(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
[The conversation was recorded on April 12, 2020]
Anu Ramdas: Give me a big picture of how information flows in the US, between the federal government and state governments and how people receive information. For the US stimulus package, how is that we understand so much in detail?
Sundeep Pattem: Let me try to illustrate with an example. I was sitting in on meetings organized by the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. This was immediately after the $2 Trillion stimulus package or the CARES Act was passed by the US federal government [end of March 2020]. The Act is a 247 page document with lots of details, but at a high level, individual citizens and families get cheques to cover basic expenses, small businesses get relief, large corporations get relief, they tried to cover almost everyone. Once it got passed, at the State level, they were looking into, in a very detailed manner, how to take care of people and small businesses. There is detailed analysis of what the Act provides, on how businesses can apply for various assistance programs and grants, which state, county, city and other local agencies they can reach out to for assistance. This is available online and circulated via conference calls, emails, newsletters and other channels.
Just a few weeks into the crisis – they woke up a little at the national level, that is the problem – but weeks into the crisis, people in all levels of government have realized that this is not going away soon, everything is going to change. So, in these meetings I was sitting in, the big thing they were talking about was how many workers are not going back to the jobs they had earlier. We have to retrain them for whatever is the new economy. How do we place them in different jobs? Right now we are looking at survival type situations, in many cases. For example, everybody needs grocery, we know that, right? So, people may have gotten laid off from their jobs, but if they’re doing any kind of physically demanding job, maybe they can work for Amazon or other large warehouses of essential businesses. People in government are doing this level of detailed thinking. When we say economy, they recognize that these people run the economy, we have to keep everyone alive and safe, we have to find everyone jobs. And then small businesses, because that is what keeps America going, how do we keep them from sinking. How can we find ways, what is the strategy, what are the tactics, are there innovations and ideas we can look at, this is what people in government are trying to figure out and implement. And anyone who needs to know and cares about this can find information on it.
Anu: We know it is accessible. They tried to address every constituency. So many people were involved in producing this rapid document. We can discuss and debate. With India, we have no idea…
Sundeep: In India, the central government is failing at a basic humanitarian level. If you see how some of the states are responding, compared to the center. If you see what KCR is saying, for example, even though we have lots of differences with him and his politics, you at least hear a humanitarian voice. You feel like this person is responding as an empathetic human being, and the second thing is, he clearly says, this is my responsibility. He explicitly says, everybody who is in the state, all the people from Telangana and everyone who has come from elsewhere. He says that these people are contributing to our welfare, they have been serving our interests, we have to take care of them. As the chief minister, it is my job, I will do everything I can. We need to look at what is actually being done and keep him accountable, of course, but what I’m saying is that he speaks in a way where he clearly sees what the problem is, and to the extent that he has powers, he wants the responsibility, he takes responsibility for the people, not for an abstract notion of Telangana and all that. That is what brought him to power, but now it is real, it is about people and lives at stake. He says, we have to save ourselves, and whoever is here, we have to take care of them. I don’t know much about the other states, but some of the other state governments and CMs are acting in similar ways.
What I see from Modi, BJP, Sangh Parivar and that gang, is callousness. And to no surprise, I’m not saying “oh, now these people have shown their real face”. This is their real face, we knew it already. You know exactly what to expect from these guys, they are so predictable. I didn’t imagine we’d be in this situation, with the coronavirus, but all the disasters we’ve been facing in India for the last several years, it seems like a preparation for this. My view is that, and not just now, mentally I am already prepared, this is exactly what I expect from them. Because what these guys lack is a basic, humanitarian approach. They are so wedded to this abstract idea of a nation, and they’ve collectively lost their ability to do any basic kind of thinking about fellow human beings. Whether you say it they’re doing it for power, or they’re brainwashed or whatever, they are so deep into that morass that they don’t see people as fellow human beings anymore. They are wedded to their idea of the Hindu nation, whatever that is. This Ramayan, Mahabharat, you have these Cabinet level ministers posting photos of themselves watching Ramayan on TV, asking others to do the same.
If you think about this … we can talk about the US, politics, information flow and how it compares to India. But, what is this? I am pressed hard to find any way to relate to these people. Who does this? Can you imagine anyone in the US – where the situation is bad, but nobody is walking home on the freeways, that monstrous scale of disaster is not happening here – even then, can you imagine some leader posting pictures of themselves and saying, “Here I am, watching some popular entertainment, you also do it and post pictures.” That is just unthinkable, right?
Anu: Because, work from home for the elite class in India is more leisure than their usual leisure lifestyle. Nothing is threatened, they have no anxiety. In the US no one is going to do those crazy things because the anxiety is so high. One is the virus, the threat of getting infected, having a life-death situation. The other, deeper one is, job loss. Whether they will have a job or not once this passes, there is no one who has a permanent kind of job. So everyone is tense. The anxiety levels are very high. They’re not going to be doing these kinds of things. It is a very sombre moment, the world over. But, in India, the elite, leisurely class, they are more leisurely than in the Western world, they are more decadent, they are completely decadent. Nothing can distress, nothing can come into their realm of their thought or experience.
Sundeep: Exactly, we all knew to expect this. Now, we still have the responsibility to talk about it and people are doing that, whatever the best they can do in this situation. But the difference is, like you said, the level of decadence of the Indian elite. The politics here in the US is rotten in its own way. People are complaining about what this does to the monetary system – this is a $2 Trillion dollar bill, that is 10% of the economy, then there is Quantitative Easing, or lots of printing of money. Then, there are all these things the elite will draft to protect themselves, large corporations get $500 billion, a quarter of this money. You need to have accountability, there will be critique, but you expect that things will not be perfect. But if you look at the seriousness with which they’re dealing with this, and the detail at which they’ve addressed real human needs, in trying to protect the vulnerable and also small businesses. That is the thing, they understand that people are the lifeblood of the economy and recognize that America, with whatever problems it has, is America because of the small businesses too.
So you know that the US stimulus is flawed, but at least there’s some logic to it, it is laid out, one can access it, study it. So I downloaded the Act and tried to make sense of it. Ok, what did they try to do, what their thinking is … they actually have a realistic view of everyone involved. Even though the political elite have their own partisan interests – personal, group, race, all that is mixed in there, they also have a sense, you can’t run this country, nation thing without paying attention to what it means, how it is organized.
In India, for example, I didn’t even care to look at the ‘relief package’ because I know it is all hogwash, it’s bullshit. Look at the amounts they talk about – it’s like throwing coins at beggars.
Some Bahujan friends and family also don’t get it. They tell me “this many lakhs of crores were announced, that many lakhs of crores.” There is no sense for what those numbers mean …
Anu: I went into the US stimulus Bill to look at what they had to aid agriculture. The detail.. like you say, every constituency they’ve tried to address. You can imagine the massive amount of work that went into it … In India, they just announce a lockdown… they don’t realize that here the lockdown came with a stimulus package, a stimulus which has been thought out, to every single detail, including transport?
I don’t want this to sound like a comparison of how the US is so great … no, things are flawed here too. It is about the way the society is structured, the way the government is structured. Transparency, flow of information, accountability …
Sundeep: This is actually the last thing I looked at here, what the government is doing. For the last 4 months, I’ve mostly been following critics of the US government. All of the big institutions, CDC, FDA, FEMA, everybody failed. Why did they fail? Because they are central institutions with too much power. What I’m saying is, things are broken here also, in a different way. But there is a robust critique, and coming from all kinds – localist, libertarian, conservative, all kinds of people, but they have conversations amongst themselves. There have been concerns all along and we can see how centralized institutions and an optimized, outsourced supply chains have crippled the country.
Everyone is shocked, right? Why can’t Americans, with all this money, get people into hospitals and conduct simple tests or have enough masks or protective equipment for healthcare workers? Everybody is in a state of shock. But it’s like the human body, you can have all the money in the world, but if you wait until you have a sickness, it’s too late. You should take care of your health beforehand, it’s just like that, you can’t fix things overnight by throwing money at it.
Anu: Now, everyday, this nation which calls itself the tech leader of the world, of the universe, blah blah, it is literally saying everyday, we’re producing these many masks, masks! This piece of cloth…
Sundeep: Yes, and it is a cause of shock, embarrassment, shame. The failure of central government and bureaucracies are the common themes. What I’m saying is, the difference from India is that the people who take pride in being American, they are up in arms. What the hell are these central bureaucracies doing? They’re talking about how the states should take back more power … how we should go back to being self-sufficient… being more prepared, more in tune with natural things, not optimizing solely by numbers and profits, ensuring security for ourselves… this is the narrative. Now, what are the people who take pride in being Indian saying?
Again, I don’t know exactly what is happening in India. I’m sure many people are doing the best they can… but we don’t see enough people asking, why are we in this situation even? We don’t see people… These are people you just leave on the highways. Or they’re sitting on the roads like cattle, waiting for food for 8 hours. If you look at their stories, how were they managing so far? Some minimum thing, somehow, it was all so fragile to begin with, and it all evaporated overnight.
The way the economy functions, the way we see it, the concept of India and the nation and all that, these people, they are just there to serve us, and that’s it. If things go haywire, sorry, too bad.
Anu: It almost seems like they did not know that these people would come out. They just thought lockdown will happen, that they’ll get news coverage like Wuhan and things like that, “oh, India went into lockdown, it’s forward thinking” and all that. No one expected these people to come out on the highways? How can they not expect? These people don’t figure in their heads. Only their labour and service registers. But they, as human beings, cut off from a concept like lockdown, which included transport, essential goods… no prior planning. Just like he did that demonetization. Overnight, that’s it, go, no money. This is even more devastating. Here, in all these countries, when they’re talking about lockdown, there is a prior build up of information. We knew, this is going to come, this is going to come … there are conversations laid open, that’s what I meant by information flow. Here we know what the governor is going to tell, the county is going to tell, they prepare the people for these kinds of things.
Sundeep: If you see many people complain about how Trump was late, how he messed up, how he talks rubbish, which is all true, but why was that happening? It was because this dialogue was going on, right? They knew that a lockdown was going to be terrible for many people. Should we do it? Should we not do it? Even now, it is only partial in many places, because they realize that so many people are dependent on things functioning this way, they are doing the calculus, this might spread it and we might pay a price, at what cost are we going to do this? People are saying that the federal government got the calculus wrong, but at least you can understand from their perspective, that they were thinking about the consequences. Everybody will try to protect their interests, which is all true, which is what we expect. But if you see what the governors are saying, what the mayors are saying, and even what Trump was saying, is that we cannot let people die of starvation for us to stay safe from the virus. That is why all the negotiation goes on.
Anu: That connection to starvation was so clear. Food would be affected for regular people in lockdown. That came across so clearly, in a first world country. In a third world country, they did not think about it. They did not ensure access to food.
Sundeep: In India, it is an afterthought because, like you said, for those in power, because that’s their mindset anyway…
Anu: They think only of their class. They’re not going to be affected …
Sundeep: Yes, and that’s the reason they have Modi as the grand performer. This is how they do things but they need a way to keep the people hypnotized. That is Modi’s role. Now when I talk to some folks in India, even in my own extended family, they have no concept of… we are just so inured to human suffering, and some of us are now so mesmerized by Modi, the way they’re processing what is going on, they say “But other countries they are praising Modi for taking this decision, you know?” “Yeah, it’s bad that people are walking on highways, this is how things are in India, but … at least other countries, you know, they are praising Modi for taking such a strong decision.” I was thinking, do you know what is coming out of your mouth right now? What kind of calculus is this?
Anu: These are educated people… it is educated Bahujan who talk like this. One generation separated from those people walking on the highways, sometimes not even one generation sometimes… second cousin, third cousin are in that state. We’re that close and still we talk like this…
Sundeep: This is a deep problem for the Bahujan, this kind of education. We are going to have to fix this, in a fundamental way. See what you’ve done with Round Table India, in terms of knowledge production and representation of social reality … if you imagine what was being reported ten years ago, what was being reported and how much our folks knew about things when RTI was not around, to now. Whoever is reading and making connections via Round Table India at least has an idea of the reality.
Anu: Sundeep, we are doing this in the absence of… there’s no BSP, no DMK, no states, everything has been stripped off …
Sundeep: So, the counter-revolution is complete. Today, where we are, what Babasaheb talked about as the counter-revolution, it is complete.
Anu: And we have emptied ourselves out, completely. The Bahujan doesn’t exist … Apart from Round Table India, and a handful of other platforms, even there also, a lot of it is recycling of ‘mainstream’ narratives. It is very small … If we are talking about doing something for COVID-19. The human suffering that is unfolding there, the magnitude of it is so high, no matter how much individual Bahujans, or the entire Bahujan class get together also, it is not going to change .001%.. to mitigate the suffering. This has to be done by the government. If it starts creating a relief-centric discourse, which is basically coming from guilt… we know these are our people, so immediately we want to do something and get a sense of relief.
And this is exactly what the Sangh or their dictatorial government want. Trip us into guilt, distract us into these kinds of discourses, then start infighting, you took money, that is less suffering, this is more suffering, you did it only for your regional thing… Endlessly, we’ll be in the cycle of NGOs. At the end of it, only 2-3 Bahujan NGOs will gain from it, there will be a complete consolidation of the ruling class, and the whole thing will have passed. And the next disaster will be much greater. We are progressing, with each disaster the scale is getting bigger and bigger. We thought farmers suicides was so massive. We’re barely able to even get our heads around those kinds of numbers, and now we’re seeing this …
This is kind of numbing… why are those people going back to their villages? Like Kuffir asked, in Delhi, why didn’t they go to the Parliament? Why did they not occupy any of those places in Delhi? All they needed was one leader to say, no, you don’t go, these are your rights … you have to be safe, you have to be tested, you don’t need to leave… All it needed was one person with a spine. And for Bahujan to produce a leader, the whole class has to work towards that. Creation of a Kanshiram or a Mayawati rode on the work of one generation of Bahujan prior to that.
Sundeep: What I’m saying is, if we take what started with the Dalit Panthers, Kanshiram Saheb, and then on, if that was the revolution, now the counter revolution is complete. Everybody who came up in that time, in my understanding, they have been beaten back, all those strategies have been defeated, completely. I think the Bahujan political class, whoever remains, they realize this and they have given up. The other thing is also that the Sangh has successfully co-opted whatever little middle class consolidation was there on the Bahujan side. These folks, even, I’m also talking about people in my own extended family, these people you have to see as being on the other side now. They have gone over.
In my head… I am not making claims of complete understanding, but in my head, all that is gone, now we’re starting from scratch. It’s not that I’m giving up, not giving up at all. But now we have to start from scratch, with Round Table India and similar spaces as the seeds, the embers … It feels very dark and despairing, but from whatever I can see, this is the situation. There is nothing else to go and align with now. Like Kuffir has written, electoral politics and so on, that is the brahmin-savarna game. They checkmated you totally.
The same thing when it comes to education, higher studies, universities … That is how the brahmin-savarna have checkmated you. “This is India. It is for everyone. We will give you this much, that much. We will give you opportunities. Play this game…”
Anu: All you have to do is reform yourself.
Sundeep: Yeah, reform yourself and play my game. If I play your game, how will I win? It is your game, I will not win.
What is education? When you did Round Table India, you did not do that because all Bahujans are illiterate, right? You did it to enable focused thought about structures, how to break them, using the right ways to connect and network in the Internet age. That kind of training, now we have so many writers, other initiatives it has inspired and so on, because of that foundation, and it will continue. This is how real education happens, by understanding how things really work.
In a similar way, we need to build in terms of skill development, entrepreneurship and capital accumulation. Unless that happens, you are not going to challenge them. This is what we’re focusing on with the Sanghamitra initiative. What happens is, we are playing these games of achievements, higher studies and all that, half of our life is wasted in those games. We do not see other options, opportunities around us, and also have this fascination, thinking that the action is happening somewhere else … the brahmin-savarna have all those routes mapped. Our folks might think, when I go there, I’ll get something. No, you’ll go there and serve them …
Anu: But we can’t say that, no? People might ask how you can say these things now, having a comfortable life …
Sundeep: Yes, it is a valid thing to ask. The real question is, what do they want for themselves in the end? By becoming somewhat ‘successful’ in this trajectory, I became a third grade servant in a foreign country. You understand that? I became a wage slave in a richer country, that’s it. My whole youth was burned out in becoming this slave. Because of this lack of awareness of structures and how the world works. It is a realization that I’ve arrived at, accepted and set about changing. A big part of that is working for Round Table India, The Shared Mirror publishing house, the Prabuddha journal, the Phule Ambedkar Center of Anti-Caste Thought, and the Sanghamitra Business Incubator.
So the question is, what exactly will you learn at the university? Especially with social studies, think about Bahujans being taught sociology …
Anu: And deprivation studies, whole departments, exclusion studies … you will go there and study your own exclusion?
Sundeep: Yes, it is absurd. Don’t the Bahujan see and think about what is in front of our eyes? Don’t we understand the relations and interactions in this caste society from our own and collective lived experiences? What are you going to learn from going away, to the rarefied environment and theories of the elite university, where, in India, the brahmin-savarna rule in absolute terms?
Wanting to be a scholar is great, wanting to emulate Babasaheb’s erudition is wonderful. But will getting degrees, going to elite universities and institutes serve this purpose? Someone was telling me, our students go to these elite universities, and then they have so much syllabus, they don’t have time to read Ambedkar! On their part, the brahmin-savarna have mapped it out by now – ‘beware, future Ambedkars will come, be ready, we have to nip them in the bud, give them syllabus.’ How many years will be wasted in completing this syllabus? Do you want to waste your prime years in places that dull your mind with hollow theories and outdated information?
Again, I’m not being prescriptive, people have to figure out their own paths. I’m not claiming to have it all figured out. What I’m saying is, can we all think about it critically and create many other options? In the Internet age, all knowledge is free. What counts is curiosity, discipline, confidence… empathetic mentors and environments can help along the way. The Bahujan can and will create these options for themselves and others.
Sundeep Pattem works for Round Table India, The Shared Mirror, Phule Ambedkar Center of Anti-Caste Thought, and Sanghamitra Business Incubator. He was previously a mildly successful executive fellow at the California Department of Justice and half-hearted lecturing faculty in data science and public policy at UC Berkeley. Earlier, he spent many years sleepwalking, gaining degrees in Engineering without learning or enjoying much of it.