SPEAKING FREELY India a nation failing to emerge
By Meena Degala
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The rhetoric that has surrounded India's general election, which will be held from April 7 until May 12, underlines how domestic political parties are trying to manipulate the electorate into accepting one of their contrasting nationalist models.
While the ruling Congress party presents a model based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forwards the obsolete Akhand Bharat, or "Undivided India" concept.
When India won freedom from Britain in 1947, much of the
population had no understanding of what it meant to be "Indian". Most Indians only understood regional, caste and linguistic identities. Since then, nationalism has been used by the elitists in political parties to advance their own interests.
The self-serving nationalist schemes are in contrast to the sustainable nationalism that can emerge as a byproduct of an empowered electorate and egalitarian society
The Congress model
The Congress model for India is based on Mahatma Gandhi's teaching. While Gandhi indeed did commendable work advocating non-violence as a resistance path, he had evolving opinions on important social reform issues. Gandhi had conflicting attitudes towards India's hereditary, vocation-based caste system and related "untouchability" customs that served to ostracize and segregate people.
In 1920, Gandhi asserted that every Hindu, "must follow the hereditary profession", and that "prohibition of intermarriage" between people of different castes was "necessary for a rapid evolution of the soul". Gandhi is said to have changed his view later.
The Congress Party's nationalist model is built on a deification of Gandhi, and it survives on caste politics while offering no solutions for eradicating this unhealthy custom. Caste identities are fostered solely for electoral gains. The survival of caste identities is very important for this party's electoral success.
Social reform leaders who campaign against caste have been systematically pushed aside by Congress in order to preserve the false image of a benevolent ruling dynasty.
The BJP model
The BJP's nationalist theme is built on a hijacking of the concepts of Hindutva and Akhand Bharat. While Akhand Bhara means "Undivided India", the term, "Hindutva" is not clearly defined. The BJP says it means Hindu cultural nationalism, but it has become associated with a complete ideology and culture that sets its followers apart.
Hindutva ideology elicits an intense emotional response against perceived attacks on Hinduism by Christians, Muslims or the West. Some of the actions associated with this ideology include deriding English as a decadent blotch on Indian culture, and attacking stores that sell Valentine's Day cards.
Many educated Hindus see Hindutva as a necessary evil to counter evangelical efforts to convert India's poor and untouchables to Christianity. India's lower castes have found no refuge in conversions, as an Indian Christian pastor once remarked, "for Indian Christians, caste is first, Christ is second and mere preaching won't do". Caste has become a cultural phenomenon and is practiced across religions.
The Undivided India concept refers to the Indian subcontinent as it existed before India was partitioned in 1947 and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. However, the BJP has no desire to merge India with Pakistan and Bangladesh.
This term is most likely used to disseminate the idea that India was historically a united coherent entity and to help construct a Hindi identity. The fact remains that India, as it now exists, has never existed before in history, and the India of today more closely resembles the India defined by the British in 1947.
The BJP currently seeks a mandate on Hindu cultural nationalism, pledging that it will also streamline taxation, cut red tape and launch major infrastructure projects such as high-speed trains.
Sustainable nationalism: Equality and empowerment
Elitist nationalism projects rarely succeed. In India's current state, nationalist projects more often serve as a smokescreen for various injustices of the power elite. A sustainable democracy that seeks to live in its present and has a sense of cohesive nationalism needs an empowered electorate and an egalitarian society.
In India, there is caste discrimination, gender discrimination and class feudalism. Class feudalism runs across genders and castes. The bulk of India's poor is comprised of castes considered "untouchable" - 98% of "untouchable" or Dalit castes live in poverty.
Although outlawed, caste discrimination is rampant in rural India. Caste perpetuates poverty through denial of opportunity. In urban cities, special vegetarian caste-based Hindu apartments have been propping up in Mumbai, Chennai and Gujarat. Housing is being splintered along caste, religious and ethnic lines.
In 2009, when the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that discrimination based on caste was "human-rights abuse", India fought vehemently to stop a related resolution. India's urban elite argue that caste has already been abolished because government outlawed untouchability.
This ignores the fact that 75% of marriage advertisements explicitly mention caste - India's arranged marriage system has in recent years increasingly used advertising in newspapers and online. The country's leading marriage website, BharatMatrimony.com, lists caste as a mandatory field in its membership registration form.
Racism is considered a public health issue by sections of the international community and so should the practice of caste. Medieval caste practices cause psychological issues such as stress, anxiety and feelings of anger and rejection among members of lower castes. It also creates feelings of guilt or superiority among upper castes, and there are significant gaps in health outcomes between lower and upper caste groups.
It is imperative to recognize caste as a public health issue, and to maintain score cards on caste eradication similar to those for smoking, polio or malaria. To eliminate caste discrimination and hierarchy, caste identity and caste-based endogamy needs to be dismantled.
Similar to China's one-child policy, innovative policies should be tailored to local situations in each state and a change of semantics may be required. Large scale public health campaigns are required. These need to be supported by policies like:
Banning caste-based societies and caste-based marriage advertisement to stigmatize and delegitimize the practice of caste;
Incentivizing village priests and school teachers for caste elimination metrics. Encouraging gender and caste diversity in priesthood profession;
Inoculating children by incorporating caste reform thoughts into the curriculum and mandating logic as a high school course;
Incentivizing inter caste marriages between the lowest and upper caste groups. These marriages are subject to special stresses and societal strains.
Policies like these need to be evaluated and implemented at a state level. The World Health Organization and UN human-rights advocates could be invited to partner with local state governments and evaluate policies and progress.
A monolithic, centralized power structure prevails in India. A fair policy that is responsive to local needs will never evolve in the current structure.
The electoral politics of every state and coalition interest need to be considered in order for any national policy to be formulated. Two-thirds of India's taxes are collected by the national government and are often distributed in ways that reward badly managed states with more electoral clout than other states.
To date, no country with a significant population has emerged out of poverty without a manufacturing base that employs its masses. India's rigid labor laws (such as the one that requires manufacturing units with over 100 employees to receive government permission to fire employees) were designed like Soviet-style socialism where public enterprise is administered by government.
These laws fail in a world of competitive global forces and deprive India's poor of millions of productive manufacturing jobs. Labor law reform is blocked by states with strong labor unions, while less rigid states such as Andhra Pradesh and Goa have been seeking change. A federalist form of government would decentralize, localize, empower and hold states responsible for their policies and finances.
A united opposition can succeed
At present, India has 80 million unemployed and 250 million underemployed youths. Youth unrest and violent confrontations with the state are on the rise. In the absence of fresh thinking, reactionary forces may emerge on the scene in the near future.
Revolutions are often unsuccessful and dismantle productive structures. Reforms are often sustainable, but they need to be driven by a vocal and engaged electorate. The future of India depends on social and constitutional reforms led by the people.
It is time for India's educated youth, social reformers and millions of marginalized individuals to join hands and develop cohesive reforms that create a sustainable future.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Meena Degala is an Indian entrepreneur living in the US. She is also a public health expert.