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An open letter to the Prime Minister

RANJIT HOSKOTE on the political situation and emerging Indian post-modernity.

VIVEK BENDRE

My Dear Atalji,

BY the time this letter appears in print, you and the other members of the country's leadership will have taken your seats at the Republic Day parade, defying the persistent fog that has enveloped northern India this past week. The President will have embarked on his longest morning, standing at attention to review India's military strength as it rolls by in a ceremonial concourse of tanks, planes, warship models and delivery systems. And after that, if custom is preserved, will follow the mobile tableaux that have represented India's ethnic and cultural diversity for five decades, undisturbed by ethnic strife, inter-religious violence, regional conflict and sub-national aspirations. The hardware of battle-readiness, the software of the folk arts: how strange that we should re-affirm our commitment to the Republic, year after year, through these twin expressions of national identity. The former is a demonstration of the sovereignty and strength of a state that could ward off actual and potential enemies; the latter, a celebration of what the first is meant to defend, a multiplicity of cultures gathered under the umbrella of an inclusive nation.

But today, both expressions ring hollow, like fictions that have outlived their usefulness.

* * *

I find myself thinking of Gandhiji's seminal work, Hind Swaraj (1909), cast as a dialogue between an impetuous Reader and a reflective Editor. As you well know, Atalji, the Editor in the book is the Gandhian voice, while the character of the Reader is based on Savarkar, whom Gandhiji met in London, and towards whose violent politics of national liberation he was unsympathetic. Is it not ironic that the Republic, which was founded on the principles of the Editor/Gandhi, is increasingly being run along lines more congenial to the Reader/Savarkar? Like the Reader/Savarkar, many of us say: "We must own our navy, our army, and we must have our own splendour, and then will India's voice ring through the world." To this, the Editor/Gandhi replies that such an idea is premised on the desire to control and exploit: such a nation not only oppresses others, but also brutalises itself and becomes enslaved to a cycle of violence and cynicism. India's overt nuclear weaponisation programme, over which you have presided, illustrates this tragic reality to perfection: not only has Pokhran been matched by Chagai, but Pakistan's declaration of its intent to use nuclear weapons in a crisis has rendered us incapable of waging a serious conventional war without risking a cataclysm that neither country would survive.

As for India's voice ringing out in the world, Atalji, it now rings out only as an echo of the proclamations of Emperor Bush. As when we claim to be a partner in the "war against terror", fatuously pressing our case against the U.S.'s real ally in the region, Pakistan, and refusing to recognise that terror, in the Bush phrasebook, is something that endangers the interests of the U.S.; terror, if it happens to other countries, can always be glossed as a liberation struggle or a regional imbalance, the minor ailments of bit-role players.

And sometimes, Atalji, our voice does not ring out at all, not even within our own borders. As when, exactly a month ago, on December 26, 2002, the Government of India signed a bilateral agreement of sinister import with the U.S. Government, without the slightest public debate or public scrutiny. The effect of this agreement is to dilute the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court (ICC): using the loophole of Article 98 of the ICC Statute, each of the signatories agrees not to hand over any former or current official, national or representative of the other country to any international tribunal, without the express consent of that country. Which means that any U.S. national accused of crimes against humanity would be safe in India, and any Indian, likewise accused, is beyond the reach of international justice in the U.S.. This is a significant development, at a time when independent investigators have revealed the involvement of U.S. military personnel in the mistreatment and slaughter of Taliban troops who had surrendered and been disarmed, in the aftermath of the Afghanistan operations last year. And at a time when peace and justice activists have been considering ways in which your creature Narendra Modi and his henchpersons could be brought before an international tribunal, for their role in the systematic genocidal violence in Gujarat over 2002.

Atalji, you are fond of staking India's right to sit among the great powers at the high table of international debate. But, by signing this particular treaty with the U.S., you have placed us on the same bench as violators of humanitarian values like Israel, arrivistes in the U.S. cosmology like Romania and East Timor, and such victims of U.S. arm-twisting as Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Micronesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Marshall Islands.

* * *

And when we look past the rainbow colours of the pretty costumes that the charming folk dancers sport, Atalji, who really belongs to your India? Who can really be at home in the Bharat that you and Modi, moderate and extremist, Good Cop and Bad Cop, are producing, between you? Earlier this month, your administration spent Rs. 11 crore on a tamasha called the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, tempting the diaspora home by offering dual citizenship to non-resident Indians and people of Indian origin. But even here, you enforced a caste system, laying out the red carpet for NRIs and PIOs from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, New Zealand and a few other chosen countries, while citing "security" as the reason to deny this privilege to their confreres from elsewhere. May we hazard the possibility, admittedly a speculation, that these lesser diasporics, from Malaysia, the Caribbean or Fiji, don't feature as donors to the treasury of the RSS and its associate organisations?

While experts examine the merits of your offer of dual citizenship — whether it will ever translate into a substantial invitation, in the absence of conditions that tempt NRIs and PIOs to invest in, or return to the homeland — may I request you to hold a corresponding Nivasi Bharatiya Divas? Why doesn't your government fulfil its Constitutional obligation to ensure that full citizenship rights are enjoyed by millions of resident, Indian-born Indians who have never enjoyed these, or whose rights have been snatched away? Why don't you make an auspicious beginning by restoring citizenship rights to the residents of Gujarat's refugee camps, who were disenfranchised during the pogrom of 2002?

The tanks pass on, the tableaux fade from view. While your government is busy spreading its doctrine of transnational nationalism, it is left to grassroots activists to restore basic entitlements to those Indians you have left to their fate, like the old and diseased abandoned by their families on the ghats of India's sacred cities: the millions suffering from tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS; the millions denied food and education, or subjected to school-teachers trying to force subsidised gruel down their throats. Atalji, many of your colleagues in the government and the party would have us believe that contemporary India is an influential global player, armed with weapons of mass destruction, its vast economic potential waiting to be tapped. But yours is the soul of a poet: surely you are not deluded by this triumphalist charade? Surely there are moments when you, too, turn away from the splendour of official India, to confront the real face of the Republic, which is the face of the child sold into lifelong slavery, because its parents needed Rs. 200 to buy two bags of paddy seed.

Yours sincerely.

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