The Culture of Death in India
(Part II of this article appears as “Our But to Do and Die” on this site.)
The news that flashed across television screens a few months ago had a numbing familiarity about it: ten people had been killed in a bomb blast outside the Delhi High Court, scores more were injured. Shortly before the incident at the High Court, multiple bomb blasts, engineered by another terrorist outfit, caused havoc and panic in Mumbai. Since in this matter as in nearly all others the middle class Indians whose voices are heard in the media have embraced American idioms of expression and thought with a frightening fidelity, we have designated these dates as 26/11, 11/7, 7/9, and so on. But, try as we might, our 26/11 or 11/7 or 7/9 can never have the resonance that 9/11 has come to acquire around the world, and that is not merely on account of the immense scale or gravity of what transpired when the Twin Towers were brought down and the Pentagon, the very seat of orchestrated terror masquerading as the guardian of world order, itself became susceptible to a sudden suicide attack. The French have always displayed an admixture of admiration and disdain for things American; and, yet, when 9/11 occurred, Le Monde, the custodian of French intellectual republicanism, unequivocally declared that ‘Now we are all Americans’. Are there people around the world who, after the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001, or the 2007 terror strikes on Mumbai’s trains, have been moved to say, ‘Now we are all Indians’? The answer is deafeningly clear: No!
India’s educated élites have long complained that no one pays much attention to India’s claims that it is spectacularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Indians like all others deplored the events of September 11, 2001, but some might have thought that the attacks would have the desirable effect of awakening the world to the threat of Muslim terrorists. It cannot be doubted that the Hindu chauvinists who launched the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, barely six months after the attacks of September 11th, did so with the conviction that the world would barely take notice of atrocities that targeted Muslims –– among other things, September 11 succeeded remarkably well in rendering terrorism synonymous with Islamic terrorism. The multi-pronged attacks on a number of Mumbai’s landmarks and buildings in 2008 were perhaps the first occasion when the world took notice of the problem of terrorism in India, but it is doubtful that subsequent terrorist strikes in Mumbai and Delhi have created more than a fleeting impression. No one outside India much cares; in India itself, people have been inured to violence, and the threshold for what are considered acceptable levels of violence has been raised.
The most familiar part of the story, then, is very simply captured in the feeling that was often voiced in colonial times and is increasingly encountered in people’s anguished voices: human life has little value in India. For the middle class, one piece of evidence predominates over all others: if America has thwarted all attempts at terrorist attacks since 9/11, why cannot India do the same? One school of thought takes refuge in the view that the Indian state is alarmingly inept when it is not corrupt, and that standards of security and safety have been seriously compromised –– not only in the matter of counter-terrorism, but with respect to safety on our roads, railway tracks, and in our skies. Another school of thought highlights the contrast with the US to different effect: if in India human life appears to be cheap, the US has a singular obsession with accounting for every American life, particularly the lives of those who serve the country. Consider, for example, that more than six decades after the conclusion of World War II, there is still an active mission along the borders of India and Burma to search for Americans ‘missing in action’. The Indian state barely has time for its living subjects, many of whom have never remotely been accorded the dignity of being viewed as citizens: indeed, a great many people, in the extant ideology of development, are so much waste that has to be shunned aside.
The social Darwinism that began to mould India 150 years ago remains a vibrant part of our middle class sensibility. The generation of colonial officials writing shortly before independence remained convinced that the ‘rising flood of human beings’ was the principal cause of Indian poverty and the reason why the British had been unable to raise standards of living. The grim Malthusian reading of India that, whether expressly or tacitly, still informs most middle class perceptions of the great unwashed has not departed very much at all from this view. With 1.2 billion people, some might think of India as a country that has always registered significant population growth, but that is far from the truth. For close to two hundred years, British rule in India was book-ended by famines –– ten million perished as hunger, anomie, loot, and confusion accompanied the British takeover of Bengal, and another three million were sacrificed to save the world from the peril of Nazism and Japanese militarism –– and in between epidemics, disease, war, and other famines took a massive toll of human life. While life expectancy in Britain, most of Europe, and the United States increased significantly from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, in India it declined from 24.6 in 1871-81 to 20.1 in 1911-21, and on the eve of independence life expectancy was still less than 30. Death seems, then, to stalk this ancient land.
Copyright: Vinay Lal, 2011.
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