Oct 24, 2008

World - Want to be heard in India?You'd better form a militia

Anand Giridharadas

MUMBAI: Not long ago, officials in this seaside megalopolis announced plans to retire taxicabs built before 1983.

This was no radical idea: So withered are Mumbai's taxis that they must often shut the radio when they need the horsepower to climb a hill.

But one union leader here didn't like it. Last week he ordered the drivers of 55,000 taxis to strike. A few hundred drivers, needing money, defied him. Strikers smashed dozens of their taxis. Meanwhile, a fleet of newer, air-conditioned taxis, unconnected to the striking union, operated as usual, until mobs attacked its cabs, too. Thousands of officegoers in India's financial capital were stranded.

Five days later, they were stranded again — but for a different reason. A local ethnic-baiting politician was arrested for inciting violence against north Indian migrants. Followers of his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, party flooded the streets hurling stones and bottles, and taxicabs were smashed once again, this time because many are driven by north Indians.

From Mumbai to Bengal to the central plains, violence is achieving an exalted new status even by this region's bloody standards. Politically motivated beating and burning and killing, never wholly absent from the subcontinent, have become more than spasmodic human failings. They have started to replace hunger strikes, sit-ins and marches as the basic tools of Indian political life: guiltlessly deployed, fatally effective.

Forget what you've heard about Gandhi and nonviolence in India. This is a nation of militias now.

"Only nonviolence cannot work," said Sandeep Deshpanda, 34, vice president of the student wing of MNS. "Some people understand only when you kick them," he added, citing an old Hindi adage.

The MNS has come to symbolize this broader phenomenon. Earlier this year, its leader, Raj Thackeray, fired a verbal fusillade against migrants in Mumbai. Young party cadres fanned out and began to thrash migrants in the streets. Then he went after Mumbai stores that print their sign board in English but not in the local Marathi language.

His party is a minority in the state legislature; he runs no organ of state. Yet, as his cadres began to smash the windows of uncooperative stores, thousands of other stores tacked on Marathi signs. The city's appearance changed overnight.

Thackeray's successes evidently left an impression on 1,900 employees of Jet Airways, who were fired last week thanks to the global financial crisis. They rushed to Thackeray's office. He thundered that no Jet Airways flight would leave Mumbai until the employees were rehired.

If an Indian politician said that a generation ago, it might have been empty bluster. Today, the threat was taken seriously enough that the airline's chairman, Naresh Goyal, held telephone discussions with Thackeray. After Thackeray's and others' lobbying, the employees were rehired the next day.

"It is disturbing that workers of Jet Airways sought the help of the MNS when they were given the pink slip," The Times of India newspaper wrote in an editorial. "It is as if they were contracting the mafia to serve their private needs because they didn't have any other recourse."

Political theorists define sovereignty simply. What separates Jordan from Lebanon is a state monopoly on force. In sovereign countries, militias do not decide who drives taxis and doesn't, who is fired and isn't. If this is the definition, it is difficult to call India wholly sovereign today.

Tata, an Indian conglomerate, decided not long ago to build the world's lowest-cost car in West Bengal State. It got into a land dispute. Good arguments surfaced on each side. But arguments matter ever less. Goaded by yet another state politician without a majority, activists besieged the Tata plant, pelted stones at journalists and threatened workers. Tata left the state.

In an open letter to West Bengal citizens last week, Ratan Tata, chairman of the group, wrote that they face a choice between "a prosperous state with the rule of law" and "a destructive political environment of confrontation, agitation, violence and lawlessness."

Maoist insurgents are firebombing their way through central India, winning control over some destitute areas. The government's response? More violence. Government security forces, in tandem with a vigilante group called Salwa Judum, have, according to Human Rights Watch, engaged in "threats, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detention, killings, pillage, and burning of villages to force residents into supporting Salwa Judum."

Meanwhile, Muslim extremists blow up markets, Hindu extremists slaughter Christians and politicians convene commissions.

Whatever its reputation, India has never exactly been a nation of pacifists. Gandhi represented just one strand of thinking, and his view is not the only one to have prevailed. From Kashmir's jihad to various secessionisms to Hindu-Muslim riots, political violence is as Indian as tandoori chicken. Yet in the past it was generally seen as regrettable by people with power. It was rarely a workaday tactic, the way hunger strikes are a tactic.

But in recent years the hollowing of the Indian political center has allowed violence be mainstreamed. The major national parties draw ever smaller fractions of the vote. Challenging them are caste-based and regional parties that narrowcast to electoral pockets. Factional identities are hardening as citizens "vote their caste rather than cast their vote," as a popular refrain puts it.

This political fragmentation pits tribe against tribe. It has corroded the faith among Indians that the institutions that hear and answer grievances — the police, courts, media — are neutral. All increasingly are seen as biased, answerable to their different masters, rather than impartial executors of the public good. All contribute to a growing sense of powerlessness. And so if you are a leader of a political faction that wants to be heard, it is not irrational to believe you need a militia of violent young men to make yourself heard.

Yasin Malik once commanded a militant group in Kashmir, waging war against India. Fourteen years ago, he surrendered his weapons and declared himself a "Gandhian." This week, he told me he is struggling to recruit a new generation to nonviolence.

"Gandhi is the person who created and gave the concept of nonviolence to the world," he said. "He inspired Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. But, unfortunately, in India right now Gandhi is no longer relevant."

"I'm in search of Gandhi in the land of Gandhi," he added. "I've failed to find him."


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