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We are free, without freedom
During the last Assembly elections in West Bengal, a friend of mine who works in an NGO in Malda was struck by the dilemma of a widow. Of the three main contenders in the race to be the local MLA, one was a thug, the other a pretender on the lookout to give a political boost to his business interests, and the third a man many said was responsible for the murder of her husband. What must she have done with her precious right to vote?
"She agonised over it for days, " he told me. Finally, she decided to ignore the polling and not vote for any of the candidates. Not that someone wouldn't have voted on her behalf, perhaps for the man whom she despised the most. It won't be a different story this time either. We always have very little to chose from.
It is striking, therefore, that in a country like India, an increasingly raucous band of wrong-leaning intellectuals are making a case against Anna Hazare and his well-meaning but shoddy campaign against corruption in the name of democracy. Our responsible citizens routinely vote out non-performing leaders and governments, they say. The Lokpal Bill, as envisaged, will shake the very foundations of India's lofty Constitution, they cry. Why undermine due legislative process? And is it being indicated that the millions of us who vote these worthies to local bodies and Assemblies and Parliament are forever making wrong choices? Is there no people power?
While I can only hope that sane and honest leaders of society will come together to ensure there is some institution our politicians and bureaucrats, judges and businessmen are genuinely afraid of, let us examine the real freedoms our democracy, in its present form, privileges us with. Sure, we have a press that can be as free as it is possible in a corrupt country with large areas of common interest between media and corporate houses, between journalists and politicians. Not to forget the "voices" - we can get vocal to a point, depending on the target and the situation. And we should be happy we are not in Myanmar or North Korea. Or, for that matter, even Pakistan.
The truth though, at ground zero, is that the widow of Malda had to accept as her duly elected leader one of the three men who went on to represent scores of unfortunate souls like her for an entire term. Nothing sticks on our rich and powerful, we all know that. We also know how elections happen in these parts and what kind of leaders we are eventually forced - yes, forced - to elect. Freedom, then, is nothing without rights. Democracy is nothing without justice.
Democracy should also not be confused with numbers. Because if it is, Dabangg would be one of the finest Hindi movies of all time. And Mukhtar Ansari, who keeps winning elections in Uttar Pradesh with record numbers, one of our greatest leaders. An American journalist who was in India recently to document the workings of our panchayats went back aghast at how entire villages democratically decide to separate couples in inter-caste or inter-faith marriages. "There is just no way out for them, " he said. He was also struck by our democratic homophobia. "In many Indian towns and villages, " he told me, "there is almost a unanimous agreement that gays and lesbians should be excommunicated, if not beaten up and maimed. India's minorities, its millions on the margin, have absolutely no rights. The strange part is that those who can do something about it aren't in the least bothered. It's a deformed and often deranged democracy that you have here. "
Come to think of it, in a country that is free, there are actually quite a lot of us struggling for basic freedoms. Large sections of dalits, Muslims, women, anyone outside the strict and defined "mainstream", have finally very few places they can go to for redressal. We may be used to the sight and ignore it as a "culture thing", but there are some who continue to be horrified at the number of women in our countryside barred from venturing out of their verandahs, going in for meaningful education, or doing away with the veil. In the societies they live in, there is consensus that this is how things ought to be for the lot - barefoot, pregnant, and behind the purdah.
Though this happened quite some years ago, I still remember a fellow student in my M Phil class at JNU narrating in his dissertation that his castemen back home in Tamil Nadu had different sets of vessels to eat from in village food stalls. As he spoke about his "reality" to a stunned class, a few - moneyed, upper class, higher caste, and from the cities - wondered what world he was talking about. It was difficult to peep into that existence, leave alone live it.
So in our great democracy with its wonderful Constitution, who are the ones that have the real rights? Not the dalits, not the minorities, not the gays or the women, or the poor labouring away under an unforgiving sun for below-minimum wages. And as the Jats in Munirka will tell you, not even the 'chinkies'. If politicians do their job, with honesty and without corruption, we can still hope to get a lot of what is promised to us.
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