Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Protests, progress and polemic

Protest is the means by which we progress. No liberty has been gained, no right secured, nor freedom won, without protest of some sort. All protest starts with an awakening, a sense of injustice, grows into a demand that is more often than not denied because those in power would much rather conserve and consolidate their own position. All protest therefore sooner or later grows into a struggle that seeks to calibrate the degree of vigour in the protest movement with the resistance put up by the status quo. Some protests fizzle out, some succeed. If we enjoy any freedoms and rights at all it is because of past protests that have won through. 

The sight of an elected leader of Delhi demostrating on the streets of his own city against a police force run and controlled by the federal government in the Centre must indeed seem odd. The protestors, usually,  are the dispossessed; their target, usually, is the established state or institutional power. 

So by sitting down on the street and holding a cabinet meeting in his car was Arvind Kejriwal behaving like an elected Chief Minister of Delhi or, as the press and many commentators called him, like an anarchist?

Is it anarchy for an elected leader to take to the streets? 

That depends on who you are and how much power and privilege and comfort you derive from the status quo ante.
Chetan Bhagat (an author with some mediocre literary talent, but enough to gain him a right to pop up on television with his views) decries the tactics of street protest used by the Aam Aadmi Party. But that is because he and the people who move in his circles would rather the prevailing situation continued. They would, wouldn't they?

But if you're a slum dweller in the city or a street worker at the mercy of the police, you would see this as a legitimate aandolan for your rights. What we are witnessing in India is the result of years of lopsided economic and social development in which the majority has been left behind, carried along only by false promises made every 5 years by a conniving kleptocratic class of politician; denied their due, instead offered tidbits: a quota here and a handout there.

These politicians have built and run a system of civil administration that functions only to keep the masses in their place. As a result, education, public health, infrastructure for transport, travel, electricity, water and sanitation serve, to the extent they function at all, only the minority; police and and the criminal justice system work only in the service of their political masters. 

Suddenly this arrangement - cosy for the elite, burdensome for many, and desperate for the mass at the bottom of the heap - is coming under challenge. For those on the lower rungs this is not anarchy. It is a revolt against the oppressive regime that prevailed. It is an on-going protest. It may yet fizzle out but that would be the bigger tragedy.  

Friday, 17 January 2014

Suchitra Sen

Suchitra Sen, 82, died 17 Jan 2013. 

Remember Aandhi? The 1975 Gulzar movie? 

I had just finished my internship, perhaps a house job or two. I remember the film made an impression on me. It was not the usual boy-meets-girl run-around. It had a grown up theme, love unsanctioned by social mores; separation under societal pressure; a strong woman determined to make her way in a man's dirty world of ruthless politics; no room for personal life, much less for the consummation of love and romance. I thought Sen was a complete and mature actor. Sanjeev Kumar was good but without question she was the star; she stormed Aandhi.

Now, when reading about her illness, her stay in a Kolkata hospital's intensive care unit, with the news reporting each development - 'stable but critical' what the hell does that phrase mean? - and amplifying the false hope of a new team of medical experts, I think not like a movie-goer but like a health policy commentator. Was it all necessary? 

For ultimately she endured the futility of the sort of critical intensive care that old and infirm people with fatal illnesses are subjected to in India especially if they are well off and get into the clutches of private hospitals; doctors scurrying round pretending she would recover and go home; experts called in to advise even more invasive interventions than those that failed. 

In Aandhi the film, Aarti, once she had become a successful politician could not embrace the man she had separated from - the man who was the father of her daughter - for fear of public and electoral rejection. In life, Sen could not reject a medical care system that took away her dignity. In death, we can all embrace her memory.