Iron in the soul, decay in the brain

Print edition : February 05, 2000
P. SAINATH

"It seems, in the social realm, some kind of a counter-revolution is taking place in India."

"...as a society, we are becoming increasingly insensitive and callous."

"...The infamous practice (of sati) still manages to raise its head and, what is worse, even gets explained away as 'suicide' or as saintly sacrifice!"

"In parts of rural India, forms of sadism seem to be earmarked for Dalit women. From the time of Draupadi, our womenfolk had been subjected to public disrobing and humiliation as a means of vendetta - individual, social or political. For Dalit women it h as become a common experience in rural areas..."

"...the manner in which we squander or pollute precious reserves... the way we allow children to be exploited, the disabled to be passed by, speaks of a stony-hearted society, not a compassionate one that produced the Buddha, Mahavira, Nanak, Kabir and G andhi."

"...our greatest national drawback (is) the status of our women, and our greatest national shame, the condition of the Dalits..."

"Untouchability has been abolished by law but shades of it remain in the ingrained attitudes nurtured by the caste system."

"The unabashed, vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consumption by the noveau-riche has left the underclass seething in frustration. One half of our society guzzles aerated beverages, while the other has to make do with palmfuls of muddied water."

"... there is sullen resentment among the masses against their condition, erupting often in violent forms..."

"Our giant factories rise from out of squalor; our satellites shoot up from the midst of the hovels of the poor."

"What one finds disconcerting is even the absence of political rhetoric on these social ills."

- President K.R. Narayanan.

IT was simply the most significant speech made by a head of state in independent India's history. And much of the media missed the story.

When K.R. Narayanan addressed the nation on the eve of Republic Day, he handed down a scathing analysis of what has gone wrong with the country in recent years. Coming from a person holding the nation's highest office, it was not merely unusual but unpre cedented.

Here was the President of India speaking of "a counter- revolution taking place" in our society. With the exception of Harish Khare in The Hindu (who caught the soul of the speech in his report) most newspapers did not even mention that phrase, le t alone comment on it.

Here was a head of state saying, "the plain truth is that the female half of the Indian population continues to be regarded as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries." When a person with four decades of experience as a diplomat uses such unvarnished langu age, he does so deliberately and after much thought.

"Many a social upheaval can be traced to the neglect of the lowest tier of society, whose discontent moves towards the path of violence." That is the President of India explaining the turmoil in many parts of the country. Stating as given, that which off icialdom would fiercely contest.

Narayanan's main focus was on the rapidly widening inequality that marked Indian society in the 1990s.

It could not have been more appropriate. While people belonging to a microscopic percentage of the population are crowding weight-loss clinics to shed their fat, hundreds of millions of Indians are actually eating less. While young CEOs of companies draw pay packages that are unheard of, the real wages of agricultural labourers have stagnated or fallen in parts of the country.

Recent studies based on official data suggest that 70 million people have been added to those below the poverty line since the so-called "reforms" began. Even the World Bank concedes a disturbing rise in poverty in India (see the Bank Update on Poverty, July 1999). Hundreds of farmers committed suicide in India of the 1990s. And the number of job-seekers registered at employment exchanges reached 40 million. Put that in a single queue crowding two people to a metre - you would have a line 20,000 km long . More than thrice the length of India's 6,083-km coastline.

The President's Republic Day address was thus the first speech from official quarters approximating the realities of the 1990s. A far cry from the gung-ho pro-liberalisation platitudes stuffed down Indian ears since 1991.

HOW did the media respond? The country's most powerful English daily, The Times of India (Mumbai edition), gave all of six inches to the President. Less than half the space it gave the privatisation of Indian Airlines alongside (the Indian Airline s story was the first lead). The Times of India headline managed to miss entirely the thrust of the address. Its headline was "President for peace, advises Pakistan to shun terrorism."

On comparison, I found that the paper had given much more space on the front page of The Bombay Times to fashion model Madhu Sapre and assorted film stars to lecture us on patriotism during the Kargil conflict. Apparently the President of India is a weak-selling brand. And an unpatriotic one.

The Indian Express (Mumbai) did far better, though the Indian Airlines story was the first lead story there too. It noted that the President had expressed serious concern over regional and social inequalities. It caught his distress over growing d isparity in society. And it gave his comments more space than The Times of India did.

It then destroyed with its editorial the good sense shown in its news report. The President's speech had "all the usual lamentations..." And it challenged Narayanan on quotas by completely misstating his position. "No Sir! Permanent reservation is not sa lvation, it only enhances the social divide." Nowhere did Narayanan call in his speech for "permanent" reservations. Nowhere did he espouse them as "salvation".

And, of course, the editorial lectures the President on where The Indian Express thinks salvation lies. "There is an Indian market, a market not yet fully free in a democracy. But the state has not fully come to terms with the bazaar. For that we need a statesman with iron in the soul."

The editorial is a perfect reflection of the vulgarity, self-righteousness and self-indulgence that the presidential address so movingly describes. What Narayanan calls a "stony-hearted society" is what The Indian Express endorses. In response to the misery of hundreds of millions, it wants a leader with iron in the soul. The editorial made very well the President's point: "There are signs that our privileged classes are getting tired of (the) affirmative action..." The Indian Express seem s positively exhausted.

In all the TV channels I flipped through in the period soon after Narayanan made his speech, the first lead was the privatisation of Indian Airlines. Zee at least noted that there were critical references in the President's address. Some of the others wa sted not a word on it.

Never mind it was the first honest appraisal of the state of the nation in the post-1991 era of liberalisation and globalisation coming from a person holding high office.

THE effect of the President's speech (and later his comments on the legal system) on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was entertaining. The same people clamouring for "a strong chief executive" were in panic at the first sign of a President giving the n ation both guidance and a piece of his mind. Remember, these are the very politicians who want a switchover to a presidential system where the chief executive is unshackled from accountability!

What if K.R. Narayanan had continued in his initial profession of journalist? And if he had submitted this striking analysis to a newspaper in Delhi or Mumbai? It is likely to have been rejected by the editor of the editorial page. The writer would have been told it was too ideological, lacking in objectivity and in balance.

It is not ideological, however, to dance like scantily clad cheerleaders for each act of privatisation that takes place. A semi-literate glorification of Market Fundamentalism and its Gospel of Growth would also not be ideological. That is normal behavio ur. The President's comments on the performance of the judiciary would be seen as inviting trouble and lacking in respect.

In short, he would not have been published. Come to think of it, even submitting the speech as President of India has not helped him get it published properly. Maybe we need a few editors with less iron in the brain and more grey matter.

A letter from the Editor


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Editor, Frontline

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