March 6, 2014.
At 218 in 2013 and 237 in 2012, one would expect a national outrage on the unusually high number of body bags returning to India from Qatar. One would think especially so, for the fact that these body bags belonged to Indian citizens. It must have incensed even the apologists of neoliberal regime for whom the idea of citizenship might be passé but still value the significant foreign remittances sent by those who came back in the body bags, remittances that the country so desperately needs.Read the rest here.
Shockingly, the body bags failed to evoke even an acknowledgment from powers that be. Nobody even knew, in fact, until Nepal, that tiny neigbour perpetually in transition, took Qatar to a task for the 385 body bags it had received in the same period; during the construction of stadiums and other buildings for the 2024 world cup hosts. No one in the Indian government seemed too bothered, even after that, despite the fact that the death of Nepalese migrant workers had angered everyone from the international human rights organsiations to the The Fédération Internationale de Football Association(FIFA), who rose to the news and confronted Qatari administration.
The silence of Indian government is understandable; it has rarely shown much concern for its citizenry that lives inside the country forget those stuck in foreign shores, by choice or compulsion. Nothing can explain, though, the baffling silence maintained by its otherwise emotional citizenry that seems to perpetually wait for invitation to acknowledge some hurt or other over its sentiments. Had India suddenly ceased to be a republic of hurt sentiments? Going by the recent developments, including the recall and pulping of Wendy Doniger's academic book, The Hindus: An Alternative History by its publisher over the “hurt” it caused to some obscure hindu organistions despite a vast majority of Hindus including its priesthood having had no objection to the same, it has not.
The Indians, have been notorious for getting hurt by anything and everything under the sun. Tell us about an “offensive” book and our emotional hearts would be enraged enough to burn bookstores down and make a bonfire of invaluable manuscripts. Know that, if you must, we are most likely to do it without even having a cursory glance at the book, let alone reading it. Tell us about a still under production movie depicting our culture in poor light still under production, and we can even put water on fire.
Ironically, Indian do not even need religious, sectarian, or whatever other names such zealots choose for themselves for getting hurt. We can feel offended at will and then go on correcting that by assaulting the source of that hurt and with it basic tenets of democracy. Being the self designated largest democracy of the world helps after all. We can burn our books without needing to have a Taliban like that ‘failed’, ‘rogue’ and always- at-war –with- itself neighbor for doing such small favours.
Where has this hurt gone, then, when the body bags were piling up? Why were they so blissfully unaware of and we sleeping to the the kafala system prevailing in Qatar for contractual migrant workers. For the uninitiated, workers are tied to their employer and not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without permission under this modern incarnation of slavery. If there were enough indications for the government that a tragedy is building up in Qatar, there were even more for the citizenry. The body bags were returning to villages and towns these workers Indian citizens if one needs to be get reminded were from.
*****Comment: This article is an important contribution to a protest that is mostly ignored.
Unfortunately the problem is at one level a matter of expendable life under capitalism. Another level is rampant conservative nationalism that describes India's current historical moment.
Capitalism could care less about the loss of lives in Qatar; the FIFA World Cup must not be derailed because it showcases the neo-liberal emphasis on capitalized development.
Most if not all the workers who return in body bags are poor and many are from lower caste communities that do not have the wherewithal to protest this degradation of universal human rights.
At the other level Hindutva nationalism is more preoccupied with Wendy Doniger's book and others that point to the troubling rise of fascist-like preoccupations of purity and telling the right story.
Watching all of this from the outside makes me wonder about the course of nationalism and its almost inevitable drift to ultra conservatism.
Is it inevitable that India will, like the US, become a police state armed to the teeth and willing to kill at will to 'protect' what it constructs as its national values?
The upcoming election in India and the rise of Modi will tell us a lot about this question is my thinking. For more discussion see "Narendra Modi: India's saviour or its worst nightmare?" (Guardian, March 6).
I always worry about any tendency to ban books and speech in any country. These tendencies are red flags not to be ignored.
Whether it is banning the use of the word "Allah" in Malaysia or banning critical books on Hinduism in India the warning signals are clear.
If we are to live in diverse, vibrant and democratic societies there is the need to ward off censorship. Additionally, if we are to live in truly democratic nation-states across the globe there is a need to stop the scourge of capitalism from laying claim to the bodies of those it considers expendable.