A Time to Think – Being Indian in the Twenty-First Century – Part II

The first are the other cities, small towns and urban settlements spread mostly in the western, central and northern parts of the country. It is here that a strange phenomenon has occurred: the emergence of armies of angst-ridden youth who seem to be just hanging out. You can see them in public squares and parks, outside schools and colleges. If you stop to talk to them, you get the feeling that most of them are just waiting to take the first train out to the big metros, or for the opportunity to leave the country and go anywhere. In the wings are shadowy ‘agents’ who promise them dream jobs in the Middle East or in Europe, Canada and Australia. Even places like West Africa, the Caribbean, Chile and Argentina seem to be on the hit list. It is believed that every year more than a million young people get ensnared into this insidious chain of human trafficking. Thanks to the wide-spread penetration of television, these young people have seen the incredible opulence of the game, dance, fashion and reality shows. They have seen soap operas that have women in glittering diamonds and silks and men in designer suits who live in homes that ordinary people can only dream about. In this hinterland, they have also seen “Bollywood” films which, so often, seem to be trying harder and harder not to reflect the lives of most Indians. What the films end up trying to do is to come as close to the lifestyle of the rich in New York, London or Paris with a staple diet of fast cars, macho men, sexy women who sing sexy songs, and violence. When you are fed on a diet of all these enticing images on the television and cinema screens, the feeling of being left out from all the fun and frolic is a natural corollary.

Over the last fifteen years I have travelled across this hinterland and what I have noticed has been deeply disturbing. At one level, it is the rising level of aspirations among the young and, at another, a belief that the only road to success is through shortcuts. How can one blame them? The images on the television and cinema screens are dreamlike and seductive while the reality around them reveals another truth: The lack of infrastructure and job opportunities at home and the incredibly tough competition to make it to the big metros. The few success stories that they have seen are through the lives of their local politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who have rapidly achieved power through the most dubious means. I have spent months talking to these young people and what emerges is the complete disdain for the rule of law in so many of them. They have no faith in any ideology and what remains is a firm belief in trying to achieve success, no matter what it takes.

There is a second hinterland that has found an ideology. This is a hinterland where television and film images have not fully reached. And, it is here that another voiceless and humiliated people, the Indigeous tribes or Adivasis, have picked up arms and embraced the Maoist movement. Joining them are the untouchables, other backward castes and sections of the intelligentsia who are fed up with a government that seems to have turned its back on the poor and disenfranchised. Even as I write these words, the movement has spread far and wide and vast areas, right in the heartland of the country, have come under its influence. The Government has admitted that nearly one third of the districts of India are under Maoist influence: Eastern Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Chhatisgarh, Jharkand and Bihar are the most affected though states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Eastern Uttar Pradesh have suddenly gotten embroiled in the movement too. The Central and State governments have put in an enormous amount of men and material into an effort to crush the movement but have not succeeded. Strangely enough more and more young people from urban areas seem to be joining the cause.

There is another hinterland too that has also seen incredible violence. The world knows about the armed conflict in the state of Kashmir but what is rarely talked about is the sullen silence that very often erupts into armed insurrection against the Central Government or ‘outsiders’ in the North Eastern states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura.

These are the three hinterlands that also represent my country. They tell other tales beyond those of growth and achievement. Two questions need to be asked. Have the people who rule India heard these tales? Do they want to hear them?

Before I go any further I must make a few clarifications. I say all this not to run down my country or to flaunt my ‘left and liberal’ credentials here in the USA. What I have to say about American democracy and foreign policy would probably make quite a few of my American listeners cringe, boo or attempt to run me out of town. I say this because I genuinely believe that India, with such a complex social structure of languages, castes and religions could have become a beacon for a new kind of democracy to the world. Sixty years ago we were a newly independent country. We knew we were a poor country but our new leaders were people who were in the forefront of the struggle for independence. They were a special breed of people who had a vision and a faith in the future of the country. They knew the task would be challenging and difficult but they had one enormous asset: they had the people of India on their side. With the passing away of the first line of leadership, a slow and steady corrosion began. Ideologies of the various political parties began to waver. By the 1970’s, the splits within parties and the crossing over of politicians from one party to another began to occur as the people watched and wondered. By the late 1980’s and 1990’s it became an avalanche as politicians of almost all hues sensing opportunities, defeat or a stretch in political wilderness switched loyalties and ideologies just to stay in power. On one day a politician could use the rhetoric of a socialist and a day later that of a right-wing fascist. The people watched and wondered at these incredible ideological somersaults and contortions. Today, sixty years down the line a sizeable section of the political leadership, cutting across most party lines, now comprises just plain thugs and carpetbaggers who have made incredible fortunes as they wheel and deal when they should really have been governing. As an example I can give you the state of Maharashtra where a hoodlum with a long police record of violence and mayhem became the chief minister, another with similar credential became a deputy chief minister. There are quite a few others who should have been in jail but have ended up ruling the state. In Delhi we had a Deputy Prime Minister who should have actually been prosecuted and indicted for fomenting communal riots but ended up being the most powerful politician in the country. Another chief minister who stands accused of communal genocide is now being touted as a potential Prime Minister. Across the nation there are similar stories. Celebrating this state of affairs are the industrialists, businessmen, builders and other entrepreneurs who know exactly how to deal with such leadership and, most importantly, have paid to get it elected. Reaping the ‘spin off’ benefits are the urban middle and upper middle-classes who have so enthusiastically embraced the malls, cars, mobiles and branded goods as they constantly talk about being part of the ‘world’s largest democracy’.

All this must paint a gloomy picture. I know it does. But there is another hinterland that I have not mentioned and it is here that the possibility of change and hope for another future does exist. This hinterland is spread right across the land and comprises ordinary Indians whose voices are never heard. I have travelled across the country and met and talked to these people. They live in the cities, towns and villages in the north, south, east and west of the country. They live in the hills, in the plains and along the coast. They are everywhere. It was through them that another world opened up for me. They were farmers, artisans and craftsman. Landless and migrant labourers and their families. Doctors, engineers and teachers and their families in small and mofussil towns and even in the big cities. Students and young working professionals in the metros. Nomadic shepherds and brick kiln workers. Duck farmers and daily wage earners. Workers in huge factories and plants. Truck drivers and cleaners. Tea garden workers. Railwaymen, postmen, fishermen and their families. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians and dock workers. They were ordinary people who talked passionately about what they wanted the country to be. They talked about equality and justice. They talked about education and healthcare. They talked about their hopes and dreams and anxieties. What amazed me was that in all of this they were not cynical. They saw a country in transition and they were willing to wait and see when it would deliver all that it promised it would.

Will India be able to deliver? Is the path it has now adopted, as has most of the developing world, the only one that is good for its citizens? Is the free market really free? Is it fair? Is this path irreversible? The reason I have asked these questions is because there is one quote that is extremely revealing. It was made by a man who actually epitomises the global economic system. He said, ‘Our planet is not balanced. Too few control too much, and too many have too little to hope for. Too much turmoil, too many wars. Too much suffering.’ It was made by James Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank speaking at a joint World Bank/IMF meeting in Dubai, September 2004. The tragedy is that he admitted this just before retiring from his post. It was almost like the last act of a dying man as he makes his peace with his creator.

Is anybody listening to his final confession?

End of Part 2/2

Credit: https://www.checkpeople.com/police-records

A Time to Think – Being Indian in the Twenty-First Century is the text of the Solanki Lecture delivered at CSU, Long Beach in May, 2008.

Previous ArticleNext Article


  1. Awesome and gutsy…….
    The pangaa is majority of us have become “khao khujao and batti bujhao types”. further allowing these criminals to go as high as they wanted to be….

  2. Mr. Mirza,

    My name is Barbara, I´m from Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and I’m producing a retrospective of Indian films here in Rio and in São Paulo. I work at a production company (Casa Cinco) and this retrospective is sponsered by the national bank of Brazil (Banco do Brasil) at its museams. We are in a rush because Banco do Brasil asks for this retrospective to happens from October, 22th to November, 3rd at São Paulo´s venue and from November, 11th, from November, 23th at Rio de Janeiro´s venue.

    We have a huge interest in show your picture ARVIND DESAI KI AJEEB DASTRAN at the retrospective and I need to know as soon as possible if I can talk with you directly about the authorization of the exibition and the localization of a 35mmm copy of the film. I`ll be very thankful if you could contact me as soon as possible. My email adress is [email protected]

    best regards,
    Barbara Kahane

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *