Visions of New India

By Elizabeth Kuroyedov • MSc Anthropology, Environment, and Development

‘Sankalp se Siddhi’ is a mega campaign recently announced by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to create a ‘New India’ from 2017-2022 (The Hindu, 2017).  A new government website was even launched where users can type up a cause and pledge as an individual to achieve it – this obfuscates the massive structural power dynamics underlying social problems. The Prime Minister claims it is a movement against corruption, poverty, and filth. But what of racism, sexism, and extremism?  Is there a vision for the country in Sankalp se Siddhi without the BJP’s politically orange-tinted glasses? The danger in arbitrarily declared campaigns such as ‘Sankalp se Siddhi’ is that they run the risk of normalizing a state-sanctioned homogeneous idea of what does, or doesn’t belong in a nation like ‘New India’.  A ‘New India’ isn’t an objective entity or symbol of success. A ‘new’ nation necessarily begs the question whose ‘New India’?

The streets of old Ahmedabad, where mainly Muslim communities live in low-rise complexes organized in traditional ‘pol’ neighbourhoods. Old Ahmedabad is physically demarcated from new Ahmedabad by the Sabarmati River.

When Modi announced Sankalp se Siddhi, he urged citizens to use any means to undertake the campaign, even online mediums (IndianExpress, 2017). Apparently, journalistic integrity and courage did not count as an acceptable medium to fight for a free India. Just over a year ago, on the morning of September 6th, 2017, I flipped through the newspapers with my usual chai, shocked to see the assassination of Gauri Lankesh plastered over every cover page. A journalist and activist from Karnataka, Lankesh lived her life in passionately fighting for multiple social justice causes. She was recently awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award posthumously for her tireless efforts to fight caste-based discrimination and the violent form of modern Hindu nationalism, officially adopted by the BJP, known as ‘Hindutva’. Like Politkovskaya, Lankesh fearlessly criticized human rights abuses in her increasingly autocratic country (IndiaToday, 2017).

Clearly, belonging to a nation like ‘New India’ is a conditional citizenship. The difficulty of citizenship and belonging isn’t unfamiliar to me as a Canadian – I need only look as far as Attawapiskat or Vancouver’s downtown East side to see who lives on the fringes of the red maple leaf. However, the degree of violence which the Indian public authorities employ in constructing a uniform nation is striking. Lankesh’s assassin is unknown, but the BJP’s failure to condemn the murder remains a suffocating silence.

Protestors in the Harda district of Madhya Pradesh in 2013. Civil disobedience, primarily lead by tribal communities and the Narmada Bachao Andolan movement has been ongoing for decades (FrontLine, 2016)

Lankesh was a voice which boldly spoke for those with tenuous belonging; tribal people whose homes are flooded by the Sarovar Dam, and villagers whose farmland will be parceled up and handed over to the $17 billion bullet train project (Aljazeera, 2017). For marginalized villagers’ livelihoods and freedom, the BJP falls silent. Just last month, Modi approved the final stage of the Sadar Sarovar Dam – one of the largest mega dams in the world. With the BJP in power in the three participating states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh, big ‘D’ development has silently bulldozed all opposition after decades of protest. I was barely 16 when I read about social activism and environmentalism in the Narmada Valley by Medha Patkar, Vandana Shiva, and Arundhati Roy (see The Greater Common Good, 1999 and Water Wars, 2001). Missing from the front cover of every newspaper today were the voices of roughly 50,000 displaced people, and burnt-out activists who have spent a lifetime pushing for independent reviews and legitimate social and environmental impact assessments.  Not to mention the fact that the only fully-complete canals are in the economic centre of Gujarat, leaving drought-prone Kutch and Saurashtra with minimal lucrative benefit (The Hindu, 2017). Even water flows asymmetrically towards the citizens who matter.

The last citizens to be consulted in large-scale development and dams are isolated communities, like pastoralists in the deserts of Kutch, some 400 kilometres from the state capital. This is often called ‘tarmac development’ – the voices that matter, even when purposefully targeting under-represented communities, are those that are convenient to locate. Still, thousands and thousands of Indian NGOs are invested in supporting rural livelihoods. Ironically, I traveled some 5 hours to rural locations for work, while right across from my flat I looked onto Gulbai Tekra slums, colloquially known as ‘Hollywood basti’. At Hollywood, seasonal migrants sleep, eat, and cook out in the open, often engaging in craftsmanship such as the making of idols. Despite residing in the capital of one of the richest states in India, as migrants of scheduled castes, no one is particularly concerned with urban livelihoods of Hollywood basti dwellers. I’m pretty sure like the Kutchi, these residents aren’t receiving water or electricity from ‘New India’s’ Sarovar Dam either.

Kutchi women displaying painted handicrafts. The white bangles on their upper arms are distinct to the region, and said to reflect the desert heat to keep them cool.

Though the conditionality of belonging in India is inextricably linked to perceptions of caste and poverty, exclusion is not only drawn across these lines. Young women in India are subject to some of the most sordid spin-offs of patriarchal society. The nauseating violence, rape, harassment, and discrimination women and girls face on a daily basis is the greatest barrier to belonging. Gender-based violence in every form is widely known, reported, and yet remains a thriving business – and this is only the fraction which is glimpsed by the public realm. Watching the acclaimed film Pink with a close friend, we couldn’t finish the screening without pausing to share traumatizing stories of harassment. Pink won the National Film Award, and was specially screened at the United Nations headquarters, as well as in Indian parliament. Pink uncovers everyday sexism in contemporary India for the popular audience – from micro-aggressions to structural legal bias, showing that the lives of women continue to be policed, challenged, and broken in devastating ways. Women too hold a precarious pass to belonging in ‘New India’.

Salt deserts in Kutch

The fundamental point which a state-sanctioned homogeneous idea of ‘New India’ misses is that India is a country of beautiful, complicated contradictions. These words are not mine, but were uttered by my spirited flatmate over rooftop chai. Whatever one thing exists in India, the exact opposite is also true, prevailing in a parallel space within the same geographical borders. Right-wing nationalism alongside socialism, family values alongside individual freedoms, sexism alongside feminism, and violence alongside blissful spirituality. Ultimately, one of the greatest (female) Indian writers of all time encapsulates everything which singular visions miss:

There’s no such thing as an Authentic or Real Indian. There is no Divine Committee that has the right to sanction one single, authorized, version of what India is or should be. There is no one religion or language or caste or region or person or story or book that can claim to be its sole representative. There are, and can only be, visions of India, various ways of seeing it –honest, dishonest, wonderful, absurd, modern, traditional, male, female. They can be argued over, criticized, praised, scorned, but not banned or broken. Not hunted down. Railing against the past will not heal us. History has happened. It’s over and done with. All we can do is to change its course by encouraging what we love instead of destroying what we don’t. There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense.

The End of Imagination, Roy, 2016: 123
Waiting to perform aarti on the banks of the Ganges in Uttarkhand, the headwaters of the famous holy river.

References

Aljazeera (2017) ‘India to invest $17bn on Japanese bullet trains’, 14 Sept. <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/india-invest-17bn-japanese-bullet-trains-170914122827892.html

The Economic Times (2017) ‘Sankalp Se Siddhi a 5-year programme for new India: Arjun Ram Meghwal’ 13 Sept.  <http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/sankalp-se-siddhi-a-5-year-programme-for-new-india-arjun-ram-meghwal/articleshow/60499692.cms>

The Hindu (2017) ‘Modi asks people to work to create ‘new India’ by 2022’, 9 August. <http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/modi-asks-people-to-work-to-create-new-india-by-2022/article19455931.ece>

India Today (2017). ‘Gauri Lankesh becomes first India to win Anna Politkovskaya Award’. 9 Oct.  <https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/gauri-lankesh-wins-anna-politkovskaya-award-1060664-2017-10-09&gt;

The Indian Express (2017) ‘Resolve to force poverty, communalism to quit India: PM Narendra Modi’, 31 July.< http://indianexpress.com/article/india/resolve-to-force-poverty-communalism-to-quit-india-pm-narendra-modi-4774545/>

Parsai, G. (2017) ‘Who Will Shatter the Conspiracy of Silence Around Those Displaced By the Sardar Sarovar Project?’, The Wire 19 Sept. <https://thewire.in/179016/sardar-sarovar-displacement-rehabilitation-narmada/>

Roy, A. (2016) The End of Imagination. Haymarket Books.

Thakkar, H., Husain, M. & Shah, T. (2017) ‘Is Sardar Sarovar Dam a boon or a bane?’, The Hindu. 22 Sept.< http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/is-the-sardar-sarovar-dam-boon-or-bane/article19730554.ece>

Warrior, G. (2016) ‘Paradigm Shift’ (Image), FrontLine, 5 August . Accessed 15 Nov. 2018. <https://www.frontline.in/cover-story/paradigm-shift/article8870490.ece&gt;

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