It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”
This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?
Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.
Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.
For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.
Walking back from our Kathak morning at Raahgiri, we ran into a really peppy zumba session. Now, salsa beats never fail to do their thing and I found my feet tapping along of their own volition. Aadyaa was absolutely mesmerized by the energy in the air. With an exchange of glances that signified permission, she darted into the crowd and began to follow the instructor on the stage.
She joined a sea of kids, both boys and girls, ranging from age 5 to people in their late teens. Most of these super enthusiastic youngsters were from economically underprivileged households. You could see that from their clothes and many of them had the typical light brown streaks of malnourishment in their hair. But their energy and enthusiasm surpassed anything I had seen before. They watched keenly and absorbed the instructor’s every move, even his expression and the nuances of his dancing. The workout, as I mentioned before, was based on Latino forms of dance, which are not familiar to most Indians. But these kids had it down pat. Many of them, it appeared, had been at Raahgiri before and memorized the basic steps already. One girl (in the pink sweatshirt) and a young man (in a red tee) stood out in their attitude and total involvement. They, and not the ones up on stage, were the talented artists at Raahgiri this morning!
I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!
Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.
The future’s in our hands: Informal referendums as means to channelize public opinion, influence governments- July 23, 2012
Saturday’s editorial in The Hindu by Prashant Bhushan and Atishi Marlena has been playing on my mind. It talks about how citizens in a democracy can participate in the nation’s decision making processes other than by voting once in five years! The authors describe established instruments like the Referendum (in which “citizens, by a direct vote, can decide whether a legislation passed by Parliament should be rejected”) and the Inititative (in which “citizens initiate a new legislation or constitutional amendment, by putting their own proposal on the political agenda that Parliament is ignoring”). The possibility of making ongoing changes is exciting and I can imagine feeling a lot more motivated as a citizen to be politically active if I knew the fruits of my efforts were not in the oh-so distant past!
Last year, we were in Barcelona in June. A referendum (informal and activist-led, not legal) had been recently held (April, 2011) to decide whether Catalonia would be a separate state from Spain. In the provincial capital Barcelona, one in five people voted for a separate state and there was tangible excitement about this. Rahul and me had inadvertently wandered into the heart of the campaign located in a city park late one night. Sloganeering, brainwashing and lively discussions, music and guitar strumming, pitched tents, quite a mela it was! There were barricades and some police presence yes, but it was all in good spirit.
Perhaps we should also hold informal referendums in cities (or in smaller units like wards) to push decisions on governance issues that affect our lives here and now. I can think of a zillion things right away. Making rainwater harvesting compulsory for all new constructions and offering hefty discounts on property tax if old constructions implemented it would be a good place to begin. Aamir Khan’s piece today in the HT talks about this forcefully (whoever did this one for him was good). If citizens are to be motivated to think about their own good instead of waiting for the government to come around to doing things that are so essential it’s scary, planning a series of referendums could be a good idea.
Of course, as Bhushan’s piece highlights, you need the technology to be in place. Social media cannot really be considered an inclusive medium for a referendum. We need to expand the reach to get a cross section of citizens involved. Second, are citizens in the position to take an informed decision? Who informs them? How do we ensure this information is unbiased? What sort of weight will informal referendums carry?
Lots of questions, fewer answers. But a glimmer of light, nevertheless!