India Empowered

(Reproduced from the Indian Express, October 31, 2005, where it appeared as a contribution to the 'India Empowered' series.)

-Dipankar Bhattacharya

India empowered must mean, first and foremost, empowering the people of India. Yes, my idea of India always begins with 'we, the people' and my definition of the people always begins with the working people and the oppressed. I think it is important to emphasise this at the outset because the people are often counted last or not counted at all. Large sections of them have been rendered invisible they are probably counted only once in ten years when the nation counts all its survivors. India does justifiably mean many things to many people a multifaceted stream of history, a unique cultural mosaic, an amazing treasure-house of nature, a great nation, a mammoth state, and of late a huge and lucrative market. But a macho Indian state doing a tango with the marauder called global capital, and together riding roughshod over the lives and liberties of millions of dispossessed and dissenting Indians that can never be my vision of an empowered India.

We are a more than one-billion-strong people. India can only get empowered by treating this population as the country's greatest asset and learning to take good care of it. If half of this population remains chronically hungry, underfed and malnourished, empowerment is bound to remain just another empty word. What can empowerment mean for a people for whom even potable water and elementary hygiene and sanitation remain a distant dream, an unavailable or unaffordable luxury? When malaria, tuberculosis and a host of other easily preventable and curable diseases are allowed to kill at will, and the shadow of nineteenth century colonial India looms large over its twenty-first century 'globalising' successor, the talk of empowerment can only sound like a cruel joke. And when starvation deaths mount in the same proportion as foodgrains rot in FCI godowns and the powers that be smugly trivialise and dismiss these deaths, the word empowerment only adds insult to injury.

The starvation deaths and peasant suicides spawned by the pro-market economic reforms have of course had their small revenge. They have forced a change of government and shattered the mega myth of 'India shining', leaving the official doctrine of economic reforms desperately looking for a human mask. Alongside disinvestment and FDI, the new government has been compelled to pay at least some lip-service to the need for providing employment guarantee to the growing army of India's rural jobless. Yet the hullabaloo over the issue of finding the funds for even the most limited and diluted form of employment guarantee scheme legislated recently clearly shows that the official notion of empowerment still remains far removed from the basic agenda of livelihood.

Divorced from the material questions of employment, education, housing and hygiene, empowerment is often reduced to just another pious platitude. Our common wisdom tells us that 'health is wealth' and 'knowledge is power'. Can then there be any empowerment without equipping every Indian with a guaranteed right to healthcare and education? While the dominant discourse on empowerment prefers to remain silent on this score, the official policy and practice of increasing privatisation and commercialisation of healthcare and education is actually promoting mass disempowerment every day, every hour.

Bypassing the key issues of right to education and employment, many empowerment enthusiasts wax eloquent about the supposedly miraculous powers of information. Information is salvation, goes the new mantra. These 'information revolution' ideologues would like us to believe that sheer dissemination of information can obviate the need of a real and radical social transformation. They fondly hope that mass empowerment can proceed through the very structures and relations of social, economic and political power that have all along disempowered the majority and monopolised power for a tiny minority. But experience shows that just as real economic prosperity hardly trickles down through the market mechanism, real power too hardly travels down the corridors of information. Experience also shows that information can play an instrumental role only when it is inspired by the emancipatory vision of freedom, justice and progress.

Indeed, India empowered must put an emphatic end to the crude reality of feudal oppression and patriarchal domination. The burden of inequalities inflicted on our women has started telling upon even the numerical balance between the two sexes. The sex ratio is steadily declining, and the decline is more striking in states that are rated high in terms of either green revolution or cyber revolution. The mythological elevation of women as goddesses in rituals and scriptures is complemented in real life by all kinds of violence and prejudice against women. In India empowered, human dignity must cease to be an elitist, patriarchal or brahminical privilege and become an integral feature of everybody's everyday life.

An empowered India must display much greater confidence and maturity in running its own domestic affairs. The gifts of nature and the heritages of history must find safe and careful custody. The notion of secularism must never degenerate to the abysmal level of bankruptcy where one is asked to choose between the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the Gujarat genocide of 2002. The unity and integrity of India empowered must be able to walk barefoot without the jackboots of TADA or POTA. There must be no room for the kind of perversion that seeks to nationalise private beliefs like religion while privatising public goods like forests, rivers and seas. No leeway for the fascistic approach that advocates uniformity in place of unity, homogeneity in place of harmony, coercion in place of reason.

Such a state of affairs obviously presupposes a conducive and credible institutional environment in contrast to the criminal-politician-bureaucrat-police nexus that is fast becoming the common generic or genetic description of the dominant political mode in the country. India empowered needs a judiciary that protects the people's rights and liberties and does not advise rape victims to marry their rapists or decree the Communist Manifesto as terrorist literature! We need a bureaucracy free from the colonial hangover of the 'brown sahib syndrome', comprising committed public servants and not corrupt bosses and babus. And most importantly, we need a really vibrant and vigilant 'fourth estate' possessing the courage to defend the people and the truth in the face of the allurements and intimidations of state power.

Last but not the least, India empowered must play a more courageous and dynamic role in the international arena. We must never hanker after a superpower tag or an imperialist certificate of good conduct. On the contrary, we must be able to stand up and lead the international campaign against every instance of imperialist arm-twisting and aggression. India empowered must never be viewed as a threat by its neighbours, but looked upon as a reliable friend by every country in distress.

In short, empowering India is all about transforming today's India into a new and powerful people's India of tomorrow. The point is not to embellish the existing power structure that discounts and even decimates the people, but engineer a new structure that respects the people as its designers, makers and masters.

If this is what history calls a revolution, India certainly needs one.