Don't lose faith in India were the last words of a dying man almost 2o years ago. It was at a time when India was burning over the Babri Masjid issue and everything seemed dark and bleak. Yet the man would not let go and repeated his dying mantra. The man was Ram my father and the words a legacy difficult to accept and yet very real. I was being asked by the one I probably loved and respected most not to lose faith in India. Not an easy task when India was burning and no one seemed to care. Remember it was December 1992!
I often wondered which India he was referring to: the one that lived in his dreams or the one we lived in. With every passing year keeping faith in India became difficult if not impossible, more so because in those days I had not yet discovered the real India. What I saw was the India of my peers and that one was not pretty. It was empty, soulless, arrogant, glittery, vain and obsessively pursuing money. Blissfully it was when I decided to set up project why and was compelled to cross the invisible divide and embrace the other India that I had my first glimpse of an India I could believe in. It was in the slums of Delhi that I finally found the India my father carried in his heart.
The ensuing years were not easy. As I anchored myself in the India I sought, images of the other India became more and more ugly. It was the years of scams, of political arrogance, of corruption in all its shades and hues. That is when I started shutting myself from one India even if it meant becoming a recluse and being the target of the cynicism of my peers. But you see I had to keep faith in India! And the only way I knew was to shut out the one I could not stand by. True I had to make some forays into the India I shunned as therein lay the money we so needed. My brief incursions only vindicated my stand. How can I forget the bags of rubbish that so oft landed on our doorstep as donations! Or the contempt with which my appeals for help were set aside with a curt: all NGOs are corrupt! Or still the more subtler opprobrium voiced when we decided to send some slum children to an English medium boarding school.
I also watched with horror and sadness the dismissive way in which the India of the little people was treated be it the walls created to segregate slums from their upmarket neighbours or the callous destruction of homes to beautify Delhi for an international extravaganza. And as I discovered the sad reality of our land so poignantly conveyed by a set of statistics; 40 % of the world’s starvation-affected people live in India, 76% families (840 million) people do not get their daily required calories, 55 % of India’s women are malnourished, 46% of India’s children are malnourished, more than 320 million people in India are unable to manage three square meals a day and the most startling one: more than 5,000 children die every day from malnourishment. How could the other India remain silent and unmoved. At timed I found it impossible to swallow a morsel of food and still do. And the one and only cause for these terrible statistics is undoubtedly corruption.
As I watched helplessly the astronomical figures of the scams being uncovered and corruption becoming the toast of the day I could not help thinking of its poorer cousin namely the apparently tiny sums doled each day by the invisible ones to be able to survive: the weekly tithe paid by the cart owner, the vegetable vendor, the roadside cobbler and so on. They too were stifling under the same oppressor. Yes Corruption with a big C had become a two headed monster devouring everything in its way. It was this monster that gobbled the funds destined to make schools, hospitals, roads, to provide food to those in need, work to those who had none. Excellent social programmes were hijacked by greed and never fully implemented. Imagine if the simple ICDS scheme launched in 1975 had worked no Indian under the age of 36 would underweight, undernourished or not vaccinated. Isn't that food for thought. The reality is that the poor are becoming poorer while the rich become richer.
The question was when would India awake from its cynical slumber. When would it find its lost voice.
It took a diminutive elderly soul and a piece of legislation to do the trick. It all began in April when the spirited Gandhian decided to sit on fast to defend his take on a legislation that was meant to rid India of corruption. The cause echoed in the minds of many and for the first time a different breed of people took to the streets. The powers that be were caught unawares as they sprung into damage control by playing to the gallery and inviting the Gandhian to the negotiation table. For them it was a simple delay tactic. They had their own agenda to defend and they did by casting aside the views of civil society and tabling their own legislation. The Gandhian reacted and India responded.
When Anna decided to fast again he would not be alone. India who had sad silent for too many years decided to join the agitation as the cause was one they believed in: corruption had gnawed at them mercilessly for too long and the hubris of the state was getting too much to bear. The state on the other side remained impervious to the pulse of the very people that elected them and unfurled a series of absurd reactions that made the people angrier. The first salvo was of course the favourite weapon in their arsenal: slander! Without a thought a spokesperson decided to call the Gandhian dishonest and brand him and his team as armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists. India was outraged and the crowds swelled. As if that was not enough the state decided to act.
Anna was arrested, lodged in the same jail that housed the most corrupt, released all in one day. And as these harebrained actions were taken crowds grew angrier. India took to the streets and Anna remained firm in his resolve. People from all walks of life registered their protest. It was no more a fight for a piece of legislation but for every hurt that had been borne silently and helplessly. Housewives, professionals, students, village folk, retired people, the educated and the illiterate everyone was out to extend support. The media was there to chronicle it all. The powers that be stood exposed. Their arsenal looked strangely inadequate. The bungling lot tried to hide behind a host inane of screens but to no avail. Wonder what they would come up with next.
You may or may not agree with the Anna way. You may or may not agree with his version of the proposed bill but he has managed to stir passions never unleashed before. He has according to the New York Times 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. He has managed to awake a slumbering India!
We all want to see the monster slain! And we also want to be rid of a government that has lost the pulse of the people. In times where media was non existent, erstwhile rulers disguised themselves as commoners and mingled with the people to gage their mood and opinion. This helped them rule better. It is sad that today when every form of media is blaring the anger of the people our rulers remain aloof and unmoved.
Anna gave us back our voice. Now it is for us to use it in the way we deem right and not let it get once again tinged with cynicism. The ball is undoubtedly in our court. There will be many followers of Antisthenes or Diogenes of Sinope will find many ways to try and deter us, but we need to remain Pollyanna like and believe that the changes we seek with such passion happen soon. There will be enough time for remedies later. And to be a reverse cynic perhaps some form of monster is needed to slay another.
This post is primarily meant to renew faith a lost faith. In the past days I have seen a new face of India, I have seen invisible barriers crossed, I have seen hope. I have seen the India one cannot and should not lose faith in.