Physicians of the Rich: India & the Myth of Modernization

In this age of nuclear weaponry, ecological degradation, corporate impunity, and armed conflict, the possibility for meaningful progress in the arena of human rights has to be brought into question. For far too long, decision making as it relates to questions of this magnitude have been relegated to narrow sectors of power, and isolated from those who so often fall victim to these human rights abuses. For this reason, it is the task of those who take seriously elementary principles of human rights to challenge the Prime Ministers, Presidents, and Kings who formally advocate the elimination of but rarely acknowledge the very existence of these abuses.

For an example of the widespread incompetence of the powerful when it comes to acknowledging violations of human rights, one doesn’t have to look beyond the United States and our craven relationship with the Indian government. Just over a month ago President Obama made his first visit to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, India’s presidential palace located in New Delhi. Strolling across a red carpet surrounded by lush greenery, secret servicemen, and Indian dignitaries extending their hands in warm welcome, Obama hailed the visit as– according to a Reuter’s article written by Patricia Zengerlean–an opportunity to “praise new India as a rising global power and modernizing state”. Alas, India, above all other nations in southeastern Asia, is to be the new jewel placed in the imperialist crown of modern state capitalism.

This article bearing the headline Old, new India combine in pomp for Obama visit lauded the President’s cosmopolitan character in helping to strengthen the ties between the “old” India of Gandhi with the “new” ,“modernized” India of high-tech gadgetry, advanced militarism, and mass privatization. Indeed Obama’s visit might have helped to ossify the link between Gandhi’s India and PM Singh’s “modernized” India but only at the expense of ignoring the real India. And the real India is anything but, using Obama’s words, “a model to the world” (not unless devastating poverty and malnutrition is a fit model for the world).

But where is real India if not in Mumbai and New Delhi? Isn’t the modernization of India enriching its population? Are not the Indians just like Americans, with their luxury cars, stable governments, cinemas, and music? Well, that’s partly true. The Indians are almost exactly like Americans except for one subtle yet significant difference. While the United States has embarked on a worldwide campaign to dispossess the world’s most vulnerable populations in Palestine, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Yemen –just to name a few– the Indian government can confine their campaign of dispossession to the soil beneath their feet, in places like Chhattisgarh. And this Indian campaign of plunder can go forth uninterrupted thanks to the ever-so convenient cloak of modernization, a concept that the late great Palestinian activist and literary theorist, Edward Said, described as a theory designed to “[stop] communism, promote US trade, and above all, develop a cadre of native allies whose expressed raison d’etre seemed to be the transfer of backward countries into mini-Americas”. Said’s astute observation of this phenomenon of international relations speaks volumes to the nature of the US-India relationship and the depravity that slumbers beneath the veil of national prosperity.

But these are all abstract notions. Why not give a concrete example of this divide between egalitarian rhetoric on the part of dignitaries and the reprehensible conditions of deprivation they contribute to? There is no better example to be found than in the story of Dr. Binayak Sen. Described by the indigenous peoples of Chhattisgarh as the “physician of the poor”, Dr. Sen is a icon of human rights advocacy in India, who has reported on the grave injustices perpetrated against the people of Chhattisgarh; namely, the “unlawful killings of the Adivasis people” by state backed militias. Strangely, India, the self-proclaimed largest “democracy” in the world, has reacted to Dr. Sen’s understanding of democratic principles of human rights by condemning him to a life of imprisonment. This is a glaring defect in Mr. Obama’s “model for the world”. Or is it? Maybe what I see as a defect is business-as-usual for power. After all Dr. Sen was known as the “physician for the poor” and providing the basic necessities of life to the poor is a credible threat to those who dedicate their lives to the maintenance of wealth, those who I call the physicians for the rich (just look up how President Carter equipped the Salvadoran junta in 1980 to murder Archbishop Oscar Romero for remaining faithful to the message in the Gospels by providing for the poor). These physicians for the rich mirror the material poverty of those they oppress with the intellectual poverty of market based solutions and structural adjustment programs which basically translates as security for the rich and tough-shit for everyone else. This inequity was recently articulated by Dr. Sen in an interview on Democracy Now where he stated:

Thirty-three percent of the adult population of India have a body-mass index below 18.5, which signifies chronic under-nutrition. Forty-five percent of children in India are malnourished by weight-for-age criteria. So, simply on the basis of anthropometric figures, we find that there is chronic hunger at work in the land.

And on November 8, 2010 Vijay Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut was quoted in an interview saying:

Most people [in India] don’t have enough in their pockets to buy grains. In fact, perversely, the Indian government has been thinking of exporting food grains, even though starvation and hunger in India are at very high levels.

These obsolete models of subsistence may sit well with those who have a hand on the wheel that drives the state but it certainly shouldn’t satisfy those who are too often left in the dust of destitution, made invisible by the rising clouds of injustice. Therefore, it is the responsibility of conscientious citizens to pressure Mr. Obama to hold fast to the ideals he professes and denounce the strain of hypocrisy that has animated the US from its infancy. Only then will India and the United States be real life examples of the democracy that they so liberally and unthinkingly advocate.


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