Newspapers in the Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh were ablaze in the glare of celebrations this Dasara. Two cities in focus: Hyderabad and Amaravati, both with distinctive, rich and plural histories. There were reports of jubilation and joy and euphoria and excitement. There were contrary reports of unhappiness and protest and resistance. And we know that depending on what you want to publish, you will find people on this side, and on that side and on the line between the two. The critical questions that arise are, however, not about contrary claims but about state responsibility, accountability and transparency under the Constitution of India.
On the one side, we have an avalanche of images of the city that the Andhra Pradesh capital will become — images of freeways and skyscrapers and waterfronts and plastic greens with not one sign of life anywhere in the image. Life is not even a default setting. The image is one of concrete, chromium and steel sans people, animals, worksites and life. The flashes of “life” that pass before our eyes are of the Chief Minister of a democratically elected government in a secular country fervently praying in public at public expense to chants by Brahmin priests. This in a state that houses several communities with several cultures, and must represent a synthesis of collective life. Let us not forget that beautiful skylines always mask the growing ghettos and unfreedoms that accompany dispossession and callous rule. What this city without life is going to trample over are livelihoods, lives, homes and agricultural land that has the capacity to fill the granaries of the state and feed people.
There is of course a more basic question: is this skyline beautiful at all? Amaravati has a history that is rich in art and religious syncretism — what replaces this history is a plastic imitation of a city-state that pales in comparison and decimates the rich pluralism and diversity that this city is known for in Indian history. The question is aesthetics, of course, at the centre of culture and political rule. The new city plan contains a strident statement about the shape of the city, the state and the future it will build.
For argument’s sake, what if the city had been located elsewhere, named Amaravati, and dedicated on Ambedkar Jayanthi, the closest we can get to Amaravati’s Buddhist history and the spirit of the Constitution? Might location and moment have triggered a faint hope of care in governance?
The second Telugu state of Telangana saw a huge and inexcusably extravagant appropriation of a folk-religious festival by the state culminating in Hyderabad. This raises a series of questions that again centre on the character of the state in a democratic, plural country. The question is not whether “the people” are voluntarily surrendering themselves to this orgy — just as the question in Andhra Pradesh is not whether “the farmers” are voluntarily surrendering their food-producing farmlands. The more fundamental question is, can the state use its authority and its power to declare a celebration of a religious festival as a state festival. Can state sponsorship of festivals be permitted in a country governed by a constitution that requires the state to distance itself from all religions?
To argue that Bonalu, an annual festival, is not religious but cultural is to quibble over inconsequential detail. We are not speaking here of whether ministers or bureaucrats hosted small tea parties for their friends and comrades. We are speaking of the total paralysing of entire state machineries and the reining in of an entire bureaucracy (public servants) for work that is not part of the business of governance. Further, are we even thinking about what this appropriation might do to neighbourhood and community spaces and solidarities? Festivals like Bonalu, Deepavali, Holi, Ramzan and Christmas help local communities strengthen bonds and come together.
In times of tension, the fact that these are disaggregated to neighbourhoods prevents escalation of any kind of trouble beyond the neighbourhood. Small traders survive through direct relationships with small consumers. The centralising of fervour and celebration sets up new hierarchies and cultures of control where it is no longer neighbourhoods or family elders who matter — every relationship becomes subservient to political lordship and becomes dependent on political largesse, encouraging and fuelling a dangerous culture of sycophancy and stifling dissent. This is indeed tragic, because the idea of Telangana was born from dissent and free speech, and what we witness today is an undoing of that very foundational idea.
There are other ethical questions that arise. Worship is a personal matter. We live in an age today when right from the constitutional office of the governor to elected offices to salaried offices in public employment, a particular form of religious worship has become a standard form of governmental ritual. Independence Day, Republic Day, Ambedkar Jayanthi, Gandhi Jayanthi, Komuram Bheemu Jayanthi, Sakali Ailamma Day — commemorations of struggles and of lives lived in and for struggle and the good of all are no longer a time when we re-dedicate ourselves to the oath of social justice and collective well-being. Even flowers in their vulgar plenty tell the story of disproportionate wealth and ostentation in a time of despair and death for ordinary people.
How different if we used Amaravati’s history as a centre for Buddhism to set in motion a governance of care? How idealistic a Bonalu that dedicates itself to the families of those reeling under starvation and drought and loss of livelihoods by dedicating every single surplus paisa to address basic needs in an intense, caring exercise of micro-planning?
One day of forced celebrations and world leaders (of native ilk too) skyrocketting in and out of helipads are a mirage. When the dust settles, we are back to questions of how ordinary citizens are going to survive at the hands of governments intent on chasing mirages.
The dream on the horizon today — one we must as a people aspire to and force governments to deliver — is one of the idea of government totally focused on care and well-being, one that eschews this slippery road of cinematic extravaganza that can only spawn spectators and fans, not citizens.
The author is a sociologist based in Hyderabad.