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BEYOND THE ROUND TABLE - The Indian nation is a segmented entity

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By Ashok Mitra
  • Published 20.03.06

The day the prime minister convened in New Delhi, with much solemnity, his round table conference on Kashmir, the valley was observing a total bandh: the people over there were mourning for the children slaughtered by the Indian army in Dhudipura village a couple of days ago. The display of sorrow, naturally, was not unmixed with anger, sorrow for the innocent children killed in such a grisly manner, anger that they could do so little to prevent incidents of this kind taking place over and over again.

The valley had come to a total stop. No matter, the prime minister had to have his round table. Ol? Man River Karan Singh was there, so too the young Abdullah colly, as were the usual establishment faces. It would be silly to pretend otherwise; they represent not more than a minute fraction of the Kashmir population. An immense pity, they themselves do not seem to be aware of this ground reality. What we therefore have in Kashmir today are two altogether separate universes of perception, one contradicting the other. The base, you may say, is walking in one direction, the superstructure is going the reverse way.

True, the prime minister issued a regulation statement deeply regretting the unfortunate deaths in Dhudipura: his troops had committed a grievous mistake, they assumed children at play to be terrorists. Adding insult to injury, he announced lush monetary compensation to the families of those killed, as if money could substitute throbbing, pulsating life. Would these vacuous gestures recruit, for the prime minister?s round table, even one honest patriarch from the valley, hangers-on excluded? Honestly, it does not seem so.

But Kashmir is not an isolated story. Some weeks earlier, in Kokrajhar in Assam, Indian army personnel had shot down in cold blood ten innocent villagers. The only plea proffered for the massacre was that the army contingent did not like the way these villagers were walking a path. Paraphrased, the explanation would roughly read as follows: we, because we represent the might of India, will decide which direction, you, slave citizens, are to leap at any particular moment; should we disapprove the specific quality of your jumpiness, we will shoot, period. In this instance too, the prime minister ? or was it the home minister? ? had sent his regrets and announced the grant of monetary assistance for the relatives of those whose bodies were shattered by government-of-India bullets.

These are not isolated narratives. Incidents of such nature follow a regular pattern across the North-east. Manipur has been particularly unquiet in recent months with streams of allegations of police and army atrocities against youth and women. An incident happens. The local population explodes in anger. The government expresses its regrets for the excesses that have been committed. The curtain comes down. The nation waits for the next episode and its locale.

This last sentence deserves to be severely amended. The nation is a segmented entity. Those who attended the prime minister?s round table on Kashmir are not particularly exercised over incidents such as at Dhudipura. The droppers-in at the round table and the mourners in Dhudipura are two dissimilar worlds, with their own discourses. And this is the general truth for what passes for the Indian nation. Citizens in the Gangetic and Deccan plains live a closed existence. They are interested only in themselves. What happens in Kashmir or Assam or Manipur or in the forests of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra hardly bothers them. Daily living is already complicated enough without their getting worked up over terrorism and insurgency: what is the government there for? This attitude is reflected one hundred per cent in the mindset of the media. The media do not own it as their responsibility to keep citizens residing in the heartland of India informed about the problems and agonies afflicting the people occupying peripheral areas such as Manipur or Kashmir.

Not that as Indians they do not feel a certain kind of pleasant sensation at the thought that Kashmir or Manipur belongs to them. Those who were under colonial subjugation only a while ago do not in their heart of hearts shy away from the dream of a colonial dispensation over which they themselves preside.

Facts, and reasoning based on facts, are of no avail here. Our government might have spent, since 1947, as much as Rs 500,000 crore or even more to ensure the pearl of Kashmir for the Indian crown. The argument that the return on this investment is still somewhat indeterminate or that an outlay of this order could have superior alternative uses would not impress the feudal-imperial set. The imperial mind is knowledge-proof and Kashmir has to be an inalienable part of our great land.

We talk of the right to information and refer with smug satisfaction to this or that piece of recent legislation. How is it then that apart from some casual roving correspondents, few newspapers and electronic media have arrangements for regular reporting from the far-flung parts of the country? How our co-citizens live and die in these parts is apparently not on anyone?s agenda. A time therefore arrives when our agenda also ceases to be a part of the discourse of those living on the periphery.

Things are not much different in the case of those who are described as Maoists. It is close to six decades since independence. But the surcease of the colonial era has meant very little for the adivasi people. The British were not interested in development, and they chose to keep away. Those who came to control the Indian polity in the post-freedom decades are however activists, and of no mean order. Alienation of the Dalits from their land has therefore proceeded at a breathtakingly rapid pace, with few reciprocal benefits accruing to those who are losing their property rights. When they protest, as they did in Orissa, they are greeted with a hail of bullets; Maoists are created where there were none.

To contain the Maoists, now reportedly well-entrenched in as many as eight states, there will be additional police formations, with occasional assistance from the army. More people will therefore get shot, resulting in more insurgencies. The government will make new budgetary allocations to wean away the poor from the clutches of the Maoists. These allocations will soon be reduced to boondoggles; land reforms will not figure in the official list of priorities.

The two discourses ? the one at the base and the other that engages the superstructure ? will not meet. It will be much like the Union budget presented on the last day of the previous month: it was replete with wisdom-laden paragraphs, but totally irrelevant to the situation on the ground. The discourse of the growth in gross domestic product has nothing for those whose exclusive concerns are for food and work. The disjunction between discourses is soon likely to assume a ubiquitous form. The prime minister will convene, from time to time, round tables to make happy persons who want to feel self-important; everything under the sun will be discussed at the round tables, but not uncomfortable items such as Dhudipura.

Unchanging India, unchanging the official passion for playing endless rounds of ring-a-ring-a-roses. This is possible only on account of a great expectation: sleeping dogs will continue to lie. Problems will arise only when such dogs begin to script their own discourses. Greater budgetary outlays to shoot the canine population may temporarily save the day. The day, though, could turn out to be of awfully short longevity.