Monday, December 01, 2008

The unforgotten dream

Drinks were being served at Mumbai's Leopold Cafe yesterday. The backpacker haunt that was among the targets of last week's terrorist attacks opened for a few hours in a show of back-to-work resilience. There are likely to be more such small, brave gestures today, as south Mumbai gets back to business after a three-day bloodbath. Politically, the aftermath has already begun, with domestic recriminations. There is great international anxiety too about the strain these attacks will put on the fragile relations between India and its similarly nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan.

Stories this big move on quickly. What began with a bunch of gunmen running around the southern tip of Mumbai could turn out to have regional, if not global, implications. Before that happens, it is worth clarifying why those outside the Indian subcontinent should worry about the terror attacks of last week. Because the rest of us should care very much, although not for the reasons offered so far. Some have painted this as an assault on capitalist modernity, but those descriptions of India's supposedly glittering showcase city barely convey its sprawl and uncomfortable disparities. Mumbai is far too vibrant to be a mere showcase. Others see last week's attacks as a continuation of the story that began on September 11 2001. Until the problems of the Middle East are resolved, they argue, this is to be expected. To speculate on motives so soon is a fool's game, but India makes for an unlikely imperial power - it was not even one of the 49 members of George Bush's coalition of the willing.

Both those explanations seek to fit the attacks on India into a western story. Whether it is capitalism under fire or blowback from the Middle East, this is somehow our narrative in a foreign script. But India is not some adjunct to western politics. When the country won independence, in August 1947, it took on large and noble ideals. One big reason why the world should care about what happens in India is to see what becomes of those values.

This was something western intellectuals used to understand. EP Thompson, whose father had deep links with Bengal, remarked that India was "the most important country for the future of the world". The eccentric biologist JBS Haldane, who relocated to Nehru's India, defended his new home as "a better model for a possible world organisation. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment." Indeed, if there is such a thing as an American Dream, it is not too fanciful to talk of the Indian Experiment - a heroic attempt to preserve democracy and pluralism and tolerance in a poor country with more than a billion people. Nationalism is often little more than identity politics waving a flag, but when Nehru remarks in his Discovery of India that his country "is a myth and an idea", it is hard not to read more into that than mere politician's rhetoric. Similarly, when the constitutional preamble declares that India is to be a secular, socialist, democratic republic, it invites scepticism, to be sure - but it also lays out benchmarks against which a still-young country can be judged.

India has obviously fallen short of its vaulting ambitions over the decades. Any list of where it has gone wrong would have to take in Kashmir, the failure to provide serious opportunity to many Indians, and its recent embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Still, India remains that miracle, a billion-strong pluralist democracy. One was given a grim reminder of that fact as it was disclosed that dozens of Muslims were among the Mumbai dead. The country also retains a rough political accountability, where a car giant's plans for a vast factory can be derailed by peasant protests; imagine that happening in the People's Republic of China. India is not what its founding fathers would have dreamed, but it has not yet forgotten those dreams. After the horror of last week, that is surely worth some small celebration.

editorial, The Guardian

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