SEARCH YOUR SOUL
For each one of them and for each one of us, this is not about Irom Sharmila or Salwa Judum, or the thousands who don’t get one square meal a day
Ratna Raman Delhi
On Janamashtami evening sociologist Susan Visvanathan and I took an autorickshaw to Ramlila Maidan. For the first time in ten years, for both journeys to the Ramlila Ground and back, we paid the price on the meter. A quarter of a mile from Ramlila Maidan, we got off to walk on a road that was open to a steady two-way stream of pedestrians.
People returning from the maidan came in different shapes and sizes and ages. I have seen these faces before. They communicated the happiness and cheer that people usually wear at the end of a good meal, after a stroll in the park, after a well-made film, after visiting a friend, after having shopped and paid for the week’s groceries, after thanks giving at a nearby place of worship or a satisfying snack at the local chat wallah. Most people on their way out had on Anna caps, or tricolour caps, wristbands scarves or ribbons. They carried the national flag or sported the tricolour painted by wayside paint-pot-holding boys on their foreheads or along the jawbone.
The air was cheerful and the occasion festive. The sellers of moong and mirchi pakoras, sliced pineapple and mint water were doing brisk business. Anna Hazare was fasting and keeping him company were the inspired fasters in the maidan as well as the ritual fasters observing Janamashtami and Roza.
The maidan is flanked by large vehicles owned by the news channels. The back, facing the Delhi Stock Exchange building, has a locked gate. I step on to the cordoned off pavement and a belligerent cop orders me off. “Sadak to ham sab ki hai,” I counter and he subsides, telling me that the entry is from the opposite direction.
We wind our way back to the entry point, negotiating squelchy banana peels and discarded polythene water pouches. Squeezing ourselves through the armoured TV vehicles, sidestepping food remnants in discarded aluminium foil and paper plate debris, we enter, going past a security check comprising two female constables engaged in serious conversations over their cell phones.
There is a huge crowd, well over ten thousand at first glance. Everyone is calm and collected, listening to the speeches, sitting or standing or carrying banners and slogans and moving around in small groups. Others sing, dance, shout slogans. Nobody is jostling one another, and there are a large number of women encountering the unexpected relief of not being compulsorily introduced to unknown private parts, or having their private parts engaged with against their will. People are seated facing the stage and listening to songs and speeches.
Kiran Bedi on stage. Hazare’spaatshaala is documenting wondrous police traditions in the US where an entire department can be indicted for one guilty officer in their team, while reiterating the need for an autonomous CBI.
Young and middle aged men distribute water pouches and Parle biscuits, and request recipients to use dustbins. The recipients, if not hearing challenged, are ideologically deaf to such urgent pleas. Patriotic songs blaring from microphones have enabled them to transcend current reality and visualise a glorious future in which Kamsa-like despotic rulers and bureaucrats in power will be brought to book or duly vanquished, with a wave of the Lokpal wand ushering in a golden world.
Is it only then that they will engage and do some serious soul searching, which, ironically, is the reason for the observance of fasts in the first place?
A fast halts the process of continuous consumption and compels thesadhakato direct his energies towards a spiritual journey wherein he engages in thought and reflection while drawing upon inner resources. This is supposed to allow the mind to think clearly, provide a space for self-examination and then enable a connect to a larger community. This element of withdrawal, self-examination and reconnection is absent from the Ramlila festivities. It has always been absent from the ritual practice encouraged by practitioners of populist religion. Else, why would a humungous number of people come by to watch a fasting man and litter the area with signs of their voracious consumption? Nothing Gandhian about this!
No, this isnot an unruly crowd. Nor is it violent. Composed of varying gradations of the middle class, it is supposedly inspired by Hazare’s unselfish zeal and is flocking around him, hoping that his fast will enable the Lokpal drafted by his team to become the panacea for an ailing nation. I went to the Ramlila Ground, wanting to understand. I find, however, that I have a whole new list of anxieties.
The aam aadmi and aurat at the maidan are material men and women, all of whom were promised someaam(fruit, material gain) by the democratic State, because, as the middle class, they qualified for entry into the charmed circle of access to the dispensations of the State. For each one of them and for each one of us, this is not about Irom Sharmila or Salwa Judum, or the thousands of people who die all over our country because in their lifetimes they seldom have access to one square meal a day, other fundamental rights be damned. In any case, none of the above ever featured as beneficiaries of the benevolent State.
The aam aadmi and aurat (who matter) have a long list of grievances as the State has failed them. This is true of the lives of the middle class in our overcrowded cities and towns. Everyday ordinary living is about deprivation. As a democratic nation, we have customarily only considered the rights of those who have. The aam aadmi and aurat thronging at Hazare’s rally are people with modest means, aspiring to the benefits that civil society assures all those it includes within its fold.
So, if nobody is asking “what can I do for my country”, it is because of the State’s inability to provide easy access to uninterrupted supplies of electricity, adequate drinking water, reasonably priced foodstuff, public playgrounds, recreational facilities, education or healthcare. Legal redress is also excruciatingly slow. This is the defining reality of ordinary lives. Of people and regions not mapped by roads, infrastructure and the media, far less happens to be more true.
Hijacking the trajectory of the fast to hold a malfunctioning State to ransom is beset with its own problems. We all need to engage with the State. Replacing one set of representatives with another motley team to make decisions on our behalf at gunpoint is certainly not a solution.
Maybe, we, the people, could begin differently and through a new mode of sangharsh. We could start by exercising a little self-discipline and pledge to ourselves that we will not litter and will take responsibility to dispose of the waste we create? That would give us clean streets.
Good governance goes a long way in building core values and nurturing a social conscience. Possibly then, the middle class will look beyond the confining boundaries of everyday living and strive for more equitable lives all along the vast stretches of our country.
The writer teaches English Literature at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi