From the outside looking in

The Indian Republic Day was supposed to be a glorious representation of how a people triumphed. But in the real world, as we sat around staring into our television screens, we were really on the outside looking in at the privileged seated in the galleries having their day. We watched a parade of kitschy floats, the day of the public January 26 appeared to be a facade behind which the oligarchs and powers-that-be gathered to triumphalise. Democracy was supposed to be, at least here in the early half of the 21st century, the triumph of the outsider over the elitist. But that is not how it transpired in our country, a land that was one of the early inventors of elitism in the form of caste, which is euphemism for race. Incidentally, caste is the institution that legitimised racism in India.

In India, democracy turned out to be everything that the old wise Greek Plato said it was going to be. Demos who vote for religion/business, with only the skewed interests of their community or industry at heart, trying to steer an entire varied country to the tune of their whims.

Democracy got its reinvention in the new world where such things were still possible. It was transformed from what Plato warned into a system where ordinary people, outsiders and non-elites, could live out their dreams. Perhaps this happened as the new country received a flux of immigrants from different parts of the world. These were people who arrived with aspirations, eager to get away from the barriers of the old world that had kept them poor and underprivileged. Of course, we have to keep in mind here the system of slavery that ran parallel to the soaring hopes of immigrants. The American Dream gave hope of a better life to poor immigrants, but did nothing about racism, or gender inequality. The treatment of African Americans and native Americans remains a giant hypocritical blot on the Dream. If nothing adequate is done to address this blot, by opening up the resources of the land to those who have been denied them for so long, anger will become an institution in itself, passing down the generations, turning into a culture of immutable hostility, an awful thing to behold. Untenable apologies may come, but they cannot undo the anger of years and centuries before.

If in order to prosper as a poor immigrant you needed to have hope, you also needed to be truly free. Democracy, the means to at least a populist version of freedom, became an adjunct to the American Dream. But soon, this new democracy, from representing change quickly devolved in the hands of the new elites—American oligarchs, who had managed to profit from the great Dream. They turned the dream into a modern imperialism, a tool to be used first for gain, and later a system to be imposed in those lands deemed inferior in the types of dictatorships and military rules these countries had adopted. But in overturning the ruling military-oligarchic elites in such countries, the democrats who then came to fill the vacuum were narrow religionists, again just as Plato had warned.

The provincial religionist demos, in India and everywhere, it turns out does not trust the outsider, whose desire for freedom is perceived as a western ideal. Ultimately, he fears freedom because it has the power to upend established power structures. To the demotic religionist elite, anything western is impure, impious and therefore corrupt. Used to being at the top of the social ladder, he views the westernised education system which teaches in English as a new kind of elitism, which is a threat to an ancient elitism. But to the outsider, this modern anglicised system of education is a passport to freedom, a means to escape the old casteist/racist barriers.

How can an outsider that wants freedom for all triumph in a society set up since ancient times to benefit a narrow elite? In the presence of caste, and religion, democracy will always devolve to a rule by the elites, as is what is practised in India and many other countries today. The great people you saw gathered on Republic Day attained their positions not just because they worked hard and passed examinations at the highest levels, but also because they were insiders born into the right families—upper caste/class families—with the income and educational access necessary to attain these coveted pole positions in society. We are all sadly and unfortunately beneficiaries of an evil system that gave all the resources of the land to only a few. The vast majority is out there beyond the television screens and these blogs still hard scrabbling because their ancestors were denied access to a better life.

Now, how can you distinguish between insiders and outsiders? Insiders do not like change and feel threatened by anyone who wants to do something new and different. Outsiders are perceived as disrespecting upstarts who refuse to understand the ways of the world, which ultimately benefit only insiders. In India, the higher your caste the more disinclined you will feel towards change. The higher you get the more you will have to lose.

If you are an outsider and you desire an insider’s social standing, you will have to contend with the gale-forces of human nature. If you’re new in a place, whether you are a child in a new school or adult in their first day at a new job, a security guard, a prospective author or actor, pastry chef, environmentalist, geologist, or newly-married young Indian wife asked to leave her home by the patriarchal system to go live and serve in her husband’s family house, this is what you will be doing for the next few months or years even. You will be trying to get through walls put up by insiders. Some people persevere and succeed, while others just give up in frustration. A lot of your success in life depends on your skill at breaking through. It takes perseverance and stamina, and whether you are a cheerful sort or the easily despondent kind.

Suffice it to say, the despondent kind never win. What distinguishes this person from the cheerful sort is their skill at talking, networking. The more people you know, the more articulate you happen to be, the better you will be at breaking through all the different types of glass ceilings. Talent and merit matter little. It is ultimately a tussle between intelligence and cleverness. You could be as erudite as Einstein or Plato, but if you are not clever, manipulative, and as close to being a conman as you can get without doing physical harm, you are going to lose. Ultimately it is your cleverness, your skill at negotiating, blagging, that gets you through. It’s who you know, and who is on your side that matters. And there are sides in politics as well as in life, no matter how much we march for liberty and equality and declare out loud that we should not be taking sides, in our heads there are very clear, demarcated sides. And these are the glass ceilings and walls that are everywhere, especially within our heads. Outsiders, or freedom itself, exist outside these barriers. To be truly free you have to be willing to lose your network, caste, class, whatever glass shelter you feel safe inside, perhaps be a little less clever/manipulative, leave aside your narrow self-interest, come out from behind the walls.

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