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Messianism versus democracy

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ANNA HAZARE SUPPORTERS AT RAMLILA MAIDAN

PRABHAT PATNAIK in THE HINDU

The substitution of one man for the people, and the reduction of the people’s role merely to being supporters and cheerleaders for one man’s actions, is antithetical to democracy.

The Central government’s flip-flops on Anna Hazare are obvious: it went from abusing him (through the Congress spokesperson) for sheltering corruption, to extolling him for his idealism; from arresting him, without any justification, and getting him remanded to judicial custody for a week, to releasing him within a few hours. But the Anna group’s flip-flops are no less striking: it moves from “we-have-a-democratic-right-to-protest-and-place-our-views-in-public,” which is an unexceptionable proposition, to “Anna-will-keep-fasting-until-his-bill-is-adopted-or-amended-with-his-permission,” which amounts to holding a gun to the head of the Centre, and by implication of Parliament, and dictating that the bill it has produced must be passed, or else mayhem will follow. The government’s flip-flops are indicative of incompetence; the Anna group’s flip-flops arise because of the compulsions of a particular style of politics on which it is embarked, which can be called “messianism” and which is fundamentally anti-democratic. The fact that it is striking a chord among the people, if at all it is (one cannot entirely trust the media on this), should be a source of serious concern, for it underscores the pre-modernity of our society and the shallowness of the roots of our democracy.

Democracy essentially means a subject role for the people in shaping the affairs of society. They not only elect representatives periodically to the legislature, but intervene actively through protests, strikes, meetings, and demonstrations to convey their mood to the elected representatives. There being no single mood, freedom of expression ensures that different moods have a chance to be expressed, provided the manner of doing so takes the debate forward instead of foreclosing it. For all this to happen, people have to be properly informed. The role of public meetings where leaders explain issues, and of media reports, articles, and discussions, is to ensure that they are. The whole exercise is meant to promote the subject role of the people, and the leaders are facilitators. Even charismatic leaders do not substitute themselves for the people; they are charismatic because the people, in acquiring information to play their subject role, trust what they say.

Messianism substitutes the collective subject, the people, by an individual subject, the messiah. The people may participate in large numbers, and with great enthusiasm and support, in the activities undertaken by the messiah, as they are doing reportedly at Anna Hazare’s fast at the Ramlila grounds, but they do so as spectators. The action is of the messiah; the people are only enthusiastic and partisan supporters and cheerleaders. If at all they ever undertake any action on the side, this is entirely at the messiah’s bidding, its ethics, rationale and legitimacy never explained to them (no need is felt for doing so); whenever they march they march only in support of the messiah, not for specific demands that they have internalised and feel passionately about. When they gather at the Ramlila grounds, for instance, the occasion is not used to enlighten them, to bring home to them the nuances of the differences between the government’s Lokpal Bill and the Jan Lokpal Bill, so that they could act with discrimination and understanding. On the contrary, the idea is to whip up enthusiasm among them without enlightening them, through the use of meaningless hyperbole like “the government’s bill is meant not for theprevention but for the promotion of corruption”, and “Anna is India and India is Anna”. If the venue was one where discussions, debates, and informative speeches were taking place, the matter would be different, but those alas have no place in the political activity around messianism.

Informative speeches have been the traditional staple of political activity in India. Maulana Bhashani, a popular peasant leader in what is now Bangladesh, used to give marathon speeches that were interrupted when people went home for lunch or dinner, or even for a night’s rest, and resumed when they re-assembled afterwards; and the speeches contained much information about everything, not just politics but even crop-sowing practices and the best means of irrigation. A speech was virtually a set of classes; it had an educative role. I myself have heard election speeches in West Bengal by the inimitable Jyoti Basu, and also others. The speeches were based on solid homework, and conveyed information and argument to the audience. They also sought to rebut what was being said by the opponents, and hence carried forward a debate in public. Political activity of this kind assumed a subject role of the people and prepared them for it; it was quintessentially democratic. Messianic political activity does no such thing; it quintessentially creates a spectacle, not just for the audience but above all for the TV cameras upon whose presence it is crucially dependent.

I am not concerned here with whether the Jan Lokpal Bill is the best piece of legislation on the subject; nor am I concerned with the possible RSS links of the Anna campaign. These issues, though important, are not germane to my argument. My concern is with the “dumbing down” of the people that messianic political activity entails: “leave things to Anna but do come to cheer him.” Just as in a potboiler Hindi film the hero single-handedly does all the fighting required to rid the locale of villainous elements, messianic activity leaves all the fighting, that is, the subject role, to the messiah. The people stand around with sympathy, and cheer. When the Anna group announces that he will take up issues like land reforms, corporate land grab, and commercialisation of education, once his fight against corruption is over, one almost feels that Shekhar Kapoor‘s “Mr. India” has finally arrived on the scene! The problem, however, is that “Mr. India” is a negation of democracy; and relying upon “Mr. India”, like relying upon the arrival of an incarnation of Vishnu to cleanse the world of evil, is a throwback to our pre-modernity. It is not just an admission of a state of powerlessness of the people that may prevail at the moment; it reinforces that powerlessness.

Messianism is fundamentally anti-democratic because it is complicit in this objectification of the people, this self-fulfilling portrayal of them as dumb objects that need a messiah. When the Anna group uses the term “people” as a substitute for itself (referring to its own bill as “the people’s bill,” its own views as the “people’s views”), it is implicitly carrying out a conceptual coup d’etat, namely, that messianism is democracy! But quite apart from the fact that the messiah is not elected by the people, a point made by many, there is the basic point that nobody, whether elected or not, can substitute for the people in a democracy.

This presumption, however, explains the flip-flops made by the Anna group. If Anna is the people, then democracy, where the people are supreme, demands that his version of the bill must be accepted over any other version, including what the parliamentary Standing Committee may come to formulate. The people’s supremacy over Parliament entails ipso facto Anna’s supremacy over Parliament. Messianism necessarily implies an “Anna’s-bill-has-got-to-be-adopted” position. Members of Anna’s group, many of whom have been associated for long with people’s causes, may have occasional discomfort with this messianic position, and may retreat to a “we-are-only-exercising-our-democratic-rights” stance; but since they do not repudiate the messianic position, they perforce come back to the “Anna-is-the-people-and-hence-supreme” stance. To accept that Anna’s version of the bill is only one of many possible versions, which the final bill could draw upon, amounts to seeing Anna as one among equals, and not as the messiah, that is, to an abandonment of messianism; the Anna group is loath to do this. “Negotiations” with the government therefore come to mean negotiations to make it accept Anna’s version; “compromise” comes to mean a compromise that makes Anna’s version final.

It may be asked: if the people prefer “messianism” to “democracy,” then what is wrong with it? Those thronging the Ramlila grounds or marching in support of Anna in the metros are not necessarily “the people” of the country, and it is dangerous to take the two as identical. Besides, even if a majority of the people genuinely wish at a particular time to elevate a messiah over Parliament, this is no reason to alter the constitutional order, just as a majority wishing to abandon secularism at a particular time is no reason to do so. The Constitution is the social contract upon which the Indian state is founded, and it cannot be overturned by the wishes of a majority at a particular time. If perchance the government accepts messianism out of expediency, it would be violating the spirit of the Constitution and undermining democracy. Besides, any such licence will make multiple (quasi-religious) messiahs sprout, who would compete and collude, as oligopolists do in the markets for goods, to keep people in thralldom.

(Prabhat Patnaik recently retired from the Sukhamoy Chakravarty Chair at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article2389694.ece

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Unlikely Echo of Gandhi Inspires Indians to Act

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SOCIAL ACTIVIST ANNA HAZARE

In a “new” India often obsessed with wealth and status, where cricket batsmen and Bollywood movie stars are wildly idolized, Anna Hazare is a figure from an earlier, seemingly discarded era. His pointed white cap and simple white cotton clothes evoke a Gandhian simplicity.                                                                                   His rural, homespun demeanor ordinarily might elicit snickers from India’s urban elite.

Supporters of Anna Hazare at a rally in New Dehli on Thursday. Mr. Hazare is expected to lead a hunger strike and mass protest.

Yet Mr. Hazare, 74, has emerged as the unlikely face of an impassioned people’s movement in India, a public outpouring that has coalesced around fighting corruption but has also tapped into deeper anxieties in a society buffeted by change.

His arrest on Tuesday, made while he was en route to a park in New Delhi where he intended to commence ahunger strike as part of his anticorruption campaign, drove thousands of people onto city streets across India. Under public pressure, government officials tried to release him within hours, but Mr. Hazare refused to leave jail unless the government released him unconditionally. On Thursday, the two sides reached a compromise, and Mr. Hazare is expected to leave jail on Friday to lead a hunger strike and mass protest in central New Delhi to push his demand that the government create a powerful, independent anticorruption agency.

The popular outpouring he has set off has inevitably drawn comparisons with the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring. Most analysts agree, though, that India’s moment is a different one. But in its own way it may prove to be no less important.

India already has the democratic freedoms sought by protesters in the Middle East and North Africa and has enjoyed rising global influence after two decades of fast economic growth. Yet India is also experiencing what one observer has called a “churning” period, as public frustrations are boiling over about poor roads, shoddy schools, inflation, rising inequality and the pervasive reach of official corruption.

Running through each of these issues is a deepening public disillusionment with India’s political process and a growing disconnectedness between the governing class and the governed, making the corruption issue especially explosive. As the crowds supporting Mr. Hazare grew larger and more passionate this week, person after person seemed to arrive on the New Delhi streets carrying their own tale of official graft.

“It is the middle class who is worst affected by corruption,” said Asha Bhardaaj, a woman who traveled more than 30 miles from the suburbs to join a rally. “The upper class is not affected. The upper classes can get what they need by paying money.”

Mr. Hazare’s appeal seems partly rooted in the traditional values he embodies. He is a longtime social activist who has campaigned against corruption for nearly two decades in the state of Maharashtra, living off a military pension and financing charitable work through donations. If his clothes evoke Mahatma Gandhi, India’s founding father, then so do his protest tactics of nonviolent hunger strikes and peaceful marches.

Yet Mr. Hazare and his advisers have also proved adept at the necessities of modern politics: they have adroitly outmaneuvered the police and government officials who sought to defuse the anticorruption movement, after the decision to arrest him backfired dramatically. They also have exploited the nonstop, often sensationalistic coverage on India’s television news outlets to build public support for their cause. Mr. Hazare’s face is now visible in almost every corner of India.

Mr. Hazare and his advisers — a group of prominent lawyers and social activists nicknamed Team Anna — have spent months campaigning across the country. His aides distribute a flurry of daily e-mail updates to journalists, and his close advisers have used social media to connect with young followers. Early Thursday, one adviser, Kiran Bedi, used Twitter to announce a breakthrough in negotiations with the authorities.

Later on Thursday, Ms. Bedi released a video of Mr. Hazare made inside Tihar Jail, where he is being held. “I got my energy after seeing the young protesters,” he said. “Today is only the third day of protest. I can continue like this for another 10 or 12 days more.”

The governing Indian National Congress Party, by contrast, has seemed rattled, unprepared for the public anger against the government and incapable of delivering a consistent counterargument. One party spokesman personally attacked Mr. Hazare, describing him as a corrupted figure, while another spokesman blamed the United States for supporting the anticorruption movement.

“This is a moral moment,” said Jayaprakash Narayan, a social activist in the city of Hyderabad. “Everybody is sick and tired of corruption. And in dealing with this, the government has shown no political sense at all. There is a lot of anger in the country, not only to end corruption but to end politics as it is conducted today.”

Mr. Hazare was born Kisan Baburao Hazare in 1937 in rural Maharashtra. He still speaks Marathi as his primary language and eventually assumed the name Anna. Beyond his admiration of Gandhi, Mr. Hazare drew inspiration from Swami Vivekananda, a prominent reformer during the 19th century. Having stumbled across the teachings of Vivekananda while serving in the Indian Army, Mr. Hazare decided to dedicate his life to public service after narrowly escaping death while posted on the Pakistan border, according to his official biography.

He served 15 years in the military, qualifying for a pension, and retired to Maharashtra to take up social work. He was awarded two of India’s highest civilian awards for his work, which includes drought-relief efforts and working to create a sustainable Gandhian “model village.”

By the 1990s, Mr. Hazare had begun staging hunger strikes in Maharashtra to pressure state officials linked to corruption. Several were ultimately removed from office. At one point, countercharges against him claimed that money from one of his trusts had been used to pay for his birthday celebration. A government-appointed commission concluded that the money was improperly spent, but Mr. Hazare was never implicated in any personal corruption.

His national profile has risen sharply since this spring, when he came to New Delhi to begin a hunger strike demanding that the government introduce a bill in Parliament to create the anticorruption agency, known as a Lokpal. When thousands of people unexpectedly came out in support, government officials invited Team Anna to join a special committee drafting the Lokpal bill.

For several weeks during the early summer, Mr. Hazare was a periodic visitor at a government guesthouse in New Delhi while attending committee meetings. During an interview in early June, he often spoke with dramatic flourish about the need to eliminate corruption, while also predicting that people would support him again, if necessary.

“I’m confident that people will stand up again,” he said. He had been traveling the country, appearing at rallies to gather support for a Lokpal. “Yes, I feel empowered,” he said in June. “It happens because a large number of people are standing with you. Otherwise, what do I have? I’m a beggar. I live in a temple. I do not have a bankbook. I have only a plant and a bed.”

His methods and goals have not impressed everyone. Critics accused him of trying to hijack the democratic process through protest pressure tactics. Others warned that the type of Lokpal he envisioned could upset the balance of the country’s democratic institutions and accused his group of refusing to compromise.

Ultimately, negotiations broke down in June on the Lokpal legislation. The government has since introduced a bill in Parliament during the current session, but Mr. Hazare has criticized it as too weak. This week, he came to New Delhi to begin another hunger strike when the police arrested him.

Under the compromise reached for his release, Mr. Hazare agreed to limit his hunger strike to 15 days, and the police said they would remove their original restrictions on the number of supporters allowed to attend the protest.

Outside Tihar Jail and elsewhere in the city, people have chanted Mr. Hazare’ s name and voiced anger over the pervasiveness of corruption in daily life. One college student complained that rich families are able to buy admission for their children to top colleges. A man who has a trucking business complained that he had to pay a 10 percent bribe to a petty official in order to get a certificate proving he paid a transport tax on his vehicle.

“Today, when we were coming, a traffic cop stopped our vehicle and suggested that we shell out some money,” said Ajab Singh Gujar, the owner of the trucking business. “I shouted, ‘Victory to Anna Hazare!’

“The cop immediately allowed us to pass through without any bribe.”

COURTESY : NEW YORK TIMES

Hazare arrest: Ramdev seeks President’s intervention

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Swami Ramdev

Image via Wikipedia

 

Yoga guru Baba Ramdev will meet President Pratibha Patil to submit a memorandum against the arrest of veteran social activist Anna Hazare.

According to sources, Ramdev will meet President Patil on Wednesday afternoon.

Ramdev also proposes to visit Tihar Jail to meet Anna Hazare.

The yoga guru, who was evicted from the Ramlila Grounds on a similar fast against corruption and black money, pitched his weight behind Anna’s fight on Wednesday.

Hazare and key aide Arvind Kejriwal spent Tuesday night in the conference room of the Director General (Prisons) of Tihar Jail and reportedly slept barely for four hours.

He continues to be on a fast inside the prison premises after turning the down the release order sent by the government.

The 74-year old social activist was picked up at 7.30 am from Mayur Vihar in East Delhi after he refused to be persuaded by the Delhi Police not to undertake the fast since it would be in violation of prohibitory orders.

Hazare and his aides including Arvind Kejriwal, were first taken to the Delhi Police Officer’s Mess in North Delhi and were shifted to another after Hazare’s supporters gathered in a large numbers at the Civil Lines areas.

The social activist was later taken to Rajouri Garden police station in West Delhi where a Special Executive Magistrate remanded him to seven days’ judicial custody.

The decision to remand him came after Hazare refused to sign a personal bond undertaking that he will not defy the prohibitory orders and hold protests.

India against corruption: If government falls, we don’t care, says Anna

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Expressing his desire that the Lokpal bill will be a reality soon, social activist Anna Hazare said, “We are not interested in pulling down the government but during our fight for change, if it falls, we don’t care.”

Addressing a press conference in New Delhi on Sunday, he said, “there has to be a mass uprising to bring about a change.” He also said that he will live and die for the country.

He reiterated that he will be starting his fast from tomorrow. He also called for a revolution to “fight against the government and change the system”. He added that he has faith in the country’s parliament but the government was not producing the correct version of the Lokpal bill before it.

“We believe completely in the country’s parliament but the government is producing the flawed version of the bill before it,” said Hazare reacting to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s statement that the Lokpal bill had been introduced in parliament.

Hazare further said that the fight for a stringent Lokpal bill is fine, but there is a need for a revolution to change the prevalent system in the country.

“A revolution on a much larger scale is the need of the hour to fight against the government and change the system,” he said.

“This is a fight for change and till the time our system doesn’t change we won’t progress. Even after 64 years there is corruption and scams, what is the use of this Independence? This freedom is not right,” said Hazare.

“The government is only concerned about power and money,” he added.

Hazare is scheduled to begin a hunger strike to press for a stronger Lokpal bill from Tuesday but has been denied permission by the Delhi Police to do so.

Centre won’t interfere

The Centre has decided not to interfere with the decision of Delhi Police’s refusal of permission to Anna Hazare to hold his protest fast, saying the force has taken the stand on its own and it was fully capable of dealing with any situation.

“The home ministry will not interfere in the decision of Delhi Police. We have nothing to do with it,” the official said.

A home ministry official said the Delhi Police took the decision of denying permission to Team Anna to stage the protest since they refused to comply with its set conditions which are applicable to any group which wanted to stage any protest in the national capital.

The Centre also thinks that Delhi Police are capable of dealing with any situation arising out of Hazare’s announcement that he would go ahead with the protest despite the refusal of the permission.

“If they (Team Anna) decide to go ahead with their programme defying the order, law will take its own course,” the official said.

Written by THE LAWFILE

August 16, 2011 at 12:14 am