Saturday, June 11, 2011
Turning back the clock
India is in danger of being seen a land of snake-charmers and sadhus all over again
If you are of a certain age, then you will remember a time when the very mention of India invited references to snake charmers, elephants, cows and naked sadhus – though not necessarily in that order. When India was seen as the ‘mystic’ East, where people went to find themselves when the materialism of the West had sapped their souls.
This was a time when the word ‘India’ evoked a world of (sometimes dodgy) spirituality, where gurus preached a message of love, peace and grooviness to an entire generation of drop-outs (otherwise known as hippies). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught the Beatles how to levitate after some light transcendental meditation (even as Pandit Ravi Shankar signed them up for sitar lessons). Then came Bhagwan Rajneesh, later re-styled as Osho, another magnet for disenchanted foreigners, whose Pune ashram was run as a haven for ‘free love’.
India was seen as the land of mysticism and spirituality, where people were more concerned about the consequences of karma than the benefits of globalisation.
Such was the power of this stereotype that people who visited India were always a bit taken aback to discover just how ‘modern’ it really was. Okay, there were still some cows moving lazily across the highways while traffic screeched to a halt to avoid them, but other than that India wasn’t anything like the image they had conjured up in their minds. Most people spoke English, there weren’t any snake-charmers in sight, and everyone was more concerned with making a good living rather than spiritual development.
But no matter how hard we tried to push the image of modern, dynamic India, powered by an ever-younger population, the stereotype of a backward, tradition-bound land persisted.
And then, suddenly, everything changed. It began, I suspect, with the IT revolution, with Indian software talent taking over the world. And by the time such companies as Infosys and Wipro had wiped the floor with the global competition, India had a brand-new image. In the span of a decade it had gone from the land of gurus and the Gita to a spanking new incarnation: Geek Nation.
India’s new avatar was the stuff of global headlines, as the international media went overboard to declare us the success story of the new century. The platitudes piled on. The world was flat; and India was soon going to take it over. We were going to go from software powerhouse to a global superpower. The 21st century belonged to India.
But last week, as I sat in front of my television, at 2 am in the morning, watching the chaotic scenes at Ramlila Maiden as the Delhi Police tried to evict Baba Ramdev and his band of followers with a lathi charge and tear-gas shells, all that talk of being a global superpower seemed like so much tosh.
The world may have anointed us as an emerging economic power, as the proverbial land of opportunity, but from where I sat, India was once again looking like a land of snake-charmers and sadhus – even if the sadhu in question travelled by private jet and ran a business empire worth millions.
A putative superpower was having its political agenda set by a bearded yoga guru whose list of demands included the provision of death penalty for all economic offenders and the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes. And instead of dismissing this as bunkum, the government was actually engaging with the godman in question, sending a delegation of ministers to receive him at the airport and inviting him for discussions in a friendly neighbourhood five-star hotel.
That was bad enough. But when the Baba refused to play according to the script and call off his fast, the government reacted with all the finesse of a Soviet-style heavy, sending in the cops to shut down the rally and serve Baba Ramdev with an externment notice which kept him out of Delhi for a fortnight.
And what did that achieve? Well, it put the Baba squarely centre-stage in Indian politics, with everyone – from the far Left to the extreme right – coming out to condemn the police action against him. Even those who thought him a reactionary lunatic, even those who didn’t have the slightest sympathy for his cause or his methods, were left with no option but to stand up for his right of peaceful protest in a democratic state.
And thus, thanks to the ham-handedness of the government, Baba Ramdev effortlessly went from sant to saint. A man who believes that yoga can cure cancer and that everyone guilty of tax evasion should be hanged is now the rallying force in Indian politics.
And just like that, India has reverted right back to being a nation of sadhus and snake charmers – both in our eyes and in those of the world watching in rapt disbelief.
How on earth did we get here? Where did things go so spectacularly wrong? At a time when the whole world was cheering us on past the finish line, how did we manage to drop the ball?
And why on earth did we revert back to stereotype quite so easily?