Overheard during an auto ride back home from work today – this was my co-rider, a young woman, speaking excitedly with her friend on the phone (approximate translation from Bengali): “What happened to people in your Kanchrapara! Everybody has gone over to BJP? Only yesterday they were all flocking over to Trinamool. I guess this is the rule now – there are no principles left, everyone’s just out to make the most of what they can. What can we do, but we’ll see what gains we get from the new government . . .”
Why did this conversation seem refreshing in an odd way? One reason I think was the candour of the speaker – she was chuckling as she spoke, unapologetic about her views, loud and clear. The other was that she sounded street smart, knew which way the cookie crumbles, and yet she wasn’t cynical. Above all, she seemed discerning enough to talk about principles, and was essentially putting the new government on notice already about performance. I was eager to hear more, but was quite bummed when she switched over to the oppressive heat and missing rains.
To all those who are feeling pained, at a loss or gobsmacked at the increased rightward swing in the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, I’d like to say – switch out of it and do what my co-rider was talking about – put the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government immediately on notice! This is the very least we must and can do as voters and citizens, irrespective of the political colour of the regime in power. But then the million dollar question today is how to do so.
Most governments sometime or the other tend to put on the ‘big brother’ hat. When they have a renewed majoritarian mandate like the current one has, the big brotherliness may easily be compounded manifold. Do such governments at all care about civil society criticism, dissent and protest? If yes, how do they respond and at what stage do they do so?
Do the commonly deployed forms of protest – marches, dharnas, critical writings and social media posts – have any impact at all? What does the track record of the previous government at the Centre show? It too was an NDA one with rather strong numbers, at least in the Lok Sabha.
I don’t have very many answers, but thinking aloud, I have a couple of suggestions for civil society stakeholders (counting myself in). Let’s leave the efficacy and integrity of the media, electronic voting machines, Election Commission of India, and Opposition parties aside. Beyond these, do we at all come across as ‘real’ to the people (read voters) around us? Or are we seen as hypocritical, not walking the talk, often benefitting shamelessly from the same social orders that we claim to be reforming? Is that why burning issues lose out to miraculous promises made by political messiahs when votes have to be cast?
Second, how useful is it to keep protesting issues like casteism, communalism, Fascism, chrony capitalism and job losses in ways that have clearly not yielded results? Shouldn’t there be a change in strategy or tack? Who should we protest against so that in the end it’s the governments concerned that are forced to be accountable towards ensuring peace, security and justice for the citizens?
Some more questions. For instance, when we protest the role played by ruling dispensations at the Centre in political murders, do we also protest similar crimes committed by other political parties that may be in power in the states? Even if we do, are we clearly seen to be doing so? If not, is it any surprise that we’re often accused of selective outrage? Somewhere this must lead to a loss of trust in the public about our sense of fairness, while also making the political parties immune to our protests.
I also wonder if some of our feisty slogans in protest and celebratory marches make sense to the bystanders. Have we bothered to find out if the purpose of these slogans is being served? Still just thinking aloud.
I’d have things to say to also those who are feeling quietly vindicated or garrulously happy at the turn of events in the Lok Sabha polls. But perhaps not right away! Anyway, how does one talk to a massive wall of people all bent upon looking away, mesmerised with the bright lights in the sky? Maybe they can see something striking that I can’t.
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At a deeply personal (and political) level, I accept that it’s my lot to spend a lot of time in the intersections of light and darkness. When I first started writing a journal on queer rights in the early 1990s, it was in the dead of the night, under the light of a small table lamp. When I light lamps during Diwali in my home, I’m the happiest placing them in dark nooks and corners that are away from the glare. The faith gained in oneself from being able to survive in the twilight zone can be unfathomable.
To end on a further positive note, two interesting developments – one making big news in the popular media, another tucked away on a social media post, but no less significant.
It has been so heartening to see Dutee Chand, India’s fastest athlete in the women’s 100 metres, come out about her sexuality and her relationship with her childhood friend in the face of blackmail by a family member (see here and here). Much has also been written about her gritty battle against the hyperandrogenism rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations. But as a queer activist what stands out for me in her coming out is the memory of Mamata and Monalisa from the year 1998.
This couple was from the same state as the athlete – Odisha. When their relationship became known to their families, attempts were made to forcibly separate them. Things ended on a tragic note when the couple tried to commit suicide – Monalisa passed away, while Mamata survived but was accused of causing Monalisa’s death and was confined at home by her family.
In Dutee Chand’s courageous move which has been garnering more and more social support, I see at least one step forward in creating a social environment where the injustice meted out to Mamata and Monalisa is never repeated. And this brings me to the second development – an inspiring music project put together by a young people’s choir supported by Kolkata-based Thoughtshop Foundation. It so aptly talks about a world where the mind is without fear. Enough of the printed word – do listen to the audio here!
Main photo credit: Pawan Dhall