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Urban Uprising

Angry urbania


The crowd of protestors that surged around India Gate in fury and grief were part of a new urban middle class, impatient for change. TOI-Crest meets two such faces in the crowd, Maya and Deepali

It's the coldest day in 44 years but scattered groups of protestors continue their vigil at Delhi's Jantar Mantar. They have vowed to stay till the wheels of justice start moving for the 23-year-old paramedic student who was brutalized and raped in a private bus last month. Here, at ground zero of an upsurge of urban fury that has shaken the city and its complacent ruling elite twice in two years, the anonymous victim is known as Damini. "We want justice for Damini, " scream the handwritten posters dotting the road.

The "dented, painted women" visible to Congress MP Abhijit Mukherjee's jaundiced eye, are nowhere to be seen. The crowd is a microcosm of the giant melting pot that is urban India. There's a Dalit student from Etarsi in Madhya Pradesh, Deepali Tayday, who is preparing for the civil services examination in a paying guest accommodation in the city. There's a Khushwaha housewife, Maya Devi, who moved from Bihar to Delhi with her factory worker husband 12 years ago and fears for her two young daughters. There's an Agra-born security manager, Omkar Yadav, who has taken a fortnight's leave from his firm to lend his voice to the protest. There's an out-of-work engineer, Anurag, who has dropped his Rajput surname because caste identities don't matter in metropolitan Delhi. He says women's safety is as much an issue for men because "it involves our sisters, girlfriends, wives and mothers". And in the middle of this variegated group sit two women priests clad in saffron robes. They are performing a havan to pray for peace for "Damini's soul". Meet the new urban middle class that's bamboozled established parties and traditional politicians. Till it poured out on the streets last year to rage against corruption under the banner of Anna Hazare's agitation for a Jan Lokpal Bill, the political class didn't even know it existed. It had reared its head to protest against a rotting, corrupt system controlled by power brokers and crony capitalists, but mainstream politics refused to engage with it. Somehow, politicians seemed reluctant to recognize the new constituency that had emerged under their very noses. Till the anti-rape protests rocked Delhi and spread like wildfire to cities and towns across the country. Suddenly, people were out on the streets again, demanding to be heard, not as vote banks or caste blocs that have become part and parcel of today's politics, but as real live people asking disturbing questions on governance issues, wanting solutions in real time and insisting that political leaders come out of the comfort of their security zone to talk to them. The flame of their anger burned so strongly that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi bent over backwards with a series of unprecedented steps. But their response spoke of panic rather than a thoughtful decision on first steps towards the systemic change that the protestors were demanding.

It must be evident to politicians and analysts alike by now that something is happening in urban India and it can no longer be brushed under the carpet. Twenty years of Mandalisation and liberalisation have produced a new class of voters who want to change the rules of political engagement here and now. They are aspirational and impatient. They want the political class to listen and the government to deliver. It doesn't matter which class they come from. The caste calculus does not matter here either. These people are all part of a giant middle class spawned by the greatest equaliser of them all: the market.

Political parties can ignore the emergence of this class of voters only at their peril. The urban middle class is a growing constituency. According to UN estimates, around 27 per cent of India lives in its cities and towns today. By 2030, this figure is expected to touch 50 per cent. There is no composite study on how increasing urbanisation is affecting the demographics of an election but politicians estimate that of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, around 200 can already be considered urban-dominated and the number is only growing.

For far too long, political parties have crafted strategies and policies for a rural populace at the cost of urban areas. The challenge for them today is to re-orient their politics and incorporate urban aspirations without ignoring rural needs. It may not be as difficult as it seems. The Bharat-India divide that the late Lok Dal peasant leader, Devi Lal used to speak of, has virtually disappeared. Increased migration from rural India to urban cities and the communications revolution have narrowed the gap. There is an osmosis that is creating a new voter consciousness which demands accountability, delivery and transparency from the ruling class. It's time then to replace the old politics of patronage with the responsive politics of a maturing democracy.
The question remains as always: is anybody out there listening? The protestors who doggedly continue their vigil at Jantar Mantar have not lost their faith in democracy. They simply want it to work better and to work for them. Middle India has changed. So must the political class.


Deepali Tayday could be the girl next-door. Dressed in jeans, jacket and a red woolen cap to protect her head from the bitter cold, this young woman from Ambedkar's Mahar caste is no longer trapped in old identities. Education and urbanisation put her squarely in the giant middle class. Although immersed in preparations for the civil services exams, she could not stay away from the anti-rape protests. She's been at Ground Zero from day one, braving police lathis and crawling under a police van with other protestors to hold it down.

She first came out on the streets last year to join Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement. She then associated herself with Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party as a volunteer but has moved away from him because she feels that it has traded grassroots work for publicity stunts. But she keeps faith. "I want to join the system to make it work better, "she says. "If government officers were to just do their work properly, things would improve. "Maya Devi is an OBC from the Khushwaha caste. This feisty mother of two daughters, clad in a salwar kameez refused to be browbeaten into having more children to produce a son. "I told my husband and in-laws that they can throw me out with my two daughters if they want, "she says. She won that battle and today, her husband has accepted that they will educate their daughters as they would have a son. Both girls study in an English-medium school and Maya dreams of making one a CA and the other a doctor.

After standing her ground on children, her next act of rebellion was to throw off the veil. She then went on to join an NGO which mobilises women and children by educating them about their rights. She makes the trek from the Bawana neighbourhood in which she lives on the outskirts of Delhi to Jantar Mantar every day to participate in the anti-rape protests. "I want a safe city for my daughters, "she says.

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