In the work-in-progress schizophrenia that is India, the past decade was one of rude shocks. A smaller, less dispersed and less economically diversified country may well have wilted under such a hail of chaos.
Riots in Gujarat in 2002 sharpened the polarity between Hindus and Muslims. Terror strikes from imported and home-grown jihadists regularly peppered several cities; it marked Parliament in 2001 and scarred Mumbai in 2008. Kashmir continues to bleed bodies, the economy and national psyche, and, to a lesser extent, so do Manipur and Assam—adding to the general mess of leadership egos and sledgehammer, kleptocratic rule.
More farmers have died this decade by suicide driven by expensive farm inputs, debt and warped policy than since the starvation deaths brought on by the great famine of the 1940s. Near-total abdication of governance and justice led to the rapid spread of extreme left-wing rebellion led by Maoists in six central and southern states, with three more in partial churn. In turn, this bred a cynical compact between the government and business to eject rebels from mineral- and resource-rich areas, using state-sponsored vigilantes riding on police and paramilitary forces.
Gaining ground: A file photo of members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) carrying out training exercises in Chhattisgarh
The state-controlled Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, for example, has killed scores of innocents, razed villages and forcibly corralled tens of thousands in squalid camps in the name of protecting them and their land from Maoist incursion. (In 2007, I heard the chief minister of Chhattisgarh compare Salwa Judum to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s way of non-violence.) Such mayhem in what I call Out-Land—out of sight of the urban, middle-class India of the In-Land, and so, less worthy of policy and media attention— has not been seen since the Naga and Mizo wars of the 1950s and 1960s. Now, the government of West Bengal is employing a similar tactic.
Altogether, bad blood overtook one-third of the states in India. Meanwhile, all through the past decade, India consistently scored low on all parameters except those that denote overall economic growth. It is rated by global institutions as being among the most corrupt in the world, among the poorest in terms of absolute numbers of the poor, and among the least healthy and least literate. Deep-rooted official corruption and inefficiencies haven’t yet been dented by the welcome—though gradual— spread of the Right to Information Act; and increasing political maturity of the electorate. Such a situation leaches cohesion.
How much more of this India can take will depend on how quickly governing and Corporate India—on all sides of the political divide—prevent further slide. And, by doing so, rise above the perpetual crisis-management mantra of “India is resilient”. Self-fulfilling prophecies can have a bad day at the bazaar.
The dangers lie in fault lines becoming sharper. The jihadist element has the power to terrify India, but not yet fracture it. Worst-case situations of renewed schism in the North-East will severely reorient India’s political and defence priorities, but not fatally hurt the hub and heart of India.
That hurt will come from within. The overriding issue of governance remains the go/no-go factor in India’s make or break.
The Maoist rebellion is not the only issue. While it has spread into new areas in terms of operations, propaganda and recruitment, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and other, smaller rebel organizations are under pressure from the police of various Indian states, and Central agencies and paramilitaries under the ministry of home affairs. Several senior and mid-level Maoist leaders have been arrested or killed in the past two years. Big strikes against careless Central Reserve Police Force troopers in Chhattisgarh in 2010 have bolstered the Maoist morale—if only for a while.
Current policy initiatives in the Maoist sphere and elsewhere are worrying as these appear not to be oriented to solution, but to maintain conflict at “acceptable levels”. As I have earlier written in this newspaper, counter-insurgency capabilities take precedence over addressing issues of administration, education, job creation, food security, rehabilitating the dispossessed on account of projects or natural calamity, and issues of migration.
Such attitudes will trigger deep political and geographical implications, beyond the likely reality of more states born out of a demand for better governance and development— some estimates suggest close to 50 states from the present 28: Telangana, Bundelkhand, Vidarbha, Marathwada, Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttar Kannada, Dakshin Kannada, Gorkhaland and Bodoland, among these.
A prescient report by New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research as far back as 1997 still offers some of the best future commentary. “A demographic explosion over the next 50 years will create any number of political, economic, social and environmental tensions,” warned the report titled India 2047. “The different growth rates of different communities, castes, and regions could become a political time bomb… Above all, the consumption standards of the poor will be eroded by rising numbers.”
Pressure will come to India much earlier. In 2020, India’s urban population will have gone up from around 23% of the total at present to 40%. In absolute numbers, this would mean an increase from around 290 million to 540 million—an immense challenge, even with a rapidly growing economy. Alongside, while the proportion of rural population will lessen, it will still be in the region of 820 million. The same area, 350-400 million more people, and around the same number of new jobs to be created. In addition, there is the enormous challenge of providing basic services such as adequate food—in roughly the same amount of arable land as at present—clothing, housing and water. The pressure will increase with every successive decade. According to an estimate, the “replacement level” (a couple replaced by two children) should ideally have been reached by 2000. This “stabilization” of population is unlikely to be reached till the close of this century.
At current levels of incapable irrigation, uneven agricultural productivity, and increased rates of rural displacement on account of direct human intervention (watershed and water-table loss, deforestation, projects, conflict), human displacement will be on a scale larger than anything seen thus far in India, I suggested in a paper written earlier this year for a private think tank. What of the effect of people on the move with nowhere to go, but already crushed urban and semi-urban zones?
If India proves incapable of dealing with such intense dynamics, greater schism is inevitable. India is already a country of vast city-states. The National Capital Region, Mumbai-Pune, Chennai-Bangalore, Kolkata and other existing and emerging metropolitan hubs will grow continually. It isn’t any longer far-fetched to foresee these In-Land hubs emerging as autonomous areas with controlled access, with vast spaces of lesser, forgotten development falling away into null zones beyond the pale of governance by the Republic of India—Out-Land, ruled by armies of rebels and ambitious warlords.
India will have brought fracture upon itself.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of several books, including Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country,and is a professional member of the World Future Society, Washington, DC