For the past two weeks a silent revolution has taken place in front of our eyes culminating with a day long debate in Parliament that resulted in a victory for the people of India, the very people who are embodied in the opening sentence of our Constitution. For the first time in our independent history the will of the people was truly heard. For the first time in our independent history the faceless millions found their voice and used it. Democracy was reinterpreted and revisited as the people of India till date only seen once in five years at election booths took centre stage.
These voices were galvanised and aroused by one diminutive man whose main claim to fame was his honesty that he wears as proudly as his cap and who has come to represent the David that could slay the Goliath called corruption. Till date the silent majority suffered the stranglehold of the demon that strangulated all and robbed mercilessly. Till date these battles were fought in intellectual clubs and drawing rooms and ended in remote essays written to satisfy cerebral and not real needs. The very people who have always decried the passive behaviour of our collective mind are now busy writing more essays about the lurking dangers of the over enthusiasm whipped by Anna Hazare!
Today no one is in the mood to hear them. Today India celebrates!
But what are we celebrating. The answer is complex as many firsts happened in the last fifteen days. The obvious is the ending of a 13 day fast by a Anna and of course the resolution adopted by acclamation by our Parliament agreeing to the three points of contention till date. But that is for me just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to celebrate.
The first step to freedom is the articulation and identification of the cause of repression in clear terms. And this is what happened last fortnight. Corruption an ailment that plagued us all but was often referred to in hushed tones within the four walls of our homes was out in the open. And what that did was bring India together. Here was a cause we could all openly espouse and agree to fight against together. The anger and outrage that we all felt and had repressed for too long had found a way to be released and addressed. The catalyst was a man who wore his honesty with pride and honour and could thus become a rallying force. For the first time India came out on the streets without fear. What we saw in every corner of the land was crowds that had not been paid or intimidated, but who came out of their own sweet will. Strange but true corruption was the great leveller, it affected one and all: the rag picker, the slum dweller, the harried housewife, the aspiring professional, the small businessman, the retired official. No one was safe from its stranglehold. It almost seemed as if we were all waiting for the right moment and it had finally dawned.
And to add fuel to the raging fire, the unbecoming attitude of the government in dealing with a man who simply wished to assert his constitutional right to protest brought to the fore another cause to embrace. It goes without saying that everyone in this land was fed up with arrogance bordering on hubris of the powers that be. Here too India was one. Be it the slum dweller whose daily brush with an arrogant official or the retired professional who needs to renew a passport, everyone had to bear the supercilious and dismissive attitude of officialdom. This reality was amply vindicated as we watched the comings and goings of the government. The impossible conditions laid out for the protest, the arrest, the empty and inane explanations proffered, the carrot and stick and condescending attitude, the arguments on form and practise, and so on. And above all the refusal to accept that the adversary was at par if not greater. We the people had never been a force to contend with. We the people were only meant to appear every five years when the powers that be shed their arrogance for a few weeks and sought a mandate renewal. We the people were those who could be cajoled by empty promises, pouches of hooch and a few coins. This time however we the people said enough is enough: no more corruption, no more arrogance. We will not fall for semantics and dialectics. So let us celebrate our freedom from fear and cynicism.
Another first that happened was the coming together of India in all its diversity. Even the cynics will have to concede that the crowds that gathered spontaneously be it in front of Tihar Jail or in the Ramlila grounds, in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and umpteen other cities had one thing in common: they were all Indians. All barriers were broken be it caste, religion, gender, age or social background. The rich rubbed shoulders with the poor, the literate with the illiterate, the old with the young all shouting in unison: Vande Mataram! So should we not celebrate the coming together of India as one!
For the past days we have been privy to heated debates on the supremacy of Parliament. The cudgels being of course taken up by state representatives and elitist intellectuals trying to smother the vox populi whose role was conveniently cut down to a single act every quinquennial. This being the definition of democracy acceptable to those in power. True one must concede that the chosen ones do also climb down from their mount Olympus a few days prior and put on a real act. I have seen with my own bewildered eyes how the chameleons shed their arrogance and almost grovel in front of their potential electors. Excuse a small aside but this was one of the things that shocked me most when I lived the first municipal elections in a slum. Posses of white clad men, their candidate in the lead, walked the street with their hands folded stopping to caress the cheek of a young child or touch the feet of an elder woman. That in their eyes sufficed to get people to elect them. The parade, for want of a better word, always heralded by the beating of drums to ensure that people come out of their homes, was finely orchestrated. An advance party always came along distributing garlands to some trusted persons with the express directive to place it on the candidate at the appropriate time. I once tried to get the candidate to stop as I wanted to apprise him of some of the problems that the people faced, but needless to say a bunch of acolytes were quick to steer him away. The experience was galling to say the least as the same people become inaccessible once elected. To the people who advocate the supremacy of Parliament and the minute role of its members vis-a-vis the people, the last days should become an eye opener. The people will not accept such a diminished role. Their vote is precious and entails a responsibility that they are now ready to assert. So let us celebrate the true meaning of democracy.
In the smiles and sloganeering of the people one could sense hope. The hope of being finally delivered from the clutches of corruption. True that people felt somewhat naively that the proposed Bill would be a panacea for all ills. Simple people felt they would be rid of greasing palms on day-today basis and they were ready to lend their voice to the cause loud and clear. Yes they were credulous but can one blame them. This seemed the only ray of hope in their otherwise dark world. The Cassandras and doubting Thomas were back to the attack pointing out the flaws but people were too charged to hear. They just wanted to see hope so can we also celebrate the revival of hope.
There has been a lot to celebrate indeed. But there is more. One of the most amazing things to me personally was the vindication of the Gandhian principles of non-violence. It was breathtaking to see so many people protest in a peaceful manner for such an extended period of time, particularly when one is used to seeing violence erupt at the drop of a hat. Critics will again say that many Gandhian principles were subverted, but would not Gandhi himself have adapted his methods to the need of the hour. So we also celebrate the power of non-violence.
As the dust settles and we slowly emerged from our euphoria, it is time to take stock of all that happened and draw the lessons needed. The most important is undoubtedly to define our roles in the fight against corruption. True one man showed us the way. It is now time we learn to walk on it.
I went to the Ramlila grounds on Tuesday to be part of the protest against corruption let me Anna Hazare. I have already blogged about my what I felt that day but there are some other aspects of the agitation that I feel need to be highlighted.
I was impressed by the general atmosphere prevailing at the protest which was for want of a better expression a celebration of India. There were people from all walks of life, students and the elderly, rich and poor, urban and rural, people of diverse faiths and origin. But that was not all. There was also a genuine outpour of the legendary generosity of our land. Free packets of water were being handed out with a smile and gentle insistence. The place was surprising clean considering that it had housed tens of thousands of people over the past days. One would have expected it to be littered with garbage but it seemed that people themselves were ensuring its maintenance as one so many picking up the litter.
At the back of the grounds was what has been called Anna’s kitchen. Food was being cooked in large vessels and been handed out free to one and all. Hot rice, dal, vegetables, poories in disposable plates. Large bins were available to ensure that no plates were thrown on the ground and surprisingly there were none! A far cry from the morning after a wedding or a religious feeding frenzy in our city. Bags of dry rations and fresh vegetables waited to be turned into the next meal. Everyone was invited. I was told that all the food had been donated by supporters.
We decided to find the donation desk to make a contribution. All the donation posts bore signs saying closed. At first we thought that the people manning them had gone to lunch. But that was not the case. The organisers had decided to stop accepting donations as they felt they had sufficient funds for the present. Chapeau Bas was all one could say. This was really a unique occurrence in our times.
All around us people were singing or shouting slogans with conviction and passion. They had come for a cause they believed in, for a man whose honesty and integrity no one could question and everyone was proving themselves worthy of their ideal. Yes it was a celebration of India, amazing India!
This picture was taken by one of our students during the recent workshop on photography held at our women centre. The picture speaks for itself: the broom a silent but eloquent reminder of the fate of girls in India.
Let us look at some statistics: India has the largest population of children as 40% of its population is under 18; one out of every six girl child does not live to see her 15th birthday; Every sixth girl child’s death is due to gender discrimination; 35 million children do not go the school, 53% of girls in the age group of 5 to 9 years are illiterate; 60% girls drop out out school before class V. The list is endless and distressing.
In spite of our best efforts we have seen girls drop out of school for a host of reasons, but one of the most shocking one is because many schools do not have toilets for girls! This is something that could be easily remedied if the State had the will to do so. The condition of government run schools in our capital is truly abysmal. Wonder where all the funds go. However that is not the only reason: girls are often made to drop out of school to take on the role of caretakers particularly in urban migrant households where both parents work. Sadly this situation will not change as children under the age of 6 are not covered by the right to education act and the state does not run free preschool facilities. So girls become the obvious and only choice to look after younger siblings. In homes the discrimination continues: girls are less likely to receive immunisation, nutrition or medical treatment compared to a male child. Moreover even if they go to school, girls never get proper support be it books or the much needed tuition that is a must as practically no teaching is done in schools. Even the illiterate have realised the worth of such schools and boys are often send to the ever mushrooming private schools. Girls however are sent to the free Government school if at all.
Let us not forget that in most cases the sole concern of parents is to get the girl married asap and it is often believed that too much education limits the choices of possible grooms. A girl needs to know how to cook, clean and maybe sow. More than that is not considered kosher. And the more educated the groom the larger the dowry. Education is thus viewed as an impediment and not an asset.
The question that comes to mind is how does one change things. Voting laws and Acts is not the answer as often these remain unknown to the beneficiaries. Gender related issues need to be addressed with patience, understanding and perseverance.
I went to the Ramlila ground yesterday to be part of the anti corruption agitation led by Anna Hazare. I had of course been watching the agitation on telly and doing my bit by spreading the message but had shied away from actually going there in person. The reasons were many: my hurting knees, my low BP that dips at its own sweet will sending me into unexpected swoons, my agoraphobia and so on. Don’t forget I am a lone wolf. Anyway all this kept me away for a whole week but a little voice kept telling me to get off my high horses and get there.
I guess the little voice had a lot to do with Kamala my mother. As I watched the crowds on the small screen, I found myself going back in time to lessons learnt at mama’s knee, lessons that were often heard and forgotten as they seemed alien to a child growing up in the lap of luxury. Yet they must have struck a chord before being filed in the recesses of my memory as they all came rushing back bringing with them a plethora of emotions. There were stories of want, of patriotism, of sacrifice, of national pride. Was not Kamala the deprived little girl who had to know the extreme humiliation of having to stoop in front of a malicious cousin to get a sweetmeat, or the child whose task was to nurse her father’s and his companions’ lacerated backs when they returned from non violent manifestations having borne the brunt of police beatings, or the young girl who was willing to live life as an old maid rather than give life to a child in a colonised land. You see she was the daughter of a freedom fighter.
I remember fondly the story she once told me of how she and her friends who had decided to emulate their elders and stage their own Satyagraha were bundled up in a truck by the police and deposited miles away from home. The children were frightened and terrified. Thankfully her father had been able to trace them and bring them home in a horse cart. And every story she told me was punctuated with the very slogans that are being heard today: Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai! There were also stories of the innumerable hunger fasts my grandfather undertook in jail, stories of force feeding valiantly resisted by consuming red chillies so that their throats were swollen and thus they could resist such attempts. The stories were many and I listened intently more so because of the passion with which they were told. And all the stories had one leit motiv: India’s freedom from British rule. And what is touching is that Kamala carried the same feelings into the initial years of her life as a diplomat’s wife. When she came to know that one of the guests at a dinner party was to be he British Ambassador it took all of my father’s persuasion skill to convincer her to be graceful to her guests!
The Vande Matarams and Bharat Mata ki Jai heard for the past days from every corner of the country resonated deeply in mind as a clarion call urging me to get out of the four walls of my home and lend my voice to the fight against corruption being waged at my doorstep. So yesterday I did set my fears aside and headed for Ramlila grounds. I must admit I was a tad nervous but at the same time filled with a excitement. We got to the group and promptly purchased an Anna Cap reminiscent of the ones worn by my grandfather and by my father at official functions. I donned it proudly and set out for the entry where we joined the queue shouting slogans. Needless to say I joined them enthusiastically and felt my spirits soar. I was transposed to another time.
We finally entered the grounds and though it was not filled to capacity as this was a working day, there were thousands of people around. Some had flags, others banners and yet others just stood watching the stage in the hope of getting a glimpse of their beloved Anna. He finally appeared looking frail bit his spirit soaring to infuse every one of us with renewed commitment as he shouted Vande to which the crowd roared Mataram. The atmosphere was nothing short of magic. The positive energy was palpable and infectious. Everyone exuded cheerfulness and bonhomie. People from all walks of life reached out to you with smiles and greetings. All barriers visible and invisible were forgotten at least for the time being. Everyone was united and it felt incredibly good. I was so glad I had come. I felt the spirit of Kamala right next to me reminding me that I was my mother’s daughter.
Don’t lose faith in India were the last words of a dying man almost 2o years ago. It was at a time when India was burning over the Babri Masjid issue and everything seemed dark and bleak. Yet the man would not let go and repeated his dying mantra. The man was Ram my father and the words a legacy difficult to accept and yet very real. I was being asked by the one I probably loved and respected most not to lose faith in India. Not an easy task when India was burning and no one seemed to care. Remember it was December 1992!
I often wondered which India he was referring to: the one that lived in his dreams or the one we lived in. With every passing year keeping faith in India became difficult if not impossible, more so because in those days I had not yet discovered the real India. What I saw was the India of my peers and that one was not pretty. It was empty, soulless, arrogant, glittery, vain and obsessively pursuing money. Blissfully it was when I decided to set up project why and was compelled to cross the invisible divide and embrace the other India that I had my first glimpse of an India I could believe in. It was in the slums of Delhi that I finally found the India my father carried in his heart.
The ensuing years were not easy. As I anchored myself in the India I sought, images of the other India became more and more ugly. It was the years of scams, of political arrogance, of corruption in all its shades and hues. That is when I started shutting myself from one India even if it meant becoming a recluse and being the target of the cynicism of my peers. But you see I had to keep faith in India! And the only way I knew was to shut out the one I could not stand by. True I had to make some forays into the India I shunned as therein lay the money we so needed. My brief incursions only vindicated my stand. How can I forget the bags of rubbish that so oft landed on our doorstep as donations! Or the contempt with which my appeals for help were set aside with a curt: all NGOs are corrupt! Or still the more subtler opprobrium voiced when we decided to send some slum children to an English medium boarding school.
I also watched with horror and sadness the dismissive way in which the India of the little people was treated be it the walls created to segregate slums from their upmarket neighbours or the callous destruction of homes to beautify Delhi for an international extravaganza. And as I discovered the sad reality of our land so poignantly conveyed by a set of statistics; 40 % of the world’s starvation-affected people live in India, 76% families (840 million) people do not get their daily required calories, 55 % of India’s women are malnourished, 46% of India’s children are malnourished, more than 320 million people in India are unable to manage three square meals a day and the most startling one: more than 5,000 children die every day from malnourishment. How could the other India remain silent and unmoved. At timed I found it impossible to swallow a morsel of food and still do. And the one and only cause for these terrible statistics is undoubtedly corruption.
As I watched helplessly the astronomical figures of the scams being uncovered and corruption becoming the toast of the day I could not help thinking of its poorer cousin namely the apparently tiny sums doled each day by the invisible ones to be able to survive: the weekly tithe paid by the cart owner, the vegetable vendor, the roadside cobbler and so on. They too were stifling under the same oppressor. Yes Corruption with a big C had become a two headed monster devouring everything in its way. It was this monster that gobbled the funds destined to make schools, hospitals, roads, to provide food to those in need, work to those who had none. Excellent social programmes were hijacked by greed and never fully implemented. Imagine if the simple ICDS scheme launched in 1975 had worked no Indian under the age of 36 would underweight, undernourished or not vaccinated. Isn’t that food for thought. The reality is that the poor are becoming poorer while the rich become richer.
The question was when would India awake from its cynical slumber. When would it find its lost voice.
It took a diminutive elderly soul and a piece of legislation to do the trick. It all began in April when the spirited Gandhian decided to sit on fast to defend his take on a legislation that was meant to rid India of corruption. The cause echoed in the minds of many and for the first time a different breed of people took to the streets. The powers that be were caught unawares as they sprung into damage control by playing to the gallery and inviting the Gandhian to the negotiation table. For them it was a simple delay tactic. They had their own agenda to defend and they did by casting aside the views of civil society and tabling their own legislation. The Gandhian reacted and India responded.
When Anna decided to fast again he would not be alone. India who had sad silent for too many years decided to join the agitation as the cause was one they believed in: corruption had gnawed at them mercilessly for too long and the hubris of the state was getting too much to bear. The state on the other side remained impervious to the pulse of the very people that elected them and unfurled a series of absurd reactions that made the people angrier. The first salvo was of course the favourite weapon in their arsenal: slander! Without a thought a spokesperson decided to call the Gandhian dishonest and brand him and his team as armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists. India was outraged and the crowds swelled. As if that was not enough the state decided to act.
Anna was arrested, lodged in the same jail that housed the most corrupt, released all in one day. And as these harebrained actions were taken crowds grew angrier. India took to the streets and Anna remained firm in his resolve. People from all walks of life registered their protest. It was no more a fight for a piece of legislation but for every hurt that had been borne silently and helplessly. Housewives, professionals, students, village folk, retired people, the educated and the illiterate everyone was out to extend support. The media was there to chronicle it all. The powers that be stood exposed. Their arsenal looked strangely inadequate. The bungling lot tried to hide behind a host inane of screens but to no avail. Wonder what they would come up with next.
You may or may not agree with the Anna way. You may or may not agree with his version of the proposed bill but he has managed to stir passions never unleashed before. He has according to the New York Times emerged as the unlikely face of an impassioned people’s movement in India, a public outpouring that has coalesced around fighting corruption but has also tapped into deeper anxieties in a society buffeted by change. He has managed to awake a slumbering India!
We all want to see the monster slain! And we also want to be rid of a government that has lost the pulse of the people. In times where media was non existent, erstwhile rulers disguised themselves as commoners and mingled with the people to gage their mood and opinion. This helped them rule better. It is sad that today when every form of media is blaring the anger of the people our rulers remain aloof and unmoved.
Anna gave us back our voice. Now it is for us to use it in the way we deem right and not let it get once again tinged with cynicism. The ball is undoubtedly in our court. There will be many followers of Antisthenes or Diogenes of Sinope will find many ways to try and deter us, but we need to remain Pollyanna like and believe that the changes we seek with such passion happen soon. There will be enough time for remedies later. And to be a reverse cynic perhaps some form of monster is needed to slay another.
This post is primarily meant to renew faith a lost faith. In the past days I have seen a new face of India, I have seen invisible barriers crossed, I have seen hope. I have seen the India one cannot and should not lose faith in.