Saturday, 31 December 2011

End-of-the-year-ramblings and a tribute to democracy

They say the year 2011 was the year of protests and revolutions; Time Magazine namedthe anonymous, face half-covered protester the Person of the Year. The Arab world witnessed what many have called the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution. Wall Street was occupied by anti-capitalist protesters—the “99 percent”, as they call themselves. Back home, many claim that we witnessed the “second freedom struggle”, this one against corruption—of what kind, though, remains ambiguously unanswered. It seems that people were happy rallying around a messiah figurehead, and chanting anti-government slogans. “Politicians are thieves!” said millions of voices. This year has been one where our concepts of democracy, governance and freedom have been tested, challenged, changed and, rather paradoxically, taken for granted even.
A great year for democracy, a great year for revolutions—only, like always, there’s a catch.

About a year or so back, I scribbled these lines in a notebook, unaware of its significance in the context of last year’s protests. It goes like this: 
neither am I a son of a politician, nor an influential anywho...I am a voice in the silent for too long...decided to speak up now. The kind of voice you should be afraid of. Very, very afraid.

When I saw images of hundreds of thousands assembling in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Tripoli, in Sanaa, in Damascus, I realised the profoundness of these otherwise meaningless lines. Democracy, it seemed then, was being salvaged from a deep, dark slumber it had fallen into in these regimes of tyranny and decadency. Today, while I still hold that romanticised perspective, I confess, I am a tad cynical. At least when I see democracy being taken for granted in my country.

Take the Parliament proceedings, for example. The Opposition and members of the so-called civil society called it a “midnight murder of democracy”. I beg to differ. I would refer to the same incident as democracy struggling to fight efforts that stifle it. Make no mistake, I am not a firm believer in democracy; it is, in Rousseau’s words, a system meant for gods. Thus, a democracy for a flawed species like ours can be only that: flawed. And it is also one which my countrymen have taken for granted. And this is the premise of this essay.

The year 2011 may well be the year of protestors, and it may be rightly so, too. But we can hardly feature in the same. India is notorious for processes which subvert the democratic principles on many, many levels; the bureaucracy has come to exist like a sui generis system, existing as a culture industry of sorts, subsuming talent, dissent and everything it can; which is, to all intents and purposes, running the country. People who speak up for rights are labelled as seditionists, anti-nationalists and what not; indigenous movements are labelled as being Luddite and anti-development; vast hinterland tracts of the country living without electricity, water supply and organised governance. 

This is the murder of democracy, or the rape of it. Having my rights trampled by the vociferous advocacy of someone else’s peeves - that is the molestation of democracy. All these are far from homicidal intents. And we should know one thing: the democratic setup (in the neo-liberal sense) is what allows the powered classes to retain control of power. So, for the better or worse, democracy in India is a self-serving, and a self-defeating mechanism simultaneously. It is alive, but crippled. Not murdered, mind you. Not yet, at least.

Which brings me to the next part of my argument: the future of democracy. Anna Hazare’s fast has been declared a revolution, freedom struggle and what not. Truth is: the only true oppression that we have ever seen, collectively, was pre-1947. There have been regional tensions in the past, four major wars, countless attacks, and tens of thousands of lives lost in all kinds of extremist violence. Yet, I think I’ll be brash—or foolish—enough to say that we will never see the same fate as Egypt, or Libya, or Syria. One, because the self-serving and self-defeating system would not allow for the state to become tyrannical; and two, because revolution has died in the minds of the Indian people.

Sure thousands gathered at Ramlila Maidan and protested, sang songs of unity and nationalism. But when push comes to shove—which we, in all probability, would not feel—the sarkar is the maibaap for the people. No matter which party is in power, the government will always be the patriarch of the Indian people. We won’t take to anarchy or revolution because (apart from the need for it not arising, in the first place) we are all too preoccupied with our nine-to-five jobs, our bubbled existences, the IPL, whilst partaking in profound criticisms of the government, holding candle-light vigils, staying indoors on election day, to name a few. And the other India—the one which, by government standards, earns less than 32 rupees a day—is too busy trying to make ends meet.

Self-serving and self-defeating at the same time.

A revolution is too time consuming, too unpredictable. We go to election with fixed, dichotomous results in mind: either the UPA or the NDA. Or, a caste or linguistic affinity. Religion, maybe.  And frankly, can there be another option? Unless Team Anna contests the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.

We won’t change the nation because that would mean changing our habits; inviting uncertainty, chaos and a possibility of missing the IPL and our daily dose of Bigg Boss.

This essay, or rambling—whatever you choose to call it—will not change the nation, nor aid the same in any way whatsoever. Because that is not my prerogative; as Oscar Wilde puts it, an artist’s job is to portray the world as he sees it, not to reform it as we know it. I cannot imagine a “changed” India. And I don’t think the 1.2 billion Indians can do so either—not without problems, at least. They may go to Ramlila or Azad maidan and protest for a romanticised vision. And I, on my arm-chair—or desk more so—will continue to be cynical about it. We are a paradoxical nation filled with hypocrites and starved souls. And by god, that’s a very morbid reason for why I love India.

Here’s to democracy, to revolution and to a freedom taken forever for granted. Happy new year and have a fantastic 2012!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Some thoughts on multiculturalism

As a nation, largely and collectively, we take personal pride in calling ourselves a multicultural or a pluralist society. Of course, why shouldn’t we—many rightly point out. We are a very large nation, with the states having their unique, distinct, yet collective heritage. The official state-sponsored secularism makes matters like religious orientation a question of choice and is thus, protected by law against discrimination. True, xenophobia is a reality in today’s society, but often so when it confronts states as politico-economic entities, rather than cultural ones; even the right-wing organisations are not strictly anti-other cultures per se—at least not now; the BJP would require Muslims and Christians be more Hindu, or Raj Thackeray would want migrants to be fluent in Marathi culture (as if that’d stop him and his north Indian bashing agenda). However, apart from such instances of ethnocentric discourses, our notion of multiculturalism, even within such complex structures and realities, is rather dogmatic and one-dimensional.

True, we may profess our multi-ethnic, pluralistic nature by saying that festivals or religious celebrations are more widely celebrated, and all; we may enjoy the cuisine of another state, or perhaps even dress traditionally for any such occasion. But, these attributes are external, as opposed to an internalised one, like say, language. People often remark that Marathi speaking skills are rather efficient, for a Bengali, that is. And I get even stranger looks when I say that I enjoy Tamil music.
“How can you?” they ask, wide-eyed.
“Because I like it, and I enjoy the music,” is my usually awkward reply.
“But you don’t understand the language...”
“Do I need to?”
Well, need I elaborate anymore?

We are programmed—as citizens, or Indians, or plainly as individuals in a multicultural society—to think that each culture, so to say, is endemic. In the real world, this would translate as one of those shows on SAB TV, where you have practically every linguistic state group residing in a cooperative housing society. And quite often, we are fooled to believe that such realities actually exist. If we are indeed so multicultural, why then, for example, are people from the north-eastern states conspicuously absent in Tarak Mehta’s cooperative society? More so, not only are we led to believe that each culture is endemic, but also that in being endemic, they are something external to us. We may enjoy Gujrati theplas being a Maharashtrian, or appams if we’re Bengali. We might even dress, in rare occasions, in the “garb” of another state. But internalised knowledge, say language, or music, is something unknown to our schema of understanding.
Maybe that’s why a certain professor of mine expressed her surprise when she met a student, who happens to be Catholic, and would sing Hindi songs—not the larger ‘Bollywood’, mind you—with ease, as opposed to, perhaps Christmas carols or Billy Joel.

In a broader international context, we may take insult when we are lumped as south Asians; because “we’re Indian, and we are a multicultural society.” But even within the multicultural framework of our own society, we respond only and largely to the state-sponsored idea of pluralism. More pressing issues, such as tribal identities were left unresolved during the period of state formation. And now that we are a properly functioning politico-economic union, with demarcated cultural hubs, and indeed the idea of what exactly may constitute culture, such questions would remain unanswered or unresolved.

A celebration of multiculturalism, thus, seems to require the marginalisation or negation even, of certain cultures. And I shall not expect a relaxation of those curious looks when I profess my likeness for Tamil music.  So much for unity in diversity, I suppose.