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India needs to give up its colonial mindset, embrace Gandhi's ideals

If India has to truly give up its colonial mindset, it must reform the bureaucracy, remove undue privileges for those in power, offer firm, enforceable and many more protections for ordinary citizens and decide on a growth journey that does not mimic the destruction that the West and China have wrought on the environment. 

Jagdish Rattanani Sep 13, 2022
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Mahatma Gandhi

“The emotion and structure of the Rajpath were symbols of slavery, but today with the change in architecture, its spirit is also transformed,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sep. 8, inaugurating the new vista called Kartavya Path (path of duty) and putting behind what has been known as ‘Rajpath’, or Kingsway, “the symbol of slavery … erased forever”, as an official statement put it. 

These steps are said to be in line with Modi’s second of five vows (‘panch pran’ for a New India) in the I-Day speech this Aug. 15: “in no part of our existence, not even in the deepest corners of our mind or habits should there be any ounce of slavery … We have to liberate ourselves from the slavery mindset which is visible in innumerable things within and around us.”

It is true that there are innumerable things that make ordinary Indians live and work with a slavish mindset, not the least of which is the way ordinary Indians grovel for their rights before the brown sahibs that took over and continue to rule long after the white ones left. One of the biggest contributors and perpetrators of this slavery is the way officialdom treats citizens – labourers beaten during the lockdown imposed after Covid-19 struck; citizens beaten outside ATMs immediately after demonetisation; the difficult conditions under which we get simple services like an Aadhar card, a driving license, a transport permit; not to speak of laws that could keep an ailing 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy in jail, right to his death, shifted in his last days to a hospital bed but still under custody. The tyranny of the State, ever present in Independent India, has gotten progressively worse. This cannot be a sign of freedom from a colonial frame that sees people as wayward and needs to be watched and controlled.

At one end is a range of legacy issues that made the Doordarshan-era teleserial Rajani popular in pre-liberalised India because the protagonist put up a fight for simple, everyday issues – a cooking gas cylinder, a phone connection, a petty loan. In a liberalised India, some of these services are in abundance after the State contracted them out to the private sector.  But we also suffer from creeping corporate control and growing corporate power so that workers inside and customers outside take what they get.  

Privileged bureaucracy, exploited citizenry

Every customer is not created equal. Quality of service gets linked to spending power and the revenue the customer generates. We have not been able to protect the rights of most workers and consumers. It makes privatisation sometimes look like a takeover by a new set of moneyed sahibs. This cannot be freedom, particularly for those who remain at the bottom of the pyramid.

The topmost echelons of our bureaucracy remain protected and are fed with housing, cars with beacons, peons and helpers at home and office. The job continues to be coveted with promotions etched in time, not performance. This legacy of the British Raj, in which “orderlies” are paid by the State to polish an officer’s shoes and iron clothes, cannot be a sign of decolonisation. We have not fixed these age-old issues that feed into a colonial way of working, right at the very top of the government bureaucracy. It is not surprising that the rest of the bureaucracy continues in the same tradition, exercising power, control, and privilege for anything but the service of the people. This, too, is not a sign of decolonisation. Some things have changed but this is more a case of too little, too late.

 In fact, whichever way we look, the ordinary citizen has fewer and fewer protections from the might of the State and lately of corporates who rule lives and provide critical services, but are not easy to hold to account, particularly when those down the line do the asking.

But the biggest of all is the way India has bought into the idea of what a developed nation might look like. Currently, it is all about the aggregate numbers at the top. We can gloat over how our GDP is now greater than Britain’s while refusing to acknowledge that it means nothing for how ordinary people live, or how in per capita terms, India is almost one-twentieth of the nominal per capita GDP of the UK.

A blind race for the GDP number also signals that India has chosen its path to be an unfettered kind of industrialisation under which care and maintenance of the abundance of nature are sacrificed at the altar of extraction, production and consumption for the benefit of a few.  In this, we appear to find our nirvana in a development model that has brought no joy anywhere in the world but has delivered the destruction of natural systems.  This industrial-era growth in the Western mould is a path of follies of the West that has become a path of the East. So, while there is a movement towards the green economy in the West, slow as it is, we continue to run an extractive economy that we wish to grow faster and faster. A recent example is the “development” assault on the Aarey forest region of Mumbai, and the attempt to dilute orders on the use of forest land. 

Development over environment?

A former Union environment minister once said environmental laws should not hinder development. This path runs against what is traditionally Indian. It cannot be a sign of the decolonisation of India. It is colonisation on a bigger scale than ever because we have overthrown one set of masters in the British but built a new set – in India, the brown sahibs and globally, still the white sahibs who have somehow led us to believe that consumerism is the way of the future. Ideas of instant gratification, mindless consumption and thoughtless production are not a sign of freedom from a colonial mindset that seeks to copy and imitate the exploitative models of the West.

If India has to truly give up its colonial mindset, it must reform the bureaucracy, remove undue privileges for those in power, offer firm, enforceable and many more protections for ordinary citizens and decide on a growth journey that does not mimic the destruction that the West and China have wrought on the environment. All new innovations will come from this space, and we should not be surprised that we missed the new era because, well, our colonial mindset stopped us from seeing the path ahead.  This means we must embrace our planet and all nature as living, thriving, breathing systems that nourish and sustain us – a deeply Indian way of thinking that goes back to our roots. 

This takes us back to the classical Gandhi – the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed – a very decolonised way of thinking that is now fashionably quoted (if not followed) all around the globe. It is true that Mahatma Gandhi emphasised duties over rights but he also showed us how it was a duty to stand up when rights were taken away by an unjust and unfair colonial system.

(The author is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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