The Burning Train

And why exactly is this train called India headed for disaster?

Satya Sivaraman Delhi

This year, August 15, 2008 marked yet another Independence Day for the modern Indian nation. Six decades ago, this day, the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, famously declared the new born nation's "tryst with destiny" and promised to make Independence a vehicle of future peace, prosperity and democratic rule for the people of his country. However, sixty years after, for millions of people living in this vast and diverse land, it is as if Independence never arrived and our colonial rulers never left.

There are two simple questions they pose that nobody seems to have an answer for: whose freedom is it that 15th of August represents? And who does this country really belong to?

For in the harsh daily reality of their lives, what the people experience is the same old pillage, plunder and injustice from successive Indian governments. Indian Independence, instead of being a vehicle to the promised peace, prosperity and democracy, appears to them more like a brakeless burning train headed for complete disaster.

A burning train that is commandeered by a paid bureaucracy willing to obey any orders their political and corporate masters give, no matter what principles of basic humanity or ethics are broken in the process. Anybody here with a conscience is soon hauled over the coals - more fodder to feed the ever starving, ever speeding train.

The politicians smugly sit in their first class AC luxury carriages insulated from the electorate in whose name they rule and cosy up to the captains of domestic and foreign capital who are their real constituency. Once in several years they lean out of their windows to beam their plastic smiles and wave their stodgy hands at those behind them - an exercise the current Indian government proudly calls ‘free market democracy'.

In a small corner next to the politicians and corporate bosses sit members of the Indian media intoxicated by their proximity to power. They are there to entertain the elite with trivia, the ‘heroes' playing Nero while the nation burns.

The coaches that follow are full of the Indian middle classes, also mostly upper caste, who occupy ‘reserved' seats, which they mistakenly think, are also deserved.  As they coast along their comfortable journey, they chatter on about how corrupt everyone is (except them of course!) and curse the politicians ahead. But all the while aspiring, competing, conspiring to privately grab a share of the same loot they publicly denounce.

At the very end of the train is that single ‘unreserved compartment' meant for the unshaven, unkempt, unwashed masses who - according to some ancient Indian logic - get so little precisely because they are so large in number and are eternally invisible. Here they go pushing, shoving, cutting, murdering and slaughtering each other over every inch of space which represents their very survival. Innocence here is a bird that dies well before it is even born, for to be alive would mean only ending up in the diet of some hungry soul or the other.

There is yet another category of people: Dalits, adivasis, indigenous folk of the Indian northeast and Kashmiris, who don't figure anywhere inside the burning Indian train - because the train itself runs not on railway tracks but on their bloodied backs. They are the colonial subjects of the colonised, the untouchables and outsiders of the caste society, the slaves of the slaves, the shadow of shadows - with no human rights because they are supposed to be mere living ghosts.

And why exactly is this burning train called India headed for disaster?


It's a political disaster because our politicians, despite the façade of periodic elections, do not represent the Indian people any more. They have transformed into middlemen bargaining away national interests to the highest bidder. Most of our leading (or misleading) political parties, instead of helping defend democracy, social justice and national sovereignty, are busy trying to make India a junior partner in the global crimes of US imperialism - even if the process leads to the recolonisation of the country.

 It's an administrative disaster because the government ‘public servant', in a perversion of the original concept, treats the public like his servant and instead serves his real masters in the world of wealthy corporations. Despite living off the Indian State all these decades, today, many of them are the ones most enthusiastic about selling the Nation-State off to private owners.

 It's an economic disaster because what used to be a national economy has turned into one more game of roulette in the global casino whose spinning wheel spells fortunes for a select few and pauperises the already poor majority. The evil mantras of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation are taking India back to the days of princely kingdoms, with the only difference that today the monarchs are the large corporations and multinationals that dominate the national landscape.

 It's a social disaster because injustice breeds more injustice, greed breeds more greed and the frenzied search for security of the few makes the multitudes insecure. While we have successive governments splurging billions of dollars on militarisation in the name of ‘national
security' the real problem remains at home with simmering conflicts of caste, religion and nationality ready to explode at short notice. On a burning train, survival is possible only over the corpses of fellow travellers.

 It's an ecological disaster because what successive governments in Independent India have done so far is destroy the country's irreplaceable land, water, forest, air, entire eco-systems, in the name of ‘national development' which clearly benefits only big business. A development that worships dead, inanimate monuments of the graveyard while displacing, humiliating and destroying the lives of millions of breathing, sentient creatures that relentlessly work hard, create beauty from earth and nature, laugh, make music and make love.

Is there a solution to the national mess we are in today?

We have no definite answers. But one thing is for sure. It is that the only ones who can ultimately save the passengers on the great burning Indian train are the very people whose flesh and bones they travel upon. It is only through a powerful collective shrug of these invisible people - the original people of India - that the burning train can be pushed off its tracks - liberating both those beneath and inside the train headed for disaster.

It may well be time for all of us to jump off this burning train and help derail it. It is an act of resistance that may launch yet another battle for Indian Independence - this time from our own home grown Colonial State. 


The writer is a journalist and video film-maker based in Delhi