A Primer For Urban Professionals in a Floundering Democracy

While it is true that the last eight years have seen an unprecedented assault on Indian democracy, it is also equally true that significant sections of Indian society have pushed back against the de-democratisation of India in a big way.

In a protest milieu predominated by farmers, labour unions, anganwadi workers, teachers and university students (and to some extent, government doctors and bank employees) it is easy for concerned urban professionals in both the private and public sectors to feel a bit “left out” and wonder how they too can participate in pro-democracy movements within the constraints of their jobs and lives.

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Anyone who works in the private sector (or the public sector for that matter) will testify that there is almost an unwritten code of silence when it comes to critiquing the performance of this particular government. The fact that one’s office colleagues and management might just be ferociously right-wing also has a chilling effect on democratic expression in everyday life. It is almost as though someone has uttered the adult version of that famous dialogue from the movie Sholay: “Beta, so jaa, nahi toh Gabbar aa jayegaa (Go to sleep, child, or the bandit/bogeyman Gabbar will show up!)”. In the case of grown-ups, the line seems to be: “Chup raho nahi toh problem ho jaayega (Be quiet or there will be trouble).”

Here are five things that can help urban professionals stay on the right side of history, even if they end up on the wrong side of some of their colleagues for a while:

1. Push past fear

Ordinary citizens are afraid to speak up against the excesses of power. The fear of ostracism, harassment, or worse, holds many of us back from speaking our minds, but what we tend to forget is that fear draws our attention away from our constitutionally-mandated responsibility to speak up for our constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

Fear has a stultifying effect. It stops us from seeing the possibilities of the good we can do in a bad time. It is important that we as citizens who are concerned about the state of our democracy make it a practice to push past our fears daily in some form or another.

2. Watch out for ‘politis’

In 2014, the American Psychiatric Association coined the term ‘selfitis’ (an obsessive-compulsive desire to take and post photos of oneself). Perhaps a day will also come when a body of psychologists will coin the term ‘politis’ (pronounced ‘po-LIGHT-is’) – a condition in which one is too polite to raise one’s voice about important issues, especially political ones.

While that term might never make it into a dictionary of disorders, it is good to recognise that it is a condition prevalent amongst far too many urban Indians. Though one must, of course, be courteous and respectful while offering a differing opinion, far too many of us tend to stay ‘polite’ and quiet at times when we should be vocal, for example, when a colleague from a minority community is being heckled or joked about.

One of the downsides of our much-touted sanskaars is our deep-seated tendency to save face, and to go along with the majority opinion. As a result, we remain silent when minority communities are bad-mouthed by bigots in our families and organisations, and we end up saying little or nothing, for fear of causing offence.

Speaking our minds may come at a cost but we should remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “In the end, our friends will remember our silence more than they will remember the words of their enemies.”

3. Show up at peaceful protests

Not too many of us can organise a street protest, but we can certainly show up at one, even if only for an hour or two. There is something tremendously courage-giving about simply showing up for a democratic protest. More than anything else, it helps us see that we are not the only ones who feels a certain way about the state of the nation. (It also encourages the protestors!)

While there is no denying that social media plays a huge role in democratic movements, it can also lull us into thinking that posting, sharing and ‘liking’ on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram is participation enough in democracy. Social media activism can often become a convenient excuse for real-life activism.

The fact is that even in the 21st century, the time-honoured, non-violent street protest remains a powerful and effective instrument in the hands of democratically minded citizens. The peaceful, year-long farmers’ protest at Delhi’s borders in 2020-21 that finally forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repeal the three controversial farm laws is a prime example.

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4. Find your own unique voice

While it is imperative to show up for peaceful protests, there are a lot of other things one can do to make one’s views known. One simply needs to look at India’s Freedom struggle to see how many creative, innovative, and varied methods of resistance Gandhi himself came up with – the salt satyagraha, the non-co-operation movement, the adoption of khadi and the boycott of British-made cloth.

On his newly-launched YouTube channel, anchor and journalist Ravish Kumar, talks about Dinesh Patel, an elderly man of Indian origin in the United States who has made a pledge to walk barefoot in New York City where he lives, in solidarity with the Bharat Jodo yatra for as long as it continues. Says Dinesh, “If people ask me why I am barefoot, it will give me an opportunity to tell them about the yatra and about what is happening in India.”

Or take the case of Stuti, a political science teacher in a private school in New Delhi who has made it a point to teach her students the contents of the chapters on democracy that the government has removed from the school syllabus. As she says, “They can take the chapters out of the syllabus, but they can’t take them out of history!”

Examples abound of citizens using their unique talents and skills to protest the destruction of democracy. Some record and upload songs on their YouTube channels, others make satirical sketches, while still others use their debating skills to counter the “WhatsApp uncles” and their fake/hateful forwards in their housing societies. The point is, people who truly want to do something find a way. The rest find excuses.

5. Do more

No matter how much one feels one is doing to contribute to a democratic movement, there is always more that can be done. During those times when we are tempted to feel that we have “done our bit for the country” and now deserve a break, it is important to remember that old bit of rustic wisdom:

“While wrestling a bear, you don’t quit when you are tired, you quit when the bear is tired.”

As concerned citizens of a floundering democracy, we need to remember that we still have a ways to go before we can declare victory.

Rohit Kumar is an educator and can be reached at letsempathize@gmail.com.

Featured image: Unsplash

This article was first published on The Wire.