We should be there: The Left and the Anna moment

The left-leaning intelligentsia describe the Hazare movement variously as elitist, fascist, naive and undemocratic. Nivedita Menon takes them to task for their demands for 'purity' and absolute incomprehension of and contempt for ’the people’ when actually confronted by them.

hidden August 20, 2011 18:38:42 IST
We should be there: The Left and the Anna moment

By Nivedita Menon

My head has been in a whirl the past few days with a single question – how do we on 'the Left' manage so unerringly to be exactly where 'the people' are not, time after time?

At this moment I don't mean the organised Left, for the Left parties have been cautious about criticising the current upsurge; they strongly defended the right to democratic protest when Anna Hazare and his colleagues were arrested, and now have launched a Third Front initiative on the issue of corruption and the Lokpal Bill; the students' front of CPI (ML), AISA, has been organising militantly on the issue for a very long time now, and is very much part of the campaign.

We should be there The Left and the Anna moment

This is is a carnivalesque celebration of the pure ideals of democracy. PTI

I mean the few hundreds who form my own community, the people with whom I have organised protests and run campaigns and sat on dharna and drafted petitions; struggled against communal violence and sexual harassment, for queer freedom and workers' rights, against the nuclear bomb and nuclear energy, in support of reservations and against the moves in our universities to hold up appointments to reserved posts. Many of these people I know personally, some are among my closest friends, and many more I know as part of the broad Left/secular non-party tendency in the country’s politics, where I feel most at home.

Increasingly though, in the course of the current mass upsurge that has coalesced around the figure of Anna Hazare, I have been feeling more and more alienated in my community, by its strident demands for absolute purity of the radical position; its aggressive self-marginalization and self-exile to a high ground where credentials are closely scrutinised; its absolute incomprehension of and contempt for 'the people' when actually confronted by them.

What I see is a carnivalesque celebration of the pure ideals of democracy – of the idea that 'we the people' are sovereign, that politicians are the servants of the people, that laws must originate in the needs and demands of the people.

(A young woman travelled alone from Nasik, courted arrest, and was held with thousands of strangers in Chhatrasal Stadium. "What a safe place Delhi is", she told a reporter. "People are so nice and helpful". Saddi Dilli, safe and full of nice people. Yeh carnival nahin hai toh kya hai?)

What my community sees though, is a mindless mob of communal and casteist middle classes. The compendium term of multi-purpose abuse – "fascist" – flies around fairly liberally.

It's as stark as that, the gulf in perception.

So what was it they saw in Tahrir Square? That glorious and moving groundswell of protest that we all celebrated – did we think of the composition of those crowds? That there were Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood), and people and groups who stand for full-scale capitalism, men who beat their wives and racists and reactionaries of every description?

Too, that is. Apart from secularists and feminists and workers and trade unions and all the good guys.

Any mass movement brings together disparate and sometimes starkly contradictory tendencies. Don't we know that from the Indian struggle for independence? Was the Indian bourgeoisie absent from it? Or the religious right of all sorts? Or casteist and Brahminical forces? (Of course the Left even during the independence struggle was painfully tortured by such questions, and often did exile itself to its high ground, missing the moment completely. This time round, that historical memory seems to have stood them well, as Aditya Nigam remarked).

If absolute purity and a point-to-point matching of our full political agenda is required for us to support a movement, then feminists would be permanently stuck restively in the waiting room of history, for I can assure you that every mass demonstration you see anywhere ever, is packed with patriarchal men and patriarchalised women! Nor does any movement except the women’s movement ever raise patriarchy as an issue. But what is it that we take into account when we do support a movement? One – does the movement express a goal or demand that we support? Two – Does the movement as such explicitly take positions that are anti-women or anti-anything-we-stand-for? (Clue: the answers should be yes and no respectively).

The huge movement in Goa that succeeded in scrapping the SEZ Bill was composed of precisely such a broad formation – from the Church to the Hindu Right, to all of the others of my community as described above. They came together, they went their separate ways once their campaign succeeded. Nandigram saw a similar formation. Many non-party non-funded citizens' forums have too. The Narmada Bachao Andolan is another broad alliance coalescing on a single issue.

Our problem is that our search for purity is all too often an expression of deep insecurity. A friend said to me recently, "But don't you see, the RSS can piggyback on Anna Hazare’s movement?" So why aren't we piggybacking on it? What's stopping us? The Hindu Right enters the movement against the Tehri dam, and promptly the Left forces move away, fearing pollution, leaving them a clear field. Another friend calls this the saffronising of the green – could it not, if 'we' continued to be present there, become the greening of saffron?

Initially, in the first phase of the campaign, Muslims in general are believed to have stayed away, but not for the reasons adduced by my community. That is, not because the movement itself seemed communal, but because of the fear of the secular UPA being overthrown by a communal government.

This time the Hazare team had attempted to reach out to Muslim representatives before he embarked on his fast. And when Hazare was picked up by police, the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind of Delhi did issue a statement condemning his arrest and advising the government to elicit his group's opinion while framing the Lokpal bill.

But the overwhelming fear of Muslims appears to be the BJP coming back to power if the UPA is voted out. We don't want the BJP to come to power either. So either the UPA must be made more susceptible to democratic pressure, or the Third Front should become a viable option. Or both. But don't use the relatively lower presence of Muslims in the movement as another convenient stick to beat the Anna-wave with. (Sticks don't work well against waves!)

I find the term 'middle-class' being used as a term of abuse not just by my folk (largely middle-class themselves), but suddenly by a journalist who is generally an unabashed votary of neo-liberal economic policy, with a memorable paean to KFC in his resume. And suddenly too, I find that the quest for purity notwithstanding, my friends (opposed to both of the above!) are eagerly posting his piece all over the place. Mihir Sharma's tirade against the middle classes that begins with a "we" and moves rapidly into "they" was published in the relentlessly anti-Hazare Indian Express (the Times of India for some time now has presented a more variegated profile of opinions on most issues, for whatever market-driven reason, but it’s fine by me). He collapses all support to Hazare as emanating from the elite middle classes of the gated colonies with an exaggerated sense of their own entitlements. But what I see both on TV and around me in Delhi, is the outnumbering of those middle-classes by a sort of aspirational lower-middle-class-to-working class population, some of whom may sometimes go to KFC as a treat, but certainly not those with whom we would have a drink or engage with socially. Is that the problem for Mihir then?

His piece widely circulating in our circles, is an attack on the entitled middle class expectation that all rules can be bent for us, we will protest where we want and when we want. But any protest has to follow rules, he urges, and all protests are shut down by the police after all. Why should this elite lot expect rules to be bent for them?

I really don't get this. All protests are treated undemocratically, so we should just get used to it? Inch by inch, space for protest has been steadily eroded in the capital of this world's whateverest democracy, and we have retreated and retreated, our backs almost literally to the wall now. Along comes a crashing tide of humanity so huge, so peaceful and non-violent, that it simply takes back the city. Shouldn't we be celebrating?

We should be there The Left and the Anna moment

Medha Patkar said to the crowds thronging Tihar police cannot treat them like Maoists. PTI

Medha Patkar said to the crowds thronging Tihar – "Hum koi maovaadi nahin hain ki sashastra bal bhej ke hum se jaldi nipta jaaye" (We are no maoists who can be easily dealt with by sending in armed forces). What an amazing tribute to the power of massive and sustained civil disobedience from someone who has pledged her life to transformation through these means.

Prakash Karat (not someone I normally quote approvingly), noted in Jansatta today, that the initial action taken against Hazare and the movement is reflective of the overall attack on democratic freedoms. So overpowering is this attack that any proposal to protest must now meet 21 conditions laid down by the police.

Should our reaction be "We had to meet those 21 conditions, why shouldn’t you?" or should it be "Your refusal to meet any pre-condition limiting a peaceful protest has opened up possibilities for us?" (Clue: the answer is the latter. Also Karat's answer, by the way).

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There are casteist and communal elements out there in Ramlila Maidan today, and patriarchal and sexist elements; some sections of India Inc seem to support it, others, not so much (Nilekani had some sage words of caution against expecting a law to solve an issue as large as corruption. No, that's right, the UID will do that). The Indian flag is everywhere, that symbol of repression in so many parts of the country reeling under the jackboot of the Indian state.

But there are also workers (auto drivers, dabbawalas, railway workers of MP) – all BJP walas, said another friend dismissively. How do you know, how the hell do you know? As it happens, the railway workers were members of an AITUC union. The only time BJP tried to join in a demonstration with its party flag, in Mumbai, it was driven away. And even if BJP-aligned workers are there, what do you want? Not just 'workers' but only left-aligned workers? And whose fault is it if there are none there? I don't even think that's the case though. Chandrabhan Prasad derisively said on a TV panel – where are the Dalits in that movement? And one girl in the studio audience stood up and said, 'I'm Dalit, and there are many of us out there. How do you know there aren't?’ And if YFE is out there, so is AISA, which stands uncompromisingly for reservations. If Vande Mataram is a popular slogan, so is Inquilab Zindabad.

Can we really be so blind to the nature of what's happening?

We should be there The Left and the Anna moment

here are casteist and communal elements out there in Ramlila Maidan. PTI

The point is to ask those two questions: Does the movement express a goal that we agree with? Yes, I think it does. I mean here the larger goal of making governments accountable to the people. And two: is there any expression in the movement of all those things that we oppose? No, there isn't. I find the movement remarkable for its self-reflexivity and constant response to criticism. The first time round, there was that Hinduised picture of Bharat Mata, this time the backdrop is Gandhi; the highly criticised provision for Magsasay awardees and such eminences to oversee the Janlokpal has been dropped; Baba Ramdev marginalized, and I see no necessary reason why this kind of constant self-correction should not keep happening.

In my opinion, ’corruption’ has the emotive charge of 'salt' of the Dandi March. It touches every single person, and it highlights the oppressiveness of the state. A political analyst who has recently come round to taking the movement seriously, Yogendra Yadav, explained on TV that this movement is not about Anna, it is not about the Lokpal Bill, it is not even about corruption, it is about 'the people finding themselves'. ("Very well put, as always", fawned Rajeep Sardesai). I find this condescending in the extreme. The people think they are on the roads about corruption but really they are…

On the contrary. This movement is centrally about corruption, and corruption touches every single life in India. It touches the labourers whose muster rolls are faked, it touches the agricultural worker whose NREGA payment is swallowed up, it touches every poor undertrial and prisoner in jail on trumped up charges (was it surprising then, that the undertrials in Tihar fasted in solidarity with Anna?), it touches the farmer whose land is seized to be passed on to corporates, an issue mentioned by Anna Hazare in his speech at Ramlila Maidan (kisanon ki zameen zabardasti chheeni ja rahi hai). Holding government and the bureaucracy accountable for corruption will check corporate corruption, because guess whom the corporations have to bribe to circumvent every law and every rule?

And you tell me there is "no mention of poverty" in this movement? (You know who you are!)

Corruption is tied fundamentally to the RTI Act that effectively exposes it, so effectively that 8 RTI activists have been killed in the past seven months. Shehla Masud, the latest in this roll of honour, was on her way to a demonstration in solidarity with Anna Hazare when she was shot dead in her car by an assailant who escaped. Shehla was relentless in using the RTI to expose illegal mining in Chhatarpur district of MP by Rio Tinto, a UK-based multinational corporation. "Illegal" mining precisely means corruption – government officials were being bribed by Rio Tinto to look the other way or to facilitate an activity that was destroying the environment and habitat of the region.

Shehla Masud was an RTI activist who saw herself as part of India Against Corruption. The two are intimately inter-related.

As for the "blackmail" of insisting on being involved in drafting legislation – all of us know very well that small lobbies and groups from within my community have long influenced, or tried to influence, the drafting of law – laws on sexual violence and rape, against communal violence, on women’s reservations. And that is as it should be.

Law-making needs to be demystified – "it's a very complex process", they keep saying. So it is. We get that. We get a lot of stuff that’s complex – we have a right to the information that will enable us to arrive at a conclusion. That’s what the people on the roads are saying.

Before Fali Nariman said it, I heard a young law student stumblingly explain before a TV camera in English, which was clearly not his first language: "They say the Parliament is sovereign. No. They should read the Constitution. The people are sovereign."

We should be there The Left and the Anna moment

Shehla Masud was an RTI activist who saw herself as part of India Against Corruption. Screengrab/ibnlive

And I love the way people say to the camera – Main Kapil Sibal se kehna chahta hoon, main Manmohanji ko batana chahti hoon – directly, they address these guys, the politicians, as if they have a right to. This is neither anti political nor anti political classes – it is the exact opposite. It is the insistence precisely that we the people are political, we demand accountability from those whom we send to Parliament.

Look, I'm no fan of the way visual media have appointed themselves as leaders of this campaign, abandoning all pretence of objectivity. It makes me sick, to be honest. But the media has its ways and its priorities. It supports queer pride and attacks communal violence; it campaigns for the women's reservations Bill; TRP's lead it by the nose, toh main kya karoon. I'm not going to set my own political priorities and agenda in opposition to, or in line with what a semi-literate TV anchor has to say. Why the hell are you?

The Lokpal Bill of the government was the most insulting piece of rubbish a government could place before the people. It has been 40 years in the making, and 6 times it has been tabled without being passed. If Anna Hazare now declares that he will not lift his fast until the Janlokpal Bill is passed in this session, he has been given good reason for it.

Discussions and informed debate on the Janlokpal Bill and NCPRI and Aruna Roy’s alternative are being conducted in many places including kafila (here, here, and here), but something else struck me. When Valentine’s Day burst into the Indian scene in the 1990s, many of us were derisive and critical of the conventional notions of romance embodied in it, of the commodification of love, and so on. But when the Hindu right began its often physically violent attacks on Valentine’s Day, we started realising there was something subversive about it. What did the Hindu right fear from the possibility of unregulated "love"? We reclaimed Valentine’s day then, in all sorts of different ways.

What does the government, what does the Indian state, fear from a Lokpal Bill?

This is a moment pregnant with possibilities. Just as the attainment of national independence marked the beginning of new lines of conflict and the resurfacing of old ones, the success in any form of this campaign will only inaugurate more differences. Just as the coming into being of "India" opened up possibilities and dangers, so will this. This is true of any project of transformation.

And just as "they" have set aside their casteism and communalism within the space of the movement, "we" will have to set aside our radical critiques of what 'they' stand for. We cant go in there in confrontational mode, but in solidarity with a minimum common agenda. For there are many thousands in there who are not communal, not casteist, not elitist, and we cant afford to lose them

The movement doesn't really need us, let's be clear. But do we need it?

Shouldn't we be there?

This article has been republished from Kafila.org

Nivedita Menon, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi is the author of an edited volume Gender and Politics in India (1999) and Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law(2004). Her translation of Geetanjali Shree's Hindi novel Khali Jagah is forthcoming from Harper Collins. She has been active with non-funded, non-party citizens’ forums in Delhi on issues of secularism, workers’ and women’s rights, sexuality, and in opposition to the nuclear bomb.

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