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Vande Mataram in Gorakhpur: There’s a chasm between dreams of Indian nation, reality of Indian state

Nationalistic pride fills in for systemic shortcomings and inequities.

Last week, Times Now’s Navika Kumar went to town berating those Muslim politicians who refuse to sing Vande Mataram. Ever since a part of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s poem was adopted by the Indian National Congress as the national song in 1937, some Muslims have rejected it as idolatrous. Hindutvavadi politicians know a wedge issue when they see one. They’re exploiting Vande Mataram fully by forcing students and legislators to sing it. Communally minded Muslim leaders are equally savvy, and have consolidated their base by lining up against mandatory singing.

There is symmetry in the motives of these Hindu and Muslim leaders, but no equivalence of logic. The conscientious objectors are right in pointing out there exists no constitutional or legal requirement for Indian citizens to sing the national song. I hope it stays that way. Those like me who heard it almost every day for ten years, have a Pavlovian response to it. It evokes memories and emotions that are good or bad depending on whether we liked or hated school. Since I fall in the “hated school” camp, I’m fully with the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi in not wanting to sing it. I just wish Owaisi and his ilk would be consistent in standing up for individual freedom in other cases. This would involve not demanding the arrest of writers who read from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, for example.

Getting back to the national song, during one of Navika Kumar’s prime time scream-fests on the subject, a panellist raised the issue of infant deaths in Gorakhpur, the constituency of Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has been in the forefront of the make Vande Mataram mandatory movement. The Times Now anchor accused the panellist of “running away from the real issue”, and reaped a whirlwind of critical tweets.

The flowery praise of the motherland, described in Bankim’s verse as a giver of ease, contrasts rather harshly with news coming out of Gorakhpur. The clash of the two in the week leading up to the 70th anniversary of Independence exposes the gap between dreams of the Indian nation and the reality of India’s state.

Gandhi and Nehru

The primary nature of nations is symbolic, while states are political and economic entities. Put the two together and you get a composite creature called the modern nation state. Nation states combine an ideological realm, a sense of shared values and culture, with a practical domain defined by matters like citizens’ incomes, education levels, health, and safety.

Independent India took shape as a Gandhian nation and a Nehruvian state. The differences in their respective visions is obvious. One focused on non-violence, village life, and on respecting religious belief systems while reforming their inequitable social foundations; the other was internationalist, urbane, and concerned with economic progress through industrialisation. There was enough common ground in their shared ethic of autonomy, self-reliance, tolerance and pluralism for the Indian nation state to appear relatively coherent.

The state that developed under Nehru, however, possessed features he would be hard pressed to defend. It was dominated by a heartless bureaucracy with little accountability and no great concern for the powerless. Some would say it was largely a colonial inheritance. I believe this theory over-states the importance of the Raj, but don’t have space in this column to explain why. Whatever its origins, under Indira Gandhi the Indian state grew monstrous. It wasn’t as dreadful as certain other newly independent states, for sure, and could boast of a few bright spots, but was terrible by any objective measure.

Liberalisation led to a speeding up of economic growth, and a consequent reduction in levels of extreme poverty, but also an abdication by many in government of the state’s responsibilities. Amitabh Kant, a powerful bureaucrat about whom I wrote a recent column, exemplifies that abdication. Travelling to affluent regions of the world where governments provide excellent education, health care and security from cradle to grave, Kant returned not with a better comprehension of how the state could better invest in basic services and infrastructure, but a conviction that private capital was better suited to deliver those things.

Instead of developing a will to transform the state, we lost faith in the state’s potential in the era of liberalisation, and failed to harness the gains in revenue from a quarter century of high GDP growth. The state itself remained substantially unreformed through that process.

Technology-driven initiatives

There have been a few alterations, I admit. Narendra Modi’s speech from the Red Fort on Independence Day highlighted technology-driven initiatives towards greater efficiency, for which he and the Bharatiya Janata Party deserve credit. Even Congress haters accept that the United Progressive Alliance’s institution of the Right to Information Act was a major step in making government more transparent. But these and similar pieces of legislation and programmes have not and will not change the fundamentally opaque, obstructive, and unresponsive character of the Indian state.

The Modi administration, like the Congress before it, has done almost nothing to make government officers more answerable to the public and to the criminal justice system. Corruption at the highest levels of the central government is by all accounts lower than it was under Manmohan Singh, but the layers of government with which most citizens interact are as rotten as ever. Instead of well thought out legislation promoting accountability, we have faced harmful stunts like demonetisation. Whistle-blowers from within the system, meanwhile, are guaranteed harassment and demonisation.

The dozens of preventable deaths in that Gorakhpur hospital last week encapsulate much of what is wrong with the state, as will the whitewash that is bound to follow. But such tragedies, though disturbingly common, make headlines all too infrequently. The talk on television channels and social networks revolves around nationalism and nationhood. We debate national boundaries, national songs, national traditions and national heroes. We argue about what goes in school books, what can be shown in films, what ought to be worn in college, whom we can desire. These and a dozen other issues related to culture and history that generate much heat and little light on prime-time debates are important. I do not want to diminish their significance, for nation states cannot be expected to exist without debates on the nature of the nation.

What is missing is an equally urgent discussion about the nature of the state. Absent that conversation, our idea of India becomes unbalanced. Nationalistic pride fills in for systemic shortcomings and inequities. Our sense of ourselves and our place in the world is uncoupled from the way most of us live.

Playing ball

One of the best basketball players in the world, Kevin Durant visited India last week to promote the game. Driving to the Taj Mahal, he was overwhelmed not just by the grandeur of the monument but by the squalor surrounding it. He came with no preconceptions of India, and naively spoke of how shocked he was by what he saw. He has since apologised for giving offence, probably prodded by a sponsor with business interests in India, and been subjected to racist abuse by Indians.

Durant’s unmediated response to what he saw is telling. The divide between the Indian nation and the Indian state is a bit like the gulf between the Taj Mahal and its surroundings. I hope a time will come when the symbolic and the practical will come closer together. However, I’m pessimistic about that happening because Indian thought is peculiarly comfortable with a separation between those two dimensions. The Ganga, no matter how filthy, is always perfectly pure.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.