Being Like America

by Gautam Pemmaraju

On a recent television panel discussion show, the BJP leader and senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, in response to how the nation should respond to periodic terrorist attacks, said, unsurprisingly: “why can't we be like America?”. He also said that India should “stop comparing ourselves to Pakistan” in terms of terror attacks, for Pakistan, “is a failed state”. Again, this too is unsurprising. His comments followed those of film actor/activist and former Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi, who, pointing to the fact that ‘not a single’ terror attack has taken place on American soil since 9-11, said “America dikha diya ke nahin?” or “hasn’t America shown the way?” Writer/Journalist Naresh Fernandes, also on the panel, in response to Mahesh Jethmalani, was quick to point out the obvious – America was “deeply embedded in two wars”, had perpetrated countless violations of civil rights, infringed/abridged speech unlawfully, tortured innocents, espoused dangerously divisive rhetoric, flagrantly contravened international law, amongst many other profoundly problematic transgressions in their response to 9-11.

Mumbai_blasts_mumbaikars While it is clear that both Azmi and Jethmalani were referring to securing India’s safety and escalating vigilance, the pointed invocation of America presents an opportunity to discursively examine how the desire to ‘be like America’ is imagined and expressed. It is mostly a desire for parity, which is increasingly evident in many aspects of public life and discourse, and runs alongside a disregard of regional aspirations of neighbouring nations, particularly Pakistan’s. Beleaguered as Pakistan may be in several ways, competitive nationalism comes into play, on both sides, and India to many, has the upper hand presently. While we have ‘arrived’ and are ‘poised’ for greater things, they, the popular narrative runs, have ‘failed’. The disregard is not exclusively reserved for our neighbours, but is also generously cast inward upon our own laws, the common people at large, and in specific on minorities, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginal. Consumerist desires aside, what seem further entrenched are disturbing predatory practices in many aspects of socio-economic activity, particularly in areas where government regulation is critical. Be it rural/tribal land acquisition, health, education, food production, housing, water resources, we see today not just highly questionable activities, but downright criminal ones as well.

So what does it mean for India to ‘be like America’ – semiotically charged as the phrase is? Should we ‘be like America’? Are there positive lessons to be learnt, portents and cautions that need be judiciously considered, institutions, ideas and processes that may be adopted? Or is it to be an unfalteringly foot-stomping ahead on to being a ‘superpower’?


Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan, who famously accused officials at Newark airport of racial profiling in August 2009, while coincidentally on promotions for his newly released film My Name Is Khan, had previously appeared in the ‘worldwide launch’ advertising film for the Hyundai i10 car. Set in a stadium of cheering crowds, a voice-over announces the ‘world premiere’ as superstar Shah Rukh Khan walks down a red carpet, paparazzi clicking away ferociously, towards the car in the centre of the stadium pitch. A white girl, behind the ropes and separated by a ‘FBI agent’ styled guard, is eyeing him while he walks on. As he reaches the car, the model too somehow appears there. She extends her hand to open the drivers’ door, but quick on the draw, he opens it instead, and nudging her aside, sits in and says: “Sorry, you’ll have to wait”. A cackling laugh punctuates the shehnai driven music track, and India’s beloved film star drives away leaving the disappointed girl (one imagines that to be the case although her face betrays, well, nothing) in a lurch as the crowd cheers on. After a series of driving shots, the blank faced model blankly mouths, “I wish I could catch it” to camera, followed by the superstar’s lines to end the film: “Catch the i10 in India first; the world will catch it later”.

Bollywood, television and advertising are promiscuously linked. And it is this ‘idea of India’, the idea of it having arrived and justly claiming its rightful place on the world stage that is jarringly and oftentimes, bizarrely, sold. From cement and chapatti flour, to motorbikes and mobile phones – taglines peddle ‘Indianness’ to consumers. The notion of India having ‘arrived’ is raucously celebrated, densely fetishised. This triumphant arrival is the dominant ‘idea of India’, linked in no small measure, to intolerance of dissent, systemic noise, deflection and obfuscation.And the outrage at being attacked (dammit, we pay taxes don’t we?) is packaged and consumed as efficiently as everything else on sale.

So what exactly is being sold?


Firstly, land.

Sompeta is a village located on the coast of northern Andhra Pradesh and its coastal wetland, as former senior civil servant and activist EAS Sarma writes, “…supports a rich heritage of biodiversity. Rare migratory birds nest and feed in this area every year. The local fishing communities have enjoyed customary fishing rights here for generations. There are hundreds of marginal farmers, agricultural workers and shepherds who eke out their livelihood from the swamps. This terrain personifies nature’s tranquillity.” In July last year, security personel of the Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC) forcibly occupied the land since it was the site for a proposed thermal coal-based power plant. The police intervened as locals opposed the illegal occupation by NCC, and in the ensuing violence, two persons were shot dead by them. Pointing to how the state government had been ‘recklessly’ allotting public land to private promoters without due procedure, transparency and regulatory oversight, Sarma argues that authorities instead, ‘wink’ at flagrant transgressions of law, besides offering “tax sops and heavy subsidies for land, electricity and water to project developers, who in turn, made tall promises to provide jobs to the affected people”. Far from monitoring such projects, authorities have instead actively looked the other way.

To say that this is not just common, but endemic, is to state the obvious. Many writers, activists and public persons have examined forcible land acquisition very carefully and doggedly. From the Sardar Sarovar dam, the proposed mega steel plant of Posco in Orissa, illegal mining operations in various regions, the list is endless. Dispossession and environmental impact are key issues, but the larger social costs too are profound. Alienation of people, disregard of basic human rights and dignity, falsification of facts, cronyism and illegal lobbying, criminalisation of factions, and the erosion of democratic processes – these all strike cumulative body blows to the idea of a just, democratic, peaceable and lawful nation-state.

Sarma tells me that minerals, illegally mined under the noses (and with due complicity) of authorities, are sold to other nations at a tenth of global market prices. There is no competitive bidding and kickbacks are the norm. In a recent piece titled The Mining Lobby Has The Last Laugh, Sarma points to a proposed Group of Ministers (GOM) move to change mineral development policy, which in effect, will “benefit the private companies that mine bauxite, iron ore, and barytes”. He has on several occasions petitioned the government for an interdisciplinary team to look closer at profit margins and kickbacks in the mining sector. To no avail.

Communist_party_of_india_maoist Sarma (along with Nandini Sundar and Ramachandra Guha) is a petitioner in a Supreme Court case against the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh (the respondent), which stood accused of supporting a brutal counterinsurgent militia, the Salwa Judum, to ‘tackle’ Maoism. The real reason “in this bleak miasmic world propounded by the respondents” in the words of the Supreme Court, is “the culture of unrestrained selfishness and greed spawned by modern neo-liberal economic ideology and the false promises of the ever increasing spirals of consumption” – i.e., illegal mining and land acquisition. The Supreme Court, in its landmark judgement, ruled that the state had acted illegally and that the militia was unlawful. As the petitioners have pointed out, the horrific crimes perpetrated by the counterinsurgents ‘are a matter of record’ and as others have previously argued, it is the absolute greed and illegitimacy of the state that fuels such crimes. In a press release welcoming the judgment, the petitioners say,

If the state is to be recognised as legitimate it must act lawfully and cannot sacrifice the law and Constitution for immediate expediency. As the judges have so succinctly observed “the power of the people vested in any organ of the State, and its agents, can only be used for promotion of constitutional values and vision.” However, judging by the reaction of the Home Ministry and the Chhattisgarh government, this basic constitutional principle is being willfully ignored.

In Arundhati Roy’s Walking With The Comrades (March 2010), a powerful critique (and indictment) of the state, she writes of the brother of a Maoist cadre Nilesh, a hotheaded and misguided young man who switched sides to the Salwa Judum. His alienation and wretchedness, as that of other ‘unwitting members’ of the militia, she writes, is absolute: “No supreme court judgement ordering the Salwa Judum to be dismantled can change their fate”, pointing not just to the complexity, the grim irony, but also to the bleakness of it all.

Roy’s long essay has both its supporters and detractors. It has provoked many a critique, particularly in relation to its univocal representation of Maoism. What is relevant here though, is the actions of the Indian state and its “institutionalisation of injustice”, which Roy argues further “has turned this country into a tinderbox of massive unrest”.

Jairus Banaji, a Marxist scholar, who has critiqued Roy’s position, points directly to the fact that creating a wage labour class is predicated on dispossessing autonomous farmers, croppers, fishermen, etc, of their land and their means of subsistence, while invoking Marx’s critique of the Wakefield ‘colonization schemes’ – dispossession of indigenous people to turn them into wage labourers. Discussing how the state has effectively demolished the notion of the ‘citizen’ while patting into shape the consumerist middle classes, he and his wife Rohini Hensman, a writer/researcher (she writes here of the ‘dirty war’ between the Maoists and the state) respond to my ‘being like America’ proposition by referring to India’s hankering for a permanent seat on the security council, nuclear arms, oligarchic entities, fetishistic invocations of ‘infrastructure’, ‘ports’, ‘highways’, and India’s integration into global debt markets. A programmatic right wing and centrist narrative of Muslims and Islam runs concurrently.

The boundaries between nation building, feeding consumers, nurturing oligarchs, creating wealth and prosperity, are all increasingly blurred. Again, what are the social costs of being a superpower? What are the social safeguards? Is this desire, feeding off class driven consumerist desires, aspirations, mobility and politics, this ‘idea of India’ fetishistically overcontoured?

In his essay A Nation Consumed By A State early this year, historian/writer Ramachandra Guha refers to a detached historical view of the anguish of nation building – in specific relation to separatist movements – as being one with the benefit of ideological hindsight. We see, apart from Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, and Punjab in the past, there have been popular struggles to resist the perceived tyranny of India and Indianness. In today’s world, in contrast to 19th century autocracies and contemporary totalitarian regimes, India, Guha argues, a self-avowed modern democracy, must set itself higher standards and “to reconcile Kashmiris, Manipuris and Nagas to the idea of India must involve other methods than coercion and bribery”. In his conceptual formulation of the ‘idea of India’, Guha points to three main challenges – Hindutva, Communist Dictatorship and Ethnic Separatism – and appends to them, “three more mundane and materialist challenges. These are inequality, corruption and environmental degradation”. Interestingly, further on, Guha also says, “The superpower aspiration is as much a male, macho thing as Naxalism or Hindutva. It is likewise a fantasy, and an equally dangerous one”.

(One must note here the increased number of TV commercials and Bollywood films/posters/promos featuring bare-chested ‘heroes’ – they too sell the ‘idea of India’ with muscle and imagination)

When I run ‘being like America’ by him, he suggests that there are certainly certain ways we ought to, particularly in that “we can have a more efficient and capable judiciary, a press less intimidated by corporate interests, a society less driven by class and caste hierarchies, a genuine respect for the individual”. He points also to a short piece in Granta no 77, What We Think About America (2002), where he argues that the “current admiration for the United States has all to do with power. Strategic thinkers in New Delhi have little time for America’s experiments with transparency of governance; they ask only that it recognize India as the ‘natural’ leader of this part of the world”.

In 2011, the arena has extended beyond the limiting boundaries of ‘this part of the world’.


Earlier this May, Bloomsberg Businessweek reported that the Ethiopian government had reduced the size of land concession given to Bangalore based Karuturi Global International. Reported to be ‘larger than Luxembourg’, the government allegedly did so out of concern that the leased land was too large for a single entity to manage and also “to enable an annual migration of antelope”. The company is the world market leader of cut roses and their website says that with over 292 hectares under Greenhouse cultivation their operations span India, Ethiopia and Kenya. Karuturi Global has expanded into agribusiness (rice, oilseeds, sugarcane and cereal crops) which they have “identified as our next primary growth domain”, and their corporate motto is “Global Presence, Global Success”. Karuturi’s CEO denied any such reduction of land concession as “completely baseless”. Hebdo

In March, Guardian reported that the Gambella region of Ethiopia was at the “centre of the global rush for cheap land” and that local officials have denied that people were being forcibly moved. Karmjeet Sekhon, the project manager of what is to be Africa’s ‘largest farm’ is quoted as saying that such land, with high content of organic matter, is not available in India. China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are amongst the other nations leasing land in Ethiopia, the report reveals. Guardian also carried a blog post by Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the UK, Berhanu Kebede, where he writes: “investors such as Karuturi Global bring huge benefits. Not just the jobs, houses, schools, clinics, and other infrastructure mentioned above, but knowledge transfer, skills training, tax revenue and other benefits to the workers and to the country as a whole”.

The executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), Obang Mehto, in a blog post dated June 15th 2011, addresses the ‘Dear People of India’ in his appeal to them to “join Ethiopian and other African nations in confronting the hundreds of Indian companies who are now at the forefront of colluding with African dictators in robbing the people of their land, resources, lives and future”. He cites a joint investigative report with The Oakland Institute. In a telephone conversation he says that India is a ‘role model’, its struggles/progress ‘exemplary’, but the alleged practices of dispossessing the indigenous Anuak without their consent, in collaboration with a corrupt authoritarian government, is confusing and disappointing. Pointing to increasing tensions, he says Ethiopians are desperately pro-development, faced as they are with drought, famine and critical food shortages, besides much more.

Karuturi’s CSR philosophy espouses ‘sustainable growth’, recognition of ‘environmental degradation’, ‘socio-economic development’, ‘labour welfare’ and ‘making a positive difference’ locally.

Guha, in the aforementioned Granta piece, argues that America is “at once deeply democratic and instinctively imperialist”.

In ‘being like America’ does India desire the former or the latter? As the state actively undermines democratic institutions and its profiteering friends/cronies become increasingly predatory, one wonders if posing such a question is moot?


Last month, a musician friend V shared his frustrating experience with a private health insurer in relation to his father’s surgery. Admitted via the family policy that covered V and his parents, the hospital informed him that there was a mark-up in the room cost by around 40 percent. This mark-up, which of course does not appear on paper, makes the total room cost, curiously enough, exactly 1 percent of the total annual cover, which is the norm. If his father’s admission had been not through the policy, then the rates, not just the room, but also the medicines, the surgery, OT, clinical staff, needles, etc, would all be less than half. Last year, when his uncle underwent surgery for a diabetic foot at a major charitable trust-run hospital, V had asked if he could be shifted to a private room for post-operative care. His uncle had spent a week prior to the surgery in a ward. The cost implication, V was told, was retroactive – the entire period, pre and post surgery, would be charged on the basis of the private room rate, including of course, the surgery, surgeon’s fees, and everything else. Which was 300% more.

An investigative piece No Place To Be Sick by Delhi based journalist Sopan Joshi, looks at such predatory practices in the private health sector. He informs me that the upper limit of a policy is not to be revealed to hospitals. But who is there to regulate that? The article recounts the case of Gajanand Singh, an IT employee of a private firm, who when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the advanced stage, was admitted to Max Super Specialty Hospital in Saket, New Delhi on July 13th last year. He was started on a chemotherapy course that day, and three days later the side effects kicked in. His condition deteriorated and he died on 27th July, four days after being shifted to an ICU isolation room. His company medical insurance cover was for 800,000 rupees. His hospital bill was 795,000 rupees.

Wc_healthcare_full The government offers tax sops to the unregulated private sector; foreign direct investment (FDI) is mostly unrestricted. Diagnostics assure very happy cash registers and indiscriminate testing is rampant. But that’s just one layer. Female foeticide, illegal sex change operations, illegal organ trade – the goings on are macabre, to say the least. Joshi tells me that his article does not reveal all – many horrific facts had to be excluded. In a November 2005 article, business journalist Naresh Minocha pointed to how pressure groups lobbying with the Indian government for liberal reform in the insurance sector, with regard to FDI were frustrated at the lack of ‘fruition’. The US ambassador then, David C Mulford, the article points out, accused India of ‘breach of faith’ in not delivering on its promise of hiking the FDI ceiling from 26% to 49% and suggested that the investment cap should be raised to 50% so that management can wrest control in insurance joint ventures.

While private medical care has stepped in where the state has failed, miserably, the lack of regulation has ensured a wide berth for racketeering, profiteering and patently inhumane practices. As Joshi says to me over the phone, “every family has a story”.

A recent article discussing how economic liberalisation needs major reform today, quotes Preeta Reddy, the MD of the pioneering corporate hospital chain Apollo Hospitals, as saying that there needs to be more investment in R&D in the health sector and that it is “going to be the boom industry in the next twenty years”.


The dispossessed mill workers of Bombay have been struggling for housing rights for several decades now. In the mid 90’s, the ruling government diluted a progressive three-way plan to develop the 600 acres of mill land in the centre of the island city by amending it to benefit commercial developers. Originally, alongside commercial development of 200 acres, there was to be 200 acres of ‘affordable housing’ and 200 acres of, desperately needed, public space. The amended plan (DCR 58) reformulated this 3 way split to non-built up land thereby dramatically reducing land for public housing and space. The escalation of real estate prices is scary. Everyone says prices cannot sustain but the investor driven market ensures that they remain unchanged from the 500% escalation since early 2006. The scandals involving urban housing are far too many to recount – from slum rehabilitation projects to the now famous Adarsh Housing Society. It’s a pretty bleak picture.

Highways, telecom, education, private banking, credit card interest rates, public distribution of essential commodities, food prices, processed food production, drug testing, pharmaceutical operations, defense contracts, 2010 Commonwealth Games – if I were to continue to write about greed, racketeering, corruption, scandals, predatory practices, etc, this already rambling essay would, well, ramble on.


There are many challenges. And sure, safeguarding ourselves against terror attacks is one. On the panel show mentioned at the start, PS Pasricha, a former police commissioner, spoke of bureaucracy coming in way of the upgrading systems, RS Pradhan, a former civil servant, spoke of how we have undermined our beat policing system by alienating communities (and thereby informers), and Sanjay Nirupam, a Congress politician, spoke of positive progress since the 2008 terror attacks.

100000 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate is brought annually to the Vishakapatnam port, EAS Sarma tells me. There is little or no surveillance over its import, screening of container traffic, storage facilities, and inland distribution – an absence of regulation. Sarma has filed an RTI application to seek greater clarity here – we should know who the consignees are, how it travels, to where and to whom. A part it goes to the illegal mining lobby, he informs me. In many of the terror blasts that have happened here, IEDs employing Ammonium Nitrate have been used. Clearly, one practical way of being vigilant is to answer the questions Sarma has raised. But firstly, the questions have to be asked for them to be answered.

In 2003, V Balachandran, a former cop and intelligence man, pointed to a failure in the intelligence gathering system. The biggest problem he said then “is that basic governance across India has collapsed”. Politicians, he added (not to forget media), point to Pakistan. Criticising the “confrontationist policy on all issues, in all states”, he further said, “the policy of the government is to divide people and then harass one particular section”.


I email writer/broadcaster Ziauddin Sardar about ‘being like America’. He argues that to some extent India ‘being like America’ is what most nations do but the twist, he adds, is India’s global power aspirations: “it wants to see itself specifically at par with the dominating global power. Pakistan, in Indian as well as US perspective, is a failed state. This, of course, does not sit comfortably with most Pakistanis. The well-established notion of respect and honour come into play. Pakistanis are not interested in talking to a country that does not respect them; and worse attacks its honour. Pakistan sees itself as a nuclear power worthy of attention. So we have an impasse.” India-pakistan-war

A former high ranking government official and diplomat responds to my email by pointing to a Pakistan centric foreign policy bias and says Foreign Service officials “view everything through the prism of Indo-Pak relations”.

It is safe to say here that the internal challenges of India today deserve far, far more attention than any acute concern for Pakistan or other neighbours. We have got to set our own house right. Perhaps it is time to be “deeply democratic”.

The hubris of absolute power, the post-revolution decay of victorious insurgents (see Conrad’s words here), the senseless violence of Maoist cadre remain sobering (and cautionary) thoughts, just as the discourse and dissension of plural voices a positive sign. I turn once again to the words of the Supreme Court:

As we heard the instant matters before us, we could not but help be reminded of the novella, “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, who perceived darkness at three levels: (1) the darkness of the forest, representing a struggle for life and the sublime; (ii) the darkness of colonial expansion for resources; and finally (iii) the darkness, represented by inhumanity and evil, to which individual human beings are capable of descending, when supreme and unaccounted force is vested, rationalized by a warped world view that parades itself as pragmatic and inevitable, in each individual level of command.

Three recent headlines:

Citing Greed, green, SC stops mining in Bellary

Government unveils draft land acquisition Bill

Asian stock markets sink over U.S. debt fears