Pseudo-Secularism

Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

New Orleans and Mumbai: a study in contrast

By Amulya Ganguli: It is not only the shocking incompetence of the US authorities in dealing with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that has surprised people in India. What is no less disturbing is the complete collapse of law and order over vast areas in America's Gulf Coast region. The contrast between what happens in India during such a time of trouble is too stark to be missed.


In America, the promptness with which the looters began ransacking shops and indulging in rape even as the victims of the natural calamity struggled without the basic necessities of life raised nightmarish visions of a lawless society.

The apocalyptic scenes raised questions not only about the breakdown of legal authority but also of the social order that normally regulates human conduct. That the reversion to the laws of the jungle was taking place in the world's richest and most powerful country seemed to reveal hitherto unsuspected aspects of American administrative and social life.

For Indians, what is amazing is that such scenes are unimaginable in India although this country too has experienced the wrath of nature on countless occasions, the most recent of which was the floods caused by incessant rains that paralysed India's commercial capital Mumbai for the better part of a week.

Yet, even as citizens, including school children, remained marooned in their cars or buses for hours, or had to walk through miles of flooded streets to get to their homes, there was not a single case of molestation or rape or of shops being looted. It was the same in the tsunami-hit areas last year in Chennai and other towns of southern India.

There might have been a partial failure of the administrative machinery in India in the sense that efforts to rescue the affected and provide relief were initially rather slow. But the social order did not break down even though few police personnel were on the streets. Nor any 'shoot at sight' orders had to be issued, as was done in New Orleans.

It is not that Mumbai or Chennai are crime-free cities. Like all metropolitan towns, they also have their underworld. Mumbai especially is known for its 'dons' and their murderous gangs, who not infrequently engage in armed warfare between themselves and with the police. Rapes are also not unknown, even by delinquent policemen.

But somehow, in the face of a natural disaster, the human instincts of survival and compassion seem to have prevailed in the Indian towns over the criminality of the underclass that has been so much in evidence in America.

As a commentator pointed out over the BBC, it was surprising to see the looters in New Orleans walking away with television sets and other such items. As he said, one could understand the people who had lost everything stealing food or clothes, but of what use is a television in a disaster zone?

Clearly, long prevalent criminal instincts had surfaced even in a time of immense suffering simply because the police were absent from the streets. To a perverted mind, the devastation caused by the hurricane provided a golden opportunity. Hence, the rapes and the indiscriminate looting of anything on which the criminals could lay their hands, even if the goods were of no use to them.

It may not be too far-fetched to point out that the difference between New Orleans and Mumbai at a time of disaster is that the former is less cohesive in social terms. It is possible that the blacks, who have long been among the most dispossessed in social and economic terms in the American Deep South, have never felt as alienated as in the aftermath of the havoc wrought by the hurricane.

First, if they failed to leave the towns to get away from the oncoming storm, it was because they didn't have the resources in terms of money or other homes or the homes of relatives in safer areas. It is obvious to anyone watching the horrifying scenes on television that the blacks constitute the overwhelming majority of the sufferers.

Second, if the official response to the disaster was shockingly slow, it might have been because the blacks, and not the whites, had been hit the most. Rev. Jesse Jackson had this sense of discrimination in mind when he said that the African Americans were regarded as 'foreigners'.

It is no secret that the blacks are not a well-integrated part of American society. What is more, their sense of exclusion is even greater in the south, the land of the confederates and the Ku Klux Klan and the burning crosses.

When there is a collapse of the civic machinery, therefore, they do not feel any responsibility towards society, no inner urge to stand together with fellow citizens till help is available. Instead, as 'foreigners' they wreak vengeance on a land that hasn't treated them well for decades and whose ill-treatment has made so many of them become hardened law-breakers.

Indian society is far more cohesive. There are differences between the rich and the poor and between castes and communities. But no one feels totally excluded. The Indian belief in destiny and the prevailing social norms in respect of the castes ensure a certain amount of acceptability of the system in which everyone is deemed to have his allotted place.

Even as these traditional customs have given a special sanctity to social relations, democracy has eliminated the rough edges, with the result that society is perhaps even more integrated today than before. It is because everyone has a stake in the system that no outrageous incidents of murder and mayhem take place in India at a time of trouble.

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