By Vidyarthy Chatterjee
Contrary to what she is often made out to be, India is not a poor country. Rather, India is a rich country, the majority of whose people are so poor as to have a tough time securing two meals a day. India is a rich country with multitudes of starving and half-fed men, women and children because practically her entire wealth has been cornered by a handful of family-owned and other corporates with the active support of successive crony governments at the Centre and in the States cutting across political and ideological lines. But arguably, never before in the history of independent India, have corporates been allowed by the State to call the shots with such impunity as is the case today.
The ascendancy of the far-Right in Indian politics, especially in the past five or six years, has seen the steady whittling away of the rights of the working man. The past few months have been truly catastrophic as far as the fate of the ‘hewers of wood’ and the ‘drawers of water’ in this country is concerned. In one fell stroke, the Narendra Modi government has snatched away, among other things, the right of the worker to an eight-hour working day which was a basic entitlement down the decades. The working class ( and its leaders) have been told in no uncertain terms that in view of the so-called emergency in the economy, they will have to work for twelve hours a day, maybe longer, with no overtime pay or related facilities. Worse still, the employer would have the right not to entertain any questions in this regard from any quarter. Henceforth, there will be no court of appeal for dissatisfied workers.
In other words, using its brute majority, the BJP dispensation has struck down a long and glorious history of struggle and sacrifice whereby the working class had earned the right to an eight-hour working day. The central trade unions have criticized the move as unlawful and autocratic; a lawless law carried out in violation of the spirit of democratic accountability; and an outrage devoid of any moral sense. But who is listening, in this season of fear by disease or starvation, and all–round confusion? Truth to tell, on hindsight, the abrogation of trade union rights during the 19-month ‘declared’ Emergency in 1975-76 seems no more than a pin-prick compared to what workers and their families are being made to suffer in the present times, that is, an ‘undeclared’ Super Emergency, which may well extend to an unspecified number of years.
In this connection, the role of the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the labour arm of the BJP, should be subjected to severe questioning. It is anybody’s guess why the organization is not coming out against the draconian measures adopted by the Modi government. It would seem that the Prime Minister’s consolidation of personal power with the support of a handful of high-profile faithfuls in both the BJP and its ideological master, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is at the moment so complete, that no one has the guts to question his authority. But, one would have thought that for the sake of its own credibility, the BMS would go through certain motions of assertiveness; put up at least a token resistance to the dangers facing the working class. But even that was, perhaps, too much to ask for in the present climate of compromise and easy acceptance of conditionalities imposed from above.
However, coming to think of it, it should not be difficult for us to accept that the present culture of dishonourable accommodation is nothing new in Indian politics. The strength of conviction and solidity of character needed to oppose the excesses of a so-called ‘louha purush’ or ‘louha netri’ have always been in short supply in Indian society. It will not do to forget that in the days of Indira Gandhi, rare was the voice of dissent in the Congress. But, admittedly, the situation now is far worse, what with the media and even large sections of the academia burning the midnight oil to be on the right side of the demagogue in democratic disguise, also known as the ‘hriday samrat’ of the average Hindu, sorry, Hindutvawadi citizen.
It may sound bizarre, but it would seem that in the time of corona, the gods are fighting on the side of the godless. What else to make of the calamitous social and economic conditions caused by the pandemic, which are proving to be so handy to the power brokers and conmen of majoritarian politics. Taking full advantage of the popular helplessness induced by the visitation, as also the feeble resistance put up by a disunited and emasculated Opposition, the Centre is driving its juggernaut any way it pleases, no matter which section of the poor and powerless comes in its path. Corona is an unprecedented curse to hundreds of millions, but may well be considered an unexpected windfall for the ‘haves’ and their political patrons.
It is nothing short of black magic that a rich country like India should suddenly become very poor, may be even bankrupt, when asked to share its riches on a war footing with the jobless and the starving; more specifically, with those trying to make their way home hundreds of miles away on foot. A whole college of distinguished economists from Amartya Sen and Abhijit Bandopadhyaya to Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian has gone hoarse asking the Indian government to release enough funds to reach some cash, or a little cash along with a little food, to the country’s working class and other equally affected sections of society. They have been arguing that safeguarding the economic health of the country is no doubt important, but it is wrong to neglect the question of public health or that of the survival of the poorest.
But as it appears, the government, ever-mindful of the debt it owes to the corporates in many ways but principally by way of their huge donations to the BJP’s election kitty in 2014 and 2019, has allowed itself to ignore the advice of the economists. It has had no problems caving in to pressures exerted by employers, managements, and the chambers of commerce. Like Trump in the United States, Johnson in Britain, or Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi is a willing creature of the tycoons; of the demands of the capitalist market, what if in the process, the working class and other vulnerable sections in the present scenario of shrinking survival opportunities, are thrown to the wolves. Television footage of migrant workers run over by speeding trains and trucks, or of dead bodies of workers being fished out of train compartments, or, most poignant of all, an infant trying to wake up its mother lying dead on a railway platform, may leave a mark on ordinary viewers, but is not quite enough to move the stone-hearted ‘jan-sevaks’.
Perhaps the workers of the world also need to take a part of the blame. It’s been a long time since they last united in a focused and determined manner against those agencies which they have always known to be hostile to their daily interests. Since the workers of the world failed to unite, their traditional oppressors united with greater energy and enterprise than ever before. One does not need to be told that the policies pursued and methods adopted by governments, international financial institutions, indigenous moneybags, foreign multinationals, and last but not the least, their toadies in the newspapers, the television channels and the universities, are getting more sophisticated and more sinister with each passing day. The present globalised order makes it particularly easy for some people of power and privilege to pursue their agenda of exploitation and marginalization against those who earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow.
Till roughly thirty years ago, many artists and intellectuals would show by the nature and quality of their work, their concern for social justice without allowing it to interfere with the depth and focus of their art. In many cases, art and activism would fuse unobtrusively to show the imperfections of the human condition caused largely by the wrongdoings of political operators and their protégés in business and industry. Thirty years later, artists and intellectuals are still there but, apparently, not too many are bothered siding with the abused and the wronged. It would seem that, like careerists everywhere, they too, have been influenced by post-modernist inclinations to dismiss the need for ideas and ideologies of resistance. Sadly, this has led to a political/philosophical bankruptcy causing capitalists to rejoice and, conversely, their victims to sink deeper and deeper into the mire of dejection, if not outright resignation.
Yet, the thought that we shall overcome someday, cannot be allowed to die out. The lakhs of Indian workers who have been so outrageously victimized by the Modi government will ideally, turn around and stage a comeback once the anxiety and panic of the pandemic recede. Notwithstanding his many faults, Man is too noble a creature to die on the ‘rajpath’ without a struggle like a dog. And Covid-19, however satanic it maybe in its reach, longevity, or capacity for sheer evil, cannot be a fixture for all time to come. When the disease lessens or, hopefully, disappears, where will the perpetrators of impromptu injustices on a scale that the working class has never experienced before in free India, hide?
Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema and politics