By: Bill The Butcher
This essay is based on a theory; and that theory can be summed up in four words: the worm shall turn.
Let me explain.
A Little Historical Background:
I have, on many previous occasions, spoken of my belief that the latent feudalism in Indians is the only thing that keeps them subservient to foreign and domestic rulers under conditions no other people on earth would long tolerate. This is also, I have said, the reason why throughout the history of this subcontinent, relatively small numbers of foreign interlopers could take control and rule over vast populations for extended periods, using collaborationist sections of the population as enforcers.
Except for a few – very few – occasions, this technique has succeeded admirably; the foreigner has ruled until he was either absorbed into the subcontinent’s population with time, as the Aryans, the Afghans, and the Mughals were. Or else, and much more rarely, the invaders withdrew due to geopolitical events outside the subcontinent. This happened when the Hun tide ebbed across Central Asia; it happened when the Second World War left the British too weakened to maintain a colonial empire. But never did the foreigner leave due to a popular revolution.
Nor, ever in India history that I can recall, has there ever been an instance of a successful popular uprising against any ruler, domestic or foreign, however unjust; and, believe me, over the millennia the Indian subcontinent has had some of the most unjust rulers in world history. In fact, one would be hard put to think of a real popular revolution against an unjust ruler at all, successful or otherwise.
The closest the subcontinent got to that was the so-called First War of Indian Independence of 1857-58, also miscalled the Sepoy Mutiny. In this, regiments of Indian mercenaries in the employ of the Bengal Army of the East India Company rebelled, killed their British officers, marched on Delhi and declared the aged and titular Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II the Ruler of Hindustan. But not even all the regiments of the Bengal Army rebelled, and the other two armies of the East India Company – the Madras and Bombay armies – stayed completely loyal. Several rulers of minor kingdoms threatened by annexation by the British joined in the rebellion, but for the sakes of their thrones, and not for any higher purpose; plenty of other kinglets and princelings clung to the British side. The mass of the Indian peasantry, as always, simply bowed under the storm and tried to let it roll over them. A mere Sepoy Mutiny it wasn’t; but a popular revolution? Certainly not.
Similarly, there never was a popular revolution against the British afterward except on a very local, easily crushed scale, and in terms of popular support the Indian Freedom Struggle was a poor joke. At the very moment, in 1942, when the Congress party under Mohandas Gandhi formally demanded the British quit India, no less than 2.5 million Indians – all volunteers – had joined the British armed forces in a war that was, as far as India was concerned, designed solely to keep the nation yoked to the British crown. It, in any case, stands to reason that a few tens of thousands British (including just about a thousand full-time administrators) could not rule for ninety years over a hundreds of millions of Indians (in 1947, India’s population was 350 million!) unless the latter were willing participants in the process. Not even the artificial Bengal Famine of 1943 – one of several great famines to afflict Indians under British rule – that killed three million Indians managed to rouse enough public anger for an attempted revolution.
It was always the same old story – the willingness to tolerate anything as long as one’s ability to receive patronage wasn’t affected. This is why corruption, cruelty, or incompetence has never been an issue in India; as long as the corrupt, cruel and incompetent ruler, be he despot or democrat, is in a position to dole out patronage, he is a “man of respect” and his position is secure. Only if he can no longer hand out that patronage will he be in trouble; and all that means is that his power base will desert him for someone else who is able to hand out that patronage.
Once Independence came, there was a brief flush of optimism, swiftly quenched when the endemic Indian corruption settled comfortably back into place and it became clear, once again, that this is essentially an artificial nation held together by nothing other than the unceasing quest for individual benefit. Over the years, as the golden flush of hope has dimmed and the nation slipped down the weary slopes of despair, there have been local riots and small-scale insurgencies, but nothing approaching a revolution.
But things are changing now.
The new parameters:
Until now, rulers of India have basically been able to get away with almost anything based on the fact that they could dole out enough patronage to retain control, come what may; but in recent times, that ability is waning quickly.
There are a few definite reasons why that ability is waning:
1. People’s growing expectations.
You can feed monkeys in a cage just enough peanuts to keep them alive, and they’ll likely be content as long as they don’t see the orchard just beyond the zoo boundary wall. But if they see that orchard, where other monkeys roam free and have a far better life, you’re going to have discontent – in very large amounts.
Over centuries, the people of the subcontinent only knew what their rulers provided them; a life of relentless taxation (usually up to, or more than, half one’s produce), ceaseless bloody wars, periodic famine, and only a fiction of justice. They accepted it all because, partly, the dominant religion of the subcontinent relied heavily on fatalism, but much more simply because they didn’t know things could be any better.
But now they know. They know that there are nations where “corruption” is a dirty word and “development” doesn’t mean destruction, where you don’t have to wait literally decades for justice, and where you have the same rights as someone with ten times your funds and property. And when they have seen that, they can look around them and draw their own conclusions.
Once you let the genie out of the bottle, you just can’t put it back.
2. There’s less to go around.
Once upon a time, the ruler of the moment could buy as much support as he wanted because there was so much to buy that support with; the base of the people was an illiterate, unformed mass, and it was only necessary to purchase the loyalty of the local leadership and the minor nobility, landowners and big traders. The land could be plundered relentlessly to fund that purchase, and once the loyalty was bought, that was all that was necessary. But today, you can’t just buy the loyalty of a few top bigwigs and secure your position, because social fault lines go much deeper, and the nation is basically a conglomeration of competing sub-nations, each scrambling for a piece of the national cake.
And while I’m talking about that national cake, its slices are getting rather thin in recent days.
One reason is the exploding population. This is no longer merely an overpopulated nation; it’s a hyper populated one, and also one confined within fairly immutable national boundaries. One can envision India losing some border provinces, but not gaining any territory more than it has now; and therefore, it has to house, clothe, feed and educate these vast and exponentially increasing numbers within those boundaries. It can’t, of course, and it has never made a serious attempt to.
What it has done is try and rule by division and exploitation of those divisions. The endemic Indian caste system and ethnic fault lines (remember what I said about this being an artificial political unit? No country that has to be held together by military force is a real nation) have been extremely helpful so far as that’s concerned; once the leadership, political and economic, of any caste or tribe has been paid off with jobs and tax cuts, hitherto that caste or tribe’s loyalty was in one’s pocket. But that is no longer true. As I said, there are rising expectations, and increasingly, people aren’t satisfied by their caste lords and tribal masters being given power and pelf. They want a share for themselves.
As resources dwindle, therefore, and numbers increase, and the environment is systematically degraded, there’s less and less to go around, and more and more of that is cornered by those who have already garnered the wealth and education that helps them corner it – I mean, of course, the upper and especially the middle class (or, to be strictly accurate, the Great Indian Muddle Class). Some of the wealth does trickle down, of course, but with more and more people to share in that trickled-down wealth, there’s less and less of it to go around.
And what happens when the government comes round to the realization that it’s becoming difficult to keep dispensing enough patronage to keep itself going? Since the entire system is based only on patronage, and nothing more, it can’t change; so the government has to find more means to keep dispensing patronage. This means, basically, that it must rob the poor to give to the rich, because the poor (having no one to dispense further patronage to) are valueless in the feudal system. All poor people can do is consume; they have no value except as voters. And votes, as shall shortly be discussed, are becoming irrelevant.
Therefore, it’s not surprising at all that the government’s economic policies are meant – without being disguised in any way – to favour the rich over the poor, and this is how it keeps the support of the Great Indian Muddle Class. The Muddle Class has only one interest, and that is self-interest, and the government panders to that. The poor, in the meantime, can be (and are) systematically robbed of their homes and fields and forests to make way for dams and factories and mines; their livelihoods are taken away in the name of “progress”, and as long as the Muddle Class gets a larger share of the cake, nobody cares.
Except, of course, the poorest of the poor, who have an even smaller slice than ever before. But they never had anything anyway, so a smaller share of zero is still zero.
3. The loss of faith in democracy:
Everyone knows the standard propaganda by now; India is the world’s “largest democracy”, a “remarkable experiment in democracy”, yada yada. That sounds very nice on the surface, but as every single Indian knows, all that Indian “democracy” really means is holding elections, said elections being meant only for one purpose: to decide who is going to loot the nation until the next election comes along.
Over the last twenty years, Indians have voted into power just about anybody: the (alleged) Centre-Left, the (alleged) Centre, and the (quite genuine) Right. In every case the result has been the same: all round increase in corruption, pandering to corporate interests, and a degradation of the quality of life for everyone except the very, very rich. Having tried everyone there is to try in the electoral field, there is simply nobody else to turn to.
This is why elections in India are now an exercise in cynicism, no more.
4. The increasing ineffectiveness of the “divide and rule” strategy.
One of the standard ways in which the governments of India have carried on in recent years is the strategy of pitting one community or caste group against another. This technique has really taken off since the early 1990s with a major increase of caste-based reservations in education and employment, allied with deliberately relaxed standards for “disadvantaged’ castes. Of course, all that happened was that these benefits were cornered by those castes which were numerically large enough to give significant political benefit, and also the benefits were cornered by those sections of those castes who were already educated enough to take advantage of the reservations, meaning the benefits went to those who didn’t need the benefits at all. For some twenty years, competitive extension of reservations by various governments kept the caste leaders happy.
But that strategy is unraveling fast.
For one thing, you can’t reserve more than 100% of anything. Therefore, if you keep increasing reservations, the time will come (as it already has in places) when you will have to decrease the percentage of reservations given to one caste group in order to accommodate the aspirations of another. A couple of years ago, the Gujjar community blockaded the country’s capital, New Delhi, for weeks after their demands for reservation weren’t granted because these would cut into the share of the Meena community.
Also, since the government’s unchanging economic policies involve the sale (often at throwaway prices) of its assets to private players; the economic space occupied by the government is shrinking and its ability to hand out employment (reserved or otherwise) equally in sharp decline. Despite demands, not even the Indian government is crazy enough to try and force the private sector to introduce reservations, because it knows not just on which side its bread is buttered but who, precisely, is buttering that bread. Therefore, not only is the reservation pie being sliced thinner than ever, as the number of claimants grows, the pie itself is shrinking.
5. The failure of the “Green Revolution”.
Back in the sixties, there was a sudden success story in agriculture. Before that, Indians lived a largely ship-to-mouth existence, dependent on food convoys. But then, with new agricultural techniques, the introduction of tractors, pesticides, irrigation canals and fertilizers, there was such a boom in production that the country actually managed to grow enough food to feed its people…sort of. What it basically meant was that there were no more famines and there was enough food available that – by and large – people didn’t starve to death in large numbers, though, given the inherent cheapness of human life in India and the contempt in which the feudal classes saw (and continue to see) the people, of course some did die of starvation. I remember one case where people were reduced to eating rotting mango seed kernels and some of them died of toxicity. The government of that state claimed that it was a tribal practice to eat rotting seeds and there was no food shortage.
Be that as it may, by the late 1990s the granaries of the nation were full of stored grains, much of it left to the tender mercies of weevils and rats. A committee recommended that the excess be either distributed free to the very poor or – since that distribution would simply enrich the people put in charge of the distributing, this being India – dumped in the ocean.
And then, by the early 2000s, the government was suddenly reduced to importing food. What had happened to those embarrassingly large stocks? The only explanation I ever found was one that claimed they were sold to the US to use as pig feed. Far from impossible, since American pigs are obviously more important, financially, than Indian peasants.
Today, all over India, pesticide effectiveness has decreased dramatically. The land’s becoming worked out, and there’s no fresh land to farm. While a very large part of the crops are still entirely dependent on the rains for water, irrigation projects are suffering because water tables are dropping sharply, and with global warming the extent of rainfall and prevalent rain patterns are changing very quickly indeed. What all this means is that agricultural production has stagnated and begun to fall (and farmers, unable to pay off their debts, are committing suicide in massive numbers).
Also, since the government’s policy is to follow “economic growth” (whatever that chimera may be) at all costs, including the cost of common sense, farmland is actually being expropriated to make way for factories and “special economic zones” where Indian laws intended to protect labourers don’t apply. This means that farmers are, when all’s said and done, being turned into insecure work slaves who can be fired at any point and for any reason – all for the sake of “growth” – and apparently there’s nothing to worry about as long as the Muddle Class is being fed.
6. The collapsing infrastructure.
All around us, the cities are crumbling. The electricity plants are struggling to provide a fraction of the power the population wants. Public transport has by and large broken down, and in parts of the country, like this, public transport has completely ceased to exist. The worsening economic situation in the countryside means that more and more people are migrating to the cities for employment, and social tensions are rising everywhere, just as slums are growing in every available nook and cranny of the urban sprawls.
Experiments with rats (which are very much like us humans in many ways) have proved, over and over, that overcrowding increases social aggression and breakdown of cooperation. As the cities get more crowded and crime rates rise, the police look the other way, and the courts take forever and a day to deliver the littlest judgment, the store of anger is only growing. At some point the dam will be breached.
7. Bandit capitalism.
Everything goes if you have the money. I’ve spoken enough on this phenomenon not to want to repeat myself here.
The shape of an emerging revolution:
Let me say this: India will not have a French Revolution. There will be no cries of “Aux barricades!” There will be no guillotine set up in the middle of Connaught Place to remove the lying heads of political and business leaders. There will be no Marat, no Robespierre.
India will not have a Russian Revolution. Soldiers and policemen will not refuse, en masse, to obey illegitimate orders. There will be no storming of Parliament like the storming of the Winter Palace, and artillery barrages will not roll out from the Delhi cantonment a la the cruiser Avrora (incidentally, I went aboard that ship in St Petersburg in 2005).
Indians simply don’t have the capacity for putting aside self-interest and mutual antagonism long enough to unite to make a proper, recognizable revolution, and that’s probably a good thing, because any such organization would be crushed in an early stage.
Instead, an Indian revolution will probably begin in such a way that nobody will recognize it until a late point in the proceedings. There will be two completely separate aspects to it, both mutually suspicious and disjointed.
The first of these is in the countryside, and has already begun. This is not the space for detailed discussion of the Maoist rebellion in the Indian forests and villages, but it is a phenomenon that has gained increasing government and media attention. The Maoist is the Great Red Terror of India, and in every report of the phenomenon you’ll find a mention of how much harm to business the Maoists are doing.
Yet, the Maoists are hardly new – they’ve been around since the early 1960s; fifty years. It’s only now that the government’s capitalistic cronies are being given the opportunity to plunder the poorest of the poor that the Maoists are suddenly the “greatest internal security threat to the country” (pace the so-called Prime Minister, who has never won so much as a municipal election in his life).
Anyway, the Maoists exist, and the kind of revolution they’re trying to achieve is fairly clear and fairly stereotyped; based on the Chinese model of a peasant revolution, which is at odds with the urban population, the latter being considered, by the Maoists, basically a parasitic burden on the nation.
The much more important revolution will be that in the towns. It has already begun in small ways, with little petty rebellions and blockades and demands, but will snowball once the utter hollowness of the government’s position becomes clear.
Today, food prices are rising through the roof (having more than doubled in the last year), and the government has done nothing, whatever, to curb inflation. Instead, in a move that can only be called rubbing the faces of the average person in the dirt, fuel prices have not just been raised but deregulated (which means they will only head northwards). Since food doesn’t walk off the fields and onto the dinner table by itself, what this will do to prices can only be imagined.
Food riots, therefore, are only a matter of time. Crime levels will certainly escalate. Water and power supply will continue to be worse than poor. People will increasingly look for someone to blame.
At first, the blame will go to the migrant, whether from the villages or from other cities. They, it’s already being said, steal the food out of the hardworking mouths of the “son of the soil”; they are dirty, noisy, breed like rats, and take all the education and employment opportunities the natives ought to have as a birthright. Therefore, these migrants must be blocked from entering, and those who are already there have to be thrown out. We’ve already seen this in many parts of the country, especially in Bombay.
When this happens, the villages might well retaliate by blockading the cities, and cutting off food supplies, railways and roads. If the government tries to clear these blockades by force, all it will do is further alienate the rural people, something it can’t afford to do too much with the armed forces because the average Indian soldier is still a barely educated village hick. So, caught in a cleft stick, it will do nothing except make promises, which people have already learned not to believe.
The next stage in the cities will come with the creation of virtual city states, each zealously protecting itself against theft of its food, water and electricity by others. Once this happens, de facto balkanization is only a matter of time, with each of these ministates forming its own economic policies and its own understandings with the hinterland. And once that stage is reached, the fiction of India will fully be exposed.
I can’t predict what will happen after that, whether the Maoists will roll over the country (chances slim) or, as is much more likely, the nation will dissolve in anarchy and random violence. But at the end of it, this old order will go. India, as it now is, is doomed, and there’s nothing this feudal system can do to stop it.
The Great Indian Muddle Class will, of course, defend the old order to the last, but they will be its only defendants. The super-rich can afford to quit and go elsewhere; they can pay their way into the citizenship of all those affluent Western nations where they spend half the year in any case. The Muddle Class, fearful of the loss of its newfound luxury, will do whatever it takes to cling on for as long as possible. But the Muddle Class is outnumbered by the poor four to one – and in the long run, even the ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations were done for without their slaves. Once the Muddle Class is forced to come back to the real world, they’ll very soon find their cherished dreams are the stuff of moonlight and air.
Yes, there will be efforts to stop the fragmented Indian revolution, but these will have as much effect as this famous tale about the Viking king Cnut the Great: (quote from Wikipedia)
Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, tells how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes; but the tide failed to stop. According to Henry, Cnut leapt backwards and said “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.” He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again.
That’s exactly how much success the opponents of this revolution are going to have.
Roll on the tide