Digital India: Rhetoric over reality

The internet (as we still know it) was blocked in Kashmir for three days starting September 25—Eid. Kashmiri Muslims were left to panic as the news of repeated stampedes in Mecca poured in, with no way of contacting their kith and kin abroad.

The students of the Delhi College of Art have been on strike for months demanding first aid, basic stationery, toilets that flush, and new staff appointments to fill the 70% of positions lying vacant. Women students in Delhi are questioning the blatant human rights violations in the name of the new safety guidelines for institutes of higher education by the UGC. A few months ago, a dalit youth was murdered for having an Ambedkar song as his ringtone.

Yet, if we were to believe Mr Modi’s words to the ensconced Indian diaspora at Silicon Valley—digitally, the nation is one united whole and “the most fundamental debate for our youth is the choice between Android, iOS or Windows.” It’s like the Pepsi–Coke choice at a time when Delhi reported its first death over drinking water.

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It is difficult to reconcile our lived realities with Modi’s rhetoric—and possible only if we choose to look beyond the world Facebook conjures for us. These are times when it is much easier to confirm our biases rather than challenge them, a glaring symptom of how Facebook chooses to mine our social media profiles and practically dictate what we get to know and when. This is probably the same reason why for a lot of people in the Philippines—deemed the social media capital of the world post Zuckerberg’s intrusion, Facebook is the internet.

This is not to say that debates over digitisation aren’t fundamental questions today, but the rhetoric they are enveloped in is deeply disconcerting. The “most fundamental debate” here is squarely one of privilege, and its old dalliance with insecurity. The stake-holders of Digital India, the 800 million smartphone users, are still but a little over half of the country’s population. The Reliance-owned internet.org means nothing short of a sheer monopoly over what is today’s knowledge economy, much in the same vein as what the ongoing efforts to systemically dismantle the Indian higher education system stand for. Ironically, the same system is one that these children of Indian-Americans present at the SAP centre will never deign to study under. Yet these are issues of interest—for had it not been for the monetary contributions from the Indian-American community, the BJP would not have had its grand success. Which is why it isn’t unexpected that after the fawning praise he bestowed on the pravasi bharatiya at Madison Square Garden this time last year, Modi now turned to the West Coast, to those whose skilled “fingers have created magic” notwithstanding that the shining Indian diaspora is more than merely professional, it contains within it many seeking the oasis of employment, and many a Sangeeta Richard too.

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Dorothy M. Figueira, author of Aryans, Jews, Brahmins, wrote this with a certain sense of déjà vu when she heard of Modi’s stint at Madison Square Garden. Her Italian grandmother had told her about the triumphant rally of the Nazi German-American Bund held at the Garden in 1939 while Sacco and Vanzetti had been arrested and law-abiding Japanese-Americans were being routinely rounded up into concentrations camps. In a re-iteration of those same socially-upheld racist double standards, she noted of Modi’s New York audience:

One cannot blame only Modi for his rhetoric. He is what he is—a politician who has yet to answer for the bloodbath that occurred in Gujarat under his watch. I blame the 20,000 pravasi bharatiya in the audience for the slippery game they are playing. Modi performed before a rapturous audience of educated professionals—the best and brightest, the wealthy IT nerds, medical doctors, and businessmen who have left India for the greener pastures of America. The German Bund spoke to blue-collar workers who felt disenfranchised by American capitalism; Modi spoke to a hyper-educated and successful elite who have benefitted from the American Dream more than any other ethnic group in the history of US immigration. Yet, they bankroll the reforms that Modi has begun to implement which limit the opportunities of those Indians who have stayed home and contribute to the system there. The Indian-Americans’ daughters will not be more vulnerable as violence escalates against women in urban areas. They embrace Modi’s politics without having to live with the consequences. Skilled and educated as they are, they embrace Modi’s myth of Indian superiority as easily as the uneducated and poor Germans embraced the Nazi’s Aryan myth 75 years ago.

Pitiably, the same can be said for his San Jose audience as well.

(30 September 2015)

Read Figueira’s full essay here.


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