Editorial\Stars, stripes and wheels
Impeccably secular
Letters to the Editor

When statesmen and diplomats shake hands before lights and cameras they seek to send a message. The message is rarely in the documents and joint communiques they sign. The message lies in the images, the tone and tenor of the meetings and visits that national leaders make. Indians experienced a powerful and skillful communication of such messages during the visit of the United States president, Mr Bill Clinton. He broadcast a clear signal. India and the US can, post-Cold War, develop a relationship wider, deeper and more beneficial than anything that existed previously.

The defining characteristic of Indo-US relations in the past has been superficiality. There has been no larger picture, no broad framework. As a result, relations have been marred by bickering over transient, petty issues often pushed by a few interest groups in Washington or New Delhi. Whether it was human rights violations in Kashmir or nuclear fuel for the Tarapur reactor or F-16 fighters for Pakistan, relations were defined by the sort of issues most large countries routinely brush under the carpet. US policy statements and presidential memoirs could be perused with no mention of India. New Delhi was neither an enemy nor a friend. It just existed — on the periphery of Washington’s world.

Three developments changed this. First was the Soviet Union’s demise. This has allowed US foreign policy to shed a single- minded obsession with security and turn increasingly to issues like democracy, the environment and technology. Second was the opening up of the Indian economy. Even incomplete reforms have given the US a glimpse of a potentially different India, one of software programmers rather than Mother Teresa orphanages. Finally, the Indian American community reached a critical mass in terms of wealth and political clout in the US.

This has brought about a slow but steady transformation of the links between India and the US. Billions of dollars in investment, a two way traffic of thousands of businessmen and nongovernmental activists and scientists, even physical connections like optic fibre and satellite links, have helped further knock down walls between the two countries. Progress has been slowest with the respective bureaucracies of both countries. Where governments have the most say — such as nuclear weapons — Indo-US relations remain petrified. But the two capitals have still made a determined effort to find common ground in areas like counterterrorism and trade diplomacy. The US has also buried its Cold War affair with Pakistan in full view of the Indian public. Mr Clinton’s visit was about New Delhi and Washington recognizing that something is budding bilaterally and ensuring that both democracies will promote it. An official stamp of approval has been placed on a relationship sown and fertilized by private initiatives during the past decade.

The Indo-US relationship is still fragile. The city state of Singapore is a bigger commercial partner of the US than the one billion strong Indian nation. The security relationship is almost skeletal compared to what exists between most countries. It was not until five years into his presidency that Mr Clinton woke up to the existence of the subcontinent. Despite the bilateral vision statement and the various agreements, it is too early to claim Indo-US links are institutionalized. The key determinants will be the private facet of relations. If trade and investment continue to grow, if the nonresident Indian population increases its influence, if the two countries can resolve their nuclear differences, deepening the bilateral relationship will not be at the discretion of Mr Clinton’s successors. They will have to come to India in the same way US presidents are expected to call on Beijing. Mr Clinton’s vision is to promote circumstances that will lead US leaders to take a similar view of India.    

Since the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, it isn’t uncommon to encounter concerned secularists wringing their hands about the way in which civilized middle-class people, educated people who ought to have known better, had embraced the ideas and slogans of the Hindu right. Cousins, aunts, parents, friends, whose secular moorings we had taken for granted, turned out to be apostates and turncoats. True believers tended to see secularism as the rock on which the Indian elite had built its house. They were wrong. The career of secularism in India, its rise and decline, can’t be understood without placing it in the context of a larger metropolitan culture because secularism was just one amongst many choices that the Indian elite made after independence and partition.

All metropolitan elites worry about being considered provincial. In India this anxiety was particularly acute after independence because a native elite was looking to fill colonial shoes. This elite had to invent ways of being appropriately cosmopolitan. English was the language that joined this pan-Indian ruling class, it was the price of admission. At its crudest, being metropolitan in India could mean sitting on sofas and wearing shoes, but the Gandhian nationalism that had forced wogs like Nehru out of suits and into khadi, made sure that mimicry wasn’t enough.

So after independence, this elite set about inventing ways of being indigenously sophisticated. This did not exclude a knowledge of Nietzsche or Bergman, but such knowledge had to co-exist with an appreciation of things Indian: handicraft, Hindustani classical music, our heritage generally. It is possible to see the decades after independence as a time when a set of standards designed to reproduce people-like-us was informally put in place. The canons of good taste and discrimination that distinguished the knowing metropolitan from the thrusting provincial were diffused in the great cities of this subcontinent.

A transferable elite created a portable culture. It was a magpie, hold-all culture made up of lots of different things — what these things had in common was that they travelled well. For example, Hindustani classical music is part of the metropolitan Indian’s baggage, but Carnatic music is not. This is because words matter in Carnatic music in a way that they have long since ceased to do in the Hindustani tradition. Hindustani music has been secularized over time, but an appreciation of vocal Carnatic music depends on an understanding of the devotional songs of Thyagaraja or Purandaradasa.

I n a linguistically diverse country like India the Hindustani classical tradition was always likely to prevail because it allowed connoisseurship without the effort of learning a language. For the same reason the ghazal and Rabindrasangeet remain provincial, though there is a case for arguing that their limited appeal has something to do with monotony: it is what happens when whole genres are founded on two-and-a-half tunes. The pan-Indian cult of Satyajit Ray might seem to contradict the language argument because thousands of paid-up members of this metropolitan elite who are not Bengali swear by his films. Film buffs claim that this is because cinema speaks a universal language; subtitles, however, are a likelier explanation.

The main patron and sponsor of metropolitan taste in India was the state. All India Radio promoted modern Indian classical music till the recording companies, private sector patrons and enthusiastic non-governmental organizations like Spicmacay joined in. The khadi bhandars and the Cottage Industries Emporium subsidized craft till private companies, like Fab India and dastkar-type NGOs, saw different kinds of opportunities in this sector. Classical dancers and folk singers still quarrel over government crumbs, but whatever the rights and wrongs of government patronage it is hard to deny it helped supply India’s metropolitan elite with an interesting culture.

Basic to this metropolitan culture was an abstract commitment to India’s variousness: its languages, its religions, its cultures. This diverseness gave metropolitan Indians a way of being cosmopolitan within their own borders.

So a marriage between communities, say a Tamil boy and a Bengali girl, might cause familial unhappiness for its transgression of caste and cultural boundaries, but there was place for it within the ranks of this elite, it even carried a certain cachet. It was daring and modern to choose romantic love over cultural prejudice. While this elite was quite capable of stigmatizing individuals and communities (Parsis, Bengalis, Anglo-Indians) as rootless and “fast”, one part of it also saw the dogmatic practice of tradition as provincial and applauded its subversion. Also, celebrating diversity allowed this elite the freedom to choose from the whole repertoire of Indian tradition. Thus girls in Bangalore wear salwar-kameez suits, drawing rooms in Delhi wear Tanjore paintings and M.S. Subbalakshmi sings Meera bhajans.

Managing India’s plurality was sometimes a problem and members of this elite responded to the difficulties of diversity in two ways. One, they secularized their lifestyles because modern metropolitan lifestyles made some taboos and traditional practices impractical. Two, they took secularism on board, not necessarily as a principle they believed in, but as a desirable modern idea.

Secularism, like much else in modern metropolitan culture in India, was sponsored and endorsed by the state. Used to taking its cues from the state, India’s metropolitan elite followed suit. Because partition and the Nehruvian state had shown that communalism was a bad thing, the metropolitan elite decided by a kind of default that secularism was a good thing. To be sectarian or communal was provincial, vulgar and backward-looking, whereas our metropolitan elite wished to be cosmopolitan, sophisticated and progressive.

More often than we like to imagine, people were secular because their neighbours were secular; put another way, secularism was a hegemonic style, it was fashionable. And in the same way that fashions coerce people into wearing clothes or adopting a manner that they aren’t wholly comfortable with, secularism-as-ambience pressed many people into paying lip service to an idea that they didn’t really believe in.

Secularism as practised by the Indian elite had little to do with conviction or ideological principle; it was, instead, a marker of modernity and metropolitan good taste. It’s important to understand this because it helps explain why large sections of this elite traded in their secular clothes for khaki shorts with such alacrity. The failure of the state to make India economically successful eroded its claim to be progressive and modern. And because Nehru and his daughter had twinned autarky and secularism, the failure of the one discredited the other. Since the diffusion of secularism had so much to do with the sponsorship of the Nehruvian state, the decline of the Congress as a political power and the consequent withdrawal of this patronage by the BJP had the opposite effect.

Contemporary secular practice has to learn from past mistakes and the main lesson is this: we smugly took people-like-us for granted because we assumed that secularism came bundled with a metropolitan identity, like PCs come installed with Windows. Secularism for this elite wasn’t a political stance — it was a style choice. And styles change.    


Mother courage

Sir — For Cherie Blair, being pregnant is a political statement. A woman in her forties who happens to juggle three children, a high-profile career as a lawyer and her duties as the wife of the prime minister, Cherie has every right to be smug. And this paragon of virtue is naturally indignant at men who have the temerity to think that “the nurturing of children has nothing to do with them” (“Cherie gives Tony paternity leave hint”, March 21). I am not saying that Cherie’s concerns are misplaced, but her tone is definitely sanctimonious. Her contention might be accepted with dewy-eyed wonder in the New Labour England where the family is in fashion, but must the Blairs’ “happy family” tableau be played to death in the nation’s eye?

Yours faithfully,
Archana Pramanik, Calcutta

To serve with love

Sir — That the West Bengal state government should think of reintroducing the condensed MB (diploma) course for those who took the diploma almost two decades ago only shows the highhandedness of the state administration with regard to the medical fraternity and healthcare concerns (“Medicos’ strike”, March 9). The Indian Medical Association, a doctors’ union, does not recognize such diploma-holders as qualified doctors. Nor can they be recognized by professional medical bodies. By this act, the government will at best be extending semi-professional medical services to the rural areas.

The government may cite the unwillingness of qualified doctors to join rural health centres as reason for this step. But this is largely because of the inefficiency of the public service commission which conducts examinations for medical officers. Results are never declared before three years after the examination for recruitment. Fresh doctors cannot be expected to sit idle for this period during which they might join private nursing homes, start their own practice or enrol for other courses.

In all estimate, a medical course requires a lot of effort on the part of the student. There is a joint entrance examination before admission into the course. This is followed by an examination every year, thorough training and a vigilant internship during the entire MBBS course. Qualified doctors naturally will be far superior in their knowledge of medical matters than the semi-professionals who need to pass no examination to get hold of the diploma. And given the state of affairs in the state, they are most likely to be party cadres recruited into government service.

These men in their mid-forties should be absorbed as community health service officers instead of doctors. They can work as assistants to qualified doctors in health centres and hospitals and can even be given independent charge of rural health centres until vacancies for doctors are filled up. This way unpleasant confrontations can be avoided while rural people will get the services of health officers trained to deal with common diseases.

Yours faithfully,
Tamal Basu, Bandel

Sir — Amit Ukil’s “Hospitals go Chennai way”(March 13) might capture headlines. But the people of West Bengal should be reminded that such attempts are not new. The problem, incidentally, is not with facilities, but with the attitude of those involved in this service sector. Patients are treated here as guinea pigs. Doctors and attendants are either apathetic or cynical with the patient. The lack of concern is apparently compensated by prescriptions for elaborate medical tests which burn holes in their pockets. One sure way to attract patients is improvement of services. But is anyone listening?

Yours faithfully,
S. Roy Choudhury, Calcutta

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