The Nation Through The Looking Glass

I am not aware whether Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Lewis Carrol ever collaborated on a book or not, but had they wanted to, the India of today would have been the perfect subject for them. For it contains elements of the sinister, the malevolent and the ridiculous that would have fascinated them. It contains both, Orwell’s nightmare of oppression imposed from the outside and Huxley’s fear that we would succumb to our own prejudices and egoism. The pain of one and the smugness of the other have both combined to create a nation just as grotesque as the one Lewis Carrol had imagined.

Naya Bharat is a topsy-turvy world of illogical behaviour and cracked mirrors where appearances can be deceptive- and dangerous. It can be best described in the words of Alice in THE LOOKING GLASS: “If I had a world of my own everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it is. You see?” You don’t? That’s because you’re looking in the wrong mirror; take a peek into Alice’s looking glass and you’ll see how contorted and grotesque is the reality of today’s India where nothing is what it should be and nothing is what it appears to be. Bear with me, dear reader, while I guide you through this hall of mirrors where the illusion IS the truth and confusion is the leitmotif. Substance has been replaced with symbolism and reality with make-believe.

Just consider some of the contradictions, the lies that masquerade as the truth. A tribal President is tomtommed as proof of the government’s concern for the under privileged Adivasis, even as thousands of tribals are evicted from their lands every year and rendered destitute to enable projects that will make a few billionaires even richer. Even as I write this the tribal populations of Hardeo Anand ( Chattisgarh), Dehang Patkai (Assam), and Saranda ( Jharkhand) forests face eviction and destitution to make way for coal mines and hydel projects. An amendment to the Forest Conservation Act and Forest Rights Act is being pushed through that will deny them any say in the diversion of their lands for projects. Can one incumbent in Rashtrapati Bhavan compensate for this exploitation ? Where does the truth lie?

India flag

Take our higher judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. We have, says the Law Minister, the most independent and powerful judiciary in the world. That would certainly be true if we go by our Constitution, perhaps the most enlightened and progressive in the world. But the facts on the ground are very different, as pointed out by Kapil Sibal and Prashant Bhushan just last week. The latter goes so far as to say that the judiciary has become the biggest threat to human rights in India. Sibal says we can no longer expect justice from the Supreme Court. And both may just be right, if the last few years are anything to go by, notwithstanding the pious sermons of mylords at public functions and exhortations post their retirement.

We thought, before 2014, that ADM JABALPUR was an aberration; it now turns out that it was just a trailer, what film magazines call a “teaser”, except that a teaser is not half as dangerous as the full movie that is playing out every day these days. The judiciary is expected to protect us from the excesses of the state, to fearlessly ensure that we are not deprived of our constitutional rights. In practice, however, the BJP’s 2024 promises to be a sequel to Orwell’s 1984. Because our “independent” Supreme Court has held that if you pursue justice for 20 long years you are a conspirator and should be sent to jail, if you seek accountablity for the deaths of 27 tribals in a dubious police encounter you shall pay a fine of Rupees Five lakhs ( which will go the government headed by a tribal President, don’t forget). It has held (under certain Acts) that a court HAS to believe the police version and therefore cannot give bail to an accused, no matter how flimsy the “evidence” against him or her; that you will be presumed to be guilty until you can prove your innocence; that an ED official is not a police officer even though he can grill you for 57 hours, arrest you and deprive you of your liberty, can attach all your properties and keep you in jail indefinitely. It has held that even though there is no proof that a temple existed at the site of a mosque, and that the mosque was razed illegally, the disputed site belongs to those who demolished the mosque. It takes “evidence” from the government in sealed covers, refuses to either divulge it or share it with the other parties or petitioners, and then pronounces judgement based on this secret information. And to top it all, it will not decide on cases where the government is clearly on weak ground- the Electoral bonds, Article 370, the reconstitution of Kashmir, sedition laws, Citizenship Amendment Act, to mention just a few. But the world is told that the rule of law prevails in India , and we are supposed to believe it. Meanwhile, democracy withers on the vine and the judges move on to cushy sinecures.

The Prime Minister tells an international audience that Indian federalism has never been stronger and that it should be a model for the world. This, barely 40 days after his government and party brought down the seventh elected government in the country in the last eight years! During that period a state has been denotified and carved out into three Union territories, something which has never even been contemplated in the past. Central police and regulatory agencies are pitted against state police on an almost daily basis, cases being investigated by state police are arbitrarily transferred to central agencies to avoid any embarrassment to Delhi, the Chief Minister of Delhi has been effectively defenestrated with the Supreme Court’s blessings, the All India Services are slowly being converted into a Central Service, states are regularly denied their financial dues by an unapologetic Union Finance Ministry, there is no consultation with state Chief Ministers on important legislative matters, Article 293(3) of the Constitution is being misused to fetter the right of the states to raise borrowings even as the Center itself merrily pushes the country into the abyss of debt. But federalism is flourishing in India, we are told by the Prime Minister, and surely he is an honourable man.

Moving away from the world of polity into the world of letters and the arts, the mirror tells us India has always occupied the heights of creativity- in literature, mathematics, science, economics, philosophy, painting, architecture. We have produced some of the greatest epics, schools of thought, drama and poetry. India has given the world three of its greatest religions, 12 Nobel laureates, 4 Booker Prize winners, the world’s oldest university in Nalanda. Modern India publishes 144000 newspapers and periodicals and 90000 books every year, apart from 1.7 million self-published works. It is the world’s largest producer of films- between 1700 and 2000 every year. A legacy that should make us proud.

But the looking glass tells us an entirely different story. Every creative work is today tested on the touchstone of religion and bigotry, not art. And so this year’s Booker Prize winner, Geetanjali Shree, is ignored by the government, her massive achievement not even acknowledged; instead she has an F.I.R. registered against her in Kanpur for ” offending” some troglodyte’s religious feelings in the book, the WEEK periodical is booked for an image of the Goddess Kali which offended some other dinosaur, a comedian is jailed for a month for a joke he never cracked, films are regularly ” boycotted” if their leading actors belong to the minority community or if they attempt to interpret history in a way that does not suit the majority community. Creative writing has become a risky venture in Naya Bharat, for if the police don’t get you, the bhakts will. Which is the correct mirror ?

The contradictions and masquerading, the difference between appearances and reality, never seem to end. “Dharm Sansads” or religious gatherings are used to exhort violence against minority community members; judges proclaim that “bail is the rule” but refuse to release the likes of Omar Khalid or the dozen Elgar Parishad accused; a court in Uttarakhand rules that no meat shop can be allowed within 500 meters of the Ganga river because of the sentiments of Hindus attached to it, ignoring the fact that the same river is used for discharging sewage in the millions of liters and dumping human carcasses in the thousands; the Prime Minister says we should focus on educating the girl child, even as he remains silent when thousands of girls are not allowed to attend schools and colleges because they are wearing “hijabs”; the government never tires of applauding its economic performance and the arrival of the “acche din”, even as one million HNI citizens have fled the country in the last five years; it talks ceaselessly of how it has controlled black money, even as the deposits by Indians in Swiss banks have reached record highs! How can one not agree with the Walrus when he moans: ” My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

If the horrors of today were not so malevolent and dangerous in their implications, I would say we are living in a make- believe world. That the spell would be broken any moment and Alice’s looking- glass would be replaced by the mirror again. But I’m afraid that would be deluding myself, for the curse is here to stay. In the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson:

The mirror crack’d from side to side,

” The curse has come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shallot.

Camelot remains out of reach.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.