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Mohamed Haneef And The Middle-Class

By Farzana Versey

22 December, 2010

Julian Assange has given the Indian middle-class and the media the thumbs up. He is probably not aware of the lobbying controversy. Besides mentioning our “vibrant” journalism, he told an Indian newspaper that he was optimistic because “you have a rising middle class. You have more people getting access to the internet. So, I am quite hopeful of about what is going to develop in India”.

The middle-class, whether rising or otherwise, tends to be complacent. Such leaks have worked as scoops before; we have had politicians eat crow and then gone on to crow about it. That’s how it works here and that’s how it works elsewhere. The moralistic middle-class did not flinch about a Bill Clinton and it elects parties that have $1000 ticket events for fund-raising, not to speak about celebrity endorsements. And in Australia how many middle-class people booed out the former Prime Minister John Howard for his anti-immigrant statements, specifically targetting a certain religious group?

This brings us to the closure of the case of the Indian doctor, Mohamed Haneef, who was arrested in Australia, where he worked, and imprisoned for two weeks without a charge against him only on the basis of a suspicion of involvement in the Glasgow International Airport terrorist attack. He will be paid compensation, reportedly worth Aus $1 million. The manner in which his inquiry was conducted, the lack of evidence or rather the wrongful use of evidence, shows that there was a vicious attempt to incarcerate him, probably also the first showpiece for its 2005 Australian Anti-Terrorism Act. Since July 2007 when he was arrested to now, he has had to fight to prove that he is innocent.

The rising middle-class did not come out to support him, not in India, not in Australia. A ‘public outcry’ has become just another ruse for demonising the victim, for it furthers the case for kangaroo courts. The internet is obsessed with people and events that are ‘happening’. There won’t be any leaks about these incidents, even though none of this can happen with the connivance of the powers. This was a cross-continental case. Why are the authorities not being put on trial for bungling it, as the independent inquiry has found they did?

Dr. Haneef will get the money, and he had “sought damages for lost earnings, the interruption to his medical career, damage to his reputation and emotional stress”. Unfortunately, the emphasis will be on the monetary aspect and not on the real issue of making a case on the basis of suspicion. It raises questions about how the stereotyping starts at the top and percolates down to those who have access and are ‘wired’ to the world. This is just such a superficial indulgence. I can imagine how the media will want to know what he will do with the money, will he take up the cause of others like him, all hinting at the settlement. Rules have been flouted, but that will be forgotten. He has had to live with being tainted when terror screams out from the power peaks of establishments that terrorise people into believing that they are at risk. It is made out to be some kind of epidemic, and the rising middle-class wants to be safe because it is awfully sorry for itself. This is the package deal of morality combined with upward mobility.

Dr. Haneef, too, talks about moving on. This is the middle-class fallacy. No one moves on; they just move ahead and don’t look back in anger. This lack of ire is what will make sure that any expose remains in the realm of a whodunit. It is time for popcorn.

I was surprised to read a senior official’s comment that the WikiLeaks model would work in India. “There is incredible amount of corruption and a lot of it is well documented. The problem is that our government servants, who have access to these files, are very, very afraid to leak documents. They don’t even trust most reporters.”

Since when has corruption begun to be well-documented? In really big cases, there are files that have been passed and dates with names that can be pinned down. But it is the government servants who are the beneficiaries. It is convenient to point fingers at the politicians, but what about the bureaucracy? Yes, the same much-in-demand, dowry-enabled bureaucracy? Before entering a politician’s cabin, everyone from the trader to the big businessman, has to go through babudom, the kingdom with lost keys. The same one with the middle-class morals has to rise, after all. The uniform changed from polyester shirts, to the safari suit and is now more striped Park Avenue or even the odd Marks and Spenser’s.

This babu is the one who files the culpable files as well as those implicating innocents. Why are we not concerned about the latter? Why is it only about the wrong-doings when the ones who have done no wrong far outnumber the criminals? Look at the undertrials in prison, look at those waiting for provident fund or fighting to get their dues. Is there exposure about such cases?

There used to be a middle-class that cared, even if it sat helplessly, hand in head, chopping onions. Now, it does not. It isn’t only because onions are expensive, but because in the world of quick news you cannot just crib about price rise; you need to have a point of view about onion and the economy that drives it. This is spoon-fed and the middle-class person feels empowered with such knowledge. With this empowerment, sitting in a creaking armchair, now called antique instead of just a doddering old piece of furniture, this person will forget that buying power is being systematically reduced for essentials. The big players sell big dreams on plasma TV screens. It is all about the Big Picture.

The Raj Kapoor cinematic fantasy in black and white has become a mall rat flaunting, “Mera joota hai Japani, yeh patloon Englistani, sar pe lal topi Russi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani”. This heart is now in the right place – at the centre of the hub. It isn’t about donning a cap, but how far we can go with the visiting Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev. Even a song that warmed so many people’s lips has now become a propeller for collaboration and business and the global euphoria.

The official quoted earlier had added, “It is not that we don’t have whistle-blowers in our system, but they need to be assured of secrecy.”

We did and Satyendra Dubey was killed. The rising middle-class did not have time. And that is what is frightening. Every case is a pushover. Until the next one comes along and we clear the cache.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/