[ Daily News and Analysis, 22 Oct 2012 ]
A Congress-man for much of his life, the President of the provisional government of Free India (Ārzī Hukūmat-e-Āzād Hind) Subhash Chandra Bose’s legendary call ‘Delhi Chalo’ for the Azad Hind Fauj became a legend before such calls became clichés. It was not to direct it towards the urban agglomeration of Delhi (New by then) per se, but as a call to storm the seat of the British colonial administration in the subcontinent. That was to be expected for the British regime of Delhi while bleeding the Subcontinent white also wanted to slip into the shoes of the long line of erstwhile dictatorial rulers from Delhi. The colonial extraction machine needed to be supremely centralized – that is one of the tell-tale hallmarks of an undemocratic set-up. To try to dislodge George VI, Rex Imperator, is something – but now that the browns have taken over for some sixty odd years now, should we continue to view Delhi as the venue to lodge the ultimate protest or to the venue to celebrate the ultimate triumph, as the case may be. This questions needs serious introspection – especially because the Indian state governs a massive number of people, nearly one sixth of humanity, who have many different stories to tell.
Lets take the recent Anna Hazare dharnas. This activist and his band of anti-corruption activists sat on a dharna and hunger strike this summer. The place of choice for the public display of protest was Jantar Mantar- the sanitized ‘democracy footpath’ in New Delhi. This ‘free for all’ stretch of democratic expression under the watchful eyes of the police and plain-clothes intelligence is akin to the sham ‘happy farms’ of USSR minus one important element – none but extreme nitwits were fooled by Moscow. If the anti-corruption protests by Hazare and company is compared to a spectator sport (and I do not want to demean the earnestness of the protestors or suggest that they are anything less than well-meaning), it seems like Delhi is the stadium where it is worth playing, its inhabitants are the people in front of whom it is worth playing. It is possibly tactically smart too – the headquarters of major ‘national media’ (whatever that is) are here, the lush Lutyens bungalows of the men ( and few women) against whom their ire is directed are here. The problem with that is that the media yardstick of success and failure of movements and protests played out in this mode is disproportionately influenced by the daily mood of an urban area that is unrepresentative of the subcontinent at so many levels. For starters, it lacks a robust culture of street-democracy that is so characteristic of many other places. It is also a cosmetic town, with much of its underclass in the erstwhile-slums shoved out of it and chucked trans-Yamuna. The smoothness of that operation and how similar operations are not that easy in Mumbai or Kolkata are important pointers to the political culture and awareness of the cities, and if I may add, the human quality of the cities. That the words ‘Turkoman gate’*1 may mean nothing to today’s Delhi-ites tells us something. It is indeed a ‘New’ Delhi. If Delhi were a human being, it would be a grotesque caricature – an extremely well-fed fat man, without armpits, buttocks, thighs, skin folds and hair tufts, but reeking with the smell of presume that can be smelled from a mile off. A state-subsidized veneer of opulence by design affects the self-perception of the populace of significant portions of the city, especially the post-1991 aspirational segment, that includes the elite and uppity, migratory, rootless class. The artificial tweak of the demography of New Delhi by forcible slum ‘clearing’ also affects how issues of poverty and justice come to be viewed in the public square of the city. It is no surprise that a Delhi-based middle-class turn-out at the Anna Hazare events made it a ‘success’ by Delhi standards. That acute dependence on so economically and geographically unrepresentative a set is a bottle-neck for any party or movement that seriously aspires to speak for more people. This dependence on the Delhi theatre has another disadvantage. Protests and initiatives are forced to play by a set of restrictive rules of the game – a game that the specific ecology of Delhi has helped the powerful hone to perfection for decades now. Malcolm X’s critical words about the August 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom ( and for rights of African-Americans) come to mind – ‘They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out town by sundown.’
Worse things have happened in Delhi. Malcolm X was talking about manipulation but criminal apathy is quite another thing. In March 2006, a large group of survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster marched on foot from Bhopal to Delhi. This was years before the court verdict on the Bhopal case made shedding crocodile’s tears on camera by national parties fashionable and politically encashable for what its worth. The 2006 Bhopal protest sans young yuppies and cameras resulted in police beating up the protestors, including the inspiring female gas-survivor Ashraf, a senior citizen. 35 children under 12, most of who had walked from Bhopal to Delhi, were taken into police custody. There was a similar dharna this year too – you may have missed it between the toothpaste ad and the show about India’s latest ‘idol’. More likely, it was never ‘on’. Innumerable others have marched to Delhi on other occasions over the years. Most of them, with robust and popular support in the areas they come from, came to a city whose idiom they did not get and the city which in return could care even less. This loss of dignity of some of the most powerful and compassionate actors of grassroots democratic practice just because they are forced to perform in an alien and hostile terrain makes each of us that much more complicit in their blank, dust-lashed look at the end of their Delhi day. And this will happen again. And again. And again.
In early October, the Gandhian local-governance oriented alliance of many grassroots groups called the Ekta Parishad marched from Gwalior to go to Delhi. 48000 adibashis constituted a major part of this march for legal rights over their ancestral lands. This is not the first time the Ekta Parishad organized a march. Because this mass of non-perfumed humanity managed to grab 15 seconds ‘between the breaks’ and could potentially cause some traffic disruption, a minister showed up to cut is short at Agra. In return, they got homilies that may be mistaken for heart-felt solidarity. Tens of thousands of hungry and landless, have marched before and will march again, only to be looked at with derision and suspicion, or most tragically, avoided by using alternative traffic routes. At a deeper level, this is not a Delhi-specific problem – it is Delhi where it is at its worst. The problem lies with the idea of a power centre – any centre.
When Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist-activist was temporarily disappeared from Beijing by the Chinese authorities, the spotlight turned not to Beijing but Hong Kong, an area with a relatively better contemporary culture and tradition of public expression and protest. One suspects, even the famed Chinese capital was watching the protests in Hong Kong about events that were happening in the capital. An imaginative use of the ‘home-turf’ can project democratic aspirations to others, without entering the city of snake and ladders.
Multiple centres that have a spectacular living culture of other kinds of political awareness and practice exist beyond Delhi – Koodankulam comes to mind. In a nation-state like the Indian Union, the Delhi idiom limits the hues of democratic practice. Multiple centres that have a living culture of other kinds of political awareness and practice exist beyond Delhi. Might India have something to learn from China? Why not ‘Chalo Bhopal’ or ‘Chalo Lavasa’*2 or ‘Chalo Niyamgiri’*3 for that matter? Durjodhon’s thigh *4 might be right where you are standing at this moment.
*1 Turkoman gate – Refers to the massive eviction of the poor, primarily Muslims, from this area of Delhi in the 1970s.
*2 Lavasa – A hill-city made from scratch in Maharashtra, famous for flouting environmental norms with impunity.
*3 Niyamgiri – The hilly spiritual and physical home of the Dongkria Kondh tribe in Orissa, now under threat as the holy mountain contains something that non-tribals consider holier, bauxite.
*4 Durjodhon’s thigh – As mentioned in the Indic epic Mahabharat,Durjodhon was the eldest son of a Kandahari princess (Gandhari) married to the mythical blind king of Hastinapur in the Upper Gangetic plain. His mother Gandhari manages to make him invincible using her powers, except his inner thighs – something that is taken advantage of in an ensuing mace-fight. The term is somewhat analogous to the Greek Achille’s heel.