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Protest at the Parliament Should Be Seen as Fearlessness, Not Terror

Think of the youth's profound disappointment when they realised that the people they had elected to parliament were supremely indifferent to the needs of their own people.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

What never fails to amuse me is the unbearable pomposity, the self-absorption, and the conceit of our representatives in the parliament. Two young people protested, in an admittedly unusual manner, by releasing plumes of yellow smoke in the Lok Sabha. Two more were part of this audacious plan. They believe that politics is the art of the impossible. And they showed us how. But ‘august’ members of the parliament, scuttling here and there to escape ‘poisonous gas’, have typed the intrusion as nothing less than an attack on national security. Seriously? 

All that four young people were trying to do is to make us hear, in a rather dramatic fashion a la Bhagat Singh, was their voice of pain, despair, and frustration. They made an unexpected entry into the House, simply because they wanted their representatives and their country to heed their justifiable protest at unemployment, deprivation, and despondency.

What else could they have done? Their voices are just not heard by those who strut the corridors of power. Demonstrations are frowned upon, dissent suppressed, and alternative visions of politics dismissed as the work of anti-nationals. When people do not have access to any channel to express grievances, politics takes to the streets, or in this case, right into parliament. This is the lesson of politics.

Also read: Pangs of Unemployment: Why India’s Youth is Turning to Bhagat Singh

Consider the background; abject poverty. The prime minister has announced the extension of free rations to 81 crore Indians. The implication is that millions of our fellow citizen go to bed hungry. Not a pretty picture for a country that is ‘atma nirbhar’ (self sufficient), least of all one that is located at the centre of ‘amrit kaal’. This government is not statistic friendly. So we do not know how many people fall below the poverty line, or even what the poverty line is. But if 81 crore people cannot buy food for themselves, the deprivation they are mired in defies imagination.

It is this tragic fact of our national life that has been brought to the notice of policy makers by our young intruders. The response was to slap the UAPA upon them. Consider the irony. The majesty of the house was not harmed when one MP heaped communal slurs upon a fellow parliamentarian. Basic notions of justice, civility, and gender sensitivity were grossly violated when a woman MP raised questions related to national wellbeing and the handing over of the country’s resources to one capitalist. She was expelled from the House. 

But when two young people reenacting the actions of their hero Bhagat Singh descend into the House and raise uncomfortable questions, the majesty of the house is dented. Perhaps they were reclaiming ‘the people’ in a House that has been taken over by the ruling party with deleterious consequences. The phrase ‘We the People’ is empty until and unless the people bring the malaise of the country to the notice of the ruling authorities through unusual actions. Gandhi did so by picking up a handful of salt and breaking the law.

The notion of the people presents itself to us in tangible forms through such actions performed with a degree of unmatched fearlessness. We would do well to recollect that Gandhi had written that “I hope also to achieve the end by demonstrating that real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority”. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

It is precisely this aspect of politics, of educating the people into a sense of their own capacity to regulate and control authority, that is repressed by authoritarian governments. They dream of a society where no one dare speak or act against the supreme leader, only acclaim him. Hannah Arendt in her famous The Human Condition, (1958),  had written that exasperation with the three fold frustration of action: the unpredictability of its outcome, the irreversibility of the process, and the anonymity of its authors, leads to the denouncement of action and speech in particular, and politics in action.

“It has always been a great temptation, for men of action no less than for men of thought, to find a substitute for action in the hope that the realm of human affairs may escape the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents.” This is as old as recorded history. Generally speaking, such men seek shelter from popular politics, that can go this way or that, by dreaming of a society where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end. This attempt to replace acting with making is manifest in the whole body of argument against ‘democracy’, which, the more consistently and better reasoned it is, will turn into an argument against the essentials of politics.

Arendt was prescient, and this is an understatement. The politics of impossibility represented as thought and action in the public realm is plural and contested. What is not contested, is not politics. But this is not acceptable to our rulers. They attempt to do away with politics by doing away with the public sphere. And ‘we the people of India’ have sadly helped them by constituting ourselves as subjects of a ruler, not as citizens of a democracy that have the right to call the government to account. We are told to attend to our personal affairs and perform duties. The business of politics is best left to power. And we do so. I am afraid that we as the people have played the game of the holders of power. We have retreated from the public sphere into the private, armed with the blissful conviction that a group of men can take care of us, and of politics. 

We have lost our memory of resistance and struggle. The reduction of Gandhi to a pair of spectacles has proved disastrous. His politics has been reduced from the subversive to the routine; picking up the broom and cleaning the streets. Gandhi, it is true, cleaned toilets at the meetings of the Indian National Congress. But he did much more. As a man of the moment, he was skilled in the art of crafting political strategy. He showed us how to be courageous and fearless. ‘I,” he wrote, “have been collecting descriptions of swaraj” One of these is the abandonment of the fear of death. “A nation which allows itself to be influenced by the fear of death cannot attain swaraj, and cannot retain it if somehow obtained.”

Why do we not see these young intruders into the Lok Sabha as fearless? They knew the consequences of their action. Think of their profound disappointment when they realised that the people they had elected to parliament, who luxuriate in the power that the status bestows upon them, were supremely indifferent to the needs of their own people. They might well have said-we asked for jobs, we got temples instead. They reacted in the only way they could – with courage. 

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University. 

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