Mind the gap

Trust respected journalist and editor Mrinal Pande to use her experience to trace the fault lines between Bharat and shining India. Her just-released title, The Other Country runs the scanner on this divide. In a freewheeling interview, she speaks of this gap, the dynamics of nation-state politics, elections, the unseen 'gormint' and why the media seems to have forgotten rural India

How vast is the divide between Bharat and shining India? Will the two meet ever?
It is hard to say when, if ever, the gap between India and Bharat will disappear. At the moment what is more likely (the best case scenario), is that the gap between the rural and urban poor may narrow down at the levels of access to power and water, literacy, over all longevity, basic kind of subsistence level wages and healthcare. But the gap between the poor and the urban rich will narrow down marginally if at all.

According to Mrinal Pande, villages and remote towns continue to remain elusive to our mainstream English language newspapers and TV news channels, except during elections

Also, some basic attitudinal gaps between the urban middle class and the rural agrarian cultures will remain. Up until the 1950s, urban and rural India had retained some kind of convergent, compatible rhythm.

Most families living in cities then maintained living ties with their family village through a steady stream of visitors, or the family going for regular vacationing to family homes to renew ties with the larger, extended family and caste brethren. 

Today, even though modes of transport, access to villages (through improved telecommunication, roads and trains) has improved a great deal, few urbanites other than government development functionaries actually visit rural India for extended periods.

Even the academe researching rural India, will get its basic data gathering done by groups of vernacular speaking unemployed researchers from the adjacent small towns. Their reports are therefore factually and politically correct but short on warmth and human detailing. I find this worrisome.

In course of extensive investigative journalism across the country, have you noticed any other India?
During my travels I noticed that as democracy takes root the urban stage begins revolving faster but despite the fact that rulers at village level will change just as often, the pace of daily lives and thinking among even the young rural voters remains slow and their dreams are mostly of escaping to the city ASAP, not staying back to fight what bothers or inhibits them.

Because of this, at the state level, the political fulcrum rotates slowly and socio-political reflexes revealed at the time of elections are feudal and non-democratic. 

By making caste and religion the decisive factors for electoral decision and policymaking, in the post-Mandal years we have strengthened caste based Panchayats and religion based personal laws even more. These could have faded out in sixty years in a non-partisan, secular democracy. But it has not happened.

The Other Country, Mrinal Pande, Penguin Books, Rs 350. Available at leading bookstores

The Other (shining) India is there but it is usually visible in occasional glimpses of an urban woman from slums daring to dream audacious dreams of economic freedom, human dignity and a better future for her daughters, but it is still tenuous and person centric.

The Dalit rising and OBC rising, one would love to believe heralded a new, more equal India, but at closer analysis you find this India identifies up with the dominant upper castes, not down, where they could nuzzle close to and help their own kind.
The result is what MN Srinivas called, a Sanskritisation of the upwardly mobile lower castes. that adopts the same love for Brahminical religious ritual, a predilection for dowry, for keeping women at home, decked up in suhagan (wedding) outfits that restrain their natural energies and creativity and a deep dislike for the girl child.

It would be unfair to pinpoint  incidents, but were there any episodes that impacted you deeply?
For the really poor the democratic government is non-existent. I am still haunted by the words of a woman wage day worker I met in Bhilwara in Rajasthan during a long drought. "What is gormint (government) Bai Sa?" she asked me. "Anything we do or say even if we are dying of hunger has to be referred to it first.
But we never see it. We could see our Raja or Zemindar earlier. Now, we can go see our gods in temples, even the fish in ponds when they break surface, but not Gormint. If there is no Gormint, who is fooling us and why?"

Have you noticed a fall in realistic reportage about India's villages?
Villages and remote towns remain elusive in our mainstream English language newspapers and (outside of elections) TV news channels. It is for our reporters and most of the editors, an alien world, animated by a rhythm different from the one that perpetuates the lives of People Like Us (PLUs).
TV and new-wave Hindi cinema have lifted the curtain a bit and admitted the lowly villagers and small town aam admi to the highest and exclusive salons, but it has not demystified them, only made them look somewhat funny (like Lalu) or sinister (Omkara) or cute and exotic (Dabangg, visuals of Rajasthan's Sathins dancing with Hilary Clinton).

In this transition from a feudal, agrarian economy to a democratic republic, with fast-growing cities, belief in the urban nature of democratic discourse is one of the basic tenets of social culture. The new social media is deepening this. But considering India's size and population, and that historical change takes long time, it will be a while we we become a secular democracy for all Indians.



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