Five years ago, before the reins of power changed wheels, shiny cities and sponsored media outlets had already emerged as grand opinion-makers. Television, hoardings and large scale-emergence of web portals had built inroads in the lives of its audience. The grand play was already at work, advertisement and branding became buzzwords, as necessary tools on how the game of politics was played. A year later, the current disposition was already in power. Polarisation, with effective strategy managers had paid off.
India, a country of over a billion people has one Supreme Leader, infallible; loved and revered by all. One who is feared by opponents, chosen by history to lift the lives of those condemned to despair and poverty. One who protects, with his life and honour those who stay true to the rashtra, and do not wander off with propaganda. A leader unmatched in wit, humour, and style.
Or something that was shouted from rooftops, for everyone to believe. Let us not speak of these people then, for once.
Let us speak of those who did not get a say in what their lives were going to become. Those crores of people who live a life already on the margins, with entire populations forced to live off meagre wages – sometimes near you – cleaning the dishes, building the bridges, dusting the streets. Let us speak of those who till the lands and produce food that we eat. Let us speak of those who never got back what they had been robbed off. Let us speak of the millions who everyday lead long, difficult lives – of those who are on the streets, fighting off everyday diktats from self-styled godmen who pose as leaders of a nation.
We cannot speak for them, though. Any attempt to do so continues to resemble parochial hangovers of the urban elite and the middle classes. They do not need your charities; they need their rights.
When about 40,000 farmers including adivasis and other forest dwelling communities marched from Nashik to Mumbai in the hot month of May 2018, a realisation struck the city. An obligation to listen to them crept up. People who were unaware were caught off-guard. The same ruthless city extended whole-hearted support when many people and institutions came out and supported the protestors. They came marching, on foot, jeopardising their already-falling incomes, because they do not want their children to do the same. It was not a march to simply demand things, but to come out where they would get some visibility – where finally their voices could be heard.
Had social and political institutions responded to them, our cities would not have been witness to what was essentially a watershed moment in the recent history of peoples’ movements.
Most states have seen large mobilisations of people in the streets, fighting it out, every day. Communities living in regions rich in natural resources face an unprecedented crisis. While the mainstream development agenda treats minerals, mines, water bodies, forests and mountains as commodities for ‘commercial exploitation’, the millions of people whose lives are then subjected to uncertainty and exploitation are deliberately ignored in this process. If this is not colonialism in the guise of modern democracy, what is?
At the mandatory public hearing meetings of a supposed development project, far away from these cities – the police fires at will, register false FIRs, coerce people wanting to enforce legal provisions, or threaten those who want to ‘disrupt’ nation-building. It is also not an isolated instance, and has slowly become the norm. How long does it take before those running vested interests come out and denounce them as ‘anti-development’ or ‘maoist sympathisers’ or ‘foreign-funded miscreants’? How much of it gets silent sanction from each one of us?
These are the same kinds of people who marched to Mumbai, silently in the night so children and their exams do not suffer due to traffic diversions. Their lives might still not change even if Lok Kalyan Marg becomes Race Course Road again, or Deen Dayal Upadhyay Junction is renamed Mughalsarai, or the Niti Aayog resume its work as the Planning Commission. Their lives will change, and so will ours if we can learn to make our so-called leaders and institutions accountable for their actions and inactions. If we can promise this to each other, to come together like those 40,000 people did – strangers to each other but united in cause and action.
Yes, we should not elect to highest offices, hate-mongers and those who do not believe in values of a modern, democratic society. Yes, we have enough of them already. And yes, a dystopian society does not seem much far away. But is there some hope within us, at the end of this tunnel?
I realise that many people might not find it so, for their lives are different than the rest. Many would not take a moment to call this propaganda. But these people in protest are real, you know, living on, fighting on – for themselves and for the rest of us. They demand freedom from apathy. They demand justice and equality.
Who do we speak to then, if not to each other?