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THE SECESSION OF THE RICH

In India as in other countries of the South, 'development' is increasingly driving out people whose talents and commitment their country can ill afford to lose, but who see no other hope than in a future elsewhere.

By Jeremy Seabrook


January 1999

The integrity of India depends, so the common wisdom runs, upon its capacity to hold the States together, the disparate agglomeration of ethnicities and religions from the Burmese border to the Lakshadweep Sea. It is essential that those States in which Hindus are in a minority - Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab - should also identify with the idea of India.

Fears of secession have led the Indian government to considerable acts of repression, not only in Kashmir, but in the North-East, in actions against 'insurgency' or 'terrorism': a demonstration that the country will be held together by whatever force is necessary.

The diversity and cultural richness of secular India is at stake. They cannot be permitted to secede, for this would start a process of fragmentation which risks the nightmare of reducing India to the rump of its Hindi heartland.

But there is another group, more diffuse, certainly, but scarcely less significant, whose de facto secession from India is even more damaging than the possibility of whole chunks of the country falling away. Indeed, this is not perceived as secession at all, even though they have withdrawn from the country as effectively as if they had made a public declaration of independence.

Theirs has been secession by stealth. They, of course, are the increasing numbers of the very wealthy, who no longer identify their interests with the interests of their country.

India is seen by them as no longer a secure place for their children, their money, their well-being, their future. A recent article in the Times of India suggested that more and more business people in Mumbai are sending their children, their money, their bank accounts, and everything else dear to them, to the West. They cite rising stress levels, the threat of extortion, corruption, political instability and fear of kidnappings as reasons for finding a safe haven elsewhere than in their country of origin.

Many have already departed, leaving their businesses in the hands of managers, agents and other subordinates, while they settle in Vancouver, Melbourne or Houston. It is rare for a family of the East Indian community in Bandra, for instance, to have no member abroad - a lifeline, a possible source of income, an escape route in the event of whatever (usually) catastrophic eventuality they are insuring themselves against.

What does this say to the mass of the people of India about the confidence of the elite in the future well-being, prosperity and peace of the country? The great majority, of course, have no choice but to remain wherever law and order have broken down, where extra-judicial killings have become a daily experience on the streets of a city like Mumbai, where environmental degradation, pollution, depleted resources, corruption and injustice are all facts of daily life. What are they to make of the desertion of those who ought to be leading them?

They do not have the option of sending their children abroad to study, property in safe lands, where the next generation can expect a smooth life, a good education, with only a small risk of a racist attack or of being a victim of crime on the streets of London or Toronto.

The gilded refugees of privilege have the country of money to flee to, a patriotism of convenience, allegiance to a place that is as amorphous and indefinable as the mysterious electronic conduits whereby $1 trillion moves around the world each day. The rich, it seems, love their country only insofar as it can furnish them with the profits which will underwrite their capacity to abandon it. They are no longer bound by place, culture, language or religion, but have become nomadic as money, drawn by the scent and colour of money, the language of money, the worship of money; money which knows the art of multiplying itself among its own casteless kind.

Today, says the Times article, it is the done thing to send children to study abroad. 'Quite often the children who go there enjoy the lifestyle so much that when they come back they find they don't fit in here. After much acrimony, their fathers allow them to go back and take up some job and fund their lifestyles there.'

Free from the taxman and the extortionist, the legal and illegal economy alike, they enter capitalism's realm of freedom. Liberation indeed. Or is it secession, treachery or simply opportunism, the desire to avoid the rigours of life in a country in whose future they have lost faith?

It is time for the rulers to take seriously this loss of able and educated people. Perhaps they should heed the lesson it holds: it is not by the zealotry of Shiv Sena that they will reverse the one-way traffic out; it is not by worsening social injustice that drives the purposeless young of the cities into crime and violence; it is not by promoting promises of alien forms of luxury that can never be kept, that the exiles of privileged people will be persuaded to remain in their country; it is not by the corruption of underpaid functionaries in the police or the bureaucracy that the competent and the clever will be drawn to stay in India.

Secessionism remains perhaps the greatest problem facing, not only India, but all the other 'developing' countries, whose development is increasingly in the direction of driving out those whose talents and commitment their country can ill afford to dispense with, but who see no other hope than in a future elsewhere. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.

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