“Every time I go back to India it gets harder,” she sighed.
When I asked why, she paused and looked pensively off into the distance, seemingly struggling to find the words. Why is India hard? It turned out that she was struggling to figure out where to start.
“I don’t know, it’s just... there’s so much! Things just don’t work - electricity, water supply aren’t unreliable. There’s the blog posts out of Delhi... The more you grow up, the more you get out of your protective bubble, the more news you read, the more depressing it is. The constant threats and violence against women, the near hopelessness of the political system, the way democracy is being turned on its ear, how overwhelming it all feels when you want to try and create some kind of positive change. That's what gets to me.”
Madhuri currently studies dramatic writing at Masters level in the United States. She hopes to make a living there for the next few years and, as lofty as her ambitions (and talent) are, considers that the ‘easy’ option. A much bigger challenge, with longer-term implications, would be to start an arts college in Tamil Nadu as an alternative to the litany of engineering and medical schools that millions of young people are shoehorned into each year. That, says Madhuri, would be ‘hard’.
I agree. I had my own prolonged struggles with Indian bureaucratic process, the most infuriating of which involved trying to leave the country -- not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. To set up an organisation in India requires many forms to be filled out and much documentation to be filed; if that organisation is a competitor of any kind to other organisations, there will be further hoops to jump through and baksheesh to be passed. It’s reasonable to say that without connections to people in some power, a goal like Madhuri’s would be impossible to achieve.
She isn’t alone, either. Seattle itself, or the towns of Redmond and Bellevue to be precise, are full of brilliant young Indian minds that have left their home country in search of better opportunities, in these cases at Microsoft. There are millions more around the world who forsook India - not because they didn’t see anything in India’s future but because they are sufficiently frustrated with its present.
And then there are the young folks back home who will leave at the first opportunity, such as the young woman who dared to question Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, on her arrest of a cartoonist who criticised her. The young woman was accused of being a Communist and ultimately wrote this very perceptive open letter to Banerjee, noting that she would quite likely become part of the brain drain. “I too will probably leave, and now you know the reason why.”
I’m writing this in the wake of fresh waves of apparent internet censorship by the Indian Government. The hashtag #emergency2012 has been trending on and off since last night as attempts to access certain Twitter and Facebook pages have reportedly produced a message like this one; this comes after a number of sites on blogspot.com, wordpress.com and more have reportedly been temporarily blocked in the wake of communalist threats following riots in the northeast state of Assam. In short, ethnic tensions are alive and well in India and the Government sought to stop the spread of hate speech in an effort to prevent further violence from occurring, which seemed a very real threat.
But wait a minute. What about the view that all this is a conspiracy by Congress, the leading party in India’s governing coalition, to attain more of the Muslim vote and boost its dwindling chances at the forthcoming general election later this year? And are certain outlets in the mainstream media a part of this conspiracy? Many using the #emergency2012 hashtag think so. (The hashtag itself, of course, is a bit of an overreaction - blocking access to Twitter accounts is not the same as throwing dissenters in prison without charge, as happened in the notorious Emergency from 1975. Still, censorship is a slippery slope for governments to venture down, and today’s apparent Twitter and Facebook blockings are unprecedented.)
For what it’s worth, this CIS India reportseems like the closest analysis of what is really going on and why. Its central conclusion is that the Government’s intentions were good but its methods were archaic at best and unconstitutional at worst.
If we step back from recent events a little, what we know is that:
1. in an effort to try and control hate speech and stop the spread of communal violence, the Indian Government is resorting to heavy-handed, messy and ultimately ineffective censorship;
2. the spin machines of various political parties have churned back into action to spread doubt about each other, with massive herds of followers to back them up as they butt heads yet again;
3. and the power could go out again at any moment.
What is the attraction in any of this, let alone to a young woman in a country named one of the worst in the world for women? Of course, as always with India, the negative elements may be pervasive and in-your-face but they are not the full picture. There is so much to love about the country, as I have discussed extensively in the past. I miss it as much as ever.
But that’s just it: that which you love the most also hurts you the most. When I think of returning to India, the first thought is of mental preparation: steeling myself to be patient in the face of a broken bureaucratic machine, headed by a system of government that spits out endless career politicians and very few independent leaders.
Madhuri will probably be successful in whatever she chooses to do with her life. I hope that by the time she returns to the thoughts of India and that big challenge, she can pursue it in an India whose political mechanism has moved on from this mess of communalism and totalitarianism; an India that prizes the currency of education, in all its forms, above the currency of political power.
Correction, August 24 2012: The post previously suggested that the domains blogspot.com and wordpress.com had been blocked. This has been amended.