The Kafka bargain, the Indian conundrum, and a non-bronze monument
A hospital where a patient is harangued for a bribe, and denied a wheelchair — which leads to the adult using his child’s plastic toy-bicycle to propel his laborious way through dark corridors.
Or a protest in the kingdom’s capital by destitute peasants from a remote province — who bear in their bare hands the dead skulls of their comrades who have in desperation killed themselves.
Or the two fun-fair visitors who are arrested by a policeman because they remained seated when the royal song was played — the judges and the citizenry are united in rabid hatred of liberty.
These are not fictional sketches by Kafka, but genuine, recent headlines from India.
Mind-boggling as these are, they are a mere selection, and even if we list a myriad like examples, they pale compared to a phenomenon even more incredible.
It is this: Indians seem to regularly, consciously, freely choose men as their leaders whose past and ancestry are tainted with rumor of murder, corruption, oppression, rape and incompetence.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter and mother of prime ministers, as befits the republic which leads the world in the production of bananas, who formally imposed tyranny on an entire people between 1975 and 1977, was elected with a majority again in 1980 following country-wide elections.
Four years later, in 1984, the streets of Delhi witnessed a pogrom against Sikhs, generally believed to have been orchestrated by her party. In general elections held only two months after, all seven of the city’s parliamentary seats went to that same party. Even in the Punjab, a province with a majority Sikh population, where general elections were delayed by some months, six of thirteen seats went to her party. Furthermore, in the 1985 provincial elections, that party gathered 37.86% of all votes polled in the Punjab, just behind the winner with 38.01%, according to the Election Commission’s website.
By ‘tyranny’ is meant forced sterilization of human beings, among other things. By ‘pogrom’ is meant the burning alive of men in front of their families, among other things. Yet, the people did not seem to mind, as the previously-cited election results indicate.
Writing in 1987, Salman Rushdie bemoaned that, ‘three years after the 1984 massacres, not one person has been charged with murdering a Sikh’. It is now 2017 — has anyone been charged, has anyone been convicted, has anyone paid for this gruesome crime, has a monument been erected to this ignominy, has the genocide entered schoolbooks?
Instead, what we do have are public memorials to Indira Gandhi, as to her father, as to her grandfather, as to her elder son, and as to her younger son. It was the younger son who famously said, when confronted about the riots and the role of his mother’s party-men, ‘when a big tree falls, the earth shakes’. Not only are this stoic philosopher’s widow and children guaranteed the highest privileges in this ersatz-republic, his son-in-law is listed by name at airports as deserving special treatment. The Indians are consistent in their cringing homage to their overseers.
If it were just the Sikhs, or if it were just the 70s and the 80s, or if it were just that one political group, it would be bad enough. Alas, as even a superficial survey of subsequent Indian elections, candidates, political parties, corruption and repression will reveal, the Indian voter, to the present day, appears to be mightily tolerant. Or ignorant. Or indifferent. Or complicit.
What of democracy’s concomitant checks and balances? The Supreme Court of India accommodatingly, shamefully legitimized the tyranny of 1975. It has made homosexuality illegal again — that is, it has robbed millions of a fundamental part of their human existence. It has, amidst all the critical challenges to human dignity being faced by one of the poorest countries in the world, made it compulsory for movie theaters to play the national anthem, and throws into jail the rebellious slaves who do not stand up during this slaves’ ditty.
Bollywood routinely, persistently makes movies and television shows contemptuous of human dignity. The mainstream press is often sensationalist and panders to fat cats. Social media and dinner tables are full of honorable people asserting their love for Adolf Hitler, their desire to exterminate Muslims, Christians or Hindus, and calling for corporal punishment, banishment, or death to all those who disagree with them, or are of inferior race. All this viciousness, of course, translates into quotidian attacks by Indians on weaker Indians. Only sometimes do the oppressors wear uniforms.
All this leads us to a depressing conclusion: The reassuring idea that a small set of monsters exert their will upon the utterly innocent must be discarded.
Yet, there exists a resistance. When the Supreme Court denied people habeas corpus during the formally-declared part of Indira Gandhi’s tyranny, one judge chose to dissent. During the Sikh genocide of 1984, many people risked their own lives and property and shielded them from the mob. A recently-established journal of political analysis, Jan Ki Baat, openly challenges the entrenched establishment. In some universities, young men brave thugs to shout for freedom. Young women volunteer to clean streets, as via The Ugly Indian, or go on a hunger strike for years, like Irom Sharmila. The fledgling Aam Aadmi Party appears to be a refreshing alternative to the graft. In 2016, the film Madaari had one of the protagonists declare in the denouement that, ‘It is a fallacy that the government is corrupt. Instead, the entire mechanism of government is designed towards the exercise of corruption’. It is a near-miracle that this cogent expression of the truth passed the censor’s scrutiny.
As in mature democracies, governments in India need to regularly demonstrate their legitimacy. With matters as they are, it is conceivable that someone demands that the legitimacy of the state too ought to be regularly proven. If successive governments have been unable to deliver the fine things listed in the current Indian state’s constitution, the notion that the state itself is defective might arise. Remember, the current state has existed for less than a century — this is not long, compared to millennia-old Indies.
Towards this, consider the creation of a novel kind of public monument. A monument which records every single assault on human dignity, along with the names, ages and genders of victims, the nature, location and date of the outrage, the accused, the sources of information, and the changing opinions of the state’s legal machinery — and keeps reminding us all of the debt owed to the wronged. Perhaps part of the monument is a virtual database of alleged and proven infractions, akin to the Guardian’s survey of people killed by police action in the U.S. It would be easy to incorporate a script that tweets the names of victims every anniversary. We must not forget. Not the caning of lower-cast Hindus, the lynching of beef-eating Muslims, the killing of Jews, the brutality of armed representatives of the state, the Sikhs burnt alive, the women whose faces are scarred by acid, and all the unspeakable rest. We must not forget — through marches, moments of silence, symbols of grief worn on clothing, debates in public places, talks in schools and colleges, recognition by governments and legislatures, and ceremonies in all the houses of all the Gods.
If we remember, we might even prevent at least some future horrors.
The first task, however, is to clear up a long-standing misconception. Representations must be made to the Czech government to confirm Kafka as being an Indian. In return, they may have Rabindranath Tagore and his works — the Indians of the present day obviously do not care for them, with its incomprehensible ranting about ‘mind without fear’, ‘clear stream of reason’, and ‘heaven of freedom’.