India’s ‘Whitey on the moon’ moment

The Chandrayaan-3 moon mission was not for all Indians.

Arun Haryani, an enthusiast with his body painted in tri-colours reacts as he holds up a model of LVM3 M4 which was used in launching of Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft on the eve of its moon landing, in Ahmedabad, India, August 22
Arun Haryani, an enthusiast with his body painted in tricolours, reacts as he holds up a model of the launch vehicle of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft on the eve of its moon landing, in Ahmedabad, India, August 22, 2023 [Amit Dave/Reuters]

On August 23, 2023, India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft successfully landed on the moon, making India the fourth country in the world, after the United States, the USSR and China, to achieve such a feat. It was a proud moment for a young, post-colonial nation just 75 years into her freedom. Tragically, it was also India’s very own “Whitey on the moon” moment.

In 1970, soon after the US became the first country in history to land on the moon, African-American jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron released his famous spoken word poem “Whitey on the moon”, criticising the Apollo space programme as a white man’s vanity project completed at great expense and with complete disregard for the deep poverty and exploitation being experienced by Black Americans at the time.

“The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.

‘cause Whitey’s on the moon

No hot water, no toilets, no lights.

but Whitey’s on the moon

I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?

‘cause Whitey’s on the moon?

I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week.

with Whitey on the moon”, sang Scott-Heron, accompanied by conga drums.

The poem quickly became a hit among Black Americans, who were angry that their country had invested in – and was shamelessly celebrating the completion of – an expensive space programme that did not involve or benefit their communities, while they were struggling with medical debt, high taxes, underemployment, urban decay, high rates of incarceration, and racial discrimination among other fundamental problems.

The parallels between the US society at the time of the Apollo mission described in this poem and modern-day India in the aftermath of its own landmark moon mission are difficult to ignore.

As Indian scientists – mostly upper caste, prosperous and secure in their place in the country – were celebrating the moon landing, millions of marginalised, disfranchised, impoverished Indians were suffering immensely.

Throughout the month-long journey of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft towards the moon, in the southeastern Indian state of Manipur, an ethnic cleansing effort was under way. Entire villages were burned to the ground, dozens were killed, and tens of thousands were left without homes.

Just before the beginning of the spacecraft’s journey, the government had gifted itself a brand new parliament building, which cost $120m to construct – a high price, especially at a time when, across the country, countless underprivileged Indians are struggling with hunger and unemployment. The controversial building was also inaugurated on a controversial date – the 140th birth anniversary of the father of Hindu nationalist ideology, VD Savarkar, who is a divisive figure due to his connection to the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

A six-time parliamentarian from the ruling  Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the outgoing Wrestling Federation of India chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is accused of sexually abusing female wrestlers, was also present at the inauguration ceremony. Delhi police manhandled Indian wrestlers, many of them Olympians, who wanted to march to the parliament building to protest his actions.

Within six months of the eventful inauguration, the new parliament building was attacked, with two men entering the inner chambers, shouting slogans and setting off canisters of coloured gas. This was followed by an even more historic low, as 141 parliamentarians – all from opposition parties – were suspended for demanding a statement from the prime minister on the security breach. Without opposition, the Modi administration bulldozed three new pieces of legislation to India’s criminal justice system that allow the government to censor news content, imperil encrypted communication, shut down the internet, and intercept communications with minimal accountability.

Sadly, none of this is extraordinary in India today. The same nation that successfully sent a craft all the way to the moon has turned abuse and oppression of its most marginalised and underprivileged members into a casual pastime. Every day, Indian newspapers lay bare the bones of some broken minority. Headlines are depressing, scary. “Man rapes eight-year-old”; “Muslim lynched over beef”;  “Dalit man urinated upon, beaten”…

Minorities, sitting ducks with no power to protect themselves, endure abuse, humiliation and violence with no expectation of justice. They are left to stew in their own grief, the way raw mangoes are fermented in their own brine. Meanwhile, the rich and the privileged, the “whiteys” of India, celebrate the growing economy, the new temples, the impressive new parliament, and landmark journeys to the moon.

There is such little fraternity – genuine solidarity among citizens – in India.  It is baffling to me that we continue to call ourselves one nation, the world’s largest democracy.

The US-based non-profit Freedom House already downgraded India’s democracy from “free” to “partially free,” while the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute has deemed it an “electoral autocracy.” Democracy, from its long misuse, now exists only in our past. This is the only reasonable conclusion as every social contract underpinning law and order breaks down. Truth is, India is now a state of regulatory capture, and, as we enter another election year, the minorities of India have developed a collective wisdom unique to the oppressed: they know they are on their own.

So here we are. India made it to the moon, but Indian people are still poor, still hungry. Indian women are still unsafe. No scientific triumph can obscure the degradation of human life in our country. A journey to the moon cannot hide the ever-deepening inequality and seemingly endless injustices devastating minorities.

India’s always camera-friendly, attention-loving Prime Minister Narendra Modi who wasted no time basking in the glory of Indian scientists who took India to the moon, has yet to say a word on the violence in Manipur. Modi’s Home Minister Amit Shah immediately hailed the successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 – emphasising that it made India the first nation to “touch the South Pole of the moon”. However, he has yet to explain to the citizens why a BJP member had invited the two miscreants who attacked the parliament building. He has also not explained why sexual predators are welcomed to the Parliament and why he has not done a single press conference in the ten years he has been in office.

Just as the Apollo mission was a project for white America, Chandrayaan-3 was a project for educated, prosperous, upper-caste Indians.

With our many brilliant scientists and increasingly powerful technologies, I have no doubt India will soon put a man on the moon, and from there go on to Mars, Jupiter and the heavens beyond. None of it changes that we remain a country that has no money to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and tend to the sick – a country where, as “Whitey’s on the moon”, others have, as Scott-Heron said, “No hot water, no toilets, no lights.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.