Tarun Tejpal: 'India must face up to inequality'

Tarun J. Tepjal was named among the fifty most influential Asians by Asiaweek. BusinessWeek also put him in a list of fifty leaders in the frontline for change in Asia. In December 2006, the British newspaper The Guardian classified him within the top twenty of the new Indian elite.
Tejpal doesn’t have to thank his literary work for this honour. In 2001, his first novel The alchemy of desire wasn’t even published yet. Tejpal has made fame tough, as a journalist and publisher who doesn’t shy away from sharp edged questions -and he wants to see them answered too. In the past 22 years, he was editor-in-chief for leading magazines such as India Today and Outlook. In 2000 he started the webzine Tehelka, which immediately created political fireworks by exposing the corruption surrounding defence contracts on the highest level. Minister of Defence George Fernandes had to resign, harsh procedures followed, the site had to go off-line for a while, but Tejpal rebuild Tehelka from scratch. Today Tehelka magazine has a distribution of 145.000 numbers and the website is more popular than ever, with a staff of 180 people making it all happen.
The Tehelka office in Greater Kailash II district in New Delhi, is hard to find. Eventually – after asking people, driving back, searching and moaning - my taxi driver is successful in locating the right building. Tejpal’s efficient assistant Ritu Sud brings cold water and hot tea, whereupon the conversation with Tejpal starts with the one question I came to India with: What good is the economic growth of India to the Indians?
Tarun J. Tejpal : ‘In the five biggest states in the country, the amount of people living in poverty increases, regardless the splendid data in GNP.  Since the government, about one month ago, announced the new governmental budget – in which they pretend to choose for the poor – again more than 150 farmers committed suicide.  Those cases are rarely found in the international reports on India. Previously, the only Indian stories told in western countries, were those about poverty and famine, now it’s all about the alluring business world and investment chances.  And indeed: the Indian business world and most certainly the Indian diaspora, is extremely successful. In the Forbes Top 100 of wealthy people, there are 12 Indians. But what’s not brought up there, is the new colonisation by the business tycoons. They take the view that India, its natural richness and massive population, exist to serve them.  Today in India, there is a small group of people who possess the surplus of wealth. And beside them, there is a much larger group of people who admires and aspires their excesses. The first minister from Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati Kumari is an example of this.  She is elected as champion of the lower casts en outcasts, but nevertheless erected a statue for herself next to the one from dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the historical leader of the outcasts.
Was the economic liberalisation of the 90’s a mistake?
Tarun J. Tejpal : The liberation of the economic creativity during that period was a good thing. The state was interfering for too long and too much, as a result of which undertaking was next to impossible. The mistake existed in the withdrawal of the government from the social redistribution, as if politics themselves where redundant. My conviction is that the powers of the market can produce a lot of dynamism and change, but not for a society that doesn’t provide minimal and equal chances for everyone. We need a political renaissance where the elite takes its responsibilities for the complete society. Collective interests have to become the focal point again, instead of crude self-interest.
What should be the policy priorities for the Indian government?
Tarun J. Tejpal: Priority number one is without a doubt the current and expanding inequality. It’s about time that the Indian elites understand that they can’t stay in their comfortable armchairs, while the population impoverishes and crumbles. The second priority is formed by the ongoing conflicts based on religion and caste.  India is a country with a vast Hindu majority, but also with one of the largest Muslim populations of the world – 160 million people.  Those groups have to find a way of coexisting, otherwise the country is constantly on the edge of violence erupting.  By the way, in spite of religion and caste, India has other conflicts based on class, community, region, language, … Priority number three is corruption – yet this one is included in the inequality in priority number one.
Can education establish more equality among the people?
Tarun J. Tejpal: On the contrary, education is one of the causes of the inequality.  India has a top layer that consists of splendid education organizations, with on top the famous Indian Institutes for Management and the Indian Institutes for Technology. Nevertheless, the large offer of public schools is in a bad condition – the infrastructure and the level of education. To realize, at least partially, each of those three top priorities, would require a broad and powerful civil society.
Does Tehelka contribute to that civil society by kicking the powerful into the shins?
Tarun J. Tejpal: We aim at the hardboiled targets, inaccessible settlements of power, those who can strike back. The power elites do not intend to effortlessly share their power or wealth with the masses. For example we reported extensively on the fate of dr. Banayak Sen, a doctor who decided to live amongst the poorest on the countryside in Chhattisgarh -thereby going against the grain of his trade. After thirty years of loyal service for adivasis, he was imprisoned by the state government on suspicion of cooperation with the Maoist Naxalites.
Why would an obsessed journalist-publisher in those circumstances suddenly write a novel?
Tarun J. Tejpal: It’s not written ‘suddenly’, it has been a twenty year old search for the right words and the right mode to tell a story that couldn’t fit in the strictures of journalism. Journalism is always about here and now, it often appears in a strong black-white colourings of people and facts. Literature admits an other approach and offers more space for life in all its plenitude and contradictions. Literature also connects me with my inner life because it goes deeper than the entertainment that dominates the media or the informative that stimulates journalism. Literature creates shades that give more and better insights in real life. It also refines me as a person, which is extremely important in a world that roughens and in which we don’t exactly know anymore, how to deal in a respectful way with human beings and society. In short: literature offers doubt, shade, and that’s essential for a humane world.
You wrote your voluminous book in English. Typical Indian elite, right?
Tarun J. Tejpal : That’s right, but it’s also the language in which I live and work most of the time.  Nevertheless it wasn’t easy because while writing a novel, you truly feel that the English language is always one level removed from the flesh of the Indian reality.

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