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Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Indian Middle Class and its engagement with Social Change

Neha Bhat, an LLM student from American University, Washington College of Law sends in a summary of her paper ,"The Revolution Will Only Be Televised: Indian Middle Class and It's Engagement with Social Change. As per her abstract: 
"Through this paper, the author proposes to examine this phenomenon of television-based and televised social activism in India. Since 2011, large scale public protests have gripped India on issues of corruption, freedom of speech and expression and now sexual violence against women. this paper examines these protests, their success and failure and the direction for future engagement on social change by Indians."


“It was like fever. Everyone wanted to go.” 
- Michael Walzer, Dissent 


It was something like a fever. A highly contagious fever, that, upon the slightest of contact, engulfed everything, and everyone that came in its’ way. The use of ‘protest’ as a form of resistance is as old as resistance itself is in India. However, in little over 2 years since the Arab Spring, the people of India have reclaimed the ‘protest’ as a site of their revolution to affect change as no other. 2011 saw the common man in India rise in protest against government institutions, and against organized ‘power’ in an unprecedented fashion. The solidarity with the figure of the ‘protestor’ of 2010 continued well into 2012 and received an unexpected fillip just last week. The current use of public protests started in 2011, with the issue of corruption and has now expanded to include in its fold protests against government curbs on freedom of expression as well as the issue of rape and sexual violence against women. 

The different scenarios of protests that India has witnessed in the past year and half do not share any common factor. Each chain of protest focused on a different set of issues—corruption, freedom of speech and rape. However, on a closer examination, a common denominator does indeed emerge. All these protests have largely channelized the demands of the people pressing for changes in governance and rule of law issues in India. People are dissatisfied with the abject apathy displayed by law enforcement and every part of the system of governance in the country towards those who they seek to govern. The increasingly dissatisfied people are taking to different digital forums to express their views on the state of affairs in the country. However, instead of working towards addressing the breakdown of law and order and listening to the citizen grievances; the government seeks to blame the media for highlighting these issues and in order to preserve its own image, seeks to control dissemination of information. 

There is a palpable, tangible desperation witnessed in these protests, which points a very culpable finger at the unresponsive government and its apathy towards its citizens. But, more importantly, the sheer strength of the protests also point to a deeper malaise- that of the very real slide into an ‘administrative vacuum’ clearly underway in India. This has led the country towards a situation of complete breakdown of law and order, leaving the judicial branch almost completely ineffectual. 

The protests signaled that something had perhaps fundamentally changed about our ideas of governance, democracy and how a country should be ruled. For the first time the Indian middle class that usually stood behind a television camera crew to ‘come’ on news, is willingly bearing the brunt of physical violence from the State[1] and becoming the news. Just to make itself heard. However the personal motivation behind the protests aside, they are indeed peculiar in their own way. What is striking about these protests is the fact that they were not structured but largely impulsive and spontaneous. The middle class has responded to these events in their individual capacity, only becoming a collective at the site of the protest. There have been differences and divisions between those who have protested—each group within the larger collective has had its own set of demands and expected outcomes. However, the spontaneity of the protests has ensured that in the broader context, there is no singular, monolithic group, with same demands and arguments participating in the protests. 

And yet, in spite of such large scale calls for change, such deep, long standing protests, there is no actual change coming to the country. The more people have protested and dissented, the more they have become dissatisfied and restless. More agitated and more violent also. And yet, this dissatisfaction, this restlessness, this protest— it has not changed anything. 

The question worthy of being asked is why; a common, unified intention of a large, strong collective formed of middle class people has not transformed itself into a more concrete action base? There is so much desperation in people, so much palpable frustration then why isn’t anything changing? Why, despite the fact that these movements have been momentarily successful, they are not sustainable in long term? Why have the movement(s) peaked and died before any actual change has been affected on ground? Why was there a very rapid engagement and involvement with the movement(s) and then, just as rapid a disengagement with them? The responses to these questions hold the key to understanding and running successful campaigns for social change in India. 

Long term engagement as needed for social change has not been the hallmark of the protest movements India has witnessed. For e.g. although people did pour out on streets to support Anna Hazare, subsequent to the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Lower House of the Parliament, none of the calls for a public protest by Hazare (December 2011 and thereafter) have seen the kind of outpour of support as was seen between April and September 2011.[2] People’s association with the Anna Hazare movement ended when the Jan Lokpal Bill was passed by the Lower House of the Parliament—however the Jan Lokpal Bill has not yet become an Act because it remains to be passed by the Upper House of the Parliament. Such short term and limited engagement with movements for social change also gives the impression that beyond a certain point, unless people are able to witness tangible changes resulting from their participation, they cannot be motivated to keep providing support for such movements. This impacts the longevity and long term feasibility of a movement. 

Second, is the issue of the lack of a unified leadership in these protests— even within the larger collective, there were various smaller collectives of people—each having their own set of demands of how the issue should be resolved and with specific ideas of what outcomes would indicate that the movement has been successful. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the current status of the movement against corruption. In August 2012, almost a year after the anti-corruption movement was first launched, and after a very public disagreement over the future direction of their movement,[3] Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal announced their spilt. Although Kejriwal’s NGO, India against Corruption still frequently carries out ‘public exposes’ of high level corruption in the government, devoid of the larger support that Team Anna, most question the legitimacy of Kejriwal’s intention in conducting such public exposures. Many have even questioned his participation in the anti-corruption protests 2011 and labeled it as a publicity gimmick, orchestrated to facilitate the launch of a political party. 

For a movement to survive in the long term such multiplicity of narratives is not particularly advantageous. First, such divergence it weakens the exclusivity that the movement enjoyed and two; it negatively impacts the credibility and influence of the movement. Such divisiveness is also connected to the underlying issue of power and influence that a collective can have. The State as an all-powerful entity vests control over every situation. And the only manner in which accountability can be expected from the State is by mounting a strong and credible opposition. However, dissolution of movements that have previously enjoyed a strong public support base signals the ends of a credible front of opposition that could challenge government action and demand credible government response. 

There is also, symptomatic in these movements, oversimplification and partial representation of underlying issues, which may prompt a misdirected response to tackle the problem. For e.g. the movement against corruption linked eradication of corruption to the creation of an impartial Ombudsman authority, as if the mere creation of the office of an Ombudsman (which is yet to happen in any case) would instantaneously ensure that there would be no future exchange of bribes and that no one would indulge in corruption anyone. However, as long as the benefits of corruption exceed the costs of corruption, creation of an Ombudsman authority is not going to stop anyone from indulging in corruption. Creation of the office of an Ombudsman is not going to halt corruption unless people situate themselves and their customary habit of proffering a bribe to be a part of the problem and reform their own habit. 

Bill Moyer classifies a social movement as having eight stages.[4] His classification gives us an insight into the reasons why the protests mounted by the Indian middle class since 2011 disintegrated very quickly.[5] The failure can in large part be attributed to a deep sense of disillusionment with how these movements shaped up—the movement against anti-corruption disintegrated at its peak (or shortly thereafter) because of lack of leadership as well as lack of clarity over the long term goals of the movement. The goals of the people protesting seemed divergent from the goals of the movement—people were opposed to corruption and bribery but here was a movement posited in the implementation of a legislation to create an impartial Ombudsman authority to try corruption cases. The problem arose because no one answered the questions, ‘What happens after the Jan Lokpal Bill is passed? How will it eliminate corruption, if it can at all eliminate corruptuon? How do we keep the movement going?’ 

Clearly, while some short term successes have been achieved, no long term changes have occurred on issues of corruption, freedom of speech and expression or even sexual violence. Despite that, to classify these protests as complete failures would be wrong. Although replete with various problems outlined above, these protests cannot be considered to be a mere ‘weekend’ display of sound and fury. They have prompted wide spread, increased and systematic coverage of corruption, sexual violence and other issues of concern in the media thus supporting the call for increased accountability. 

The protests have also, as Moyer explains, put the State on a defensive, which results in two different kinds of action from the State. One, which discredits the movement—for e.g. the criticisms levied against Arvind Kejriwal after he launched his political party and two, which tries to consolidate the State’s position as the first responder, for e.g. the swift, even proprio motu action taken by the government (nab the culprits, propose amendments to criminal law, set up a judicial committee and now the Presidential Ordinance etc.) in light of the gang rape incident in Delhi. This helps the State to consolidate its own position and show that it is doing something while at the same time propagates the idea that there is no credible counter narrative that exists to the narrative that it proffers. 

Hopefully, these protests signal a beginning—that we have at least started to think about change. The change in voter’s demography must be understood—the protestor is more likely to be a 20 year old college student, waiting to cast his first, perhaps second vote in the 2013 General Elections who is going to inherit the systems we set up or dismantle today. What we now need to understand is how to channelize this spontaneous anger and energy and get it to sustain a movement for social change that dismantles and creates efficient institutions simultaneously. 

The first step in sustaining a long term movement therefore is the necessity to mount a credible counter narrative. Even in spite of the gruesome reality of sexual violence against women in India, in a very Todd Akin-esque fashion, many members of the political class and otherwise have commented on the character of women who are subjected to sexual offences[6] [7]as well as those who have participated in these protests.[8] When talking about sexual violence against women, the counter narrative will necessarily have to discredit the existing mainstream narrative that purports sexual violence against women as an issue of criminality caused by the actions of women themselves. It is important to explain how the basis of these crimes is tied strongly to the society’s view on the role and status of women, on our understanding of gender, morality and power relations and on patriarchy. The counter narrative has to attack the attitudes of the people, because the most important element of change required is in our attitudes. 

Two, we have to acknowledge that the counter narrative will consist of multiple strains of required action— reform will be required on various fronts viz. legal, social, economic, political. For any efforts to yield results action and to ensure that the movement’s objectives are obtained, steps will have to be taken in all directions simultaneously. A sequencing of actions will only mean that our responses will ever remain reactive— our response would always be to punish the commission of an offence and not prevent it. For e.g. the movement against corruption has demanded for the creation of an impartial Ombudsman authority to try cases of corruption. However, there exists a legal framework in India to deal with issues of corruption. Instead of creating new mechanisms it should be our endeavor to reform the existing mechanism and ensure it works more efficiently. It is also necessary to strengthen our governance structure and criminally hold liable those who perpetuate corruption within the political class. At the same time, it is equally important to create public awareness about how individual behavior of people, when they participate in exchange of bribes is counterproductive to the fight against corruption. If both these efforts are combined and mounted as part of the same fight against corruption, we may well be looking at curbing the menace of corruption. 

Writing for the New Yorker in 2010, Malcolm Galdwell stated that high-risk activism, the kind that results in change in a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon that cannot result from acquaintanceship built over social media forums like Facebook and Twitter.[9] The collective of people mounting the counter narrative is not one huge, monolithic group. It is comprised of various small collectives—each speaks with a distinct voice of its own. Some sign petitions online, some circulate memes. Some make videos, others write opinion pieces and some others just ‘share’ everything, others get out on the street and protest. Every medium will have to be exploited for the benefit of the movement—whether it be writing of public opinion pieces, videos pontificating on issues, memes, academic writing, speeches—everything. There are obvious advantages to the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter in organizing movements. First, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can be used to organize and gather people to protest. Two, ‘sharing’ on Facebook is indeed the quickest and the surest way of ensuring that public opinion pieces are read. True, no revolution can be fought only in the digital arena. But the digital arena does possess tremendous potential which can be exploited to spread public awareness about these issues. 

Finally, there is going to be a continuum of actors interested in any movement for social change ranging from the State, to the law enforcement, to the lobby and interest groups, to media and finally the citizen who is affected by these issues. Besides these obvious actors, there will be many others whose interests in the movement will not be apparent but who will stake a claim to it nevertheless. It is critical that progress forward is made through consultation and negotiation. Pitting people and viewpoints in opposition will not take the movement forward, it will only stagnate progress. Those who protest will have to understand that control on some aspects will have to be relinquished in favor of the State—especially those involving political, policy and legal framework questions. Similarly, there will be times when State will have to relinquish control as well— it will have to get in touch with the expectations of the people and understand what change the people want and commit itself to implementing this change. 



[1] Manu Joseph, Orphans of the Great Republic: The Rise of the New Rebel available at http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/orphans-of-the-great-republic
[2] Anna Hazare begins latest Hunger Strike Despite Dwindling Support for Campaign available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/29/india-anna-hazare-hunger-strikes
[3] Vibhuti Agarwal, Anna Hazare’s spilt from Kejriwal available at http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/09/20/anna-hazares-split-from-kejriwal/
[5] Ibid. According to Moyers, this is stage 5 of the social movement where expectations of rapid success of the movement are not met, thus leading to hopelessness, burn-out and characterized by low media coverage, less numbers at demonstrations and long term goals remaining unmet. 
[6] Park Street case no rape, but a deal gone sour: MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar available at http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-12-29/india/36050745_1_delhi-gang-night-club-insensitive-remark
[7] Sabyasachi Bandhopadhyay, CPM MLA asks how much CM will ‘charge’ to get raped available at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/cpm-mla-asks-how-much-cm-will--charge--to-get-raped/1051317
[8] Painted women protesting, not students: Abhijeet Mukherjee available at http://www.firstpost.com/politics/painted-women-protesting-in-delhi-not-students-abhijit-mukherjee-570455.html
[9] Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted available at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all.

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