A question of responsibility
Our responsibility towards our fellow citizens cannot be ignored. However, responsibility is not just about what we do, but how we do it too. If we do not respect our fellow citizens enough to listen to them, we do not respect them at all, writes Omair Ahmad
Afew days ago, a young student and I were in conversation about the Northeast, Jammu & Kashmir and other troubled areas. This is never a happy conversation. Too many of our citizens live in unpleasant circumstances in these parts of India and there seems to be little progress over time, except that we, in the prosperous parts of India, slowly forget about these conflicts, or put them out of our minds. Near the end of the conversation, the student asked me, “But are we always responsible?”
My immediate answer was, “Yes, we are responsible.”
Except it is more complicated than that. Who is the “we” that I talk about? What, precisely, is our responsibility? Where do we draw the line and say, “No, this is mine to do, and this is not?” And why do we have such a responsibility in the first place? Aren’t we a democracy, with our citizens free to create their own future? The student’s question was far more complicated than it appeared on the surface.
Let us begin with the first question, who are “we” in this case. There are two answers to this question, one that draws on myths and stories, and the other that draws on politics and Indian history. The first answer is the “we” in this case are the decision makers; the politicians and bureaucrats in New Delhi, their many advisers, all the paraphernalia of government. The whole point of ruling is to serve the people you rule over.
Moral of the story...
A story I read as a child brought this home to me with particular force. It involved the Second Caliph, Omar ibn Al Khattab, who was walking in the forest with one of his advisers, when they came across an old woman loudly cursing the Caliph’s name. Shocked, the two of them decided to investigate, and Omar approached the old woman and asked her, “Lady, do you know the Caliph whom you are cursing?
“No,” she replied, “I have never met him.”
“Then why do you curse him? What wrong has he done?”
“What wrong?” asked the old woman, “Look at me. I am old, widowed, my children have left me, and there is none to take care of me as I wander alone and hungry in the forest. If the Commander of the Faithful does not care to listen to the concerns of people like me, who have nobody else, where are we supposed to turn? He deserves to be cursed by me.”
Omar was stung by the criticism and asked the woman to wait while he tried to address the issue. He immediately went to the larder, where the stores were kept, and made a sack of food, to carry back to the forest. His friend offered to help him, but Omar brushed the offer aside, saying, “Will you carry my sins on the Day of Judgment?” He made his way swiftly to the forest where the woman was waiting, and cooked a meal, before handing off the rest of the food to her.
This type of story is not particular to Omar, or his society. We hear similar stories about King Janaka, Emperor Ashoka, Caliph Haroun al Rashid or Richard the Lion Hearted. The responsibility of rulers has always been the well-being of the people they governed, especially the marginalised, those least likely to have their troubles heard in the corridors of power. This is why there are endless stories of the good kings and emperors dressing as common people to mingle among their people.
Unfortunately, the stories speak of the ideal rulers, but we know that in reality, most of those in positions of power are quite content to stay in their palaces, in their air-conditioned cars bought with taxpayers’ money, that make the common people wait while the VIP convoy drives past. If we leave it to the rulers alone, then we are truly lost. This is where the second “we” comes in, the “we” that involves you and I.
If you are reading this article, you are already among the privileged of India: those with the wealth and resources to receive a good education. You have the money to spend on things like newspapers. Unlike three-quarters of the citizens of this country, you have a measure of freedom because you are not desperately poor. This is the freedom that the Constitution of India promises each and every citizen, but in reality most citizens are very far away from realising this freedom.
Dreams of democracy
A country that empowers only a few citizens is not a democracy – not if that word has any real meaning. Let us be honest to ourselves — India is not a democracy, not wholly, not for the majority of its people most of the time. Given our history, and the history of our institutions, there was no way we could have been democratic at the time of our Independence. You only have to look at our Police Act, which was drafted in 1861, so that the British could more thoroughly control a population that had risen in revolt during the 1857 Uprising. Most of our laws and institutions are similar, based on imperial interests, privileging the few at the expense of the many. And yet, in 1947, an imperial India woke to the dreams of democracy. These dreams are encapsulated in the Constitution of India, which speaks of a free country populated by a free citizenry.
We have made slow but steady progress in this regard, whether by deepening democracy through the devolution of power to the panchayats or the empowering of ordinary citizens through the Right to Information Act. On a daily basis some of the privileged of India push back against the imperial reality of the Indian State to expand the freedoms to more and more of our citizens. This is how liberty expands, and the slow revolution of India from Raj to democracy takes place. We have a role to play in it if we want to, you and I.
Lastly, responsibility is not just about what we do, but how we do it. No matter how good-hearted the rulers, no matter how well-meaning we are in our concerns for our fellow citizens, we cannot drag them to freedom. If we do not respect our fellow citizens enough to listen to them, we do not respect them at all. We can think of the best solution in the world for people in Kashmir, in the Northeast, in the tribal areas, among the slums, but we cannot force these solutions upon them.
Mao and his colleagues forced the Great Leap Forward on China, possibly with the best of intentions, and thirty million people died of starvation, many of them reduced to eating bark off trees or even their own dead. We have been better than that, thankfully, but too often we can trace the failures of policies in the fact that neither the decision makers nor we, the privileged few, have been willing to listen to the rest – the majority – of India. It is past time that we finish the revolution begun in 1947 and win for the rest of our citizens the freedom that they were promised, but have never received. That begins first with us giving them the freedom to be heard, with respect, by us.