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The old ghosts of India show their faces again

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In Brief

What happened in Mumbai will not shake India to its foundations. India is tough and has weathered bigger storms. But the highly symbolic attacks dramatise a much wider set of struggles: the product of growing wealth for some and a revolution in communications.

The spectre haunting the nation is the old ghost in new clothes - class conflict, propelled by the same communications revolution that enables it to launch moon probes and claim recognition as a global power. In the new media age, awareness of injustice and disparity is growing among the poor, along with a sense that "we're not going to take this any more."

It will be some time before anyone knows for sure who was responsible for yesterday's calculated lunacy. But we can be almost sure among them will be young men left out of the prosperity a growing minority of Indians have experienced. Religion sometimes propels violence, but deprivation and injustice are felt around the country. Last month 12 police were killed by suspected Naxalites in Bijapur, eastern India. It was the latest encounter between police and Naxalites or Maoists, who are leading a resistance by tribal people and landless labourers in a belt snaking from Nepal down the highlands of eastern India. Near Kolkata, the attempt by Tata, a giant conglomerate, to build a factory for the new cheap mini-car the Nano was chased away by landholders mobilised against inadequate compensation for their land. Tata announced earlier this month it would build the factory elsewhere.


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Scholars, policy-makers and politicians debate whether disaffection among India’s 140 million Muslims results from poverty and disadvantage rather than religious alienation. A poll by Outlook magazine showed close to 80 per cent thought economic divisions were responsible for religious conflict.

In the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit (former Untouchable) woman, Mayawati, led her party to an election victory last year, becoming Chief Minister for the fourth time; that would have been unthinkable three generations ago. A government report last year estimated that more than 75 per cent of Indians spent less than 20 rupees (62 cents) a day to live. But Mukesh Ambani, one of the world’s richest men, is completing a new $1.5 billion house in Mumbai. Until the current generation, two things mitigated India’s disparities of wealth: the ideology of caste and the isolation imposed by poor communications. You accepted the role of the caste into which you were born and believed that your next life would be better; you aspired eventually to escape the cycle of rebirth.

But in the past 25 years a communications revolution has transformed India. Once it had virtually no television; now there are more than 50 TV news channels, and a quarter of the population have mobile phones. The lavish Ambani lifestyle is now portrayed on TV and discussed in newspapers whose total circulation has multiplied by six times and approaches 100 million papers a day. Governments based on the old elites realise the dangers. Class disparities allow outsiders such as Mayawati to build new political parties. Ridiculed by the mainstream media, Mayawati and her associates used mobile phones to organise hundreds of local campaign meetings and won 206 seats in a legislature of 402 members. She is the non-violent side of conflict. For two generations, violent upheaval in the countryside has been possible. Today the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, intended to provide 100 days of paid work a year to the rural poor, is a centrepiece of the national coalition Government’s strategy to attack poverty and rural disquiet. Its critics decry the act as a temporary solution to win the votes of the poor, not lift them out of crisis.

Yet India’s resilient political system opens various paths to the future. Mayawati’s capture of legislative power suggests the capacity in a democracy, however flawed, for outsiders to become insiders; ultimately, that changes the system itself. At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities are gun battles in remote forests between marginalised zealots and the Indian state.

India is in the midst of six state elections with results to be announced on December 8. National elections are due in the first half of next year. Nationally, the ruling coalition of the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, will face a formidable challenge from a rival alignment centred on the Bharatiya Janata Party, which stresses Hindu identity to paper over class divisions. Events in Mumbai will almost certainly turn the national poll into a tough-on-terrorism election, which will favour the BJP.

India’s communications revolution, which the perpetrators of yesterday’s carnage are exploiting, will continue to propel its rulers to interact with the world and seek recognition as a great power. The same process will drive the poor to compare their lives with those of the rich and powerful. In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks the challenge for the Indian state has not changed: it must find ways to dull the jagged edges of class disparity.

This article first appeared as an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald. You can find it here.

One response to “The old ghosts of India show their faces again”

  1. Agree with your general content. But, a few elements mark the difference in this attack.The entir nation is shocked ( unlike after the Delhi/Hyderabad/Ahamadaba, etc. attacks.). For the first time the public reacted against the political class, and prevented any major political party to capitalise on it. thirdly, India’s vulunerability to maritime terrorism is thoroughly established.(see, p.v.rao,”Mumbai Attacks: maritime Vulnerabilities.”

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