Nation Stand Up?
individuals and corporations in India should be ashamed of
IN 1985, UNRULY students at Columbia University, Cornell and
Syracuse set up shantytowns on their campuses that resembled
poor black settlements in South Africa, and demanded their
university divest funds from companies that did business with
the apartheid regime. Companies like Pepsi, General Motors,
Nestlé, Citibank, Mobil, and Union Carbide. Within
a month, the campus fire had raged like an inferno through
America: ordinary citizens, faith leaders and unions echoed
the divestment cry. It was the single biggest push, Desmond
Tutu said later, that was needed to topple the white regime.
More than 100 companies were forced by their shareholders
and customers to leave, and the capital flight was estimated
to be around $10 billion. Apartheid South Africa and Gujarat
— the similarities are striking. Both purveyors of surging
economies, both rotten to the core: proud owners of brute
power based on false logic (White Supremacy and Hindutva),
and machineries that work best when there are people to kill
and murderers to hide. Both with a middle class that was in
perpetual denial, politicians who danced the polka at election
time, and a few conscientious objectors. There is a key difference,
of course. South Africa had the ANC; a Mandela is yet to be
born in the land of the Mahatma.
The Sensex is shameless. In the very week that we heard Bajrangi
boast about the womb murder on TEHELKA tapes, it climbed to
an obscene 20,000 points. Actually, it tells a poignant tale:
we are no longer a civilisation, just an economy, an ‘emerging
economy’ as experts would have us believe. Year after
year in Oxford where I teach, I meet the emerging citizens
— those that make their parents proud by earning foreign
degrees, and none among them would dream of building a shantytown
that resembled the burnt hovels of Naroda Patiya. Give them
a hint, and they’d rattle off the names of the top ten
Indian billionaires; few would’ve heard of Teesta Setalvad
— the pride of a victory on the cricket pitch far exceed
the pride at justice delivered.
as the companies were forced to leave South Africa, kicking
and screaming against their will, it’s time to hold
them culpable for their presence in Gujarat — both Indian
and foreign firms. What does Ratan Tata have to say about
the first genocide on Indian soil? Why has Mukesh Ambani,
the richest man in the world, displayed such poverty of words?
Where have all the ‘leaders’ of corporate India
vanished when we are at a crossroads? How much business risk
is involved in uttering disgust at inhumanity? If the example
of the divestment movement is any measure, it’s the
grassroots that have to lead, to take the fight from Parliament
Street to Dalal Street.
Forget the likes of Tatas and Ambanis, the sound of silence
has been deafening. What about those whose names linger forever
on the lips of both the victims and the perpetrators? Why
hasn’t Amitabh Bachchan spoken up? Why hasn’t
Lata Mangeshkar? Why has the Master Blaster chosen not to
unzip his kits? If they aren’t a part of Civil Society,
then to which society do they belong? Shah Rukh Khan might
be ‘too handsome to be in politics,’ is he too
handsome too to lash out against those who regret killing
just a few hundred and not a thousand innocents?
It isn’t unusual for mega stars to make major noise
about injustice Marlon Brando boycotted the Oscars in 1972,
and sent a Native American woman in his place to denounce
the genocide of indigenous peoples. The winner of the best
actor award for The Godfather showed he was a true Shahenshah
when push came to shove. Not counting the likes of Dylan and
Baez — products of rebellion themselves — successful
artists have time and again walked on fire and paid the price.
Chaplin had to leave Hollywood because he fought McCarthy;
Nadine Gordimer, Pedro Almodóvar, Garcia Marquez, Arundhati
Roy, have all erred on the right side of the cost-benefit
equation of protest.
THERE’S NOTHING more shameful than to be impartial at
the time of cholera. Remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos?
In 1968 in Mexico City when the Star-Spangled Banner was playing,
they raised their black-gloved fists from the medal stand
to salute a martyred Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights
Movement, and were crowned not simply the fastest men in the
world, but as icons of their age. While it’s heart-warming
to hear that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has denounced the demons
of Gujarat, we are still waiting for quite a few big guns
to fire. It’s time for a Sen-Naipaul treatise to be
hand-delivered to Raisina Hill; for the ‘Coffee’
and ‘Rendezvous’ shows to invite the real heroes
of our society — the likes of Ashish Khetan; having
done the patriotism bit, for AR Rehman to now set Inqilab
Zindabad to tune.
But why do we need the stars? First, as the much flaunted
‘glue’ to our national identity in post-colonial
times, they themselves should be concerned if there’s
risk of that glue wearing off. Also, there is no denying the
shock, and (hopefully) dawn of good sense if Tendulkar, Bachchan,
Mangeshkar, Ambani and others were to write an open letter
to their fellow citizens saying they were pained by the suffering
of innocent people. In the absence of a god, maybe the demigods
could do some good. It could tilt the balance a wee bit away
from pure demagoguery. Yes, they’d have to bear some
risk: burning of movie halls where their films are screened,
a sudden wave of booing from the crowd, a drop in share price,
irate demonstrations before their homes — the kind of
things that Aamir Khan had to endure following his public
stand on the Narmada dam. But then, why shouldn’t they
take the risk? Why shouldn’t they put their mouths where
their money comes from — from the wretched of India?
Why should all the risk be borne by a young journalist, recently
married and with a young child? Why should the sword hang
on him when a slip wouldn’t merit more than a few lines
in the papers?
As in a bomb blast, it’s the aftermath which is crucial
— what’s lost, what can be and should be recovered,
what precautions, and how soon justice. And so the TEHELKA
probe should unleash forces that have hitherto lain dormant.
It must pit collective goodwill against the masters of subterfuge.
It’s important to keep plugging for public protests,
divestments, judicial probes — fighting silence with
shock. It’s vital to go over the top. The alternatives
might be closer than we think — Satyagraha or civil