mini-revolution at Chandni Chowk. (mid-August)

(Two weeks after the government ‘gave in’ and agreed to review the Jan Lokpal Bill draft as per Anna and the rest of his brigade’s demands, the circus is over. Over? Maybe not. But definitely taking a break. Now Anna Hazare and Prashant Bhushan have differing opinions on the fate of Kasab. But where has the urgency behind the “Bhrashtachar mitaoo!” morcha suddenly gone? Patience may be a virtue, but this seems suspiciously like a case of bought silence. On another note, there really ought to be an in-depth analysis of the role of 24*7 media coverage in events and their effect on the world. But this is a rant i wrote while the storm was raging and all of Delhi was out on the roads, celebrating god knows what. The silence now only goes to show how easily we’re made fools of.)

One 74-year old man has taken the nation by storm. By simply defying his right to food, right to freedom and right to speech on various occasions in the past couple of months, in protest against that corroding feature of the Indian ‘system’ called ‘bhrashtachaar’, he has almost single-handedly put the government on edge, making it jittery enough to take damaging decisions that it has regretted two seconds later. In the tornado of fury that he has unleashed, there has emerged a ‘civil society’ more comprehensive than the smattering of NGOs and activism that the word is understood to represent in common parlance – spiritual leaders, yoga gurus, human rights activists, academics or simply my neighbour who seems to have finally found, if nothing else, a maidaan to vent his frustration – all under a single umbrella. They’ve yelled slogans as one, screamed silence as one, gone on sulking diets as one, walked the roads with candles alit and banners ablaze as one, chanted hymns, ranted against the government, fed each other’s anger, as one – one immensely volatile mass of people that is giving the impression of being a time bomb, ticking to explosion.

One has to hand it to him. Anna Hazare is to 2011 what Mahatma Gandhi was to 1942. Leadership is no walk in the park. Getting through to a mass of people that is usually too self-involved to bother about the rest (the dictum goes: “humne duniya ka theka le rakha hai kya?” or “Have we taken on the contract to uphold morality in society?”), and getting them to come out of comfort zones is a big achievement. Taking on a government along with the entire hallowed ranks of officialdom is daring, like a garish cinematic stunt one can expect from those gutsy gatsbies, the likes of Clint Eastwood or Rajnikant. He has become our new age poster-boy, the hero of this 21st century saga reiterating the ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘us vs. them’ battle that has been raging since eternity. He has suddenly metamorphosed into a demi-God, with his name on everybody’s lips, like a chant, feverishly whispered, that has the power to purge a society steeped in decades, nay centuries, of sin.

Then there is the cause itself. Corruption is that aspect of Indian life that every office, household, man, woman and, sadly, child is acquainted with. From the time we begin to gain a basic consciousness of the way systems and societies work, we are told in defeated tones that this, too, is an undesirable, but entirely real facet of how things are run here. At some level, we are even encouraged to learn how to slip it to them ‘under the table’, smooth talking all the while to cover the crudeness of the act, be it to the local plumber, the policeman or the politician (or even his peon).

We learn that as is in the case of our elders, teachers and other authority figures, “ours isn’t to question why, ours is but to do and die”. Only this time, it isn’t the steely resolve Tennyson imagines to be on the face of the many-hundred dedicated soldiers, now it done is a casual, dismissive shrug of the shoulder, and we’re on our way. A subtext that lends itself to innocent beings getting welded into maturity and adulthood in this process is: if it’s ok to give some, it must be ok to take some back too. After all, what goes around, really ought to come around too. And so, corruption, one would be forced to argue, is more than just the much publicised 2G scam, the Adarsh scam, the Bofors scam; it is more than numbers and names, it is increasingly an entire ‘norm’ in itself. Fighting against corruption, then, is fighting against our very own baser selves.

This is not to say that everybody in this country is essentially corrupt. They are not. We, the middle classes who are said to be the backbone of this movement, would essentially be victims, even in the carrying out of the act, because honest ways don’t exist. But it would bode well to pause and question – does externalising the fact absolve us all of our mini-sins that snowball into the hulk of an evil? Is everybody in this movement just fed-up of the system, are there no appearances being kept up in the process? Would one more law change everything so drastically, would this be the nation that manages to kick the butt for good? Will Jan Lokpal be the most effective nicotine patch man ever made?

Chances are, this won’t happen. A lesson our parents wish very strongly for us to learn is that change never happens overnight. Social change, systemic change, specially, is a time-consuming process and generations of protest could go into changing hearts and minds, show them a better path. Similarly, we should know that corruption, the epitome of all that constitutes the rot and decay of our precious ancient society, is not going to go away with a hunger strike and general civil upheaval, like the sustained Satyagraha of Gandhi managed to repel the British. This is because corruption is not an alien colonial capitalist invader, it lives and surfeits within and among us. Nor will it evaporate out of existence with another law being passed, because one can’t fight the system through a weapon of the system itself. We will have to be more innovative than that.

With a little common sense, it would seem as if education is the sole ambit of possible social change, especially if the change is to be as monumental as this. If you want it out of the system, you’re going to have to start from the basics. Hajmola can only quell the quake in your stomach, not eradicate the root causes. The cure might lie in changing the way you see things, do things, eat things. Forget the fish fry and butter chicken, shift to whole wheat and green leafy vegetables. Bring back the discipline and restraint in your life. So, while I too am all for holding ‘them’ accountable for all our taxes that they gobble up, it would really be encouraging to see some more long-term thinking and less indefinite fasting from Ramlila Maidaan.

Of course, to this cynicism-coated rant, one could retort that movements like this are about building hope. Hope is what we, the people, the common men, thrive on. It is also what Obama’s thrived on, with big words possibly going to land him a second presidential term. If a man can inspire hope in this world steeped in scepticism, we ought to doff our topis and stand up for him, next to him. One knows that conflict resolution is all about ‘winning hearts and minds’, which Anna, bless his starved soul, has definitely managed to do. And for simply that fact, one hopes that this circus is over sooner than later, that we get our accountability and our transparency, and that this is not just another spark of excitement in the mundane lives of countless trigger-happy and TV-hooked Indians, that fizzles out before autumn arrives.

Ann-a-shan. mid-August, Chandni Chowk


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