‘Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.’ Historian, playwright and activist Howard Zinn reminds us: “Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty...”
Democracy is as much about the right to vote as it is about the freedom to disobey and disagree. The spaces democracy nurtures and safeguards for social and political dissent are as central to democracy, as Parliament and the right to vote.
The entirely avoidable storm raised by the government’s clumsy and ill-advised attempt to thwart the protest led by Anna Hazare against the government version of the Lokpal Bill contains vital lessons about disagreement and disobedience in public life.
There are lessons here for the State and the entire political class. But there are lessons also for people and their organisations.
The Hazare agitation is by no means the only peaceful protest that governments have sought to crush. Governments of all political hues have attempted to repress whenever they can people’s agitations — against police brutality and cruelty; land acquisition; corruption; labour exploitation; oppression of people because of their gender, caste or religion; and fights for self-determination, smaller states, land , water and forests.
They have succeeded in crushing dissent when the protestors were deemed powerless politically, economically or socially. Dissent in entire regions has been suppressed by brute military power. The government felt it could crush the Hazare agitation in the same way.
It completely failed to estimate the power of the Indian middle classes, and the depth of their discontent.
The government blundered from every perspective: constitutionally, legally, administratively, politically and, above all, morally. In its defence, it argues that in a democracy it is only Parliament that can legitimately make laws. This is correct only in the narrowest technical sense.
Most progressive laws are the outcome of people’s struggles — labour agitations, farmers’ movements, women’s movements, battles against big dams and displacement, struggles for Dalit equity, ecological movements, the campaign for the right to information, and many human rights struggles.
The Indian people have fashioned and deployed myriad creative forms of non-violent protest, like fasts, sit-ins, rallies, applying for information and hugging trees. Each of these and countless more have informed and pushed legislatures to create statutes for greater justice. Laws, like the Constitution, are given to the people by the people.
The State and the political class, therefore, need far greater humility and patience in dealing with dissent. But it would be fair to add that lessons in tolerance and forbearance are imperative also for people’s organisations that organise protest. Too often we too are self-righteous, rigid and unwilling to listen to perspectives that differ from ours.
We too need to learn better to deal with disagreement. Their demand is that their version of the Bill should be introduced in Parliament. As long as government does not concede this, their leader Hazare will fast. (They clarify that this fast is not ‘unto-death’, but is ‘indefinite’. I find the distinction mainly technical).
The Bill is being currently considered by the Standing Committee of Parliament. Their distrust of Parliament is hazardous, and also unjustified by past experience of free India. India has one of the world’s finest Constitutions and many progressive statutes. Each of these has been passed by legislatures, impelled often by people’s movements.
Take the Right to Information Act, 2005. Ten years of people’s struggles and an enormous range of consultations culminated in the National Advisory Council draft Bill.
The government rejected most of this and introduced a weak draft in Parliament. But campaigners persisted with the Parliamentary Standing Committee, and as many as 153 amendments were introduced there, resulting in one of the most powerful RTI laws in the world.
I believe it would have been more temperate and democratic for Team Anna to have given the standing committee a chance before taking to the streets again.
There are also many people’s groups and individuals who disagree with many aspects of not just the government draft, but also of the dissenting Jan Lokpal Bill. Dalit rights activists are scathing.
Arun Khote argues: “It is an upper caste, middle class movement and it addresses their issues — such as bribes paid to the police or at passport offices. Peasants, vulnerable sections don’t fall in their purview. How many SC/STs dare to file cases in police stations? Barely 5% cases are filed and 92% are acquitted. In such a situation, how can a lokpal be of any use to the Dalits?”
The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information feels that while corruption among judges, legislators and all the bureaucracy must be subjected to strong independent oversight, it is dangerous for democracy to concentrate this oversight in any single institution.
But Team Anna has been dismissive of even these ‘friendly’ critiques.
It is historically muddled to compare the current agitation to the freedom struggle or JP’s battle against the Emergency.
But it is nonetheless significant that young people have taken to the streets with the dream of a fairer India, of more responsive and clean government. I fear these dreams will rapidly sour, unless we battle injustice and inequality, and not just corruption.
And in these battles, both governments and people’s organisations must learn better to deal with disagreement.
(Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed by the author are personal)