyes gouged out, they rape their brother’s girlfriend, they are openly and needlessly laughed at not only by the anchor of a TV show but also by the Indian audience in the show.

They have short-term American rescuers, however. The scene where a “true” American – and therefore upright – couple rescue the Indian boy being beaten by an Indian brute – the “real” Indians, as the boy tells the American couple – would give Lord Clive some moral pangs.

As any art is in fact political, this scene can also be used to explain to the western mind why American imperialist presence is required in many parts of the third world to restore order. And it tells us why the “civilized” British colonialists were required in India for 200 years to keep the brutal natives from killing each other. It is another matter that they financed much of their industrial revolution through this civilizing mission. Boyle also has returneed much richer, it seems.

It does not matter here that the “true” American rescuers of the Indian slumdog in distress belong to the country that has killed – and not just slapped – millions of innocent children from the days of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to its bombings of Baghdad. The Indian upper-middle class, it seems, is too stupid to put the movie’s message in perspective or deconstruct it critically.

But the Indian media tell us that we have “arrived”; that the words slumdog and ‘Jay ho’ are the latest entrants in popular English. The arrival – they are too ignorant to know – is not on the global stage but on the American stage. The very notion that Oscars – an ethnocentric attempt to rate art across the world from one location, with no idea of relativism – are universal betrays intellectual colonization as well as foolishness.

The movie is entirely a western product, but constructs a “real” India – with paternalistic western sympathies thrown here and there – so as to exercise a cultural power over India: the miserable, corrupt Other.

One would advise that the columnists defending the movie – and bowing to its “global” power – read Edward Said’s Orientalism to see the movie as a project of cultural hegemony, even if not very consciously so. Power after all, is so internalized that it operates without being easily identified.

Said’s critics said that he saw colonial power as a one-way project without looking at counter-hegemonic processes, but the Indian media today – one can say in defence of Said – has shown a near-complete absence of any counter-hegemony, and even the ability to construct it.

The movie’s hype in India – not Bharat, if I may add – reminds me of a poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz where he likens those who submit to imperialism as dogs and rues that there is none to awaken their self-respect. Will post it, and see how it makes sense here.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mumbai attack and the elite tirade against democracy

The English media (particularly channels) have suddenly got very angry with politicians. It's a different matter that the way the bureaucracy and the media have responded to the blasts is much worse than politicians.

The only people who have actually quit their chairs are politicians. Not a single napping Babu or cop (sufficiently discredited after the MASSIVE intelligence failure) or a single journalist (roundly condemned for sensational, insensitive coverage) has quit. The reason is not that saints take to politics and sinners to the media or babudom. The reason is that while Babus and journos are answerable to their seniors alone, the politician is answerable to every citizen -- be he a raja or bhikhari. This is the greatest strength of democratic politics -- the only structurally accountable system (where the corrective mechanism -- read election in every five years -- lies within the womb of the system) known to human civilisation from the days of Mesopotamia.

So why are all the beautiful protestors of South Mumbai dead against people elected by a popular vote? The reason is far more shameful than the present debate shows. It is that the English educated, upper class elite hates democracy for the simple reason that on that one day of polling their vote has the same weightage as a rickshaw puller's vote. Imagine the pain of the anglicised Sahib/Memsahib -- who earned his/her snobbery as a by-product of the insults heaped on his/her ancestors by the British Raj -- when faced with this humiliation of equality. So the answer is: abuse democracy and itch for dictatorship. This class never voted before the blasts. The blasts have given them an opportunity to throw their anti-democratic impuses around in a brazen, holier-than-thou fashion.

Though elitism is problematic in any age, globalisation has led to the rise of a virtually illeterate elite in India. There is a small leisure class who think they have an opinion because they speak Lord Macaulay's language. Without their English, their level of knowledge would match that of a frog.

We had an anglicised elite in colonial times too, but they knew a good deal of politics and economics apart from the Queen's language. So the elite of the time -- from Dadabhai Naoroji and Gokhale in the 1890s to Jawaharlal Nehru -- kept struggling for democarcy. Now we have fools like Shobha De and Suhel Seth donning the 'class' mantle, and they are struggling against democracy.

Surprisingly, while the landed elite in colonial India was the Dalaal class then -- like the anglicised upper middle and upper class now -- we recently saw a most democratic aristocratic politician -- V.P. Singh -- die unsung after a long career devoted to social justice (and some melodrama), the day the terrorists struck in Mumbai. It seems even former Zamindars are more democratic than the Taj-obsessed English-educated illeterates.

Some days back, the English media were sobbing that India does not have an Obama. For the first time they began to wonder why we never had a Dalit PM -- after spewing venom on reservation for years -- just because they felt that as true Chamchas of the US, they should cry for the transplantation of every thing and idea from the US to India. It is a different matter that it will take us some years to form an informed opinion on Obama as US president.

Well, after apeing the US, the English media have developed a new obsession after the Mumbai attack -- but without saying it in so many words. In their uncritical celebration of the army (though I myself respect the sacrifices of our Jawans as defenders of the country) and rejection of democratic politics, the TV journalists are now seeking India's Musharraf. They have learnt nothing from Pakistan's tryst with military dictatorship. They could have, if -- apart from English -- they knew some political science too.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Left turns Right

From surrendering its economic agenda to Tata and Salem Group, the Indian Left has now decide to openly embrace radical Islam.

The Indian Left had begun its rightward shift in terms of what Marxists once called the economic base -- human history being a product of the dialectics of material forces -- with Singur and Nandigram. Communist China had anyway shown dialectical materialism the dustbin long ago.

But now the superstructure in classical Marxist theory -- meaning the non-economic realm of culture, politics, ideas and religion that are supposedly dependent on the economy -- has also been contaminated. Naturally, when the base has collapsed, the superstructure will automatically cave in.

Two days back, our Left leaders like D. Raja, Atul Kumar Anjan and Sitaram Yechuri reportedly shared the dais with a group of 50 anti-Batla House encounter Muslim organisations looking for a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative. Among these was Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an organisation that believes in establishing in India a society based on Islam. It was the brainchild of Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan.

So, now our scientific-socialist clowns are flirting with radical Islam. They have effectively become the counter-part of Bajrang Dal and VHP -- who believe in Hindu Rashtra, though this is a rather un-defined concept. The BJP still looks at politics through the 'secular-pseudo-secular' discourse and is not really a Hindu Rashtra votary.

But this is not the first sectarian slippage of the Indian Left. Powerful sections of the CPI supported both the Pakistan demand and the demand for a Sikh homeland in the 1940s. The CPM allied with the Muslim League in the 1967 elections in Tamil Nadu. AISA in Delhi is more interested in waving flags in Jamia after the Batla House encounter than in seeing which workers are being retrenched by capitalists.

Interestingly, not a single Communist was seen saying or doing anything about workers fired by the Italian company whose CEO was murdered in NOIDA recently or protesting against Jet Airways' threat to fire 1900 employees recently. It was left to the goon Raj Thackerey to speak for these workers on the idiot box -- one can now understand how his estranged uncle Bal Thackerey could wipe out communists so easily from Mumbai some decades back.

The only concern of the Left today seems to be Indian Islam and its representation. Had Mahatma Gandhi taken this concern one could have understood it. But the fact that this concern has become the primary one for the self-proclaimed radical lilliputs of Marx can only leave one surprised.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

People in the service of the market

One is confronted with a new market-madness these days whenever one flips through a newspaper or switches on a television set. There is an almost lunatic obsession for 9, 10 and 11 percent GDP growth, as if pure adding of numbers is any substitute for looking at what quality of life the common Indian is enjoying.
Had I been P. Sainath I would have dished out data like “in a country with X millionaires, Y percentage of children are anaemic”; that 42 percent India lives under 1.25 dollars a day, even if in PPP terms.
The point, however, is that we have entered a radically new free market regime where individual wealth gets linked to everything from nationalism to social morality. If we believed that markets are for people even up to two decades back, today we believe that people are for markets.
Even the Supreme Court in a recent case said that the displaced people’s willingness is not required for ousting them from their lands if the land is used for “public” activity, even if by the private sector. In other words, we have erased the distinction between the public and private sectors.
All riches are public – goes the new mantra. If Mukesh Ambani beats Bill Gates by a mile, he will enrich the whole country through the adding of figures leading to higher national income, if the media are to be believed. And to ask whether the whole nation would be benefited by his private profit is thought to be illegitimate. The market would, after all, ensure that some crumbs trickle down.
If Tata’s Nano comes on the road, new puncture-repair shops will be needed, opening new service sector avenues for each displaced farmer, according to the free market logic.
In other words, whatever a capitalist does with land – unless he buries gold inside it like rich people in villages some time back – he is believed to be serving a public purpose. If he wants 1000 acres of land to make whale-sized cars, he is indulging in some sort of philanthropy as the cars will be bought by the public.
And yes, he is contributing to the GDP. And the poor farmer whose land is taken away even without his consent cannot raise the GDP much because of his poverty, lack of saving and impossibility of investment in money-spinning enterprise. So, he cannot serve public purpose: he can either patiently wait for some trickling down of crumbs, or pose a law and order problem, or worst, become an encroacher on useful public land.
A loss to Ambani is a loss to GDP, and, therefore, national interest! A loss to the rickshaw puller is a loss to none, as he cannot contribute much to GDP.
So, 17 years after he liberalized India’s economy, Manmohan Singh has stood Nehru and the entire freedom struggle on its head. And Gandhi, who was the biggest enemy of growth-madness through his emphasis on cottage industries and small-scale and non-mechanised production, is rendered hypocritical lip-service on October 2 each year.
While during the freedom struggle, capitalists used to come forward to join the cause to enhance their legitimacy. Today, politicians – witness Buddhadeb’s boot-licking – joins the capitalist profit-maximisation cause to somehow enhance his standing among the rootless urban upper middle class.
We may believe that in the courts an innocent should not be punished even if the guilty go scot-free. But in the working of our economy, we are ready to sacrifice the poor GDP-irrelevant farmer to please the pot-bellied dons of the GDP-obsessed discourse of development.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Vote of confidence and new Brahminism

Much was written about horse-trading in the run-up to the recent vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha in the media. One could see images of Mayawati and Mulayam being flashed across newspapers as they speculated how and how much money was changing hands. Significantly, this one-sided flashing of images reflected the frog-in-the-well brand of latent caste bias that is rampant both in the English media and its readership.

Throughout the run-up to the vote, the media would have readers believe – and readers, I have little doubt, would have no problems lapping up this sort of stuff – that the whole plot was about two committed, foreign-educated leaders – Manmohan and Karat – who represented two sides of a no-nonsense, visionary, ideological debate, with the media siding with Manmohan. There was a sub-plot too, with cent per cent corruption and no ideological commitment, represented by two non-Dwija, non-anglicised, non-foreign-returned leaders, Mayawati and Mulayam.

While our clean elites were fighting over morally elevated future visions, these “rustics” were just buying out MPs. That the anglicized, upper caste elite thinks and envisions, and the low caste politician pollutes the public space is the underlying message of the media.

All channels and papers somehow believe that Manmohan and Karat, leading two sides of the alleged MP market, were entirely oblivious of horse-trading that was going on under their noses in the supervision of their new-found allies.

I think this whole thing about clean visionaries versus corrupt upstarts is the old Brahmanical bias playing itself out again. The “new Brahmins” ( Manmohan and Karat) dispute, think, envision and debate, while those at the bottom of this middle class hierarchy pollute!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

CPM and Manmohan

So our champagne socialists of the CPM are busy crying hoarse over Manmohan Singh's compromise with "imperialism"and some in the English media, even while being in favour of the deal, are impressed by the Karats' integrity! These five-star critics in the media know nothing about Marxism, as they have chosen to glorify the man whose party presided over a farmers' massacre just some time back to roll the red carpet for capitalism for his integrity as a Marxist. There can be no better proofs of the death of Marxism than the general ignorance about it and the gross deviations of its flag-bearers even at the cost of large-scale bloodshed.

There is in fact only a slight difference between Manmohan and Karat. While Manmohan is a liberal both in the economic and the political sense, Karat flirts with economic liberalism where his party is in power but keeps up his commitment to Communist state repression intact.

Most Communists have a problem with the US but like to visit it often -- perhaps to reinforce their hatred! They never set foot -- nor send their children -- to their beloved Iran and Iraq perhaps because they believe that the dignity of selfless love lies in maintaining distance.

If Gandhi famously said, "My life is my message", the CPM's national leadership insists that the lifestyle of a socialist should be poles apart from his message -- perhaps to magnify the message through the contrast!

Manmohan's greatest achievement lies in showing these holier-than-thou combination of anglicised hypocrites that there can only be a limited democratic role for those whose disconnect with the common man makes them electorally irrelevant.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Understanding Delhi's Marxists.....

Rather than looking at ideologies -- professions of adherence to largely theoretical models of looking at the world -- it is far more instructive to look at the social composition of movements to figure out the politics of ideology.

The Marxist in Delhi displays some unmistakable characteristics. He is on an average more meritorious than his "class enemies". This may make many respect him. But those aware that merit is more a result of socialisation than individual brilliance explore further only to realise that the Marxist is generally from a more elite background than his "class enemy", at least in the national capital. Here I refer to the Marxist leader and not every follower, sympathiser or voter. Many students mistake the slogan of the Marxist leader for sincerity and an egalitarian inclination and support him, at least in JNU.

I studied in the School of Social Sciences, JNU, at a time when there was a fair sprinkling of right-wing and centrist students there. But one thing was remarkably clear: students coming from the most elite colleges -- and also from the most elite backgrounds -- would invariably turn Left. And the Right and Centre would be filled by our sons-of-the-soil from UP, Bihar, Orissa and Haryana. It was as though the proletariat did not want the revolution: only the elite wanted it. Many of my revolutionary friends are now in Europe and America, and the "reactionaries" from "right-wing parties" are generally in Munirka!

So global capitalism is being enriched by our dear old Left. They will abuse the US only to surrender for the slightest crumbs. They will cry hoarse over "what is being done to Iran" without ever desiring to set foot there.

Is it plain hypocrisy? I would say it is a class position; the politics of elitism. And in understanding this politics the social composition of Delhi's Left establishment will again help us. But we will discuss that another day. The Indian Left may be infantile, but it deserves much more than a single blog post!