Games losing Indians play

An item in the New York Times  presented what a court in New York found: the alarming reality of slavery in modern day America. To be sure, the United States has an unspeakably shameful past with regard to slavery, the painful details of which are recorded by Harvard historian Howard Zinn in his bestseller, “A People’s History of the United States.”

The NYT story headline gave no inkling to the surprise that it contained: N.Y. Couple Convicted in Slave Case, it said. The story was about two wealthy Long Island residents being convicted of keeping two Indonesians, illegal immigrant women, as slaves, torturing them and as a result of these actions, facing upto 40 years in prison.  

Countless slaves have perished in America, as Zinn records without any gloss, and many were traded by leading lights of the nascent country in the 17th century.

But the surprise in the Muttontown Slave Trial was that the convicted slavekeepers were not affluent whites but Indians. Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani.

It would seem uncharitable to view these successful Indians, reportedly running a multimillion dollar perfume business, as modern-day imperialists riding the crest of the so-called “Indian century.” India’s media would like to appropriate them in better circumstances, but they are described as just another successful all-American family, paying all taxes and leading the American way of life. 

This is a time when Indians (including the Indian diaspora) are keen to steamroll their way into the global bourses, taking over steel mills, luxury car marques and hotel brands as an assertion of a world-leading culture that was cruelly cut short by invaders and colonialists and is now poised for revival.

Sadly, there is little that is lofty about present day Indians, just as romatic notions about innovative Indians of antiquity may be misplaced. The primary motivation of Indians today, including the exploitative ruling class, is profit or rent. It helps those functioning within the geography of the Indian nation that systems are weak, and it is possible to carry on with their illegal activities with impunity. After all, if there is a low risk to defection, many would do just that.

But going by the news reports, it was unwise on the part of the Sabhnanis to try the same game in Long Island. After a long history of exploitation and cruelty (and despite being hijacked by shadowy neo-conservative interests), America has evolved strong institutions within its borders. They are by no means uniformly credible or perfect but they are a shade better than the India of the present day with all its pretenses; and the free play of voices over new media keeps them under scrutiny.

The point that I would like to make is that the Sabhnani case is unlikely to find much play in India’s values-blind media which is sold on the idea of a “Shining India.” After all, who wants to hear about Indians turning losers due to greed, when so many others, equally greedy and very rich are making it big in different sectors and walks of life, and in countries around the world? Never mind that there are more malnourished children in India than in any other country and nearly half of all Indians don’t have an enclosed toilet.

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