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A wake-up call

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

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Slain By the System - India's Real Crisis, a collection of essays by C.B. Muthamma; Viveka Foundation; pages 310, Rs.250.

"THE most notable fact that culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits," wrote American poet Adrienne Rich. C.B. Muthamma, the first woman to qualify for the Civil Services, in 1949, and India's first career woman diplomat, has consistently refused to recognise these limits. After famously taking the Ministry of External Affairs to court on grounds of official discrimination, now she has picked a fight with "the system" itself.

`The system" is probably one of the flabbiest terms in the vocabulary, leaving out far too little, but in Muthamma's vision it signifies all that is rotten in the state of Indian democracy. In her recent collection of essays, Slain By the System - India's Real Crisis, she skewers, among other things, a Constitution in crisis, her own tussle with the Foreign Office, Hindutva and hate politics, the condition of the tribal people, and the changes that have been wrought in her native Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka. Yet, far from being a scattershot collection, the book reveals the sweep of her concerns and the intensity of her involvement.

She waves away the emphasis on her being the "first woman diplomat", saying "someone's got to be first, I'm just old enough to have got there first". She is equally blunt about her feminist perspective, quoting Nora in Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House: "Before all else I'm a human being." She gives her mother's vision and courage credit for giving her daughters the best education and instilling in them a profound sense of self-worth.

Later, in the course of her career, her feminist self was born out of this simple desire for parity. "Looking back, I cannot help but conclude that my tenure with the External Affairs Ministry as one long tussle with the anti-women bias," she writes.

She had to sign an undertaking stating that she would never get married, and her career resembled an obstacle race, with the Foreign Office denying her postings with lame justifications such as "she might have to go to the airport in the middle of the night".

She describes her "persistent, de-vious and utterly inane battles" with the official establishment - for example, "when the rule permitted a single Head of Mission to take a close female relative at government expense as a hostess, I was refused permission to take my mother, since the rules referred to a "he" not a "she". While she writes about these incidents with a touch of humour, the fact remains that as a women diplomat, she inhabited a "lonely and forbidding world", as Chokila Iyer, India's first Foreign Secretary put it. In her introductory essay to the book, Chokila Iyer asserts that if the gender biases of the Foreign Service have "been dismantled over the years, it is in no small measure due to the courage, steadfastness and outspokenness of our pioneers of whom Ms Muthamma easily tops the list in every sense of the term."

However, this book tells you less about Muthamma's personal history than her intellectual preoccupations and her discontents with Indian democracy. She casts an analytical eye over the state of India today, asserting that governance modelled on Western European lines cannot accommodate the sheer size and diversity of India.

She begins by asking fundamental questions about the Constitution and its functioning. Stating that Indian democracy is neither representative nor accountable, she goes on to critique its very life-force, namely, the electoral process. Pointing out the "statistical absurdities" of this winner-takes-it-all arrangement, she explains that the two-party structure of the government and the Opposition does not lay stress on debate and consensus. As most governments are based on a minority of the votes cast, there exists a confrontationist, unstable system that passes itself off as collectively sanctioned.

Wryly noting that "the world is full of electoral systems specially designed to deny democracy", she calls for a radical overhaul of the current structure. "Here we are with a colossal diversity on all fronts trying to impose unreal, unnecessary and counter-productive uniformity of language, governmental structures, etc," she says, emphasising the need to evolve our own governance models instead of living uncomfortably with a colonial hand-me-down. She suggests proportional representation in Parliament and a directly elected Prime Minister as ways to achieve a more meaningful democracy.

Muthamma extends this point by stressing on the need for decentralised power. Railing against the current centralised, authoritarian logic of administration, she argues that Panchayati Raj exists today only as window-dressing, and that people have no real choices when pitted against the faceless and unresponsive state machinery.

To illustrate this point, she describes Kodagu as an example of a place where state planning went awry as it lost touch with the local context. Before the region was merged with Karnataka in 1956, it was peaceable, prosperous and administered well by officials who were local people, barring the centrally appointed Chief Commissioner. However, after the merger, an inattentive bureaucracy with no stakes in the land took over, and it was responsible for large-scale deforestation and exploitation of the district's natural wealth. People of the region had virtually no say in decisions that affected their way of life, says Muthamma arguing that tangible decentralisation is the only way out. She cites the example of Anna Saheb Hazare in Maharashtra to suggest "evolving contemporary self-government structures relevant to our times" without forsaking the traditional wisdom of local practice.

This lack of local bearings and accountability, in turn, throws public institutions into disarray, she writes in her essay on corruption. The remedy, she says, is to decentralise both decision-making and tax-collection in order to make the authorities answerable. To illustrate how vital it is to ensure greater voice to the people, she mentions the jansunwais, or public hearings, held by a non-governmental organisation in Rajasthan, which held the local administration directly responsible for public money. She also cites the case of tribal people whose communities are splintered and who are dispossessed of their forests and traditional belief systems by an insensitive state. All these day-to-day forms of domination are responsible for increasing alienation and conflict, she warns.

Muthamma goes on to condemn the cynical vote-politics that uses the faults in the system to polarise communities and wrest power. In a strongly worded piece, she describes the communal riots in Gujarat as a "terrifying demonstration of how far this country has travelled down the road of non-governance and descent into savagery, with governments that are either unable or unwilling to ensure to the people the minimum conditions of civilised living - law and order, the right to life and liberty, and security." This collection also includes several of Muthamma's articles on foreign affairs. About the excesses of American intervention in the Gulf, she says "they have an unbroken record of the most brutal imperialism" - against democracy and freedom everywhere. In another prescient essay written for a forum on World Women Parliamentarians for Peace, she writes: "The roots of war and the roads to peace, must both be sought largely in the Third World, whose weakness and unstable conditions invite external intervention and conflict." However, Muthamma is no unqualified peacenik. "Strength respects strength," she claims - lauding India's decision to go nuclear and resisting the predatory policies of the developed world. She denounces India's "misguided methods of pursuing peace" and calls for a recognition of its own potential to alter the established order of Western dominance.

In another piece titled `Is non-alignment a policy?' she claims that a policy cannot limit itself to what it will not do, and that non-alignment "implicitly accepted a hypernationalistic entity for India" and degenerated into a system of securing the goodwill of the dominant nations of the world, with a view to securing trade and aid.

What she finds most frightening, however, is "the monster phenomenon of a demoralised nation". She finds a generation of Indians unmoored from their traditional beliefs and losing faith in a common purpose. Contrasting this to the heady days of her youth, she writes, "Those of us who are middle-aged or older will recall the tremendous upsurge of optimism and hope that attended the attainment of freedom, notwithstanding the trauma of Partition and the bitter history that led up to it. There was a sense of oneness and being together, to face all challenges."

These essays offer reasoned criticism and considered alternatives to what Muthamma identifies as fatal flaws in our system. Occasionally agonised and angry, they testify to her immense commitment to the idea of India and an abiding faith in its capacity to accommodate and survive. "Of India, it can be said that what is wrong with it is very wrong and very visible, but what is right with it is profoundly right and not so visible." If democracy is a living, vulnerable thing that each successive generation has to commit itself to, then this phenomenal woman and her book are a wake-up call and a reminder of what our present freedoms rest on.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 09, 2003.)

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