Over the past several days, Maharashtra’s farmers have walked (note: not driven, and there is a point there) nearly 200 km to bring their concerns to the state government’s notice. Scratch that: to your notice, really. This is no easy thing, because of the heat, and how old some of them are, and what they will lose by this #LongMarch – but maybe, most of all, because so many of us are so reluctant to listen to them.
But then again, you know what? They knew it was board exam time. They did not want to inconvenience all those Class 10 and Class 12 students so they walked their last several kilometres into the heart of the city in the dead of night to avoid triggering rush-hour traffic jams.
No parent wants their child to have difficulty with transport on a board exam morning. But it must say something about our democracy that our measure of willingness to so much as notice thousands of marching farmers – let alone understand their demands – is the degree to which they “inconvenience” a city (or don’t).
All of which reminded me of the recent CEAT Tyres #ItHelps advertisements, the ones starring “India ke alag alag mahapurush” like “Hamara apne yeh Usain Bolt”, or “Mr Haath Dikhao”. These fellows on foot make the road a tough place for drivers, who must brake or swerve suddenly. The message? India could be an orderly place where drivers could zoom along without worry, as is their birthright, if not for these inconvenient fellows on foot doing silly things all the time. Never mind the drivers we see every day flouting “No Entry” signs and red lights, driving on pavements, speeding up to prevent people from crossing.
Never mind that the vast majority of people who use our roads are not in cars. It is their inconvenience we should really be thinking about.
But let’s talk a little about inconvenience. Mumbai residents are now inured to years of Wednesday evening traffic madness around St Michael’s church in Mahim: Novena time, of course. Friday namaz faithful spilling out on to our roads, completely blocking many of them is just normal. Ganpati, Durga Puja and Janmashtami that are celebrated with noisy processions that also choke roads: we are okay with that too. Some of this also shuts down our schools for the day. What was that again about inconveniencing children and getting in the way of their education?
Not that it is just religion. Our rich and powerful regularly barrel along in their cars, their police protection imperiously stopping us until they pass. Tell me about inconvenience.
In 1993, the Narmada Bachao Andolan staged a protest in Mumbai against the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat. Medha Patkar and some farmers from areas affected by the dam went on hunger strike. Several hundred more farmers were in town for the protest. All this happened on a platform near Churchgate station, so they were able to distribute leaflets and speak to commuters throughout the day. This visibility also meant the press was there in force, with reports appearing every day in every newspaper. That created the pressure that got the government machinery to at least pay attention to the demonstration.
You may not agree with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and in any case the dam has been built. But those things are beside the point. I have no doubt that there were those who felt that 1993 demonstration inconvenienced them. The thing is, during those weeks, they and everyone else listened to the Narmada Bachao Andolan and those farmers. Plenty of us heard the voices that were making certain demands there. That very act of listening amplified the demands. If you think about it, what else is this thing we call democracy? What else, but the airing of voices that we listen to and think about, that we otherwise would not hear?
Yet that was 1993. Because they so inconvenienced the city, that was the last demonstration of its kind allowed in a spot like that in Bombay.
Since then, any group of people that has some demands, some concerns, some grievances is shoehorned into one corner of the vast emptiness of Azad Maidan. Just as the #LongMarch has been – though of course, in this case, their numbers do not quite allow for shoehorning. Visit that corner on any given day and you will find one or more groups staging a demonstration. Over the years, I have seen slum dwellers, government typists, insurance workers and more. And there must be even more groups that I have not even heard of and neither have you. Each group stages their demonstration essentially in a vacuum, until the next group turns up to do its thing in the same vacuum. Being shoehorned, they do not inconvenience the rest of us. We go on with our daily commutes without a clue that these exercises in democracy, diluted though they are, play out in our midst. We do not hear them. They do not get amplified. The issues they raise are never addressed.
A quarter century now of this: so we have an entire generation of Indians that must think this is normal in a democracy. That anything else – noise, traffic slowdowns, yes, even trouble getting to exam centres on time – is, you guessed it, an inconvenience.
Sort of like the CEAT mahapurush. The next time you try crossing the busy street near your home, you may want to think of that. You are the inconvenience. Go to Azad Maidan and cross there instead.