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Metro-Middle Class, NGO And Media; Trio At The Crossroads

By Anurag Modi

22 August, 2011

The crowds that thronged two historic public grounds of Mumbai and Delhi in a span 12 days of Anna's movement was something phenomenal and commendable. At the same time, the style and operation in which the movement was conducted has raised many questions which need to be analyzed and addressed. And now, after the storm has abated, one can, and needs to, examine it in more detail, because there are important lessons to be learnt. In times that are changing fast, when history can be made in less than a fortnight, it's easy to lose sight of the facts, and make the wrong connections. And this possibility of drawing erroneous conclusions and setting dangerous precedents is the hazardous fallout that we must protect ourselves from.

Today's youth has had no experience of earlier political movements in our country. It was yet to be born at the time of our Independence or for JP Narayan's Sampoorna Kranti, the only other movement of some stature to have taken place thus far. It is therefore understandable for it to be beguiled into naively equating them with Anna's struggle, making the likelihood of it becoming the epitome of movements, and a blueprint to be followed in the future, all too real.

Equating the VIP-like jailing of Anna as another epitome of the state's strangulation of democratic voices, does grave injustice to the hundreds of people's movements and thousands of their activists who are working against corruption at the grassroots where there is no media reach. These activists have routinely been harassd and threatened, facing sometimes-fatal attacks, several jail sentences, or court cases on trumped-up charges.The examples of..Irom Sharmila in Manipur, Binayak Sen in Chhatisgarh, Prashant Rahi in Uttatrakhand are all too familiar. The methods employed by the state are too many to enumerate, and certainly not as gentle as those used with Anna.

One must realize that, away from the eyes of the mainstream media, there is a much larger expression of civil society which exists through various people's movements across the length and breadth of the country. These are initiated by workers, adivasis, dalits, farmers, women and other marginalized sections of the society. These movements have fought to make their local systems to deliver, and the government has been forced to enact several progressive legislations due to their relentless struggle.

I can speak from our own example. In the area where we work in Betul(MP), the adivasis and dalits were denied their due rights over forests and access to developmental schemes, and they were subjected to inhuman treatment by the forest, police and revenue department officers. With their active support, we formed a people's organization, which helped towards asserting their rights, and kept a tab on the corruption at the local level, which restored dignity to their lives. But the work has also come at a price: we have a dozen cases registered against us based on false pretexts, and have been served with notices of externment from six districts of MP where we work. Several adivasi activists too face a similar plight, with their names implicated in several false cases. These are men and women who can hardly make ends meet, and are forced to spend a lot on fighting these cases. Yet, the commitment to their work is unwavering. This is a story common to all the people's movement across the country.

It is crucial here to differentiate these movements from NGOs, which are registered societies formed by few individuals, which mostly work on the agenda dictated by their funders. The majority, including Arvind Kejriwals's “Kabir” and Kiran Bedis“Navjyot” and “Vision Foundation”, are funded either by corporate houses, the government or foreign agencies like Ford Foundation, Oxfam and DFID, among others. With the mounting global compulsion on the governments and international agencies to be seen as democratic in their various national and international interventions, to obtain mandatory consent from the civil society, it seemed more feasible to create a substitute of people's movement in the form of more flexible NGOs who seemed more in tune with their neo liberal thinking .In order to present before the world the image of a people's organization, these NGOs were tagged as civil society organisations (CSO); to give an impression of it being a civil society representative. The media tends to mix people's movement with NGOs or CSOs, or attempts to portray them as one of them.

What we witnessed at Ramlila Maidan was a fight against corruption led by individuals like Anna Hazare, and honest ex-bureaucrats like Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, who have a commendable body of work in their own spheres of life. Though their integrity is under no doubt, but their manner of functioning raises a few questions. When NGOs get into the role of leading people's movement, they lack people's involvement in their decision making processes.. One could make out from 24X7 live telecast that the larger crowds gathered at Ramlila maidan were oblivious to the decision making processes; they seemed to be mere spectators to the high drama and just adding to the numbers. This kind of behavior finds no place in grassroot people's movement. In this two-week long drama, the support of NGOs was looped in through their respective funding agencies spread across the country and linked in a network with India Against Corruption, showing up in mumbers to make their presence felt in New Delhi

It is also odd that the kind of awakening (or was it hysteria?) that was witnessed in major TRP centers of Delhi and Mumbai, was not visible even in a fraction in any other large city or state capitals in the country. It is definitely worth analyzing that, in a country where corruption is omnipresent, why we did not witness such mass scale protests in other cities, as were visible in Delhi and Mumbai. For example in Harda and Betul (Madhya Pradesh), which are our areas of operation, we noticed that the people who had stepped out to support this agitation were those against whose corrupt practices we have filed PILs in the High Court. When we undertook a rally against corruption with workers in the streets of Harda, people appreciated us. But only four to five members from the middle class walked along with us, despite our earnest appeals. And this was in spite of our long-standing campaigns against corruption in the city, because of which we had been sent to jail, were forced to contest false cases in court, as also face attacks on our lives.

The middle-class in these metros is in a dilemma, its youth is facing new challenges from the increasing influence of capitalist forces, struggling to come to terms with rising unemployment and deteriorating socio-political-cultural value system.! But corruption is a common enemy, and these dilemmas, if properly analysed and given a broader prospective, can be linked to the injustices prevalent across rural India . This new metro-middle class uprising created by the combined strengths of high-tech NGOs and the media seems to lack ideological depth but has the power and amorphousness of a mob which won't be quelled easily, Which is why, it may pose many dangers for other marginalized section of the society living in rural India. These are the concerns raised by dalit activists who believe that this new force can very easily be used as a weapon against reservations for the underprivileged – much like what we saw in the riots in Gujarat, where a frenzied mob was directed against members of a particular community. This concern is also not unfounded as slogans and banners against reservation were allowed to be freely displayed at Ramlila Maidan.

Secondly, to appease this newly-assertive urban metro-middle class, the government may be forced to grant economic favours by increasing budgetary allocations. The development agenda is already so lopsided that while metro cities get most of the share of budgets, rural India is left to feed on MNREGA. Neither does the sun shine bright for the smaller cities. This spells doom in widening the economic gap between the middle class dwellers in metropolis, and those outside the privileged coverage of the government's development umbrella. An increased pressure to develop these metro cities will further exacerbate the process of rural displacement, whose brunt will have to be borne by farmers, adivasis and members of the backward communities. This will only mean more and more resources to be siphoned off for the cities, to sustain a burgeoning population of cheap labour force migrating from rural areas to these metros. In any case, Delhi and Mumbai require demand larger budget allocations than that of other whole states, just in order to keep the city moving.

Thirdly, In the cat fight for viewership and TRPs from among the urban consumerist middle class, which is the major driver of market forces, the attention towards issues plaguing the underprivileged of our country has further taken a backseat. For example while Anna's fast was being telecasted live 24x7,Rajpur Tehsil of MP witnessed, a fight between two rival transporters, which led to one operator torching the other's bus, killing 12 passengers and injuring 15 others who were travelling in it. No news channel gave this news any air-time; newspapers did not give it any prominence. And who remembers the 2740 bodies found in unmarked graves in Kashmir ? In the 80s and 90s, progressive journalists and media houses would still attempt to ensure news space for these people's movements. But in the last 15 years, the issues of the marginalised section of the society have been strategically and gradually sidelined by the media. This refusal to give consistent reporting to these movements has meant issues like the death of lakhs of farmers in the past decade beoming passé, and the genocide inflicted on adivasis in Chhattisgarh by the Salwa Judum or the open loot on national resources by POSCO and Vedanta seeming so unrelated that it appears to take place in another world. This stubborn reluctance to acknowledge the connections between issues of corruption as perceived by the urban middle class and those that affect the rest of the country only highlights its ignorance. It is not unreasonable to feel concerned that encouraged by the results of the 12-day revolution, the urban middle class adopts it as a blueprint for forcing other issues

If the issues of the underprivileged and their protests against injustices continue to be ignored, an unusual situation of class conflict could arise. If we genuinely desire that this awakening among the urban middle class is used productively and linked to the masses of the country, then they must be exposed to true Gandhian values and thinking, to understand and respect the place of true freedom and equality in a mature democracy. The life struggles of Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose, B.R. Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia and other great leaders would need to be retold. Public meetings will have to be held in towns and cities to explain to people the deep-roots of corruption, its manifestations and origins. To understand that development must be equitable and fair, and stealing the resources of one group to give to another is also a form of corruption, people's movements across the country need to get involved in the process of generating awareness. This situation of no dialogue between Anna's group and other people's movements in the last few months also needs to be changed and India Against Corruption has to be more accountable and involve real civil society in their decision making process. If we do not take these steps now, the entire essence of people's movements would be lost forever. Like fashion, the media will then decide on which movement, NGO or issue would be best suited to boost their TRP's.

Anurag Modi, full-time activist for 22 years, Samajwadi Jan Parishad

Email: sasbetul@yahoo.com




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