Thursday, September 10, 2009

In search of famine ...

Many years ago, the renowned Bengali film maker, Mrinal Sen made a film titled “Akaler Sandhane” (In search of Famine). The film, rich in symbolism is about a film unit who travels to a remote Bengal village to make a movie on the Great Bengal Famine of 1942. This was a man made famine as food was diverted from the market to provide supplies to the Allied armies involved in the Second World War. At the conclusion of the war, the famine inquiry commission estimated that 1.5 million people had died in the period due to lack of food. This is now widely accepted to be a very low and inaccurate estimate and today, it is guessed that the figure might be 3-4 million, since a vast majority of the people died in the country side without their names appearing on any official record.

Coming back to the film. The unit is off to a remote village and they have hired a manager to take care of the logistics. He would be responsible for arranging board and accommodation while the unit would be busy filming. Initially, the movie makers are welcomed enthusiastically; but then things happen. As the Unit manager goes shopping in the tiny village market he is buying up most of the products in the market. An artificial shortage of food items begins to occur and pushes the cost of food items beyond the reach of the ordinary villager, thus creating an artificial food shortage and a famine of sorts. Meanwhile, the Unit carries on with its filming oblivious to the local food shortages and tensions that they are generating as they dig up the past…. Many of the affluent villagers who are grumbling today are actually the children of war profiteers – those who prospered by hoarding food grains, selling them at inflated prices as their fellow men died around them – and then by buying up their property at throw away prices.

The film unit people are essentially decent people; they are just getting on with their lives and doing what they came to do, viz. make a film. If their presence is causing food prices to rise, if their probing into history is causing old ghosts to surface and haunt ; if poor people are being put to hardship because the rather extravagant consumption of the film crew has created shortages , well they are quite ignorant about the consequences their way of life on others.

Considering that India is now passing through a time where half the country is drought hit, it seems pertinent that the other half of the country and for the moment it includes me and practically every one that I know is living like the film unit in Mrinal Sen’s film unit; living our own lives and doing so in relative comfort while others commit suicide or starve at our doors.

Very often we tend to demonize the hoarder, the black marketer and the profiteer, the ones who very obviously and blatantly prosper while others suffer; but it is not too often that we ponder over the choices that we make in our lives and how it might affect others. In that sense, while we may not be breaking any laws of the land; in terms of what we consume and how much, we may well be lacking in moral sensitivity. But then , perhaps that is another story…..

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ji Huzoor Democracy

India recently celebrated (or is it observed?) its 62nd independence day and the Prime Minister dutifully addressed the people from the Red Fort. Another few months, it will be Republic day time and we will up celebrating the installation of democracy. And yet we find that democracy in India, while better evolved than many others in the neighborhood, is still rooted in feudalism. How else can we explain or understand the fact that the Rajasthan government is demanding that bureaucrats and other employees stand up when public representatives, including MPs or MLAs, arrive. “Officers (IAS, RAS) should get up from their seat when Member of Parliament (MPs) or Member of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) visit their chambers and see them off with great respect and dignity,” sources said in Jaipur on Tuesday (September 1), quoting an official order issued by the Administrative Reforms and Coordination Department. A government order threatens that if they don't, adverse entries will be recorded in their annual appraisals.

Feudal traits in our democracy obviously have other and perhaps more sinister manifestations. If Narendra Modi was able to ban Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah simply because it allegedly contains “objectionable remarks” against Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and reaches “whimsical conclusions” about the Freedom movement, this is because other parties and other state governments have banned works of history on grounds that were equally capricious. In 2004, the Congress-NCP coalition in Maharashtra imposed a ban on James Laine’s scholarly biography of Shivaji. This after goons, who obviously had the protection of the state establishment, had vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune where Professor Laine had done some of his research. Elsewhere in India, uber-regionalists, hyper-nationalists and religious fanatics pose as self-appointed guardians of literary, historical or religious icons and threaten violence on authors, playwrights, actors, artists, poets and musicians who do not conform to their hagiographic standards. The slightest deviation from the norm in representation or analysis is treated as blasphemy, defamation. And, in the absence of the rule of law being properly enforced, writers and cultural workers are forced to appease their extremist detractors.

62 years after independence during which we have only seen a steady consistent decline in the quality of our politicians, it has now dawned upon them that respect needs to be demanded rather than commanded. Isn't it a shame that the very politicians whom we elect as our representatives are more concerned about the treatment and the respect meted out to them by the government babus rather than keep an eye over the work that the bureaucrats are entrusted to carry out in public service. Lord Meghnad Desai has an interesting take on this. Writing in the DNA Newspaper, he observes that the Indian State has actually regressed over the last 60 years and observes that India was a modern polity in the 1950s and even before Independence had a well functioning legislature but has now become a feudal democracy with legislators behaving like minor rajas and nawabs.

Not that the rest of the world isn’t noticing. The Economist Intelligence Unit has developed a Democracy Index in 2007 and has been tracking the evolution of democracy worldwide since then. India is placed along with many others – Israel ,Sri Lanka , Indonesia, Philippines for instance as a country with a flawed democracy with a ranking of 35 out of 167 countries surveyed ( North Korea hits the 167th spot , Sweden the 1st and India’s bĂȘte noir – Pakistan the 108th spot in the 2008 ranking). While our relatively high ranking may be of some comfort, the fact remains that we are still considered a flawed democracy and that is something to worry about.