Observations of an Expat – India Imagined

India is now the epicentre of pandemic. It is a humanitarian disaster with political roots. By the end of this week 200,000 deaths have been officially recorded and there is strong evidence that there are many, many more unrecorded tragedies.

The country is desperately short of essential medical supplies. And although it is the world’s largest producer of vaccines, its immunisation programme has stalled with less than 10 percent of the population vaccinated.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a populist in the mould of Brazil’s Bolsonaro and America’s Trump. Saving lives is secondary to the political goal of retaining power by pandering to their large but ill-informed electoral base. In the case of Modi he is exploiting the long-simmering Hindu-Muslim divide in an attempt to transform India from a secular to a Hindu nation, and is prepared to subvert democratic institutions to achieve that goal.

The confusion and polarisation means more political rallies, more Hindu festivals, less transparency, more lies, more corruption, more division and more fertile political ground for coronavirus.

A close friend is a senior journalist in India. He wrote asking me to imagine the scene. He has asked me to not to reveal his identity because of possible repercussions to himself, his family and colleagues. Here is his account:

Imagine a very senior judge declaring that he would ease things for a chap convicted for rape if he agreed to marry the victim, who’s all of 14 or something!

Imagine that the Supreme Court now has judges who believe cow piss and dung are holy, and can be used to cure everything.

Imagine a senior journalist suggesting at a forum that all journalists should be given colour coded badges, depending on whether or not they toed the government line.

Imagine bent journalists flaunting their political connections to become middlemen, extremely rich ones. What’s new is the brazenness with which this is done.

Imagine upright journalists having their bank accounts frozen without reason, and cases filed against them in courts in the other end of the country. If they refuse to attend court, they face contempt charges. Imagine armed police descending on their houses at 3 am and dragging them before a magistrate who agrees to book the journalist for treason and sedition. Both are non-bailable charges which allow the police to keep you for 90 days without trial or access to anyone, including legal help.

Imagine the election commission being stuffed with Modi loyalists. So when the central armed police supposedly ‘guarding’ a polling booth in West Bengal, where state elections are being held, fired upon and killed four Muslim men a few days ago, the election commission staunchly defended the firing, saying it was in self-defence.

Imagine the military top brass being lured with plum political and diplomatic postings if they lied about how they had taught both Pakistan and China “a lesson they won’t forget” because the country had a “strong” prime minister like Modi.

Imagine that if for some reason I did not like my neighbour. All I need to do is loudly declare that he had beef in his fridge. Chances are, a riled rampaging mob will lynch him without even checking his fridge, or realising that he’s a staunch vegetarian.

Now stop imagining, because these are all facts.

A former diplomat turned BJP loyalist I interviewed once declared that the party could certainly do with people like me, When I explained that apart from the fact that I was a journalist, I also ate beef, he smiled and said that was not a problem, I’d quit once I learnt how holy the cow was. That man became India’s first national security adviser when the BJP came to power in 1998.

So the executive, the judiciary, the media, the military, Narendra Modi has subverted them all. And all this, of course means work, work, and more work. Just sifting the strands of truth from the manure is becoming increasingly difficult.

Yet, having said all this, I still believe that India cannot suddenly turn into a Hindu kingdom. The main reasons are its size and diversity, and the fact that the citizens, particularly the deprived and underprivileged–a sizeable chunk– take their voting rights, and the fact that they can kick out the government every five years, very seriously. At the end of the day, they might be poor, but they are not stupid.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” is published on 15 October.

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22 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 30th Apr '21 - 7:35pm

    Sorry Mr Arms – what is it you actually think should/want to happen?

    You seem here to be talking squarely about Indian internal issues that are none of my business.

  • Little Jackie Paper 30th Apr '21 - 11:42pm

    Martin – what is it you actually think should/want to happen.

    This is the business of the Indian people. Not mine – what do you want me to do? Write something stroppy on twitter?

  • John Marriott 1st May '21 - 9:24am

    I see that The Guardian is blaming the cuts in the UK’s overseas aid budget for 70% cuts in India’s coronavirus research, including a project tracking variants. That would, I assume, be the same India which possesses nuclear weapons and can afford to indulge in space research, and, despite its pockets of modernity, still perpetuates a caste system, a form of social apartheid, that still condemns many of its citizens to penury.

    For many years my wife and I used to sponsor a little girl at a boarding school for so called ‘mountain children’ in a small community in Kerala as part of a county wide charity. £10 per month was sufficient to give her and her successor an education that would not have been possible otherwise. Then, besides the aforementioned projects, we learned how many millionaires India possessed and the kind of riches a small section of its population seemed to enjoy, both in India and abroad and decided to divert our charitable donations elsewhere. Some of you may call that callous, just as you may the cuts in the U.K. overseas aid budget.

    India claims to be the world’s most populous democracy. Well, isn’t it about time that it cut its suit according to its cloth and exhibited the kind of democratic values it once claimed to possess?

  • Martin, I agree that Tom has given us excellent information about India under Modi, that we need to know. It shows how Modi is exploiting the longstanding weaknesses in India’s democracy for his own narrowminded, authoritarian aims. Police and judicial corruption and extreme bias is nothing new but it is clearly getting worse. As the article says at the end, one hope is the seriousness with which poorer people take politics. Hence John Marriott is completely wrong in thinking he can make India’s powerful people change their ways by us turning away. It is by supporting the poorer people that we can not only help them in their desperate need but also provide a contribution to the long term improvement of their country. It is part of our duty to do what we can, where we can, to support the weak and poor around the world. What we can do is limited, but not negligible and we cannot ignore the effect of bad government in one country on what goes on around the world and therefore can affect us all.

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st May '21 - 11:33am

    Martin – ‘censure.’ So internet hot air?

    What bothers me is a stream of internet writers who seem to want to import the world’s problems. This is an Indian internal matter. Mr Arms in his articles has a habit of conflating internationalism with interventionism.

    This is for Indians to decide without anyone, me and you included, handing out online a priori moral condemnations.

  • India is in the grip of a pandemic on the scale of the Black death in the middle ages. There is even talk of divine retribution. This is a piece from an American correspondent of Indian heritage writing from Delhi https://www.economist.com/diary/2021/04/30/indias-second-wave-of-covid-19-feels-nothing-like-its-first
    “…this time young people and even children are developing symptoms, including an erstwhile quarantine-playmate of our four-year-old. Younger adults are becoming severely ill, as they did not last year. Finally, those people who have had the disease twice, a plentiful category thanks to that “immune-escape” feature, say that the reinfection feels different. The fever comes quicker and they are more prone to developing pneumonia. Dumb, divine luck with covid-19, and now the bad luck of covid-21, as if it were retribution.”
    Now is not the time for pointing fingers or for political grandstanding. It is a time for empathy and practical help. Cutting the UK foreign aid budget in the face of a pandemic is a callous move. If anything there should be an additional emergency budget. The west must Just do what it takes to get the maximum level of help that can be mustered out to where it is most needed. This is what the real heroes on the ground in India are doing. They know they cannot rely on an unprepared and overwhelmed government. They must rely on themselves and their local communities. Their churches, temples and mosques and the numerous charities and informal social workers that are striving to get help to those in need.
    Last month journalists were saying Indian vaccine production & growth projection will play an important role in overcoming the pandemic. This month it is “India’s Covid-19 Tragedy Is Now The World’s Problem.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/williampesek/2021/04/23/indias-covid-19-tragedy-is-now-the-worlds-problem/?sh=4c0aad036e96 How fast this virus changes the facts on the ground and humbles political leaders around the world.

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st May '21 - 12:42pm

    Joe Bourke

    Do you regard India as a poor country?

  • LJP,

    India remains in the bottom third of countries worldwide for GDP per capita. South America, Africa and other parts of Asia are equally vulnerable to this pandemic. What is happening in India can happen in other large chunks of population and that should concern us all.

    The Serum Institute of India, manufactures the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and has exported a large part of its production including to the UK https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-vaccines-hancock-india-covid-b1819024.html
    There are 400,000 new cases reported daily now. No one knows the true scale of deaths in India. There are so many funeral pyres in Delhi that aerial photos look as if the city has suffered a mass bombing attack https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/india/india-delhi-pyres-public-parks-b1838649.html
    India has only vaccinated about 15% of its population with a first dose to date. They have many medical professionals, but they lack the public health infrastructure to quickly roll out a vaccination program in the way the UK, US and Germany have been able to.
    Most hospitals in India do not have enough stocks to offer vaccinations. India has introduced export controls on its vaccine production now and that will impact the ability to get other poorer countries vaccinated.
    This is a global issue that requires a coordinated global approach. Richer countries in the developed world could donate more doses to poorer countries — a move global health groups have been calling for for months and one that’s starting to happen in response to the crisis in India.
    Richer countries could also simply start investing more in helping poorer countries respond to the crisis. They could answer Covax’s call for more donor funds, for example.
    The cost to everyone, including high-income countries, is huge with each passing month or week where there is transmission going on around the world.

  • @LJP My career has focused on writing about world affairs because I believe that the only real progress in my human relations can be made at the interconnected international level. This has become increasingly apparent in my 72-year life span. I am sorry that you do not appear to understand this.
    I further believe that a proper political structure is a pre-requisite for the successful conduct of all the elements of society. It is the skeletal framework upon which everything depends.
    And we depend on India for a lot. For a start, the subcontinent nation is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines which we desperately need at this moment in time. It has also emerged as one of the world’s main IT centres. India is also a major producer of steel, rice and wheat.
    In the case of India, I even have a name for it: The hip, thighbone theory of the world,

  • jayne mansfield 1st May '21 - 5:07pm

    @Tom Arms,
    May I say that I absolutely agree with every point you make in the above post. Boris Johnson’s reluctance to cancel his trip to India suggests even he is more aware of the importance of India to the UK than LJP

    As someone who has worked for part of the year for several months over a decades in both Indian cities and tribal areas, I wish I could share your optimism that despite the burgeoning, educated, liberal social class, they can withstand Modi and the BJP’s behaviour as he seeks to turn India from a secular democracy to a Hindu nationalist state. I hope I am wrong. I am increasingly fearful for the friends and colleagues there who are deemed to be Naxalites and therefore at risk because they continue to provide care for the poor.

    @ John Marriott,
    Many years ago I questioned my colleagues as to why India had nuclear weapons when so many of its people suffered such extreme poverty. The answer even pre-Modi was fear of its nuclear neighbours – having China and Pakistan on its borders.

    Kerala has been a leader for educational investment in India for girls, boys, men and women for quite some time. It has an extremely high literacy rate. I presume that the ‘mountain children’, I really have never come across that term before, were boarders because of family problems. We all have to choose where our donations will make the greatest beneficial difference to another persons life. There is nothing callous about that, it is about making hard choices.

  • George Thomas 1st May '21 - 5:28pm

    @John Marriott, I would consider:

    i) soft power. UK is becoming a smaller country having left bloc of the EU and incredible commitment to overseas payment gets us into negotiating rooms that we’d otherwise be entering much later.
    ii) we cannot control India’s domestic policy but we can decide whether we’re going to let people not deserving the consequences of that policy suffer them or whether there is a point we step in.

    Surely knowing about dangers of creeping authoritarianism is an important story in the UK and Europe for a liberal party to tell?

  • John Marriott 1st May '21 - 7:56pm

    @George Thomas
    So THAT’S why we give aid to ‘poorer’ countries, is it? To gain access to ‘negotiating rooms’ rather than to do some good? If that’s ‘soft power’ I reckon I’d rather have the hard stuff!

    @Jayne Mansfield
    I don’t know why ‘mountain children’ sticks in my mind. You are right about the boarding bit. We used to try to write to both girls; but never got a direct reply, just a standard letter, translated into English by one of their teachers. We hope that the money we gave did some good; but, as I said, it’s a pity that their country could not have done more.

    @Tom Arms
    It’s interesting that of the top four countries with the highest COVID death rate, three of them have had and, in the case of two, still have right wing authoritarian Heads of State (Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi).

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 1st May '21 - 10:26pm

    @ John Marriott,

    I’m not entirely sure that I’d define Modi as a classically right-wing authoritarian – having an understanding of Hindutva is useful when evaluating how he responds and setting it into the context of India’s foundation as a secular republic.

    But, as someone who has rather more of a personal stake in India’s future as a liberal democracy – my family come from the Catholic community in Mumbai – if we are to thrive and survive in a multipolar world, understanding what motivates potential major partners and rivals is invaluable, and this article offers some valuable insight.

    The rise of China requires some sort of balance, and India is potentially part of that equation – not on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but in terms of preventing one nation from attempting dominance over its neighbours. part of that equation is international law, part of it is encouraging the establishment of strong democracies.

    At the moment, India seems to be drifting away from the family of democracies towards a theocracy or, perhaps worse, an authoritarian state using religion as a cloak.

    Many, myself included, would rather have India as a strong regional partner, setting the tone to stabilise a currently unstable region, and that means offering sufficient motivation for the Indian Government to change course.

    @ LJP,

    You seem not to understand that what Tom Arms is doing is reporting. It’s an old-fashioned concept, apparently, which is why you may not recognise it given the weakness of our media – its tendency to mix reporting with commentary. He’s not suggesting that you, or anyone else, do anything, what he’s suggesting is that you think about it and then, perhaps, if the subject becomes more prominent, you might understand what the issues are.

  • John Marriott 2nd May '21 - 8:01am

    @Mark Vallarades
    I bow to your superior knowledge. Besides the sponsorship I mentioned, my only ‘connection’ with India was the fact that my late father in law spent the nest part of five years there during WW2 with the RAF, travelling around and repairing Mosquitos (he had been a qualified joiner in civvie street and this particular aircraft was built mainly out of wood!).

    You mention your own religion. It’s quite disturbing how often religion, or a distortion of religion, has over the centuries played such a significant rôle in conflict, and sadly still does. Like you, I would hope that India might act as a counterweight against Chinese expansion. That’s why I do hope that India’s real friends rally round her in her hour of need. It was encouraging to see that Pakistan appears to want to help as well.

  • John Marriott 2nd May '21 - 9:01am

    @Mark
    I had to break off as my wife was wondering where her cut of tea in bed was! I was meaning to conclude by asking you how your Parish Council was getting on? We haven’t heard much about it of late. Surely you haven’t had to be out and about canvassing for reelection, have you?

  • Nonconformistradical 2nd May '21 - 2:10pm

    @LJP
    “This is an Indian internal matter.”

    Is it? When the Indian variant appears to be spreading around other countries?

    Mightn’t it be a good idea to know what’s going on there and maybe learn from it?

  • Charles Smith 3rd May '21 - 12:37pm

    India has now posted seven consecutive record-high days of new infections topping 300,000, and Wednesday’s death toll rose by 3,263, but the official numbers are seen as an underestimation by health experts. The devastating second wave of the pandemic in the country is being blamed on several factors, including mass gatherings and complacency about public health guidelines.
    https://worldabcnews.com/in-india-people-are-begging-for-hospital-beds-and-oxygen-cylinders-on-social-media/

  • @John Marriott

    Thanks for your sponsorship. We have only a short time on this planet and if we can do just a little good than that is a life well spent. You are a better and more generous person than me!

    The Guardian report is a little tangled. The British Government doesn’t actually give overseas aid to India – . It seem that there was a covid surveillance/tracking programme that was funded out of the ODA budget – but that’s different.

    https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/apr/30/uks-aid-cuts-hit-vital-coronavirus-research-around-world

    https://dfidnews.blog.gov.uk/2018/12/27/uk-aid-to-india-uk-no-longer-gives-any-money-to-indian-government/

    On India’s space programme – I don’t know for sure but the private space industry is very big business and I’d suggest that a Government funded programme/research probably helps attract private space business to India.

    On nuclear weapons/defence you can make the same argument about Britain. I am a multilateralist but why should we have nuclear weapons – indeed waste tens of billions a year on them – when we have people in this country going hungry and forced to go to food banks? May be sadly one things most countries do is “waste” money on defence when its people could be helped – and personally I wouldn’t be against cutting our defence budget to 1.5% of GDP from 2%.

    On health – I am sure that India has far to go but it has cut infant deaths from 180 per 1,000 live births to around 32 today.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_infant_and_under-five_mortality_rates

    On vaccinations in general outside covid – it actually seems to have a very good general vaccination programme – but health (&defence) spending as here is something for it to discuss as a democracy and no doubt it will as a democracy have a very strong and lively debate on its Government’s handling of covid – as we are!

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-55048925

    On millionaires – I don’t think you are a Communist from your previous comments – and apologies if I misrepresent you – but capitalists investing in a country to grow its industry and economy does mean more money for health and better conditions for the poorer.

  • @
    @John Marriott

    “possesses nuclear weapons and can afford to indulge in space research, and, despite its pockets of modernity, still perpetuates a caste system, a form of social apartheid, that still condemns many of its citizens to penury.”

    some here would say characterises Britain!!!!

  • John Marriott 4th May '21 - 8:10am

    @Michael1
    Come, on! Yes, there IS poverty in the U.K.; but not always of tge economic kind and not everybody is condemned to being a second class citizen for ever, as happens, I believe, to the victims of the caste system in India. If she wants to sit at top table, both economically and morally, India needs to abolish this undemocratic and abhorrent system ASAP.

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