A Society without a Civilization

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Newton is a heart-wrenching story of the exploitation and abuse of tribal people by the Indian government and its armed forces. The story is set in a mineral-rich area influenced by the Naxals, a radical communist group, follower of Maoist ideology and considered a terrorist group by the Indian government.

The protagonist, Newton, is a good-hearted, honorable bureaucrat sent for election duty inside the Naxal-infested forest. It wasn’t he who was originally selected to go, although it was clear that others did not want the possibility of facing Naxals. The officer whose immediate replacement Newton was had claimed that he had heart problems and that the doctor had advised him against traveling by helicopter.

Villagers are required to provide food and whatever other services are desired of them. So much for India’s democracy.

By law, no officer can refuse to go on election duty, except that — at least to an Indian audience — it was obvious that anyone who wanted to could readily provide a doctor’s certificate to avoid going. In India, it is so easy for a doctor to give you a certificate of sickness that many Indians living in the West extend their vacations in India and turn them into sick leaves. An Indian I once met when he was working for an airline in Sweden was challenged by his boss, who had seen a pattern. He sued the company for bigotry and got paid for “emotional damages” on top of his habitual paid vacations.

At any rate, once Newton arrives in the forest, he quickly realizes that the army, whose job is to provide him security, does not want to be distracted and risk its lives by venturing into the polling area. But Newton is insistent. The movie shows you a tribal woman chasing a chicken for slaughter. A bit later, a pot of chicken appears in front of the army. Most of the non-Indian audience will miss the connection, so here it is. Customarily, when armed forces arrive — even if late in the night — villagers are required to provide food and whatever other services are desired of them. So much for India’s democracy. Feudalism has merely moved into the hands of the new rulers, who are less classy.

There are many nuances in this movie. Watch the events and the characters and you may start to understand several of the entrenched problems of India, and most such poor societies.

Having been to the Naxal-affected area many times, including once to look for mining opportunities, I find the portrayal of characters very authentic, and actually much underplayed. The audience will likely side with the tribal people. I do too, knowing full well that any such sympathy carries with it the serious risk of being branded a Naxal or a Maoist by the Indian government. And unfortunately, sympathy for tribal people has no value, because they have no clue what democracy means, cannot understand it, and will always be exploited and abused by someone, certainly in a democratic system.

The movie does a good job of showing that the voters of the largest democracy in the world have, themselves, no clue what their vote is for and what it means. They have no clue about the programs of those standing for elections, or any knowledge about the individual politicians. As for the tribal people, they think that somehow their vote is connected with the money they get for the forest produce they sell. Almost instinctively, the army sergeant in charge suggests that the largely illiterate citizens vote for whatever political symbol they fancy. If one watches the characters closely, one realizes that it is impractical to expect these people to understand political problems. Their lot might have been a little better had they no right to vote.

The audience will likely side with the tribal people. I do too, knowing full well that any such sympathy carries with it the serious risk of being branded a Maoist by the Indian government.

In the movie, as in moment to moment life in India, everyone — except for the protagonist — is trying to run the lives of whomever he can, and everyone humiliates whomever he can. The sergeant humiliates his subordinates, beats up children, and treats tribal people with extreme disrespect. He gets away with everything. Within the ecology he inhabits, I thank him for not killing and raping, despite the fact that he could easily get away with it. Such crimes are extremely common.

But tribal people are no innocents here. One of them comments that they follow what they have for thousands of years. They have their own leader, who decides the future of others — might is right in the running of a tribe. And although the sergeant may look like a tyrannical manipulator, if you put yourself in his place you may realize that he has limited options. He knows that voting has no value. His job is to protect lives, so he makes up stories that allow him to do what he thinks is best. Nothing that he does is ethical, but in a dystopia your choices are always between a wrong and a less-wrong. Mostly you cannot foresee the long-term consequences of your actions and must operate through expediency.

For urban Indian and foreign audiences it pays to know a bit of the background of Naxalism. Naxals are assumed to be fighting against entrenched, feudal institutions and the expropriation of tribal property by the Indian government. From that perspective Naxals are certainly correct. But a deeper truth is that tribal people are superstitious people, and can hardly differentiate between right and wrong. They have no concept of property rights, and they themselves exist on the basis of expediency, where “tomorrow” is always too far in the future. They might be labeled Marxists, but even the simplistic concept of Marxism is too complex for them. During my own interactions with these people I have often wondered how conscious they actually are.

The sergeant humiliates his subordinates, beats up children, and treats tribal people with extreme disrespect. He gets away with everything.

Naxals are the politically active tribal people, who are believed to be supported by some leftist middle-class intellectuals. Naxals lack principled foundations and are no saints. They have merely exploited the situation that the unethical and irresponsible middle class and the populist and marauding government have spawned. Naxals exploit, rob, extort, and kill innocents, including tribal people who refuse to join. As can be expected, they have come to exist for their own sake.

One might ask why urban Indians do not seem to care about tribal people. South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are special societies in the sense that their middle classes and their elites provide no moral or intellectual backbone to the general society. To a so-called educated Indian, if armed forces rape and kill tribal people, whether they are Naxals or not, it is perfectly fine. In the minds of urban Indian the suffering of tribal people is at worst collateral damage. One might even hear from an urban Indian how good his life is. Prodding him tells you something very interesting: he does not count his fleet of servants, maids, and chauffeurs as human beings who benefit his life.

Tribal people themselves exist on the principle of might makes right and hardly feel revulsion when they are violated. They merely seek to exploit others, a pattern that consistently emerges when they are elevated to positions of power under the affirmative policies.

The responsibility for the predicament of India lies primarily in the hands of its middle class, who adamantly refuse to provide any moral structure to the society. In this respect, the Naxals are right: the bourgeoisie is the exploiting class. Its only moral credit is that the Naxals would have been much more vicious and tyrannical.

To a so-called educated Indian, if armed forces rape and kill tribal people, whether they are Naxals or not, it is perfectly fine.

You cannot even start to understand India, if your Western mind tells you to side with the good and against the evil. Such a dichotomy does not exist in dystopian India. Once you start to understand the complexity of the situation you start to realize that were you in the government you would easily use the gun and tyranny to keep the irrational, superstitious, tribal people within sane social behavior. You would also understand that implementing property rights is virtually impossible in a society in which people do not understand the concept. Creating laws is not enough, a point that Hernando de Soto misses in his many books.

But to return. Newton will horrify, sadden, and anger you, but the reality of the abuses that tribal people endure is much worse. I can only guess why the sexual abuse of tribal girls or killings by the armed forces are not a part of the film. Why were these issues underplayed? Anyone who is seen to be sympathetic to the Naxals faces the heavy hand of the government. Did the movie show just enough to get approved for screening?

Both assiduously do what their duties require them to do, and in the end provide food, claws, and spine to their distant, unknown, amorphous, evil masters.

The movie ends with mining activity taking place in the forest. Ironically, the army sergeant whom the audience might have seen as a villain visits a store with his family, and his wife struggles to decide whether they could buy a few small things. Within the scheme of dystopia he was honest enough, but had ended up being marginalized. My own visit to that forest ended in our decision not to invest, for there was no way we could do so without being complicit in the abuse of tribal people.

Those who have read Les Misérables might be left with an uneasy feeling that there is no countervailing force, no Jean Valjean, in this film. Both Newton and the army sergeant are versions of Javert, agent of unjustified authority. Both assiduously do what their duties require them to do, and in the end provide food, claws, and spine to their distant, unknown, amorphous, evil masters.

For a society to become a civilization, it must have a moral, rational spine, a spine of critical thinkers who are prepared to challenge and nudge the system to a mooring in principles. The movie suggests no hope that this kind of spine will emerge — and that is why a contemplative audience will maintain its gloom to the end, and after the end.


Editor's Note: Review of "Newton," directed by Amit Masurkar. Drishyam Films, 2017, 104 minutes.



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Comments

Paul Thiel

As always, an interesting and informative analysis of a non-western society from Mr. Bhandari that no one that I know could produce except for him.

Chris Nelson

There's a lot of truth to this commentary, evident even to someone like me who has only visited India twice, for a week or less each time. I've also viewed it from afar, since my business is the supply and erection of coal-fired electric power generation equipment, and India has been a huge customer in recent years.

Part of India's problem, evident to me now from this experience, as well as from reading accounts such as this and The Black Box of Bhopal (and other stories from around the world) is a failure to establish and maintain simple property rights. Let me explain:

When BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals, Ltd., one of India's primary quasi-public entities, and one of the biggest power plant developers in the world) or NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) decide that they want a new power plant to satisfy demand (mostly other industrial demand) in a region, the first thing they need to do is site the plant, obviously. Some of the best sites around the world for new power plants are on marginal farm land. It's usually flattish, somewhat developed but not built up, and inexpensive; ideal for a new power plant, especially if it has access to the water that's also necessary. In India, that land is nearly free ... because it's generally not "owned" by farmers holding title to the land. So BHEL or NTPC (or both acting together) simply "clear the land". They evict the people living and farming that land as if they were squatters - and which, under Indian law, they essentially are - even if they've been living on that spot and farming that land for generations. There would have been no way for the squatters to obtain and defend title to the land, and that's one of the reasons why they also can't afford to save and invest capital to make major improvements. That's a self-perpetuating vicious cycle.

Of course, the flip side of that is that the plant itself becomes a hub of economic activity as construction starts, so a squatters' village grows up immediately around (and sometimes even within) the plant's bounds. The workers, their families move there for convenience, and all of the various supporting small businesses that every family needs just "grow up" at the plant's gates.

That was one of the primary causes of the huge disaster of the Union Carbide plant failure at Bhopal. The plant had originally been sited in a remote location on the outskirts of the city, but with all of the activity of construction and later shipping product and materials in and out of the plant, a shantytown village developed which Union Carbide and civil authorities had no capability to prevent. So when the plant was sabotaged - in what should have been a minor incident to slow production - but the partially dismantled, non-functional and inadequate safety systems also failed - then the cataclysm was inevitable.

Another aspect of the failure of Indian property rights is the non-existence of a retail consumer electric power market. Anyone with internet access and the least interest will have seen the ubiquitous photos of the rats' nests of wiring around electric utility poles in any Indian city. That's because there's effectively no legal penalty (there's a great physical risk of electrocution, of course) for the stealing of electric power. So nearly anyone who wants power for his home can, if he cares to put up with the inconvenience and unreliability while saving a few rupees, hook up his own temporary jury-rigged connections to the local transformers. And so many do that, of course, that the photos become ubiquitous. That connection will last until some time when the whole system fails and either the transformer needs replacement or all of the wires cleared to permit any power transmission. This is India.

I understand now that India is engaged in nuclear power generation, and I'm worried for the people who will be flocking to live around those sites - even though I generally support nuclear power generation.

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