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How Rome Fell

How Rome Fell

The Invisible Hand

The ‘Invisible Hand’ behind the killing of social critics becomes more ‘visible’ with Basanagouda Yatnal’s explosion against intellectuals. This BJP MLA of Karnataka thundered that the intellectuals formed a threat to India, “If I were Home Minister, I would have issued orders to shoot them.” Thinkers, writers and intellectuals in general, have been shot too. That is what Pol Pot did in Cambodia during the Communist regime, so bad that when the re-construction began after the fall of Communism, there was an immense scarcity of talent. Is the elimination of intellectuals in the Hindutva agenda too?

What embarrasses us most is the unembarrassed way Basangouda is able to say such things. Someone else would be in prison. What becomes evident is that a climate is being created in India in which no one is surprised when the most shocking things are said and done. It is as though such things are to be expected. That is what we understand from the words of Arjun Ram Meghwal, Minister of state for Parliamentary affairs, when he said, “The more popular Modiji becomes, the more such incidents will happen.” He was referring to cow-related lynchings. Lynchings are an affirmation that Modi is still in command.  

According to Adityanath Yogi, there is an over-concern about lynchings (48 lynchings in three years).   He says Congress is making a mountain out of a mole hill. He asks whether the anti-Sikh riot of 1984 under the Congress was not a far greater disaster. We would ask him in turn, whether the communal clashes of the Partition days were not an even greater disaster, which were caused precisely by Hindutva activists of their own times. Mutual accusations continue. The Madhya Pradesh CM Chouhan called Digvijay Singh an anti-national for criticising “Hindu terrorists.” Rahul, in return, did not mince words, “You are merchants of death,” he tweeted. This is “Modi’s New India.”   Surprisingly in this dispute the BJP ally, the Shiv Sena, stood closer to Rahul than to their friends. Thackeray called the ruling dispensation murderers.  

History Has Lessons to Teach: Internal Divisions Kill

Amazingly, when we turn the pages of history we notice unbelievable similarities between situations. Though they should not be stretched too far, they contain lessons that can be selectively applied to our immediate contexts for our own benefit. India’s weakness never was its lack of talent or resources, but its lack of unity. Divisions along caste, community, region, sectarian group, and elitist interest made India trip over before every invader. In that context, self-criticism is always good.

We can learn from world intellectuals. European thinkers often refer to Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West” inviting self-criticism.   Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” has remained an intellectual source for many western critics. Recently Adrian Goldsworthy brought out a book “How Rome Fell” (Yale University Press, 2009) which gives us a studied reflection on the causes of the fall of the Great Empire. Can India learn something from it?

The most interesting conclusion of Goldsworthy is that Rome’s fall was self-inflicted (Goldsworthy 423). No part of the empire wanted to break up, nor any group. Even invaders only wanted to be a part of the empire. But it had developed an internal ailment: its inability to cohere together. It was not the absence of ‘ability’ that brought about the disaster, but of ‘nobility’: there were no Mahatmas who were capable of holding Rome’s diverse people together. “Quite simply there were no equivalents... of Gandhi, Nehru, Washington, Bolivar...” says Goldsworthy (Ibid 16).

Does it come as a surprise that the two Indian leaders named here are the very ones that the Hindutva intellectuals want to defame? Internal strife had gone too deep in Rome, as in India today (Ibid 17). Cohesion had weakened. Mutual elimination was the order of the day. The image of the once prestigious Senate had fallen extremely low, its role had moved to the margins of political life. Actual power had grown more and more centralized (Ibid 149). Abuse of power had begun. “The rot began at the top” (Ibid 422).

In India our army has grown, so too paramilitary forces, security personnel and police forces; but our internal security has not increased. There is a strategically built up alienation of one community from another. The nation has become the polarisers’ paradise. Apart from lynchers on the one side and Naxalites on the other, there are specially ‘empowered’ kar sevaks to impose Hindutva code of conduct on the larger society. Even the Harvard-returned Jayant Sinha had the insensitivity to ask Muslims to give up cow-related business, the only employment they had.   Is he able to give an alternative employment? His Harvard wisdom had no answers.

It was the Empire’s internal violence that destroyed the Roman world. Home strife alone kept the armies busy (Ibid. 215). Civil wars multiplied.   For the emperors, internal leadership clashes were a greater threat than border struggles (Ibid 119). “Barbarian incursions were a nuisance, but it was always internal enemies who threatened an emperor’s rule...” (Ibid 263). In fact, majority of the rulers of the third century died at the hands of their own subordinates, mostly in rebellions and coups (Ibid 147).

Ruthless personal ambition, mutual suspicion, and constant contention characterised the age. The Emperor even turned invading armies against his own opponents rather than confront them as a threat to the Empire. He considered rivals more dangerous than foreign aggressors (Ibid 307).   Thus infighting continued (Ibid 328), rebellions stirring rebellions (Ibid 408), wars causing more wars (Ibid 384). The Empire was fighting itself.   A nation’s best energies were spent on fighting its best men. Any similarities? Intellectuals, for example?

New Ideology: to be on the Winning Side and Make the Most of What is Possible

Nitin Gadkari alleged that Congress had no ideology. It is a very amusing allegation that Nitin has made.   It is like the Modiji and Shahji claiming to have come to power to fight corruption after buying MLAs, bribing MPs, and purchasing loyalties in every thinkable way, and making alliances of the most irreconcilable nature. With time they fall apart. As for having an ideology, there seems to be a convergence of thought among all parties today: to be on the winning side.

As the Roman Empire’s fates moved in an uncertain direction, ordinary soldiers only wanted to be on the winning side. Backing the wrong side would be fatal...so the men had to judge carefully whether to stay loyal or switch allegiance to a challenger. Is this not exactly what is happening in India today? In such an atmosphere, pragmatic philosophies take over. Septimius Severus’s advice to his sons was, “Live in harmony, enrich the soldiers, and despise everyone else” (Ibid 69). The ongoing tensions were so serious that the efficient running of the empire was not the ambition of the bureaucracy, but how to make the most while in power (Ibid 244). Diocletian, however, cautioned against this All-devouring Greed, which has no regard for “human kind” (Ibid 170).

Efficiency Sinks, Corruption Rises

With no effective law-enforcing machinery in place, local thugs took over. Landlords began robbing smaller neighbours and extorting illegal taxes from weaker communities (Ibid 43). Some became local law-and-order enforcers on their own right and for their own advantage. There rose also groups of “vigilantes and a paramilitary/criminal gang...” who kept clashing (Ibid 360). It was the poor farmers’ products that rival groups plundered, who were already over-taxed (Ibid 372). They, in anger, finding that criminal looting was more remunerative than hard work, adapted themselves to it under compulsion. Agricultural production fell (Ibid 143). The gap between the rich and the poor widened (Ibid 339). Armed robberies increased with the increase of jobless ex-soldiers (Ibid 205). Some of these sections read very like descriptions of the present Indian situation.

As indiscipline rose in the army, efficiency sank in the government machinery.   So the bureaucracy had to be expanded to get things done. An orator described the hordes of minor officials:   “more numerous than flies on sheep in springtime.” There was evidently duplication of offices (Ibid 164). The result was wide-spread corruption, diversion of funds, flabby non-performance, utter incompetence, and waste on a massive scale. Conditions in the cities grew squalid, those in the rural areas grim, maintenance of buildings got neglected (Ibid 140), and institutions rotted (414). All officers were looking for mere survival and to make a fortune while they could (Ibid 409). Opportunity and promotion depended on pleasing the bosses (Ibid 408). Connections were more important than talents (Ibid 46). Is our situation different?

Cleanliness Level Plummets

With this background, it was inevitable that works fell behind. Pliny the Younger, for example, complains that Nicomedia had spent 3 million sesterces on an aqueduct which was not completed yet (Ibid 35). It sounds like a recent Indian report. Over 7000 crores have been spent on ‘clean Ganga’ project,’ but to no avail. Green Tribunal insists that hardly anything has been done to clean Ganga. About Delhi the Supreme Court says, the city is being ‘buried under garbage;’ Mumbai is drowning under water every year due to poor solid waste management. Tourists return sick and swear never to return. Governments warn their citizens against travel in India. Even NRIs caution their children.

Roman society itself changed. Poorer citizens were so impoverished that they became serfs (Ibid 139). Money was devalued. The silver content in the Denarius fell as low as 3.5% by Aurelian’s time. Prices rose (Ibid 141).   Birth rate fell among the elite, and infant mortality rose among the poor.   Cleanliness ceased to matter (Ibid 421).   There were plagues in many places. Most took advantage of the chaotic situation of loot and extortion, and had recourse to quick money. Do these things sound similar to demonetisation, GST, price rise, devaluation of rupee, chaotic violence, filth accumulation and the flight of fortune makers?

Private Pieties Should not Be Imposed on Others

Meantime Modiji thinks he is making a great international impression by visiting several African nations promising assistance and collaboration. While China offers to build the infrastructure of the country, US and EU hold out sophisticated goods, Modi is infinitely happy to give 200 cows (looking lean at least in pictures) to Rwanda. It is not clear whether there is an agreement that those cows and their progeny will be protected from violence, whether India will also ensure retirement support for aging cows, and whether a cow-protection force will be flown to Rwanda if there is need! Certainly Yogiji can help, who will also rejoice if a similar gift can be made to Trump... with protection ensured.

Our Future Should be Built on Hard Realities

Jokes apart, many see in Modiji a Prime Minister who sets a wonderful example of hard work, Spartan life, and dedicated service. Amit Shah and a number of his team seem to have energy. If this energy will be placed at the service of Bharat Mata, not merely Gau Mata, we shall all be specially blessed.   No one objects to the personal devotions of any individual politician. But before the larger Indian society there should be no privileging of one’s private pieties. This should be true equally of Modi, Yogi, Chouhan, Mamata, Mayawati and Rahul. If minority-appeasement is not good, majority-pandering is worse. What we need to do together is to attend to our common anxieties.

Someone has strongly pointed out that temple-building does not give jobs to the 73 million unemployed Indian youth. Three thousand crore statue-making does not solve the farmers’ problems. Yoga-promotion does not compensate for the loss of land that the tribals have suffered. Boasts about Vedic Mathematics should not replace the reduced autonomy of the Universities (and of the Judiciary?). Puranic tales should not replace hard facts, painful and ugly realities and historic objectivity. Proximate hopes of a 3-trillion economy must combine with prevention of infant mortality and violence against women. Our civilization’s future is founded on these hard realities, not on empty self-congratulations. If we have noticed some similarities between our present situation and Rome’s declining years, we need to come together and ask how we may address them. There is no room for exclusivism, for one-man decisions.

Dharma will Unite Us, We will Triumph “TOGETHER”

Mother Teresa was disliked by those who wanted to turn away international attention from India’s neglected poor. Amartya Sen was disliked by those who wished to close their eyes to the unfair structures on which our apparently ‘glorious economy’ is precariously placed. He said that Demonetization was a great ‘political success,’ but painful ‘economic failure,’ weighing heavily on the poorest. Romila Thapar was disliked because she insisted that Indian history should include the experiences of the less privileged ones. The marginalised matter, the “wider good” counts, wider thoughts are important. Intellectuals should be respected.

Interfering with the food habits of people and with the small man’s small economy (based on cow-related activities or tribals’ products) will hit their health, livelihood, and means of survival. Rabari tribals, who deal in cows, say that they survive only by heavily bribing the cow-protection musclemen. So, it is a question of money, bribes, not of devotion!   And take care, Global Slavery Index revealed that in 2016 there were 8 million victims of ‘contemporary slavery’ in India, which meant 6 in every thousand.

If these challenges are handled together, we shall find a way out. ‘Sab ke sath, sab ka vikas’ not merely in words, but in spirit and in truth. It will not be Suryanamaskar and Yoga lessons that will prompt value-based solutions, but a dharmic consciousness. Dharma will save us. This civilization was founded on Dharma from Buddha’s days, it will stand firm as long as Dharma reigns.

(Published on 06th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 32)