This morning I was roped in to speak about the impacts of demonetisation on migrant workers by Gurgaon ki Awaz, a community radio station in Gurgaon, where I live. I was speaking on a live show with the mandate to highlight systemic problems that might impact migrant workers in particular ways in this predicament, when cash is hard to access. To offer context to those outside India, currency notes of particular denominations (Rs 500 and 100) stopped being legal tender at midnight on 8th November 2016, in a bid to eradicate black money (that has evaded taxation). In a cash-driven economy like India, this had a severe immediate impact and though, the mid- and long-term impacts are yet to be seen, some sections of society have been particularly hit.
Many migrant workers, as I outlined in the show, lack ID documents and have therefore been unable to exchange their old notes for now. The unbanked are of course in deep trouble. Many migrants are daily wagers, contract labourers as well as informal sector workers whose incomes have been immediately impacted. Further, since these workers support their rural homes through remittances, the impact on rural consumption is also expected to be substantial in the coming months.
My interaction with the station was interspersed with comments from callers, and this was an exciting and eye-opening experience for me. For one, opinions came in from opposing ends of the spectrum. The majority of callers supported demonetisation whole-heartedly, not minding the sacrifices they are having to make. The vindication that people were feeling about the dishonest rich being punished has generated much optimism. For the callers, it seemed like this move was successfully breaking down a hegemonic system that had oppressed them and kept them poor while benefiting the dishonest rich. This ‘great equalizer’ perception was reinforced by another supporter who described his experience of standing in a queue at the bank. He pointed out that the rich guy who got off his car also stood in the same line and got the same amount of money as him. Triumphant, he said, “Ameer ko do hazaar rupaye ki kadar to pata chali!”. At least, the rich now understand the value of two thousand rupees (this was the limit imposed by the government on withdrawals from bank accounts).
However, there was also a caller who were upset that those who disagreed are not being given the space to express their dissent.He brought up the importance of a strong opposition for a democracy to function well. Who will represent the voices of the minority who disagree with such a move, he asked?
This is heartening. While people are busy outshouting each other on Twitter and Facebook, debate is not dead on the ground and people are not afraid to speak their mind. Keep in mind that the community radio speaks to low- and middle-income communities largely residing in urban villages, unauthorised colonies and old parts of Gurgaon. It is has no English language programming and does not cater to the educated elite in the city.
Second, people spoke of various coping mechanisms, how they borrowed from friends or helped out an older neighbor by depositing her cash, how barter worked in some instances and credit in another. These are fascinating and deserving of documentation, for they tell of the resilience of communities when unexpected things happen.
Third, I was pleasantly surprised at the sharpness with which my suggestions about constructive ways of offering criticism was picked up by community radio audiences. I was making a point about the need for supplementary measures to help out those genuinely distressed by demonetisation, like rural households dependent on remittances, access to food and healthcare, etc. Immediately after I said this, we got calls reporting community discussions that centered around offering the government suggestions of various kinds and there was a clear call for more consultation and interaction with State. The people want a listening government was the sense I got.
As a researcher, hearing voices from the ground is critical to inform my understanding of the impact of government policies. This is not the first time we have found that perceptions differ starkly across economic class. On radio as well, local land owners and migrant workers expressed divergent views even within the dominant narrative of support for demonetisation. This is also not the first time we have seen multiple narratives bundled within even a single respondent’s story. The reality is that truth is complex. It is multifaceted, often warped and twisted. It takes enormous patience to refrain from picking out the simplest bits and making them ready for consumption as I have also (probably erroneously) done in this post. It takes immense courage to recognize and accept complexity. But the truth is also that people do accept and live with complexity and contradiction in a very effortless manner. For me, even in this supposedly post-truth era, deconstructing this gnarled truth is still the only way forward.
The high drama that has unfolded in India since PM Modi’s demonetisation announcement on 8th November has left with a nearly permanent headache. I worry about everything from how I’ll pay the milkman to how migrant labourers and informal sector workers are going to withstand the lack of cash. Most of all I worry about the extremely black and white perceptions around me. I’m scared that we are becoming a society where healthy debate is no longer possible, leaving the door open for increased compromises on the freedoms and rights our Constitution entitled us to have.
One of the saddest fall-outs of the past few years has been the sort of self-censorship that people like me have begun to practice and in this, I suspect I am not alone, but. For fear of the vicious trolls, many of whom are ordinary people and even ‘friends’ and because the shrill pitch of the non-debate is violent and counter-productive, further dividing opinion into two opposing camps rather than invigorating discussion as opinions are supposed to. No one likes getting outshouted and abused. And so we self-censor. We don’t speak out, we don’t write, we steer away from political discussions, we change the subject. We stop liking the posts we want to. We stop commenting on posts we disagree with, even if our closest friends have posted them. It is becoming hard to be friends with someone who has a different political leaning and this was not always so. We spoke about these fears in 2014 in the run up to India’s general elections and in the past two years, other transitions notwithstanding, the tone and tenor of public debate has deteriorated beyond measure and the politics of divisiveness and hatred has been normalized in a very sinister fashion.
The past two weeks have convinced me that self-censorship is a very bad idea. Today, on Constitution Day, I vow to do the following:
- Educate myself: Move beyond my bubble and read/hear opinions beyond the ones I agree with. This takes more effort but I’ve been reading arguments on either side of the demonetization debate for the last few days.
- Ground-truth: I plan to go to the field to hear more about the coping mechanisms of people, especially those I consider vulnerable in an economic and social sense.
- Express myself: I’m going to resume writing my blog everyday. Not all my posts will be about politics or citizenship. In any case, I am not an expert and my blog functions as an urban diary rather than an opinion column. I want to write so that I process and release what I’m thinking into a public domain. It is as much self-preservation strategy as a measure to show myself I’m not going to run scared anymore.
We shall see how this experiment fares, but at the very least I will not be a mute spectator anymore. And that might even make the headache fade for a few minutes everyday!
This past weekend, I returned after a three week long international trip to the worst smog Delhi has faced in 17 years. Yes, it was bad. My nostrils felt the stench immediately and my eyes watered. My daughter wore a mask to go out and play. Non-stop media reports and social media feeds placed immense pressure on the government to act, forcing stop gap measures like shutting down schools, construction sites and power plants.
Three days later, the winds are blowing and the air is already clearing up. Believe it or not, the smog is beginning to fade from Delhi’s memory. New, more exciting stories will be out. This will soon be old news. Till the next time!
Mismatched! Short-term memory and long-term solutions
My friend Amit aptly calls the interest in smog “seasonal” in his succinct piece today. He also focuses on the need to address the problems of air pollution with long-term measures. This is the dominant line of thinking in the community of urban professionals I interact with. It is not with glee, but with extreme sadness that we want to wag the finger and say “I told you,so!” to Delhi’s residents and policymakers. Because public imagination is, for the moment, captured by the problem of pollution, we see the opportunity to hammer home the harsh reality. And also offer, once again, the solutions that we have been talking about for years.
The truth is that there are no magic bullets. Combating pollution and ensuring air quality needs a multi-pronged and long-term approach. Because the source of pollution are so many, including automobile emissions, waste burning, construction dust, industry and cooking (see this excellent piece by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda for a deeper understanding), several strategies need to be deployed at the same time. Because cities are ever-expanding creatures in these times, the magnitude of these problems will also keep growing, so solutions will have to be planned for the present and in anticipation of the future. Most of the solutions likely to yield results involve difficult decisions on the part of the government, but also substantial changes in behaviour on part of citizens. This change can be triggered by alarm, nurtured by a sustained awareness campaign and sustained by incentives. For example, investments in public transport and good pavements need to be accompanied by measures to discourage private car usage, like higher parking charges or congestion pricing (Another piece by Dr. Sarath lists a set of solutions in this vein).
Professionals have been talking about these measures for years, but only sustained pressure from citizen groups can result in these kind of changes. To do so, we will have to transform our short-term memory to a real awareness of the problems at hand.
A matter of survival: Reducing consumption, community action, sustained pressure are small steps towards long-term change
This is hard to do, primarily because of the extremely confused (and shrill) discourse we have had around this issue. We’ve quibbled and played blame games about who caused the problem and we’ve pointed fingers at who should be accountable for it. In all of that, we have forgotten that year-round pollution levels in Delhi are high; so anything seasonal like fire crackers and stubble burning tips the balance and the situation spirals out of control.
Like many commentators have already pointed out, high levels of pollution should be a cause of long-term concern. The harsh impact of air pollution on human health, including premature births and deaths, is being recognized widely and especially in Africa and Asia, where the majority of urban growth is taking place (see recent report on African situation). It is not about apportioning blame, but about understanding the seriousness of the problem and finding solutions.
There is a lot we can do at an individual level. We can consume less so that we waste less and dispose waste in a responsible way; we can walk, cycle, car pool or use public transport wherever possible; we can prevent the burning of dry waste in our neighbourhood; we can bring down dust by planting more trees and bushes, using permeable surfaces for parking and driveways, and storing construction material properly. At a community level, we can do all of this and more! Garbage segregation and composting is an obvious example. So is discouraging of car use to walk to bus stops and local shops by creating walking infrastructure & community help groups to help children and elders cross roads etc. Efforts at a larger scale are also a great idea. Some of my friends have been running Facebook groups on air quality where information on problems and solutions are shared. All of these measures not only help us but also make it possible to influence the direction of government policy and public investment.
This is not a problem that is going away, folks! And it is not someone else’s problem either! It must mean something that the words ‘disaster’ and ‘resilience’ featured in nearly all of the conversations I had at the United Nations Habitat III conference I attended a few weeks ago. There is a tangible sense now that the significant economic benefits of urbanisation are coming to us at a terrible price and that humans are responsible for much of the damage. Reversing the course of climate change and protecting ourselves from disaster (including episodes like the Delhi Smog) is possible only if we all take responsibility. And make governments heed our concerns! It is a matter of survival.
It would be remiss of me to not thank my friends and family for fueling my thoughts and pointing me to several credible sources while writing this piece. Thank you, you know who you are!
Even as Indian society remains gripped by patriarchal values and gender roles have barely changed in the Indian family, the sands are shifting slowly but surely among urban youth. I claim no statistical evidence and I’m well aware that this is just a very tiny group, but those of us who live in urban India just have to look around to see more fathers engage with tiny tots in your neighborhood park, more women taking on weekend hobbies and enjoy social engagements while their spouses take care of the home and hearth, more shared parenting overall. An opinion piece in Live Mint today refers to the growing number of men taking on or at least sharing cooking responsibilities as well. These new trends fly in the face of Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s ludicrous assumption that men will misuse paternity leave. Meant as a rejoinder to criticisms of the recent landmark law that mandates employers to give women six months paid maternity leave (and full marks to her for championing that cause), Gandhi’s response could have been far more nuanced.
I admit, the issue of paternity leave has been problematic across the developing world, influenced by ideas of what constitute good family life as well as economic development imperatives. The international experience shows that the Minister’s concerns over the uptake of paternity leave are legitimate. Brazil’s maternity leave program, already voluntary, was amended to extend paternity leave from five days to 20 this year, but is expected to have limited uptake. China has also extended the leave entitlement for fathers recently, with the hope it will encourage couples to have more children, but commentators are not hopeful it will have impact as most couples now prefer single children. Overall, fathers are not seen as equal partners in bringing up children, but the benefits of parents spending more time with young children (and the critical role models fathers can be) are more widely recognized. Intersected with better education among women, there is a need to revise the outlook on the role parental leave policy can play.
My submission is this: Instead of making policy that is merely reactive and a long time coming, why not think of policy changes that will reward those families that engage in more gender equal behaviour. It’s not just a question of gender equality either; bringing women into the workforce is a critical task for India’s economic performance, and preventing educated urban women from dropping out of it the low hanging fruit.
India doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel either. Many countries have experimented with parental leave. The much-lauded Swedish model offers a total of 16 months of parental leave, two of those to dads. Sweden is considering extending that to a third month. Germany’s experience is interesting too. In 2006, the maternity leave was amended to parental leave, allowing dads to have two months of the total parental leave time (like Sweden). A 2012 evaluation of the reform showed, however, that families of young children tended to take on traditional gender roles and critiqued the policy for disproportionately benefiting families that had single/one-and-a-half earners. In order to encourage a healthier work-life balance so both parents get to spend more time with young children, the parental leave policy was amended in 2014 to incentivize flexible work and also allowed parents to use the benefits in many different ways. Also motivated by the prospects of falling workforce numbers, Singapore has recently announced government subsidy for a second week of paid paternity leave.
India can also consider taking baby steps forward by opening discussions on providing a framework for:
(a) parental leave instead of only maternity leave
(b) how best to encourage employers to offer flexible work hours for mums and dads; and incentivize uptake of paternity leave; and on
(c) how parental leave laws can extend to benefit low-wage earners and those in the informal sector who are currently left out.
Through consultation and public debate on these issues, it might be possible to build a new consensus on how we could, as a society, offer more men and women opportunities to balance their careers and enjoy parenthood simultaneously.
There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.
Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).
On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.
Our understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.
It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.
Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.
Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.
In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?
Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.
I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.
Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.
Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.
A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.
To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.
There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!
Three people I know and who do not know each other told me last week that they are thinking of leaving India and making a life abroad. They were all deeply disturbed by the Dadri lynching incident and the growing climate of intolerance and violence around us. They all expressed concerns about bringing up their children in a nation where hatred is normal, even a virtue. I feel their pain. I have also not stopped worrying about the future for weeks, though I’m not contemplating leaving the country. Not yet.
Many others I have spoken to in my circle of acquaintances (and let me clarify here that I’m referring mostly to educated, urban Indians in well-paid jobs) dismissed these incidents as collateral damage in electoral politics. Historians like DN Jha (link) and Aparna Vaidik (link) have shown that this is nothing new; cow protection has been an important aspect of pastoral lives but beef eating and cow slaughter have long been sensitive issues, used cleverly by politicians and monarchs to appease certain communities and demonize others. The people who were doing the shrugging seemed to regard themselves as distanced from these ground level politics, while those who felt disturbed imagined that this particular brand of politics, previously at a distance, was now poised to invade their relatively peaceful and protected lives.
Dealing with a climate of fear
Whatever situation you find yourself in, there is a palpable sense of fear that is forcing many of us to take sides. The climate of fear is urging many educated Hindus who have previously regarded their religion as a matter of private belief, separate from their public lives, to acknowledge that their sense of security stems from their ‘Hinduness’. Aware that their actions and words are being judged for how Hindu they are, this is a group that is now deliberate in what they say or do. They are sandwiched between what they are and what they want to project of themselves. They are struggling with the morality they practice and the moral code that is slowly being imposed on us.
Educated non-Hindus too, make a choice. The blending of many religions into the broader umbrella of Hindutva is an obvious strategy of the right wing forces and I truly wonder how cognizant practitioners of these faiths are of this inexorable sucking in of non-controversial faiths into the big umbrella of Hindu belief. For educated Muslims, keeping fear at bay must be a very very deliberate and difficult process. Those who are promoting this atmosphere of hatred must also take responsibility for the growing radicalization of educated Muslim youth in India, and the increased threat of terrorism that our country faces as a result.
The educated Indian is an unfair target
Then there are the die-hard liberals (and I refuse to stigmatize that word), who genuinely believe in the diversity and pluralism of India, who support the idea of choice and who are suspicious of a majoritarian view. I would call them idealists. These are the people for whom hope is an important word at this time. For they seem to be the true targets of this new brand of aggressive Hinduism we see around us. Devdutt Patnaik acknowledges this when he calls the discourse around beef-eating a “symbolic attack on the ‘educated Indian’ who did not stand up for Hinduism in the international arena” (link).
To me, this is a baffling situation. How does PM Modi expect industrialization (Make in India), technological growth (Digital India) or urban investments (Smart Cities Mission) that will catalyze India’s economic growth to happen without the contribution of the educated Indian? Is he supporting the atmosphere of fear expecting that educated Indians have no choice but to accept the hegemony of a dominant Hinduism and carry on with the productive lives they lead? Does he not realize that an atmosphere of fear, violence and suspicion works counter to one of productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship?
No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation
For in becoming educated and urban (by default it would seem), it is true that we (and I speak collectively here, as a nation and a community) move a teeny weeny bit out of the stronghold of family, religion, clan and caste. In becoming educated and living in a place of multiple and varied influences (ergo, the city), we do begin to acknowledge and even appreciate the tastes, the expressions of those unlike us. We develop some tolerance, we learn to prioritize actions that take us forward over those and re-negotiate the older codes of religion, caste or clan so they can serve us better. It is in this process of self-discovery and prioritization, in the journey between what we were and what we want to be, that we take risks and contribute the most to the world around us.
At this time, India’s economic objectives seem to be hinged around the expectation the above journey will be one of hope and success. The atmosphere of fear I wrote about above, is a bid to re-focus the core of our identities away from our education and expanding minds inward to a place of fear, bigotry and parochialism. The atmosphere of fear is putting in jeopardy everything that our nation has worked very hard for, including the eradication of poverty and child malnutrition and the provision of decent living standards for all Indians. As Kalpana Sharma points out (link), it’s not just religious minorities but women too, who are becoming targets of a deeply vicious misogynistic moral code. Do we want our young people to become the skilled workforce (ref: Skill India Initiative) that will help India leverage its demographic dividend, or would we rather they lynch a beef eater or strip a woman who dared defy convention? What kind of economic growth will a nation of fighting, insular people achieve?
This is an appeal to all educated Indians. Let us not be silent and accept the blame for something we are not ashamed of. Why should we be ashamed of focusing our energies on studying, learning skills and deploying them for the betterment of ourselves and our country? Certainly not! We need to recognize the terrible impacts this atmosphere of fear and hatred will have on ourselves, our children and our nation. We need to petition the government to contain this. If we do not speak out and take action, we will have no choice but to toe the line, or leave the country.
It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”
This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?
Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.
Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.
For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.
Typical of my generation, I live a dangerous paradox everyday. I’m wary of idealism and yet, I’m deeply idealistic. I refused to wear the famed ‘Anna topi’ and participate in what I considered empty gestures. I was faintly disgusted by the candle light marches in my housing complex held in the name of the fight against corruption with young children shouting stuff they didn’t understand. I did not make fun of them, though. I wondered about my position and my reluctance to embrace what seemed like a wave of idealism and change at the time. That was my wariness of idealism asserting itself.
More recently, even though I do not vote in Delhi, I was delighted to see the AAP come to power in such a conclusive manner. That was my idealism kicking in. I wish the government success in meeting the impossible (and in most part laudable) objectives they have set themselves. I hope to to play my own very little role in it too, to whatever extent possible.
However, the charges of “high command culture” leveled against CM Arvind Kejriwal disturb me immensely. Prashant Bhushan’s advice to the CM to read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ indicates in no mean terms the extreme dangers of a lack of consultation. Neither can I reconcile myself to the idea of condoning a little bit of evil for the greater common good, which is also what the CM is accused of resorting to in order to push through what he wants.
What is true and what is not, I cannot say. But the events as they are playing out strike deep and sharp nails into the coffin that idealism has climbed into and is lying, preparing to die a painful death. We may end up with a better Delhi but not, it seems, with better politicians.
Last Saturday, I watched middle school students at Pathways World School, Aravalli put together excerpts from three Shakespearean plays. They explored the idea of unbridled ambition with Macbeth and the idea of friendship with Merchant of Venice; and both of these apply to the AAP drama unfolding before us. But their perception of Julius Caesar is really applicable to the situation. Are the detractors (Cassius=Prashant Bhushan, etc) merely jealous of Caesar’s (Kejriwal’s) success? Or are they truly concerned with the values of democracy and equality? Does Rome (Delhi, India) really need a leader of Caesar’s (Kejriwal’s) appeal to stitch it together even if it means absolute power, the crowning of a King, the breaking of a tradition of democracy and replacing it with an authoritarian system? How justified are friends and supporters like Brutus (Yogendra Yadav?) in taking a stand against Caesar despite their deep sense of loyalty and friendship?
There are no clear answers, but we must think about what sort of future we envision. What have been the expectations of those who idealised/admired/supported the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement and later its conversion into AAP? Did they buy into it because they wanted better governance or because they wanted clean politics? I’d put my money on the latter, but unfortunately that doesn’t look like it is going to happen.
I’m left with many disturbing questions. I cannot answer them for you, but I must try to do so for myself. Politics is a game of compromises, but which of these is acceptable and where does it cross the line? Is one kind of dirtiness is politics better than another kind? Is the end more important than the means? How does my idealist self work with and contribute to systems that are dubious and dishonest? How does my non-idealist self stay motivated to contribute if the hope of better politics lies abandoned?
Even as I mull such questions, life goes on. I eat, sleep, play, laugh. Or crib, bitch, slander and cry. And every now and then, I wonder at my place in the scheme of things.