Gore Vidal’s Imperium and India


I just finished reading Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (2002). Compiled in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack on the US, it examines the immediate reaction as the culmination of a decades long trend where the government steadily eroded individual liberty and rights in the name of national security. The flowering of was according to Vidal, a police surveillance state in all but name. Anyone who has passed through a US airport security or dealt with US immigration knows what he means.

As an Indian it made for strange reading. Like reading the obituary of a much loved old man who I never really knew. Indians aren’t used to having rights, much less fighting for them. A feudal patriarchal society, a prolonged experience as a subjugated people under a colonialist master capped by Indira Gandhi’s emergency broke the back of any pretensions anybody ever had about Indian democratic rights.

Vidal pokes holes into Americans’ tendency to sanctify their wars as just and noble. We Indians prefer not to discuss them at all. During the height of the Kargil conflict, our school textbook described the 1962 war with China and the 2 wars with Pakistan in under 3 sentences. The absence of facts prohibit any serious discussion of policy. In their place is heroic fantasy.

War, Bollywood style

This is of course, idealized nonsense. But this black and white bad vs. good portrayal does make public debate difficult. For many, to be critical of the military is one step away from being anti-national. It is difficult to suggest that not all men in uniform are heroes, that some of them may be mediocre, corrupt, careerist or even criminal. In other words, they are Indians like all of us.


Capt. Vikram Batra, PVC

But while we rightly honor the sacrifice of Capt. Vikram Batra at Kargil, we prefer to forget the self-promoting political machinations and incompetence of Lt. Gen. Brij Mohan Kaul which facilitated the military disaster of 1962. For the curious, much material is available in the memoirs of retired officers.

Of course, the truth does occasionally come out. Whenever this happens to our army, navy and air force, we the public reassure ourselves that a few rotten apples have been purged and the force will be better now without them.

But think about it this way, suppose the CEO of a large public sector company, a man who has worked his entire career within the same organization and risen through the ranks turns out corrupt. How likely is it that the rot spread throughout the organization?

Another interesting point I could identify with was the effect of corporate capitalism on American farmers. Agricultural conglomerates found that collectivized, mechanized agriculture led to bigger profit margins.

He quotes Joel Dyer,

. . . as early as 1964, congressmen were being told by industry giants like Pillsbury, Swift, General Foods and Campbell Soup that the biggest problem in agriculture was too many farmers. . . 

Currently, a handful of agro-conglomerates are working to drive America’s remaining small farmers off their land by systematically paying them less for their produce than it costs to grow, thus forcing them to get loans from the conglomerates’ banks, assume mortgages and undergo foreclosures.

If this sounds familiar, it is because a similar story is being played out in India right now. Farmers are being squeezed out of their lands. Some despair and commit suicide. Many, bereft of livelihood migrate to the cities.

In the US, dispossessed farmers turned to Christian fundamentalism.

All of this biblically inspired nonsense has taken deepest root in those dispossessed of their farmland in the last generation.



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