The democracy of social exclusion and political obligation

The following article was written by an activist of Pedestrian Pictures (a media activist organisation) and a close supporter of People’s Solidarity Concerns-Bangalore (which includes the New Socialist Alternative CWI-India). The article is based around the contrasting pictures between Anna Hazare’s 12 day fast and Irom Sharmila’s 12th year of fast. While Sharmila is fasting on a legitimate demand, against all odds and a complete media blackout, for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the North East, Anna Hazare’s theatrics demanding a very undemocratic and draconian legislation called the Lokpal Bill (Ombudsman bill) could not have looked more ridiculous.

The same corporate media outlets and middle classes that supported Anna Hazare to the hilt are nowhere to be seen in support of Irom Sharmila’s recent entry into her 12th year of fasting. Worse the few activists who have bravely ventured out by campaigning in support of Irom Sharmila are being branded as anti-national and have even faced attacks by right wing groups. Such is the situation in India today that the ruling classes determine what form of protest merit attention and what does not.

The New Socialist Alternative has always maintained a consistent stance that the AFSPA has to go and are actively campaigning for its repeal. While the repeal of AFSPA is definitely not an all out solution to the problems facing the people of North East and Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), it would definitely mark a important step, politically speaking. The oppressed nationalities of North Eastern states and J&K will never be free unless people of the mainland India are freed from oppression and exploitation of the Indian ruling elite. Only a Socialist confederation of the sub-continent of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka with full autonomy to all the national minorities in these countries can attempt to solve the crucial national question which is dogging the lives of the people of these regions.

Editor

In the last couple of months, two names constantly appeared in media and in discussion threads of social media. The names are Anna Hazare and Irom Sharmila. The former, fighting for issues which pan India believes it is the root of all social, political and economic evil in India, Corruption. The later, protesting against the imposition of martial law in Manipur by Indian State, Armed Forces Special Power’s Act, 1958. The hysterical mainstream media and the Twitter and Facebook generation brought another name in the equation, Gandhi.

The equation of Gandhi came up because of the protest technique of fast unto death used by Anna Hazare and Irom Sharmila. The political implication of this development can be read in three different perspectives. First, the theatrical significance of Gandhian technique in today’s’ democracy and the different responses of the state to such techniques. And lastly, the formation of counter hegemonic groups as a means of alternative to the existing hegemonic democracy.
Gandhian technique uses the same schematics that of theatre.

The narrative is symbolic and more importantly needs a stage and an audience. However, this method of conflict resolution is used in different ways by Anna Hazare and Irom Sharmila. Anna, in the recent campaign against corruption utilises the very notion of Gandhian fasting technique as a pacifist. He tries to articulate the political philosophy of passive non resistance to evil and oppression in society and government. But as the campaign progressed, the method of fasting deviated from passive resistance to blackmailing technique. The campaign tried to forcefully table the anti corruption bill through fasting technique by bypassing the parliamentary procedure of this democratic nation. India is a representative democracy, and bills must originate in Parliament. Bypassing Parliament and contempt for elected representatives – however well deserved it may be in individual cases – is destructive of the institution of representative democracy (Vinod Vyasulu, 2011). So the proposition is that if the government did not accept the demand, Anna will go on fast onto death.

Even though the way Anna and his campaign used the Gandhian method undemocratically, the state and the media endorsed the drive as true Gandhian sense of passive resistance. The State agreed to the demands of the campaign. The State forces, the police stripped down their weapon and made way to the protestors for Anna’s campaign. This is a rare feat because if the protester were protesting against removal of Armed Forces Powers’ Act in Manipur or Kashmir, then the response would have been otherwise, lathi charge or more likely tear gas shells. The mainstream media, instead of reporting the course of events, joined the campaign for Anna saying, “We are with Anna.” Such kind of response by the state and media clearly enforces the power of ruling middle class. The rampant misusing of the power of suggestion by a ‘corporations’ backed media to counter the electorate process by promoting a non-ballot based centre of power is even more mischievous (Vaibhav H. Wasnik, 2011).

Even as this political drama is unfolding hysterically for couple of weeks, Irom Sharmila, a lone woman continues her protest for 12 years against the martial law, Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), one of the most draconian legislations that the Indian Parliament has passed in its 64 years of Parliamentary history, imposed on Manipur, that has violated every single fundamental rights for the people of that State. Under this Act, all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to “maintain the public order”. How can ordinary people counter the assault of an increasingly violent state?

Sharmila’s protest uses the same fasting tactics of Gandhi. But Sharmila’s indefinite fast for over a decade continues to be ignored by the ‘civil society’, the political leadership and the ‘We are with Anna’ media. Here, unlike Anna’s technique of blackmailing fast, Sharmila indeed uses a Gandhian technique of struggle. Gandhi and Sharmila deployed this technique in desperate times as a moral protest. It is the symbol of resistance, no matter whether it is active or passive. Gandhi discouraged recourse to law as a way to settle disputes. Gandhi had great respect for the law but he believed that strict adherence to the law can obstruct a just peace process (Mark Juergensmeyer, 2005). Conflicts should be resolved in a way that satisfies both sides equally but both sides of a conflict cannot be satisfied equally unless the root of the problem is addressed. Law, however, does not address the root of a conflict. Here, the law itself is the root of the conflict.

Unlike Anna who has been labelled as ‘national hero’ and crusading India’s ‘Second freedom struggle’ by the media and the middle class, Sharmila is under arrest for over a decade. She is arrested under a clause of the Indian penal code that makes attempting suicide a crime and is being force-fed, a practice which the World Medical Association deems as “a form of inhuman and degrading treatment,” by the government in a public hospital. Images of Anna fasting and Anna in jail were carried freely by the media under the supervision of the state. The privilege of such kind is exceptional in Indian democracy. But, Sharmila spends her days in prison eluded from her supporters and the news media. The state tightly controls access to her.

In an interesting correspondence between Anna and Sharmila, Anna and his team had written her a letter inviting her to join their struggle against corruption. Sharmila replied saying, “I cannot get the advantage of exercising my non-violent protest for justice against my concerned authority as a democratic citizen of a democratic country.”

This statement of Sharmila demonstrates the dominant, corporate backed middle class has hijacked Indian democracy as their space of political articulation and not as a representative democracy. The space for non-violent civil disobedience has atrophied. After struggling for several years, several non-violent peoples’ resistance movements have come up against a wall and feel quite rightly, they have to now change direction. There are some who believe that an armed struggle is the only avenue left (Arundhati Roy).

The social exclusion of such democratic process has serious and complex implication. Since this democracy and the state do not provide space, pockets of counter hegemonic groups will be formed as an alternative to articulate their argument. And this is clearly evident in North East India now. An editorial on Imphal Free Press in Manipur says, “On the eve of the India’s Independence Day, Imphal is acquiring the look of a war front. Various militant organisations would call for a boycott of the celebration of what is arguably the biggest and most important day in the country’s history. People return home early so as not to be accosted by security men and go through the humiliation of being made to stand on the side of the roads to be frisked and questioned like potential trouble makers”

Until the State and the democracy which it runs provide an inclusive space for the oppressed and the marginalised, the victims of exclusive democracy will be push more victims beyond the margins. And how long will they fast onto death in a remote prison cell unnoticed, ignored, humiliated and betrayed. The threat to democracy and state becomes imminent when victim refuses to be a victim.

Johnson Rajkumar

References:

1. Unrepresentative Voices on the Lokpal, Vinod Vyasulu, Economic & Political Weekly, July 9, 2011
2. A Lokpal Critique, Vaibhav H. Wasnik, Countercurrents, 24 August, 2011
3. Gandhi’s way: a handbook of conflict resolution, Mark Juergensmeyer. University of California Press 2005
4. How Deep Shall We Dig?, Arundhati Roy, The Hindu, 25 April, 2004
5. State of Independence, Pradip Phanjoubam, Imphal Free Press, 15 August, 2011.

For more articles by Johnson Rajkumar, please visit his blog at: rajkumarjohnson.blogspot.com