Democracy…and dissent

When I was in class 10, we had this CBSE textbook called Democratic Politics. It was written in such a way, with cartoons and easy exercises, that you didn’t really need a teacher to study it. For a long time, that was the best example I could give of the kind of education system I wanted to be a part of, the kind of textbooks I hoped to someday contribute to.

The book basically explained the principles behind democracy and democratic struggles around the world, trying to show that however messy this system of governance might be, it was still the best option for humanity. It instilled hope that a democracy could help ensure the cherished ideals of equality and justice.

We threw the book away after my exams. I would be lying if I said I am left with anything more than vague recollections of the content. But I was enamored with democracy. The 14-year old me did not know anything at all about politics or governance; but there was something irresistible about this idea of citizens having a say in how they were governed, of people striving together for a better world.

In university, we have this course called Understanding India. It is compulsory for all students to take irrespective of their majors. We look at this country through four focal points: Space (the power structures surrounding the idea of a particular space and who occupies it), Time (calendars, deep time, a bit of ancient history), Flows (migration of people and goods into and out of India) and Ideas (what influential thinkers wanted this country to be).

At the end, the course reinforced and provided new reasons for why there cannot be one definition of what this country is. But what made a deep impact was the unit on Ideas: sure, we discussed Nehru, but we also read Savarkar. At multiple points in class, I would keep reminding myself of how important it was that we were doing this; how crucial it was to look back at what hopes and fears different thinkers held for this nation.

It felt so necessary to read Savarkar because of the dangerous path the country was taking (not that they are following Savarkar’s ideas of Hindu nationalism to the T, but still). I believed that it was essential to really know what one was advocating against; though it was clear to us that the Essentials of Hindutva was a piece of propaganda that made no sense at all, trying as it was to harness the idea of some nation-wide ‘Hindu’ unity, it was also not difficult to see why and who it might have appealed to.

Therefore, knowledge is the way to fight fascism. But I’m plagued with other questions: is just reading about something enough? Is it acceptable to just write about these things and not actually ‘do’ anything?

I must have been 16 when I first got to know, through an internship I was doing, that the Government releases drafts of policies that are open to stakeholder suggestions for a specific period of time. I was mind-blown.

This seemed to me the ultimate expression of democracy. I was excited; whatever little opportunity I had to be a part of this decision-making process empowered me. In those early days, I felt proud of doing something that I thought made me a responsible citizen; and as an idealist, it was easy to feel as if my one suggestion was going to change the world.

Of course, as time went on and with more exposure, I became more grounded, realizing that policies take a painfully long time to get implemented, and that sometimes, you are never really sure if suggestions are taken seriously enough. But I would like to think that I have still maintained some of that idealism, that belief in the effectiveness of democratic processes to lead to change.

Disability rights is an exciting field to work in. Why? Because the ideas that inform the movement are simple but powerful. Take the beauty of inclusion for example: you create environments that allow every individual to thrive irrespective of impairment or ability, recognizing the fundamental diversity of human beings. You pledge to remove any barriers that restrict persons with disabilities from having equal rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Inclusion is crucial to create a better world for everyone. And you know what? It is not only about disability; it is rather about all the diverse identities you can think of, like religion and ethnicity. I think it is an incredibly important ideal to fight for- because implicit in the idea of inclusion is the fact that no matter who or what you are, you are entitled to certain basic rights, freedom and protection.

The ideals of inclusion and ‘leaving no one behind’ form the cornerstone of Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It is a very hopeful and inspiring document, a testament to what may be possible through democratic cooperation of nations and stakeholders. Sure, it is hard to believe that all of this will be achieved when you look at the Voluntary National Review India did in 2017 and see a picture of Modi meditating under ‘Alternative forms of medicine’, but at least the document envisions a world worth fighting for.

Why am I writing this? I really don’t know.

I have been following the student protests against the CAA and chilling accounts of police brutality the whole day from the safety of home. I’ve always wondered why only some people have the courage to go out on the streets and protest draconian acts; are different ‘levels’ of outrage possible? Or are the rest of us, including me, too scared to stand up when it matters more than ever? These are uncomfortable questions, but they deserve to be asked.

Words have always offered me a way out. And the only thing I could think of doing was writing about this. After all, I’m not a social media influencer with tons of followers who can find some solace even just by retweeting a protest video. Nor am I a reporter for some TV channel who can go and interview these students. And regrettably, I’m just not ready to go to a protest alone, by myself. So I write.

I wanted to tell a story. A story of an idealistic teenager who found democracy empowering. Her country’s textbooks told her that though India had a long way to go to ensure full and effective democracy, it was the most just form of governance and those democratic principles can never afford to be compromised; they told her of the 1952 elections, how we bounced back from the 1975 Emergency and made her believe that despite the innumerable flaws, India was fundamentally democratic. And then the government betrayed this belief inch by inch.

Or maybe it was her fault all along. Maybe she was too naive and paid too little attention to the existing hierarchies within society which would have shown her clearly that India was never wholly democratic. Possibly, she was too idealistic; she has been accused of this earlier. Whatever it is, she knows one thing. That the nation, or whatever is left of it, embarked on a point of no return when it decided to crackdown on peaceful protests against an unconstitutional act, when it showed absolutely no regard for a basic feature of a democracy- the right to associate and raise questions.

She doesn’t have any illusions that her writing is going to change anything. It is rather an outlet for all her anger, desperation and disappointment. She cannot do anything else right now.

In the Cellist of Sarajevo, it is at first difficult to comprehend the reason for the cellist playing music for each of the twenty two people who died due to shelling when waiting in a bread line. What does he hope to achieve? He is not going to bring the dead back, or even stop the war. But possibly this is his way of acknowledging the horrors of war. It probably gave him a sense of agency, of being able to do something, amidst the feeling of powerlessness.

She also does not want to keep quiet. She cares about this deeply, and though it will not change anything, it is her own small way of expressing dissent. By lamenting the loss of a democracy she cherished, first by discriminatory laws, and then, by employing violence on those brave enough to protest against this government. The normalcy that violence has gained in the public sphere today extremely worries her.

She has always wondered if she wrote for herself, or with her low self-esteem, she merely wrote for the validation she gets from people who appreciate what she writes. This has given her sleepless nights. She had to write this post to tackle the uselessness she felt in the face of what is going on; it is for the reader to decide whether even this classifies as a need for validation of resistance.






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