Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pride, Prejudice and the Commonwealth Games


The Commonwealth Games are over. But the state’s attempts to sanitise the city of Delhi by hiding and exiling its poor and underprivileged have not only set a bad precedent in governance but, more importantly, sanctioned, albeit indirectly, the creation of many classes of citizenship. Happymon Jacob, assistant professor of international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University writes. Cartoon courtesy, R.Prasad, Mail Today.

‘San Angeles’, where the poor, impoverished and the homeless are forced away from the mainstream society into the underground “wasteland”, is a fictional city of 2032 in the Sylvester Stallone-starrer Demolition Man. This highly-planned and utopian city of morally sound and wealthy people has banned undesirable habits and politically incorrect behaviour such as smoking, swearing, sexual intercourse and any other form of uncivilised behaviour. The inhabitants of the underground wasteland are not allowed to come to the civilised city above the ground and when they occasionally do so they are chased away. The protagonist of the film later realises that the inhabitants from the wasteland are only in search of food when they step in to the sanitised and civilised San Angles.

CWG and Delhi’s poor

During the run-up to the 19th edition of the Commonwealth Games (CWG), Delhi witnessed a range of measures taken by the state government to convert the city into something like San Angeles. Media reports suggest that tens of thousands of beggars and homeless in Delhi were loaded into trucks and transported out of the city or forcibly boarded on trains bound for distant cities or their ‘home’ states. Some of them were also taken to makeshift shelters. The slums in the city were covered with glossy CWG ‘view-cutters’. All of this was done in order to provide a better view of the city to the visiting foreigners and to show that India is indeed a rising economic power. One wonders where the many thousands of under-paid migrant workers who toiled for months together to construct the Commonwealth games venues disappeared just as they begun. It would be difficult to assume that Delhi’s hungry, poor and homeless were taken care of by the authorities in a matter of days, something they could not do for over 60 years.

While a lot of people find these beautification measures to be perfectly reasonable and justified, an empathetic analysis would show that what lie at the root of such social segregation practices are dangerous attempts by the state to create a new class of untouchable and ‘unseeable’ citizens. Hiding behind view-cutters and exiling the inhabitants of Delhi’s underbelly do not merely deny them the right to walk the streets; but, more substantively, such acts justify, legalise and authorise class divisions and differential treatment of citizens and a deeply disturbing instance of social apartheid. In a country that has tens of millions of poor and homeless and a society that still suffers from caste-based oppression and other socio-economic conflicts, instances such as this can have long-term implications for the social and political dynamics of the country.

This should be seen along with the fact that a lot of people are not uncomfortable with such anti-poor policies of the ruling dispensation. While, on the one hand, there is a great deal of uneasiness among us to admit the existence of an ugly underbelly in our cities and societies, there is also a surprising amount of people who think that the poor, dirty-looking and impoverished people should be hidden away in some dark corner and that there is nothing wrong with doing so. A lot of well-meaning people seem to justify this because they think that such acts by the government are instrumental in projecting India’s soft power better thereby gaining the country more prestige.

This is indeed not the first time that the government has carried out a state-sponsored feel-good campaign. The BJP-led government took out an ‘India Shining’ campaign prior to the 2004 Parliamentary elections to capture the votes of the Indian middle class by selling them the story of exponential economic growth. The Congress party criticised the ‘India Shining’ campaign calling it anti-poor. Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi recently said: “Their (BJP’s) India Shining campaign is an example of their anti-poor, anti-farmer ideology. The houses of the poor and Dalits were not shining. India was shining for a few people.” One wonders if the Congress government’s strategy of hiding and exiling the capital city’s poor to make the city look good and developed is any less anti-poor than what the BJP was doing back in 2004.

Xenophobic national pride

This xenophobic urge to showcase a beautiful city/country for the international audience is not just limited to our sending away the dirty-looking labourors and beggars to their villages, but has been evident in the manner in which some of us reacted to the depiction of India in the Oscar-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and the Booker-winning novel, White Tiger. A large number of Indians were angry about what was shown about the Mumbai underbelly in Slumdog Millionaire and claimed that it was nothing but ‘poverty porn’ and that it was a conspiracy to damage rising India’s image internationally. Similarly, a lot of people were also upset when the Man Booker prize was awarded to Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, a book that talks about the deeply-entrenched class and caste undertones of the Indian society. Literary works such as these, argued many, continue to cause harm to the global interests of a rising India. Why is it, they asked, that the international community honour literary works that depict India in bad light?

This uneasiness about ‘others’ talking about our problems is also evident when it comes to political issues such as Kashmir. Even though the Indian civil society and academia are comparatively more tolerant today about discussing the Kashmir conflict, the Indian state is extremely chary about the international community discussing it. For instance, there is a clear reluctance on the part of the Indian government to grant visas to Pakistani academics and analysts to come to India for academic conferences on India-Pakistan relations if they think that the agenda might include items relating to Kashmir. The government seems to believe that by hiding the Kashmir issue it can make it disappear!

Similarly, year when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) decided to declare discrimination based on the caste a "human-rights abuse" in 2009, the Indian government went out of its way to prevent the word “caste” finding its way into the resolution as it had successfully done in the 2001 Durban conference. India was obviously concerned about its image if the international community comes to know about the millions of Indians oppressed in the inhuman caste hierarchies.

The Commonwealth Games are over, and Delhi has not, thankfully, become’ San Angeles’. And yet the state’s attempts to sanitise the city by hiding and exiling its poor and underprivileged have not only set a bad precedent in governance but, more importantly, sanctioned, albeit indirectly, the creation of many classes of citizenship. One would hope that our unfortunate and poor brethren return to Delhi not because we should glorify poverty, but because we should not discriminate against the poor.

(Source: )

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