Goa-based author, journalist, and futurist Sudeep Chakravarti likes to characterize fellow modern Indians as “largely delusional people who inhabit urban spaces of India”.
“We are past masters of brushing unpleasantness under the carpet,” says the former executive editor of India Today Group.
In a wide-ranging phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Chakravarti points out that this is true whether the topic is religious communalism, bad governance, a Maoist insurgency, or climate change.
Chakravarti, who is in Vancouver for the annual Indian Summer Festival, also claims that many urban Indians exist in a willful state of “mall stupor”, abetted by a media that pushes the promise of the future without reconciling for past atrocities.
“With my writing, if it’s fiction or nonfiction, I’ve decided to adopt the path of making people aware as much as possible about the conflicts that exist within India,” says Chakravarti, who has written for the Hindustan Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, and Indian edition of Rolling Stone.
It explains why he opened his 2010 novel, The Avenue of Kings, with a Sikh boy being chased down and killed in Delhi in 1984. He reveals that he witnessed this during anti-Sikh mob violence following the assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
“It turns my blood cold as I even think of it,” Chakravarti says.
At the time, Gandhi’s ruling Congress party officials whipped up mobs of Hindus, who comprise 80.5 percent of India’s population.
Chakravarti is not surprised to hear that Sikhs in Greater Vancouver still have strong feelings about what happened. He says that’s because many lost relatives and friends in this bloodshed—and this anger has never been addressed.
“If the government of India…or somebody from the Congress party, for instance, stood up and actually apologized for some of the things that have happened, I think it would do the Sikhs a world of good,” he maintains. “I think it would do India a world of good, for sure.”
The Avenue of Kings also highlights caste violence among Hindus in the late 1980s, as well as communal butchery between Hindus and Muslims during the destruction of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodya in 1992.
So does this mean that Chakravarti would describe himself as a secularist? He quips that he meets any dictionary definition, but the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party would probably call him a “pseudosecularist”.
“To the BJP, for instance, a pseudosecularist is a person who is anti-Hindu, or anti-BJP,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. They warped the entire notion of secularism.”
Narendra Modi and Hindu pride
The biggest political story of the year in India has been the resignation of octogenarian Hindu firebrand L.K. Advani as leader of the BJP.
It came after the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, was named the party’s campaign chief for the next election, expected in 2014.
Chakravarti sees little difference between the two veteran politicians, whom he accuses of feeding the insecurity and pride of nationalistic Hindus.
“It’s a very cynical thing,” he says. “Every country has its sort of hard-left or hard-right party and so on and so forth. But not in many countries can a hard-right or hard-left [party] lead to rioting or killing or deaths.”
Modi came under fire after Hindu mobs went on a rampage against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Afterward, the U.S. government refused to issue him a visitor’s visa.
This is even though he heads one of India’s most prosperous states, which has gone out of its way to invite foreign investment.
Chakravarti says that in recent times, Modi has become a “darling of the business community”, and claims that many industrialists would be “delighted” if he becomes prime minister.
“Theoretically if he were to be premier, I doubt very much that the United States’s official policy against Mr. Modi would hold for very long,” he adds. “In fact, I don’t think it would hold up at all.”
He attributes part of Modi’s popularity to his denial of the existence of bad things in India. The younger generation wants their country to become a major power, and Modi’s use of aspirational language speaks to this pride.
Political power is up for grabs
Chakravarti doesn’t think Modi is a shoo-in, suggesting that 68-year-old Congress party veteran and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has long harboured ambitions of becoming prime minister.
According to Chakravarti, it’s unclear whether the Gandhi family, which controls the party’s levers of power, would allow this to happen because Chidambaram has so much more ambition than the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
Chakravarti likens the policies of Chidambaram, a corporate lawyer and former home affairs minister, to those of the right-wing BJP. “He plays this game of being a great liberal. I don’t think he’s so at all.”
Most western observers see Indian politics as a battle between Congress and the BJP to line up enough minority-party support in parliament to form a government. But Chakravarti sees the possibility of a third force emerging.
“That process is ongoing as we speak,” he says. “You might have a prime ministerial candidate from that aspect as well. There are many people who see themselves as the next leader of India.”
Regardless of who rules the country, Chakravarti remains optimistic about Indian democracy, saying the younger generation takes it very seriously. He credits the first prime minister, Jawalharlal Nehru, and his colleagues for crafting a constitution that made every Indian “technically equal".
“It’s a wonderful thing and something to cheer,” he says.
Rebellion a reflection of governance
That’s not to suggest that everyone is treated equally.
Chakravarti’s 2008 nonfiction book, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, chronicled the growth of a Maoist rebellion from three villages in northern Bengal in the 1960s across central and southern parts of India.
He says that the armed uprising of the poor is now in its fifth cycle, reverberating through about one-third of the country’s districts.
Prime Minister Singh has described the poor villagers’ insurrection as “India’s greatest internal security threat”—a claim that Chakravarti vehemently disagrees with.
“The internal security threats continue to be poverty, overpopulation, the lack of delivery of the criminal-justice system, the lack of application of constitutional guarantees to citizens of India, and so on and so forth,” he says. “These have always been the problems that India has faced.”
Chakravarti points out that the insurgency of Maoists, also known as Naxalites, has grown even as India has become a more important global centre of political and financial power.
“It’s time we were realistic and admitted that there’s something wrong with the way that India is governed,” he adds. “I see the Maoist rebellion purely as a governance issue that has broken into a law-and-order issue.”
He says he’s met very few rebels who talk about Marxist ideology. Rather, they spout anger against the system.
Chakravarti points out that the Indian Army has refused to take action against this peasant uprising because it doesn’t see these villagers as a threat to the territorial integrity of India.
“The dirty work is really being done by the paramilitaries,” he says.
Climate change poses a huge unknown
Last month, there were very heavy rains in India that washed out numerous villages, killing thousands and stranding tens of thousands of others. It occurred in a heavily deforested area in the north where, according to Chakravarti, soil erosion led to devastating landslides.
Three years ago, he prepared a white paper in which he forecast the best and worst possible scenarios that could unfold as a result of the Maoist insurgency and climate change.
“I didn’t see that the Maoist rebellion would sort of overwhelm India,” he reveals.
However, he adds that it could lead to large areas where there would be no effective governance.
With regard to climate change, he saw a very real risk of stunning changes, particularly if rising sea levels lead to a mass exodus from neighbouring Bangladesh.
“Where do they go?” he says. “They go to India.”
This migration could conceivably occur just as the loss of Himalayan glaciers sharply reduces water levels in major rivers, including the Ganga, Indus, and Brahmaputra. That, in turn, could escalate conflicts with neighbouring Pakistan, Nepal, and China.
“Everyone in South Asia in some ways has issues with the other,” Chakravarti notes, before optimistically adding: “It’s not all lost and it’s not all hopeless to my mind.”
But he concedes that he’s “frightened out of my skull” about the potential for climate change to undermine the country’s future.
This issue hasn’t attracted much attention in the Indian media, notwithstanding the irregularity of the monsoon in recent years and mass suicides of farmers, often in drought-stricken areas.
The Indian establishment’s response has been similar to the situation in Canada, where virtually none of the country’s journalists (Andrew Nikiforuk was an exception) and politicians linked huge flooding in Calgary to climate change.
When asked why Indians don’t focus more attention on global warming, Chakravarti replies: “It’s because we are absolutely foolish people. There isn’t enough recognition of what can happen.”
Perhaps the same could just as easily be said about Canadians.