characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.“a Kafkaesque bureaucratic office”
A long long time ago, in a land not so far away (that’s how you start stories, right?) there was a place where planning and power resounded every day. Then came a new king (with no clothes) along with his acronyms and abbreviations and changed the place. The nobles hailed him, the merchants hailed him (and financed his campaigns and provided magical carpet for him to fly away to far lands), the poor hailed him for they thought he was one of them, and the people in other lands hailed him for he looked strong and said strong things, the sheep hailed him for he looked like one of their own, the wolves hailed him for they knew he was one of their own, the cows hailed him for they thought they could cross the road in peace now. So basically everyone hailed him. And whosoever didn’t, well, they were beaten black and blue and orange and asked repeatedly to move to the neighbouring lands of anarchy. So keeping in mind that I don’t want to live in anarchy, let one thing be absolutely clear, the following account is of a lowly cog in an imaginary system where he and his work are entirely worthless and unimportant. Any parallels to real life scenarios and events are the result of the herbs you have been inhaling (or the ‘normal’ air if you are in Delhi). So kindly treat this as you treat George Orwell’s 1984/2002 (what do you mean there isn’t a book by that name, of course, there is, give it a decade or two). And feel free to break your own device in case it gets too much. Nothing and no one else, especially the writer.
The idea that the bureaucracy is apolitical doesn’t hold true, now more than ever. Political leanings are worn on sleeves for some reason. As if the current dispensation is going to continue forever. This Kafkaesque dystopia sometimes reminds one, if the policymakers themselves can’t be bipartisan and untouched by propaganda, what of the ordinary people. Sartre once said, “Politics is a science. You can demonstrate that you are right and that others are wrong.”
The work seems to go on slower than ever. All the claims of bureaucratic efficiency go down the drain with one day here. But at the same time, the state continues to function. It functions well or not can be debated. The apathy and disrespect for knowledge and intellect seem to perlocate even here.
The days are long and monotonous, and maybe one needs to wonder if this tiresome toil contributes the most to the notoriety the iron frame has acquired.
A self-criticism which I will have to accept as well is that we as academicians, intellectuals, and ‘experts’ while decrying the state, we do not strive to be a part of it. We have assumed that the personal is political but we fail to appropriate this as politics as personal. We all, in various capabilities, have run away from the state and becoming a part of it. To paraphrase Tyrion Lannister, “One needs to break the wheel” but one also needs to realize that unless you understand the wheel and are a part of it, you cannot break it. Not effectively, at least. The rise of right is also synonymous with a collective rejection of regime by revolutionaries. We have abandoned the state and the state has done the same to us. For different reasons, we all have rejected power; some as a sign of moral superiority and others for the less virtuous reason of comfort of academia and activism. And this void has been successfully appropriated by the right. I think there is also a collective fear of the corruptive ability of power which we all are afraid of. Which subconsciously guides us away from being actively involved with the state. Which makes us at best distant observers and at worse impeders. But I digress, it is not just us but the idea of the state and its institutions which have decayed. The highest echelon of policymaking is a proof of it.
The propaganda of Nehru and his ilk being a Muslim has taken effect into the very hearts of the people. I don’t know whether to admire rather grudgingly at the efficiency of right-wing propaganda or get disgusted by its substance. The Muslims are consistently seen as the others, consciously or subconsciously in conversations. The discussions surrounding them sounds if not hostile, at least malafide in nature.
The travesty that is digital India makes one want to jump off a cliff in sheer frustration. It is literally making people’s life worse as opposed to what it was envisaged to do. It takes more than a week to just get an ID card made. Keeping in mind that it grants access to the highest policy-making body in the country, it is a matter of concern and of extreme inconvenience to someone who is entering the establishment for the first time.
Although impunity comes more and more easily the longer you stay in an establishment, and I am no stranger to this side effect, the collective respect for procedure and protocol ingrained in me by various institutions and people help counter the effects. Rana Dasgupta, one of my favourite authors, recently wrote on the demise of the nation-state in a globalised world. This demise, true or not, is slow. Because the power of the state is very much visible in every facet of life here. At a time where every institution is ceasing to function the way it was supposed to and giving way to a roughshod executive which neither believe in playing by the rules nor accepts the limitations imposed by law, the future looks more and more Orwellian. I can already see Orwell smirking and having a laugh in his grave. Or maybe he was reborn as an annoying mosquito surveilling all of us.
To have hope in a post-truth dystopia is one of the highest forms of resistance. It is tough, and few attempts to hold on to it. It is easier to just give in to the subservience the state demands every moment and forego the illusion of freedom. The existence of a picture where cricketers are juxtaposed on the legendary scene from Mahabharata with Arjun riding the chariot driven by Krishna. The charioteer and the warriors are the legendary (former) Indian captain and the (current) captain respectively, while the four horses are four Pakistani cricketers. The not-so-subtle pseudo-warfare of cricket and nationalism is quite apparent by it. (Ashraf Ali, Hamara Hindustan Zindabad tha, Zindabad Hai aur Zindabad Rahega)
Although some events made me realize it’s not that the bureaucracy just doesn’t care at all, there still exists a basic level of concern, which might more be a product of humanity rather than official concerns, but I might be wrong here. Maybe all is not lost yet, although there is a high possibility that this is the naive eternal optimist inside me talking but I still have hope. One commenter said today that I have spent my life here, first at planning commission then at Niti Aayog. He quipped that by the next year it will become “Aniti”(immoral) Aayog. Sometimes you get to hear precious gems like these in office and it makes your day.
What do you do when you can’t find some remarks/notings or files? You go deep into your typical Indian Uncle mode and then start recounting “in our times we used to….” and like other conversations starting from these words, it is also equally annoying.
Also, despite the non-existence of any mechanism for attendance the requirement is pretty high. I wonder how do they actually review it? Probably the same way the government does everything else, as it suits itself.
The system of the state is extremely dependent on hierarchies and files. They might be called bread and butter of the bureaucracy. I should name one of the books (out of the several) that I plan to write (eventually) after this. Hierarchies and Files: Bread, Butter and Jam of Indian Bureaucracy makes for a compelling read.
Things you hear at the office:
“Log apna paisa Bank me nhi daal rahe hain kyun ki kya pata Mo** ka Dimaag kab fir jaaye” (People aren’t depositing their money in banks because no one knows when the emperor loses his shit again)
“Online online sarkaar kar to rahi hai par online kuch dikkat ho to bank ke chakkar kaatte raho” (hashtag Digital India)
A popular anecdote and a snide at the older bureaucracy after independence features instances of officers who used to put the file up on a lump of files when an officer marks it as “put up”. (put up refers to sending the file to the superior officer for comments/remarks/further action in a bureaucratic set up)
“Jo Kahin nahi ho Sakta wo Bihar me ho Sakta hai” (Which can happen nowhere, can happen in Bihar)
When a Senior Officer says that it is the convention that a Brahmin isn’t sent in the Department of Social Justice, one can see caste in its full glory at the highest policy-making body in the country. His statement is followed by the quip, that a “Dalit is sent at a Dalit’s” which appalled me, to say the least. This is exactly the kind of a ghettoisation I have always been against. Ministry of Social Justice cannot be handled by a Brahmin or a ‘Savarna’ is as dangerous a notion as some other department can’t be handled by a Dalit. This is the kind of notion which believes that a Doctor or Engineer who is from ‘quota’ is not as good as a ‘merit-wallah’. Education is seen as a one-stop cure for most of the evils of the society. It’s apparent here that is not the case always. I had heard that the older you get, the more conservative you become; I can see it in its blatant glory at the heart of the government. Misogyny and casual sexism is something I sometimes ignore, giving the benefit of doubt to people who have grown up in a certain social order, internalized patriarchy, and have never been sensitized or taught/told what is wrong with their thought process and action. But this not-so-subtle casteism is not something along the same lines. Some of the best gems come when the coterie of these public officials sit together discussing and gossipping and spewing stuff in general with minimum filters. There is also a great deal of regionalism and stereotypes and prejudices apparent and out in the open in the atmosphere.
The impunity and disregard towards the internship itself aghast me. These senior officials are unable to understand why there is a demand for an internship at this space. And the failure to understand this phenomenon is attributed to branding and the certificate one earns from here. The general disregard which the state itself shows towards its academics is reflected in the individual stances of its ‘pawns’ as well. The high academic qualifications are seen as a kind of wastage here; although the percentages achieved in the infamous cookie cutting examination system of CBSE is still admired.
One of the important things which I did throughout my stint, was watched and read everything I could. Everything the state would not approve of (a glorious example is reading Nandini Sundar’s “The Burning Forest”, containing almost everything which would be anathema to the state).
The citadels of power and planning are a great place to understand the Great Indian Circus and see the emperor in all his naked glory.
The old, famous and savage satire by Harishankar Parsai talks about how the wolves convince the sheep that they would be the best fit to protect them. They win the election when democracy arrives in the jungle. And the first rule that they promulgate is that every wolf would get one full sheep for breakfast and dinner and be considering the need to keep the lunch light (for health issues) half a sheep for lunch.
In a land not so far away, the illusion seems to break a little, more people can see that the emperor is butt naked and clueless. The nobles hail him, the merchants hail him (and finance his campaigns and provide magical carpet for him to fly away to far lands), the poor hail him for they think he is one of them, and the people in other lands hail him for he looks strong and says strong things, the sheep hail him for he looks like one of their own, the wolves hail him for they know he is one of their own, the cows hail him for they thought they could cross the road in peace now. So basically, a lot of people hail him still. Even I have to say, hail emperor and hail his right hand Gujju uncle who (is probably ringing my doorbell as I write this) is also great and merciful and a great Shah (I mean as in the Shah of Persia) and will not make me disappear like a certain judge who foolishly thought of himself more powerful than Shah (of Persia). All hail Shah (of Persia) and the supreme emperor of the land of the golden sparrow (okay fine, orange sparrow).