Urbanization, prosperity and chaos

Georgie Anne Geyer

October 24, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- THE TRAGIC news that burst from the north of India was totally lost in America. Even though Sikh terrorists blew up a Hindu theatrical festival on Oct. 16, killing at least 41 persons, there was almost no coverage of that event (or many other recent similar ones).

Why this should be is no mystery. An ever more self-absorbed America was still deep in the shocked aftermath of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill "show."

Putting aside the idealistic old idea that bells tolling anywhere inevitably toll for everyone, let us examine events in India in terms of what is happening in the Soviet Union, in Yugoslavia -- and even, on some levels, right here in America.

During my stay in India this summer -- my seventh trip to that rich universe of peoples over a span of many years -- I was particularly interested in the many new secessionist movements. They are tearing off the borders from the center in the states of Kashmir and the Punjab in the north, Assam in the east and, probably very soon, Tamil-Nadu in the south. What I found caused me to rethink long-held ideas about human change and violence.

Since the mid-'60s, when I covered the Marxist "liberation movements" from Guatemala to Nicaragua and from Angola to Ethiopia, we analysts and developmentalists have known all the guidelines by heart:

There was so much violence in the Third World because there was no middle class. Not enough young people were being educated. The laws of multi-ethnic and multi-racial states did not apply equally to all. The world's violent and impoverished "countrysides" were going to close in on the rich and pampered cities . . .

Well, my friends who care about the saga of development in today's world, think about this:

* In India today, the vast majority of the members of the violent groups are middle class. This is true not only in the rich Punjab and Kashmir, but also in the violent Hindu revivalist movement, which has been aggressively taunting the Muslims and which says it will rebuild a Hindu temple atop a Muslim mosque on Nov. 18, thus calling forth God only knows what violence.

Indian military strategist Shri K. Subramanian explains: "The 'green revolution' brought increasing mechanization of agriculture to the Punjab. What would the sons of the agricultural owners do? They went to the city and became unemployed half-educated intellectuals" -- and became the angry, undigestible backbone of the violent anti-India Sikh movement.

* As the country disintegrates, the law has become an important gathering place for dissent, whether affirmative action laws for the lower Indian castes (laws that have called forth violent demonstrations by middle-class Indians) or questions of civil law, pushed by aggressive new religious leadership.

As Subramanian, the country's major geopolitical strategist, told in New Delhi: "The majority in India is ready for common civil law for everyone. But the minorities want their own personal law. Polygamy was abolished here, but the Muslims want it. The Muslims are still led by an obscurantist leadership."

* The rapid urbanization of the world has led not to some expected prosperous city civilization, but mostly to profound inner chaos. "It is the problem of rootlessness that overtakes first and second generations in urban societies," Ambassador Eric Gonsalves, one of India's most respected diplomats, told me. "It's really a damned soulless existence. You've got to have something to live for. As the urban population increases, we face the problem of various extremist movements. The demonstrations are essentially middle-class urban.

"We had values, but the revolutions and change took them out. And we don't have a way to put them back into people."

In my myriad conversations here, many analysts compared India today with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but particularly with that of Yugoslavia. Some saw comparable agents of breakdown (affirmative action fights, to name only one) in the United States. But the elements were strikingly similar everywhere.

To sum up, we are seeing far more than the breakdown of communism in the world today; we are seeing almost every major multi-national country on the verge of disintegration. But the movements of change this time are not against a tyranny and not even particularly for an ideology. Far from the old protests against political oppression, these are protests, ironically, against the inner -- and thus far more bedeviling and dangerous -- upheavals of prosperity.

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