Monday, April 11, 2011

The Casteism of Revolution

Ever since Anna Hazare started fasting, and the Indian media started feasting, I have been trying to identify what exactly I feel about this entire phenomenon.

I have finally realised that I don't feel any one specific emotion. What I do have are a series of observations, culled out from my reading of the papers, what social network sites have thrown at me, and what I have gathered from conversations around:

1. The first is a sad one. It is a realisation that casteism is completely, deeply embedded in our psyche. We have a Brahminisation of everything, even mass protests. There are those who have been leading crusades for worthy causes for decades (and it is a sad truth that their voice has often gone unheard), but it is bizarre that those people now are churlish about the success of any movement that they are personally not responsible for. They have become the 'Brahmins' of protest work. They cannot let the 'lower castes' i.e. urban middle class, the media, corporates, apolitical citizens, take over this mantle. They feel affronted. Yes, it is true that for decades on end, it was only those with leftist leanings and deep roots in activism, who actually took up causes and fought for rights. They gathered in bunches of a few dozen, were often scattered with rubber bullets and police lathi charge, they came from humble backgrounds, they dressed humbly, they worked with the underprivileged and they tried to get their voices heard, often resulting in frustrating failure. Post partition right up to the early 2000s, mass India slept. We were uncaring. The middle class was scared, the influential class was apathetic, the media was state owned and the judiciary not yet this proactive. Yes, it is true that in those dark decades, when India completely lacked any community conscience, any citizen vigilance, there were only these 'left oriented groups' who tried, and tried hard.

It is odd however that today when the supposedly 'crass right wingers' at developing a conscience, instead of applauding them, this same bunch of leftist protest workers are dismissing them. It is almost like a pre determined judgement: if you are are well off, you cannot be committed. If you believe in private enterprise, you cannot contribute to nation building, If you are the media, your intent cannot be right. If you are part of the establishment in even the smallest way, then you cannot work at improving the establishment in any way.

This "I'll be judge and I'll be jury" mentality baffles me. It seems petty and unmerited. If the establishment perpetuates a wrong these people scream 'self serving'. If the establishment works at improving itself, they shout 'sham'.

It genuinely reminds me of the old Brahmins who would not let you in their fold, no matter how hard you tried.

If this is not the Brhaminisation of Protest work, what is? It is true that a lot of people threw in their lot with Anna Hazare with scant understanding of the Lok Pal bill, its nuances or the road ahead. It was amusing to read the status updates of 20 year old kids who thought Jantar Mantar was a picnic spot with a cause. But it was all amusing in an endearing way. It was nice to see people moved, even if they weren't going in depth into the problem. At least its a start.

The sheer petty cynical dismissal of this movement by the 'hardened ground workers' so to speak was deeply disappointing. It appears almost that they are shocked and upset that a movement NOT started by them should have acquired momentum and visibility. They cannot accept that free market India could possibly have developed a sense of social duty or citizen rights. Unless your politics is left wing, your cause cannot be real, they seem to be saying.

2. My second observation is a happier one. It is that Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra should be an extremely proud man today. More than half a decade after Rang De Basanti, it is clear that his movie actually made an impact that goes beyond a fad. When the candle light vigil at India Gate for Jessica Lal took its cues from this film, then too there were cynics who said this is 'pure tamasha'. The fact is that Manu Sharma did get prosecuted. And today, it is still true that people in this country have realised that they can make a difference. They can make the government accountable. They can make the establishment answerable. Movies have a power. And if they use that power to influence more than clothing and bedroom habits, its is commendable.

3. Having seen the media stoop to its lowest, crassest depths, having felt embarassed at being a part of this shrill hysterical and often vapid outlay of content, I have also realised that the media has it really bad both ways in this country. If they don't cover your protest then they just don't care. If they do cover your protest they are just looking for sensational bytes and a free tamasha. Somebody please explain how the media in this country is supposed to be doing good if everything they do is seen as self serving?

4. My fourth observation is closely connected to the first one: why is it that in our country we cannot accept that the prosperous can well be responsible for socially relevant / developmental work? Does this country have no scope for something like the Bill Gates' foundation? That man is a rich man and he is genuinely committed to the causes he supports. Why this complete cynical dismissal of corporate India by those involved in grassroot work? Why can't the two co exist? Why does one have to live in an LIG flat, take the bus, wear only cotton and chappals, to prove one's committment? Why can't making money for oneself coexist with wanting the country to be clean and well governed? If somebody joined the Jantar Mantar protest by driving down in his BMW from his posh gurgaon flat then he needs must be a 'fake'? Why?

5. This next observation is the mirror image of the previous. While there is no reason to automatically suspect the intent of the well heeled, the hysterical support that Anna Hazare got from a lot of screechy social networkers had me quite perplexed. Especially some of the people whom I know quite well. These are people who evade their taxes, abuse their position, use their influence, with absolutely not a hint of guilt. If they work for the media they demand press passes with impunity, even when they have no desire to cover the event, if they work in finance they learn new tricks to make a bigger blacker buck, if they work in education they allow kids papers to be marked by their spouses or siblings, if they work abroad they launder money. And all such and sundry were making loud, almost innocently oblivious, comments about 'weeding out corruption'. It's almost as though it doesn't strike them that they too perpetuate the same malaise. Every single day. With every single decision that they make. To them, clearly, what they do is convenience. What Kalmadi and Raja do is corruption. Hello, India?

6. My last observation: let us assume for a second that the cynics are right and Anna Hazare wants the publicity. Where is the dichotomy between wanting to do good solid work and wanting to be lauded for it? Why does every committed social worker HAVE to be self effacing? What if Anna Hazare has ALSO pandered to the media, both now, and before? Why is it necessary to therefore instantly doubt his intent? Why can't seeking personal glory co exist with wanting to bring about real change? Why does Anna have to be some sort of saint? What if he wants to be remembered for this work? How is that even a point worth raising during the debate?

All in all, much has happened and I think two clear things emerge: firstly that citizen vigilance (even if it lacks throughput, even if it lacks total comprehension) is definitely here to stay. If people can do a bit but not a lot, that is still a beginning. Everybody cannot dedicate their lives to causes. That doesn't make the little that they do, suspect. Secondly, a free market economy can and must co exist with clean transparent welfare governance. India needs to come out from the strangehold of both the corrupt politicians and businessmen, as well as the holier than thou jhollawallahs.

So bring on the next picnic at Jantar Mantar. We will transform India, one picnic at a time.

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