Taking to the Streets
It is time for democracy to hear its future
Manash Bhattacharjee Delhi
When liberty goes out of a place it is not the first to go,
nor the second or third to go,
It waits for all the rest to go, it is the last.
~ Walt Whitman, from “To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire”.
As the new government assumed power, all we heard was rhetoric on the relationship between government and governance. In the slogan, ‘minimum government and maximum governance’, the focal point is centred on the idea of how to govern the governed and improve governing. This mentality of governance, even behind the shadowy claim of minimalism, seems to be the driving force of the government’s imagination. But this is a democracy, and the first responsibility of the government is not improving governance but the status of democracy. If the country’s democratic norms are under threat, what will governance lead to?
Students are the future of a democracy. They can smell this future in the streets, canteens, classrooms and elsewhere. If an incident of sexual violence takes place on-campus, or a professor makes a blatantly prejudiced comment against the minority community in class, or the admission fee is suddenly hiked enormously, it is sure to spark outrage among students, who constitute the heart of democracy. What the students in Jadavpur University, Delhi University and Himachal Pradesh University discovered recently was the disturbing smell of democracy’s future. If appeals for justice against violence, prejudice and unwarranted hike in fees are met with indifference and, worse, with high-handed diktats and methods to literally police and muzzle their voices, then students are sure to detect a real danger for themselves and for a democracy that they value, because it offers them what a government cannot: the breath, the song, the horizon and the articulation of the most prized desire of life—freedom.
The current rhetoric claims the agenda of freedom has been taken care of since the achievement of independence and now all we apparently need to strive for is development. That is a strange political conclusion for a country where freedom is still very much on the agenda. For whom is the agenda of freedom over? For the pro-development rich, the super-mobile class of Indians, the corporates, the NRIs. For them what matters are cheaply bought land (often by fraudulent means) for setting up private business hubs, good broker deals for high-rises, permanent visas, sleeker airports and fancy malls. Development becomes an euphemism for a sanitised world, where, in the name of cleanliness, the poor are forcibly eliminated from view to suit the cosmetic gaze of people in speeding SUVs, living in a make-believe world of pseudo-Westernisation. Development becomes a permanent bulldozer at work, clearing off spaces to erect a smokescreen bereft of people who don’t smell and look up to developmental standards. This madly monstrous horse appears to be galloping without a destination – and it’s headless.
The champions of development want freedom only for themselves, at the cost of the freedom of others, against whom they want more security. Freedom cannot be bought with barricades and private security guards. Those who are fighting against state oppression at the frontiers, those struggling against the taking over of their land and livelihood, those who are denied the legitimate rights of their refugee status, those shouting for better wages and working hours in factories, they are the ones for whom freedom is yet to be achieved. Freedom is not merely a nation’s independence but the restoration of people’s rights. Freedom is not a date fixed in the past that returns annually to be merely celebrated but a time in the future whose date hasn’t arrived. The neediest are yet to date their freedom.
Amidst this scenario, students in the country were riled enough to challenge university authorities for what they considered unjust. Students understood the politics of indifference and their protest challenged that indifference with enough provocation for action. The provocation took on a method that has been questioned. Forcible confinement of the VC and the professors isn’t legal or ethical. It allowed the VC to justify bringing in the police. What followed was more undemocratic than anything preceding it. Students were beaten up and harassed with impunity and without remorse. Their motives and even lifestyles were questioned. It was then that the students took to
Taking to the streets is the most democratic means of protest and engagement in politics. The street is the place where democracy belongs and its meaning often contested. It is in the street that you gain a mass voice and you are heard by both the people and the state. You need the street to demonstrate a politics of presence. The students, by taking to the streets, not only availed of their fundamental right to protest against injustice, but also displayed their adherence to democracy. The street is a space where you expose your language and intentions of politics. It is a space where politics is seen as much as heard, a space where nothing is hidden from public view. Any movement in the street thus gains a distinct legitimacy vis-à-vis its language and strength of protest. It is also the most vulnerable site of challenging power. There is a promise of non-violence in such a mode of protest. As opposed to ‘parties’ which, as French philosopher Jacques Rancière tells us, have become “simply apparatuses intended for taking power”, the rebirth of democratic politics, he feels, depends on collectivities that “subtract themselves” from this logic of power-seeking. Rancière finds such promising moments of alternative politics in the May 1968 students’ uprising in Paris and in the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. Thus the very idea of a non-partisan demonstration allows a historical newness to enter the realm of politics. The absence of any ideological agenda that has not already been thought of, or is present, in such a demonstration of protest, is its strength. There are theoreticians of progressive politics who always prefer blueprints to find legitimacy in the language of politics. This is an old conservatism that eyes spontaneous politics with suspicion and resists all forms of newness. The idea of historical agency can sometimes be acknowledged in the spontaneous agency of the outraged. Certain movements provide important directions for political thought and action. Their timely provocations carry a greater significance than their immediate success.
The newness in politics today, exemplified in spontaneous movements, also needs to be critically examined to separate the conservative from the liberating. For example, protests that took place in India in the last couple of years have often taken on a language of high morality and indicated a preference for more interference of the law. Such tendencies follow a certain logic of restorative politics where the promise of the new is circumvented by a return to the old. What was refreshing in the most recent demonstrations of the students was the desire to retransform the very space they used for protest and not end up — like many had before them — in protective lawns and other assigned places. Taking to the streets for the mobilisation of an instrumentalist politics that seeks finally to gain power is not promising.
It brings us back to the question of what is democracy and democratic politics. If the state and the market have come together, democratic politics can only mean questioning this nexus. Just as you cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time, you cannot serve the market and the people at the same time. Democratic politics then becomes the voice of the people against the manipulations of the market. The democratic state in such a conflict should side with the people. Since students are the future of a democracy, their participation in a conflict with power needs to be acknowledged as a reminder of the necessary freedom of that future and not its confinement. That is why professorial advice about the ‘right place’ of students being in the classroom and the library reeks of an unnecessary fear and a lethargy of politics. When students come out in the streets, the classroom and the library travel with them, in their minds, and that helps make them better judges of their own actions and the actions of those who try to oppose or discredit them. It is time for democracy to hear its future.
(The writer is a political science scholar and a poet. His first book, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems, was published by The London Magazine.)