Impressions of India, Via Chenai

I was last in India (Mumbai) exactly this time last year.  I am now in Chennai, attending a conference at the University of Madras.

India, to say the least, is a vast and diverse country, sometimes in ways hardly imaginable to those not familiar with a subcontinental nation that has 2 official national languages (Hindi and English, though Urdu is spoken by many Indian Muslims), and 22 official regional languages.

In Chennai I became reacquainted with a little bit of Tamil, the language spoken by the indentured Tamil labourers on the British rubber plantations in Malaya where I spent time growing up.

India since 2014 has been governed by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) headed by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Modi combines Hindutva (a form of authoritarian Hindu communalism) with neoliberalism.

Modi and Trump, from the beginning, formed a mutual admiration society, based on a shared enthusiasm for a combination of neoliberalism and their respective ethno-nationalisms (though there are reports of Trump mocking Modi’s Indian-accented English, which is hardly surprising, given the ample documentation of Trump’s racism).

These ethno-nationalisms are fantasy-based, overwhelmingly, and thus incapable of dealing with the challenges faced by vast multi-ethnic countries with complex societies.

Hence, Trump’s projected Mexican Wall (laughably, to be paid for by Mexico according to him) is a Potemkin attempt to deal with, or rather sidestep, the complexities of US immigration, just as the BJP’s monumentalizing of Hindu shrines (which has as its corollary the incendiary calls made by more radical BJP politicians to destroy mosques because unlike Hindu temples they don’t count for these sectarians as sacred buildings) has nothing concretely to do with ensuring that ordinary Indians, Hindus even, have the right to a decent life.

Neoliberalism– the quintessential ideology of the 1%– is not going to meet the needs of those, both in the US and India, who are much more likely to be its victims than its beneficiaries.

As if to confirm the symbiosis between Trump and Modi, Don Jnr showed up while I was in India, ostensibly on a tour of Trump properties in that country, but also to take part in a “business summit” alongside Modi and other cabinet ministers, and to do some huckstering on behalf of Trump-family business ventures.

Individuals who bought a luxury apartment in a Trump Tower were invited to dinner with the remorseless killer of prized wild animals.  According to The Guardian: “Full-page advertisements reading “Trump is here. Are you invited?” featured on the front page of three Indian national newspapers at the weekend ahead of a visit by the US president’s son to India this week”.

India’s One Percenters are besotted with the Trumps.  The ability of the Orange Swindler to get the American political system to do pirouettes for him with a click of his stubby fingers, and his ability to cash in on those pirouettes, is viewed with envy by these One Percenters, who long for something similar to be available to them in India.

Another visitor to arrive as we were about to leave was Canada’s neoliberal prime minister Justin Trudeau.  Trudeau decked himself out in over the top Bollywood-style outfits, and became an instant object of ridicule on Indian social media.  My Indian friends told me Trudeau’s attire was more outlandish than most of the stuff Bollywood has created.

Fidel Castro, Trudeau’s reputed father, must be turning over in his grave.  As we know, Fidel gave up his simple green combat fatigues for equally simple Adidas tracksuits when he retired– his supposed son would probably have been “corrected” in the appropriate way had he lived in Cuba.

Incidentally, the UK’s Brexiteers, many of them white “nativists”, are using their version of ethno-nationalism for neoliberal ends akin to Trump and Modi.

Brit ethno-nationalists, obsessed with fantasies of “pure” Aryan origins, had their timbers shivered last week by an archaeological finding, and subsequent DNA analysis, which revealed that their earliest known British ancestor, discovered on British soil no less, the so-called “Cheddar Man”, was dark-skinned or even black (albeit with blue eyes).  It is of course not uncommon in the US for white supremacists to be discomfited in somewhat similar ways when discovering hitherto “unknown” facts about their ancestry from, say, long-lost papers in the proverbial box in the attic concerning a horny and licentious slave-owning great-great-great-great grandfather.

Such revelatory occurrences are however rare for Brits, whose ancestors of owned their slaves abroad, which made the Cheddar Man discovery all the more delicious.

Some white Brits, uninformed about human migration patterns in prehistoric times, and of course by now deeply anxious about their supposedly “pure” lineages, even went on the internet to suggest that Cheddar Man may really have been a foreign “visitor” to their island.  So, perhaps– 10,000 years ago– he could have flown there from Asia or Africa on a jumbo jet?

Dying in their country in his 20s (according to the DNA analysis), Cheddar Man’s fantasized journey on foot to the British Isles from Asia or Africa, without maps or GPS, must have begun when he was an infant or in the womb, or even in a previous incarnation.   And how would this bold adventurer even know that Britain existed, in order for him to “visit” it?

The desire to maintain one’s “purity” of ancestry exists in India as well.  A few weeks before I arrived in Chennai, a minister of another state insisted that evolution had been discredited by the fact that there is no record of anyone seeing an ape turn into a human.  He drew the conclusion that it should not therefore be a part of the school curriculum.  Americans are of course just as well-acquainted with such claptrap from their backwoods.

Talking to taxi drivers, shopkeepers, academics, students, and strangers who would strike up a conversation, was highly edifying in a few respects.

The first is that the Gandhian project, continued by the Congress Party which governed India for decades after its independence, of a single and unified India, with “unity in diversity” as its governing slogan, is under great stress.  Faced with a choice or emphasizing unity or diversity, Indians are opting for the latter– an impression that was confirmed by many of my interlocutors.  This is evident in a number of ways.

Modi and his supporters, by opting for Hindutva, have put Gandhi’s ideology of coexistence under strain.  For upholders of Hindutva there is no basis for thinking that other religions can exist alongside Hinduism on equal terms.  Quite simply:  they can’t.

Emboldened by their government’s underwriting of Hindutva, Hindu mobs have lynched those suspected of eating beef, the cow being a sacred animal for Hindus.   Muslims are the main targets of these Hindu vigilantes, and in one case reported by the BBC, the meat involved was not even beef but mutton (which in India is goat-meat).

Several states have imposed bans on beef and its associated products, prompting many outraged Indians to go on social media to say that dealing with India’s notoriously lax attitude to rape and sexual assault should be a higher priority.

Adding pressure to “unity in diversity” are the regional nationalisms.  Perhaps the best known is the desire of many Sikhs, in India and in the Sikh diaspora, to have the state in which they reside, Punjab, become the independent nation of Khalistan.  But Sikhs aren’t the only ones.

Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu, and what was evident is that the linguistic demarcation between Tamil (which belongs to the Dravidian family of languages), and India’s Sanskritic languages has taken on political overtones.  It is, after all, a relatively easy step to move from “the people who speak X” to “the X or Xish people”, and from that identification of “a people” to the political basis, always unifying and homogenizing, for the life of that “people”.

When the conference I attended in Chennai was opened with the Tamil Nadu anthem (and not the national anthem of India), I asked some conference attendees if I was to understand this as the manifestation of a separatist impulse, and a couple of them who were Tamils said they had nothing linguistically in common with speakers of India’s Sanskritic languages, and thus saw no reason to be yoked to a polity in which non-Tamil Indians were hegemonic–  the Indian national anthem was thus “inauthentic” for them.  As they saw it, “India”, historically, has pretty much been bad news for the Tamil language and culture.

In any event, they went on to say, India “the nation” was a British concoction dreamt up for its own administrative convenience as India’s colonial ruler.

All this comes with a caveat.  I’ve lived, for decades each, on three continents, and am well aware that what someone tells you about their place is invariably conditioned by how they want you to perceive that place.  I do the same as well.

So, was I having my impressions here shaped by my interlocuters, albeit with no malice intended, or indeed any intent, on their part?  I can only truly find out by living here for a few years, which is not on the cards.  So “impressions of …” it can only be, in this way falling short of certifiably “warranted opinion”.

Another strong impression, apart from the Tamil/Dravidian nationalism noted above, is the intense interest people here have in politics.

Nearly every discussion of length that I had (and less so with academics, who wanted, understandably, to talk about our respective fields and intellectual interests), gravitated to politics.  Conversations usually started in two ways.  “Where are you from?” elicited my answer “I’m a Brit living and working in America”, and that quickly led to a discussion of Trump and American politics.

Another question “What do you think of India/Chennai?”, was met with my diplomatic answer (“On the one hand, but then on the other….”) that ended with my request for more information from them about India/Chennai.  This in turn led to a discussion of Indian politics.

Tamil Nadu is not a BJP stronghold.  The ruling party here is the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a Dravidian party, which is also the third largest party in the national parliament (Lok Sabha).  Tamil Nadu politics is faction-ridden, and both the AIDMK and the opposition DMK (the two had once been a single party), are riven by factions.

Patronage is an important part of Indian politics, and this is conducive to factionalism, as ambitious politicians seeking access to patronage networks believe they have a better chance of success if they can establish their own base of support in order to take on those already feasting at the patronage table.

For now, Modi, ever the wily operator, and knowing it will not be easy for the BJP to make electoral inroads in Tamil Nadu, is courting both the ruling AIADMK and the DMK, each with a record of corruption, by dangling the prospect of favours in front of them.  He does this by purporting to be a leader “above parties” who is merely “making friends” in Tamil Nadu.

Modi’s blend of neoliberalism (the euphemism he uses is “development”) and Hindu nationalism is regarded with suspicion in many quarters.  Many people in Tamil Nadu believe that their chances of achieving social justice, denied them for so long, will be enhanced the more their Tamil identity is respected and taken into account in policy-making.

Modi though can only pay lip service to this demand for Tamil identity to be valued– his real motive is ulterior, namely, to get the top corporations driving neoliberalism to see that only he can run the governance system which promotes their interests, that only he is in a position to guarantee the underlying state-organizational “space” (involving already enacted corporate tax reductions, privatizations, and the weakening of environmental regulations) enabling them to amass their obscene wealth.

Modi is perceived to be relatively free of corruption, and being a flashy dresser is his only publicly visible form of ostentation.  But that has not stopped him from giving a virtual free pass to India’s lootocracy (to use a term of CounterPuncher Rob Urie).

In addition to the above, Modi is developing a cult of personality.  His face is on billboards everywhere, and on posters in government buildings.  These tout the leader’s “achievements”.

One my last day in Chennai I needed to mail a few items back to the States.  Sure enough, there was a poster of Modi at the post office stamp counter.  Someone, clearly not a member of his fan club, had decided to get creative with their felt-tip pen and turned the official poster-image of Modi into a cartoon-image of the devil.  I took  the photograph below:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.