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The strangeness of India

Published : Mar 11, 2005 00:00 IST

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India has a number of uniquely different characteristics but the lawlessness of Bihar cannot be one of them.

PERHAPS the word strangeness is inappropriate; uniqueness would be more accurate, except that the word has been flogged to death and Unique India is a tired stereotype. India with its many languages, its many cultures, and its diverse art forms, its many customs and social attitudes, its ethnic diversity - all these have been written and talked about, eulogised, studied and presented to the world adorned with that embarrassingly commonplace phrase, `unity in diversity'.

It is all there, true; India is all of this, and has all these qualities and characteristics. But occasionally one wonders at a particular characteristic that seems suddenly to stand out in a manner that makes its difference not only evident, but also incomprehensible. Not to the outsider, or the foreign scholar, but to us, to the rest of us, to ordinary journeymen Indians. It is not an ethnic or social characteristic or trait so much as a system, a structure or part of the structure of governance, which varies from State to State.

We see such differences at specific times; particularly during elections. Every party functions in its own way in different areas of the country, even though there may be some similarities. There may be rallies in every State, but in some there are giant cut-outs of leaders and in others huge posters adorned with photographs of the candidates and the party leader. These differences we have come to accept.

The manner in which parties campaign in Haryana is quite different from an election campaign in Andhra Pradesh. We know they are different but it is understandable and accepted as a part of the fact that the people in the two States are quite different from each other.

But differences in the system of governance, incomprehensible and startling, and a resultant difference in the manner in which people live, are something else altogether. There is a danger here that has ominous portents for the nature of the country, multi-faceted though it may be.

I am referring to what is happening in the State of Bihar, and what is happening in the rest of India. Not in the way election campaigns are being conducted, though there may be a link somewhere, but in the way the State is being governed and the way other States in the country are.

SOME specific facts will make the problem clear. In Bihar, at least three children have been kidnapped in the past month or so; before that there have been a very large number of kidnappings of various people, from doctors to traders and some of them have been murdered. Those who have not been killed have been `found' by the police, but the conventional wisdom is that they are released when the ransom amount is agreed on and paid.

In neighbouring West Bengal a 21-year-old girl was kidnapped and she was located by the police within two days; a one-and-a-half year old baby was kidnapped by an Oriya maidservant in Delhi and within a week or so she was arrested and the baby was recovered in a village in Orissa. It not her native village but some other obscure little place.

What is it that the West Bengal, Delhi and Orissa police did that the Bihar police did not or cannot do? It is fairly common knowledge that one of the schoolboys kidnapped in Patna, Kisalay Kaushik, was `recovered' by the police from a house but not one of the kidnappers could be apprehended. Another boy is supposed to have escaped - how, and from whom, one may not know. And the doctor whose kidnapping led to a wave of protests and strikes at the end of which he was `recovered' as well - who kidnapped him, and where are they?

Now, in all these cases, either the police have no clue about the kidnappers, or they know who they are but will not - or cannot - arrest them. Both alternatives are equally dangerous. If the police have no idea who the kidnappers are, then their department is a completely incompetent, utterly inefficient organisation that is incapable of protecting the people. If the second assumption is true, it is just as dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous than the first. They know who the criminals are but will not, or cannot act against them. Again, this could be for one of two reasons, or a combination of both. They do not act because they have been bribed not to, or they have been ordered not to by those in power in the State.

The disease that has infected and ravaged the police force of that State has spread to other areas of the administrative structure, according to reports in major newspapers and television channels. There is little being done by way of development work; schools and hospitals are in a shocking condition, and poverty in the rural areas is widespread and severe.

The irony is that all this is being done in the name of social justice, in the name of secularism. Lalu Yadav has succeeded in reducing his State to its present level by espousing those causes. And one result of all this is a move by a number of families to other States, or decisions to send their children to study outside Bihar. This added to the daily migration of the impoverished to other States and cities in search of work.

The danger of the people of Bihar fleeing the State is one that is potentially dangerous. If the politico-criminals of the State find their prey migrating elsewhere, they will follow them there and once they can abduct them and bring them back to Bihar, they know the Bihar police will not either recover the victims or help the police forces of other States to do so. And as the administrative structure slowly disintegrates into a huge machine that exists to take bribes, defalcate government funds and do nothing to develop the State, the migration will mean a greater burden on the States to which people from Bihar go in search of education, medical attention and employment.

In other words, the funds given to Bihar by the Centre, and what little the State raises on its own (if it is not defalcated before it reaches the government's treasury) will really be given to subsidise corruption and inefficiency, a criminalised political system, and an administrative structure riddled with corruption and incapable of doing any really effective work either in the rural areas or in its cities. Is the country prepared to do this, in the name of democracy?

DEMOCRACY cannot become a sanctified system, or a religion that absolves all evil and vice; it has its dark aspects, true, but on the whole it must remain vigorous and efficient - it must deliver what it promises it will, in substantial measure. The processes and rituals of democracy cannot be used to paste over a deep disease in the polity of a state, which has eaten into the social fabric so badly that it is in danger of falling apart.

We may, as a country, have a number of uniquely different characteristics, but having a State as uniquely corrupt and inefficient as Bihar cannot be one of them. It is more than time that the Central government looked beyond its immediate political obsessions and, in the larger interests of the country, took firm steps to cleanse the State of the rottenness that has beset it. Let it take these steps with the help of those among political leaders and in the administration who are known and respected for their individual integrity, and not cripple those steps with petty political considerations.

Bihar now needs statesmanship, not within it - it has gone beyond that - but outside it, in the country as a whole. Only that will remove a uniqueness we can well do without in the characteristics of the country.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 11, 2005.)

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