New Delhi

In India, the line between the sacred and the secular is a thin and wavering one. Together, they weave a web, and the web is spun by its people who are also its captives. The gods do not reside in some towering cathedral or remote shrine; they establish themselves in kitchens, storerooms, offices, even vehicles. In a land where a bus or taxi driver hangs an oleograph of a deity on the dashboard and decorates it with garlands of fresh flowers, where merchants set an idol upon their cashboxes and shopkeepers do not begin their trade before lighting incense and intoning prayers to their chosen god, the presence of the divine is so pervasive as to become intimate and familiar, woven into the texture of everyday.

In the present time, in which the laws and whims of politicians and bureaucrats are as pervasive and powerful as those of the gods, not only must a minister be propitiated before he will issue a license, allot a house, or award a pension, but so must every clerk through whose hand the relevant file passes. A railway booking clerk alone can decide whether to allow you to travel or not, and even a postman is capable of holding back your mail or a plumber of keeping a drain blocked until he receives a favor. Such men become the earthly variants of the gods, as demanding of devotion and appeasement. Like the divine ones, who are subject to passions, whims, and caprices, they too are unpredictable, impetuous, and fickle, and must be courted and placated if one is to make one’s passage through life: register a birth, admit a child to school or college, obtain a job, receive medical aid, a house, a pension. Each gathers about him his courtiers, and requires a bodyguard, to bolster and protect his power. Power is not possible without money, and money must be obtained by every means at hand. When every petty clerk and district official wields such authority over the lives caught in his little local web, imagine the might that resides at the center, on the throne of Delhi!

Democracy has not altered that system to any great degree. It calls for periodic elections, true, and asks each man and woman to make a decision and voice an opinion—but how is this put into practice? The strongman of the village, or locality, will choose his candidate for parliament—one who will naturally return the favor later—and announce his decision, threaten anyone who shows an inclination to go against it, and—to make certain he does not get away with it under cover of secret balloting—sends his henchmen to fire some shots over the heads of the queue waiting at the polling booth, scatter the people, and go in to stamp all the ballot papers themselves. Or sends them in the night before to wrest the ballot box from the election officers and stuff it with suitably stamped papers before anyone else has a chance. More effectively still, a recalcitrant voter or two may be gunned down as an example to others or, even better, an opposition candidate can be simply eliminated. Does the hero of the standard Bombay film not vanquish his opponents and win the heroine by wielding an AK-47 or a Kalashnikov?

This newfangled system of voting can be settled best by violence; violence alone proves a point dramatically and irrefutably. In the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, synonymous in the minds of most Indians with backwardness, illiteracy, and crime, the police have either stood by and watched helplessly or actively colluded with the local strongmen. The passions that overtake a politician when an election is announced—and already when it merely appears as a speck upon the horizon—is the passion to acquire power, even if only a shard of the power that glitters and tantalizes at the center, in Delhi. To achieve it, there are no lengths to which he will not go—don saffron robes and the prayer beads of a holy man if necessary, or tear down a mosque and build a temple if it will please the Hindu majority, or nominate film stars and cricketers in a bid for popular appeal. And, of course, spend stupendous sums of money.

It is not that the Indian voter, the man in the street, is more gullible or passive or easily threatened or seduced than people elsewhere. He may watch the election campaign open-mouthed as though it were a tamasha (show) or Bollywood (film made in Bombay) melodrama. But he is no longer a mere spectator and the government is no longer a distant, invisible Raj that does not concern him. Sitting in the village tea shop under that clichéd banyan tree, or working on a building site or road repair works in a city to which he has gone to earn his living, he hears the promises made by politicians of Rama-rajya (the rule of Rama, the golden age), sees the promises held out by advertisements on television and cinema screens, of ease, comfort, pleasure. Yet he cannot reach out and grasp them. He finds himself as helpless as a fly caught in the web of the social system and of bureaucracy. His emotions on watching the power play of caste and class are no longer passive and fatalistic: one may still find docile fatalists among the older generation, but none among the younger. He wishes to express his opinion—and sees he must fight to have it heard. So much is at stake, and he is willing to fight. The politician may assume he is a god or a raja, but such assumptions are being questioned by the earthlings, the mortals. The politician must descend to earth and engage with him on the level on which he lives.


The Nehru family became synonymous with the Indian polity through the generations—from Jawaharlal Nehru, who personified the wise, noble leader of the nation, through his daughter Indira Gandhi, with all the fire and electricity she created around herself, down to her son Rajiv Gandhi, who came to politics reluctantly but took to it as to the manner born. Between them they kept the Congress party in power almost all through India’s independent history, and so it came to stand for continuity, and stability, and the Nehru family became as familiar as the Hindu pantheon to the populace of even the most distant village and hamlet to which the finer details of political activity had barely filtered. The inclination to see them as a dynasty is not inexplicable in a country that has been ruled by one dynasty or the other since the Aryans arrived in the second millennium BC. Nor is it entirely an Oriental aberration—Britain, with centuries of success with its parliamentary system, still retains its monarchy, as do a number of efficient Scandinavian countries, while America seemed to come close to a parallel with the Kennedy clan. What is extraordinary is that a family that has dominated the political scene for half a century has also convinced the people that it has done so democratically, and that it represents progress.

The conviction was established by Jawaharlal Nehru, a Cambridge-educated Socialist of the early Fabian school, who worshipped the rivers, forests, and mountains of India with an Aryan passion but also had a vision of India as a self-supporting industrial power and, during his lifetime, initiated the change from a traditionally rural and agricultural society to an urban, industrialized one. The vast steel plants at Rourkela and Bhilai, the mammoth Bhakra Dam, the space research and nuclear power program (“only for peaceful purposes,” it is always quickly added), and the monolithic city of Chandigarh built by le Corbusier at the foot of the northern hills became symbols of this vision. But, like the monoliths of Egypt, they towered above the people without altering their lives in a sufficiently rapid and beneficial way.

When Indira Gandhi came to power—she was said to be “groomed” for it by her long and close relationship with her father—the people, with the new technology within their grasp, began pressing for faster progress and chafing at the restrictions placed upon their new ambitions by the rigid bureaucratic system devised to control all development through a central power. Her younger son, the ill-fated Sanjay whose career was cut short by his death in a plane crash, represented this impatient new ambitiousness in the manner in which he overrode all legal and constitutional norms in setting up an automobile plant in collaboration with Suzuki. The elder son Rajiv Gandhi’s brief term in power between 1985 and 1989 saw the coming to bloom of the new commercialism in India, and the establishment of the new middle class—the small shopkeepers and petty traders of the past breaking into the new era of enterprise and entrepreneurship. The cities became filled with the rural poor desperate for a share in the new wealth, streets became noisy with the urgent little Maruti cars, marketplaces overflowed with goods, shoppers jostled to buy what they had seen advertised on television the night before—Wrangler jeans, Benetton shirts, track shoes, and Pepsi-Cola.

There were those who wondered at the young prime minister’s insistence on the necessity of computers in a country where few schools or offices had electricity; others who thought he was trying to counter poverty with potato chips. Nevertheless, the movement swelled through the Eighties into a stampede. The aggressive and the unscrupulous pushed ahead, others fell under their feet and were trampled. Millions found themselves held back for lack of an education, technology, economic power, or out of the restrictions placed on them by the ancient traditions of a caste-bound and hierarchical society. A huge wave of resentment swelled even as cities flourished, skyscrapers rose into the sky, and streets resounded with traffic. Those left outside the orbit of prosperity became more visible, the contrast of their lives more shocking, for they still lived in slums or encampments of shacks with no water, health care, schools, or even food, small children being sent to work in order to stay alive, and every attempt made to improve their lot hijacked and subverted to benefit the middlemen along the way.


The two currents—one upwardly mobile, frenetic, and charged with ambition, the other seething with bitterness, frustration, and a hunger for a share in the profits—have been meeting and clashing with increasing violence through the Eighties: the air resounds with the clash, steel on steel. The aggression and bullying of those who have, and the despair and rage of those who have not, affects the whole fiber of society and is reflected in their manners by increasingly brusque and explosive speech, vehement and threatening gestures, violent acts. To live in India today is to live in a constant state of tension, conscious of the explosive forces building up under a surface no longer calm and likely to erupt at any moment.

The riots in Delhi in the early 1980s when the youthful and impetuous Sanjay Gandhi tried to forcibly sterilize slum dwellers and remove them (“resettle them,” he said) to camps outside the city, the devastating bloodiness of the military assault in 1984 on the Golden Temple in Amritsar where Sikh secessionists had entrenched themselves, the riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in which Sikhs were set upon and killed by Hindus, the riots in Ayodhya when members of Hindu revivalist parties broke through police cordons in an attempt to pull down a mosque and build a temple in its place, the riots by upper-caste Hindus in 1990 when V.P. Singh, briefly prime minister, declared his intention to increase the number of places reserved for the lower castes in educational and bureaucratic institutions, the increasingly militant demands for separate lands by Sikhs in Punjab and Muslims in Kashmir and the United Liberation Front of Assam…these have marked a decade of India’s life with their fires and blood.

The web so intricately woven by political and religious threads, by the sacred and the secular, has no seemly pattern, no orderly design: it is tattered and frayed by assault and agitation. Other nations have gone through such periods of change—the Industrial Revolution of Europe is often cited as an example of what is happening in India now: it, too, was marked by injustice, rioting, and violence. But nowhere else was the situation so complicated by the religious, linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity of a people as in India, or subjected to the impossible pressures of a population that has reached totally unmanageable proportions. One can find a parallel in the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia of the growing demand by states with widely differing ethnic and cultural identities for control over their own administration, trade, industry, and educational policies; and in India too a mistake is being made in seeing these movements as secessionist and antinational instead of an inevitable movement toward federalism. That is the natural outcome of a period of centralization.

The dream of a single, unified nation persists, and it is not exclusively modern, independent India’s. It was the dream of every invader who entered India through its high mountain passes on horseback and with sword in hand, from the eighth century onward, inflamed with the passion to conquer the whole of the land. It lay behind the pious desire expressed by British imperialists “to unify India”—an illusion pursued by those who keep alive the fantasy of the “Raj.” It is a dream that has proved stubbornly resistant to the realities of the time, with its demands and aspirations. In a country with such an immense and rich diversity of religion, language, culture, and race, one might think it a natural development to hand over authority to each cultural unit over its own way of life; held together by a federal system, but functioning independently on a much smaller, more manageable scale, it might finally become a dream that works.

Why can such a development not be brought about peacefully, through the parliamentary system of democracy? Is there something inherently wrong with the system, or is it India’s interpretation of it that carries in it the seed of destruction? It is probably both.

The parliamentary system that was conducted with relative dignity and propriety under Nehru’s leadership, failed to take into account the urgency of the problems at hand. Nor was he above a godlike, or raja-like, inclination to think of himself, the father of the nation, capable of making all the decisions for all the people. Had he not been lawfully elected by the people to speak and act for them? In Indira Gandhi’s time, politicians wrested more power into their hands by breaking all legal niceties that were seen as restrictive or delaying, and so she could declare a state of emergency and seize extraordinary powers when she felt threatened. All down the line politicians began to grasp at power without waiting to win it. Of course they could not act in this manner indefinitely—Election Day was inevitably Judgment Day—and it was necessary to have the support of large enough numbers of people—“vote banks,” they came to be called. So the politicians played one community against the other, one religion against another—Muslims against Hindus, Hindus against Sikhs: a dangerous game to play, bringing all their feudal instincts, and all their medieval statecraft into account.

Rajiv Gandhi, like his mother and grandfather before him, might have liked to “rule” India without having to involve the opinions and prejudices of all his unruly countrymen: it would have been neater, quieter, more orderly that way. He would have liked his liberalism, his lack of prejudices, and his commitment to modernization taken for granted. But even he had to woo the electorate, and by pleasing one group inevitably antagonized another: if you grant a favor to a low-caste sweeper, you enrage a high-caste landowner; if you appease a Muslim, you arouse the suspicion of a Hindu; if you grant additional benefits to an industrialist, you deprive a farmer; if you spend on defense, you neglect education and health care; if you build a dam, you destroy a forest…. The seeds he assiduously sowed came up as swords.

There are many who suspected Rajiv of having a hand in the killing of Sikhs after his mother’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. There are Hindus in Kashmir who felt Muslims had been pampered and conditions created for a Muslim insurrection in the state; there are Muslims who suffered atrociously in the military reprisals against them. There are many supporters among the Tamils in the south for a Tamil state within Sri Lanka who hate him for having sent the Indian army to Sri Lanka to help it put down the movement for Tamil Eelam, and recently for forcing the resignation of the state government of Tamil Nadu that he suspected of har boring and encouraging the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) During the election campaign this last month, the Hindu revivalist party of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had seen in Rajiv and the Congress its only serious rival and obstacle to success: since the Congress party is effectively the Gandhi party, without him it is crippled.

The elections are being held, a mere fourteen months after the last, because Rajiv had suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn the support he had promised the minority government of Chandra Shekhar, thereby causing it to topple prematurely. Any one of these groups or communities or parties could have been party to his assassination. So many hatreds, so much bitterness and frustration exist—how can it not express itself, eventually, in violence? One’s initial reaction to the news of his death—“Impossible!”—very quickly gave way to the admission that it had been not only possible but probable all along, and that it was only a matter of time before the drama arrived at its climax.

Even in Hindu mythology, the gods do not merely recline upon a pink cloud as they rule the universe; it is a part of their godliness to come down to earth and woo or vanquish the earthlings in courtship and battle, and blood will surely flow.

The climax has been reached, predictably bloody and awful, and a period of catharsis follows for India. Watching the funeral pyre flame and flicker, one could be forgiven for thinking one saw India upon that pyre, burning, out under a sun half-obscured by smoke and the dust of the open cremation field. Not in the sense that Rajiv Gandhi represented India and with his death it is extinguished, but in the sense that the fires that have been lit are likely to rage further and higher and engulf the entire country. Then, perhaps, a clearing will be made in which a new beginning will sprout.

This Issue

June 27, 1991