The New India? Or How It Became Just Like Everyone Else!

I came across this piece in the recent issue of Granta and it made for depressing reading.

Capital Gains by Rana Dasgupta

I was not quite sure what about it really cut to the quick. I am still not sure.

Perhaps it is some sort of romanticism about a world in the past that cared for something more than just material wealth, brand awareness, consumer choice and flash. But I have read Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities and know well that such a world never existed. There is a surprising continuity in man’s perpetual search for the banal, the bombastic and the brilliantine!

Perhaps it was that it reminded me so much of the Karachi that i grew up in – vapid, empty, all show and no go, where men were hot air and women simply decorative pieces to be shown and then discarded to their domestic nothingness. Pakistan succumbed to the seductions of the ‘free market’ i.e. open to foreign products and killing all its own, far earlier than India did. And all throughout my early years I would envy India’s independence, her ability to stand on her own feet, achieve engineering and national achievements through her own efforts. While Pakistan was for sale to the highest bidder. Probably another romantic delusion, but certainly with some truth to it. Pakistan became a ‘client’ state back in the 1960s, whereas India was always the independent, confident, self sufficient and not cowed by power structures from without.

But Dasgupta’s piece bought back memories of that earlier Karachi I disliked and feared so much. Today it is a hollow city, its inhabitants without culture, their eyes turned towards ‘the West’, desperate to make their children the equivalent of modern day Janissaries, as the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid once called my generation. A generation raised in Pakistan to be sold to the highest bidders (academic, corporate) in the Western world. If you don’t know, the Janissaries were a force made from abducted sons from conquered countries, and then sent back to those countries to act as soldiers and administrators.

Is India becoming a Pakistan i.e creating an entire class of people who have effectively seceded, as Arundhati Roy once argued from the rest of the nation?

Tarun, the editor of the amazing Tehelka magazine is quoted in this piece as saying:

‘No one cares,’ he says. ‘There are no ideas except the idea of more wealth. The elite don’t read. They know how to work the till, and that’s it. There’s nothing: we are living in the shallowest decade you can imagine. Rural India, that’s 800 million people, has simply fallen out of the master narrative of this country. There should have been an enormous political left in India, but people worship the rich and there’s no criticism of what they do. They face no consequences; they live in an atmosphere of endless possibility.’

The conflicts in Pakistan are not seen as class wars, but they are. I recently wrote a post called Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging of War about how foreign journalists/reporters are confused when it comes to reporting about Pakistan. Few realize that the rise of insurgencies and voices of sectarian political allegiances are veils that hide large scale class conflicts that have not be resolved in the country.  India’s conflicts in the West (Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Chattisgarh etc.) are class conflicts as well, as reporter Jason Motlagh has recently written in Conflicts Within.

In Pakistan the deprived (and they are not necessarily the poor, simply the cheated, fooled and ignored) are asking for their share, and using religion (in Swat for example) and nationalism (in Baluchistan for example) to fight for their share of the pie that is otherwise in the hands of a minority, venal, wealthy class that just does not care!

I will say that while reading this piece I was irritated by the suggestion that this mindless affinity for wealth and its display, the indifference towards the environment or broader societal welfare needs (education, health care etc.) is some sort of Hindu problem. Such suggestions are simply racist – there is just no other term for it. They are reductive, simplistic, and label hundreds of millions of people from varied class, culture, ethnicity etc. with a broad brush. Many object to such language when it comes to Africans, or Muslims, or Arabs. I can’t accept it here and we should not either.

The greed of man, the banality of man, does not need a religion or a universal spiritual outlook. I mean, has anyone been to Dubai recently? Money and consumerism have reduced that nation to a catatonic bonhomie that I believe would easily diagnosed by a professional as ‘diseased’! It continues to surprise me  the ease with which we speak to the general but rarely ever acknowledge the shared; human greed and frivolity is universal and has nothing to do with religious outlooks or philosophies. If anything, the religions are easily (too easily!) woven into our human preferences and values most of the time anyways – its called cultural adaptation and adjustments!

What is happening in Delhi is real of course. But its not just Delhi – it will happen in every city of India if its not already that way. I would argue that anyone who knows the history of India, particularly the show and pomp of its most recent collection of rulers; the British, The Mughals, the Hyderabadi dynasty etc. will know what pomp and bombast are. Are we truly in a moment of unique crassness and indifference? I am not so sure. And Its not unique to India either. Its China. Its Islamabad. Its Doha. Its Milan. Pankaj Mishra wore eloquently about this India in a piece in The Guardian some months ago.  I remember this paragraph:

In India…the pursuit of economic growth at all costs has created a gaudy elite but also widened already alarming social and economic disparities. Facilities for health care and primary education have deteriorated. Economic growth, confined to urban centres, is largely jobless. Up to a third of Indians live with extreme poverty and deprivation. And militant communist movements have erupted in the poorest, most populous states.

When we arrive in India in a few weeks (aside: this essay was originally written for workshop students accompanying me to India in August 2009) we have to remember that we are entering a dynamic and modern India, but that the stories we will cover are the ones that are being lost in the hysteria of celebration and consumerism. There are many who are richer, but some argue, many more who have been left in the wake of this pursuit of wealth.

As journalists it is our responsibility to add the weight of our voices to that of the weak, to help balance the equation, and facilitate their access to rights, justice, and basic human needs. I think that Pankaj Mishra said it best, in a tribute he wrote for the late Babara Epstein (editor The New York Review of Books), when he said that:

…literary and political journalism requires much more than the creation of harmonious and intellectually robust sentences; … it is linked inseparably to the cultivation of a moral and emotional intelligence; … it demands a reasonable and civil tone, a suspicion of abstractions untested by experience, a personal indifference to power, and, most importantly, a quiet but firm solidarity with the powerless.

I don’t believe that any nation that ignores the welfare of all its citizens can succeed in the long run. I know this from my experiences in Pakistan – a very wealthy nation with levels of deprivation and poverty that leaves one reeling. Certainly in Sweden, where I have now lived for nearly 9 years, I can see possibilities I had previously not imagined; the achievements of a state that invests in the broad welfare of all its citizens is quite a sight to behold.

You can’t build a sky scrapper over weak foundations.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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