By Swapan Dasgupta
The protests that gripped Delhi over the past 10 days may have begun as a spontaneous expression of outrage against a particularly brutal gang-rape. But somewhere along the way, they escalated into something more far-reaching and yet ill-defined.
What makes citizens of India’s showcase Capital take to the streets periodically— remember the similar response to Anna Hazare’s movement last year—to vent their dissatisfaction against the ‘system’ is prone to divergent interpretations. Can the unrest be attributed to the arrogance of the rulers and the wide gulf that separates them from the ruled? Is it a problem linked to breakneck urbanisation that nurtures aspiration but leads to the simultaneous breakdown of established values? Alternatively, is ‘civil society’ a made-in-media tamasha?
Whatever the trigger, one thing is absolutely clear: India’s political class has been left bewildered by the street protests involving large numbers of mostly apolitical and leaderless individuals. President Pranab Mukherjee’s son has quite rightly been pilloried for his “denting and painting” remark but it is easy to understand the incomprehension of a middle-aged inheritor whose own experiences of student movements didn’t involve rubbing shoulders with “pretty women” in western apparel.
In pre-liberalisation India, the angry young men and women who burnt buses and threw crude bombs in Calcutta were invariably scruffy and fitted a jholawala stereotype. Certainly, what was derisively called the ‘South Calcutta’ (or, for that matter, ‘South Delhi’ and ‘South Mumbai’) types would never be seen chanting slogans on the streets. Until the anti-Mandal protests of 1990, the creamy layer of the middle class was politically invisible.
Yet, appearances can be remarkably deceptive. One of the features of the media interviews of the protestors at India Gate was the glaring mismatch between outward appearance and social status. A few of those interviewed were extremely articulate in English, suggesting a privileged schooling, but most of the women in jeans and fleece jackets were naturally at ease in Hindi. There was little in their outward appearance to distinguish one social set from another. Casual wear has become the great leveller.
For these lower middle class individuals, many of whom come from India’s dynamic small towns, life in the metros is both liberating and deeply oppressive. Their fierce desire for self-improvement in a city that offers opportunities is coupled with an aspirational lifestyle which, in the context of economic globalisation, also involves adopting the trappings of westernisation. They have consciously broken away from the ‘behenji’ mould that defined their mothers’ generation. At the same time, they are confronted by the regressive patriarchal assumptions of neighbourhoods and workplaces where women in trousers are typecast as ‘fast’ and ‘loose’, not least by a police force that has internalised the khap panchayat ethos.
An earlier discourse suggested that this social transformation would be met by Gen Next politicians who didn’t share the fuddy-duddy assumptions of earlier leaders. However, as the Delhi protests vividly revealed, labelling someone as the “youth icon” or proclaiming a young MP’s familiarity with the social media didn’t qualify them to respond to the anger with purposeful politics.
Why, it was often asked, didn’t Rahul Gandhi arrive at India Gate to meet the aggrieved?
The answer is curiously simple. An overwhelming majority of India’s young MPs are inheritors who have long been accustomed to the aam aadmi looking up to the netas with forlorn eyes and the leaders in turn responding with a show of noblesse oblige. For them, good politics always meant doling out favours to a supplicant India.
The protestors who gathered to demand better policing and exemplary punishment of molesters and rapists weren’t pleading before dynastic icons with folded hands. They were self-confident, angry and exasperated. They represented a new, assertive and even insolent India. Their expectations couldn’t be met by discretionary hand-outs and even cash transfers. Their demands are a key element of modern politics: the expectation that the state will be responsive and efficient. The chalta hai fatalism of an earlier age has been replaced by a voluble rejection of a meek theek hai.
Sunday Times of India, December 30, 2012