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Indian “renaissance” fiction

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Wednesday, 19 July 2006

The recent news that co-ordinated bomb blasts have ripped through Mumbai is no more than can be expected in a country governed by the incompetent. While the gravity of the attack is certainly shocking, no one should be surprised that it occurred. That’s because India’s government has always found it difficult to guarantee law and order.

Not just an issue in Kashmir, insurgency remains a problem throughout the lesser known states - such as Assam and Meghalaya - in the northeastern region near China. The perception that India is struggling to provide security might be a far cry from the “India Shining” tourism advertisements promoted by the government, yet 150 of India’s 600 districts experience Naxalite violence.

Travelling by train is an unforgettable, and uniquely Indian, experience. Sadly, it is also a risky one. Quite apart from the threat of terrorist attacks however, incidences of rapes, murders, and robberies are also relatively frequent occurrences within the train system. Unfortunately, that’s not surprising either.


Part of the problem lies in policies that divide, rather than unite. Affirmative action policies for the backward castes were at one time designed to be a temporary measure. But as economist Milton Friedman once said, “There is nothing more permanent than a temporary government program”.

Rather than being reversed, as one might expect in a so-called “tiger” economy, politicians are considering extending reservations based on background. Predictably, quotas on entry to higher education have caused tension among those who argue for merit based programs. The Anti-Reservation demonstrations this year showed that beyond a certain point, affirmative action becomes counterproductive because of the resentment it creates.

The Indian “renaissance” is itself, of course, a product of fiction. Yes, economic performance has contributed to a growing middle-class. However the majority of people continue to struggle against corruption and mismanagement. Those in poorer rural areas have no opportunity to prosper given the pathetic state of infrastructure. Perhaps fed up with bribing local authorities for even the smallest service, a common goal among Indians appears to be the sending of their children to study abroad.

Questions have also arisen over India’s democratic nature. Writing in the journal Freedom First (April-June 2006), Firoze Hirjikaka asks whether India fits under Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy as “government of the people, for the people, by the people”. While voting ensures a government “by” the people, the nexus between politicians and criminals does not in any way reflect the decent, hard-working people of India. So can Indian governments be governments “of” and “for” the people?

I doubt it. Far too many politicians are former criminals who have become cabinet members to enjoy the benefits of public life. Poorly constructed electoral laws are primarily to blame. As salaries for MPs remain pitifully low, so too does the calibre of people attracted to politics.

Socialist policies since independence in 1947 have led to an entirely avoidable situation where 250 million people live at, or close to, the poverty line of $US1 a day. It would not be an exaggeration therefore, to describe India as a predatory state: a kleptocracy, feeding off its own people.


It’s something reflected in the culture that promotes politicians to “god-like” status. Travel in metropolitan India by road for any significant period of time and you will encounter nightmarish traffic jams, often brought about each time a VIP decides to play golf. Can we seriously expect behaviour such as this to not cause tension?

Whatever terrorist group is held responsible for these despicable acts, violence will continue as long as authorities gloss over simmering resentment from their own policies.

But Indians are used to living with fear, and the terrorist attacks will no doubt be taken on the chin. This same admirable trait, which allows adaptation within a perverse regulatory environment, will guide Mumbai through this tragedy.

For this reason however, no violence in India should be surprising. When people are pushed to the limit by a government that does not care, the results are predictable.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University Law School.

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