Why are people silent?

CASH CRUNCH AND LONG QUEUES

As India continues to queue up outside banks and ATMs, with resigned, long-suffering expressions of those having taken one more adversity in stride, one can’t help feeling a combination of grudging admiration, exasperation and contempt for one’s countrymen.

Admiration for remaining astonishingly peaceful despite the harsh, totally undeserved hardships and not going berserk; exasperation at being naïve, gullible and foolish enough to trust any political leader’s rhetoric to this extent; and contempt because of their utter lack of self-respect in allowing the government to usurp an important fundamental right, without even a whimper.

Indeed, in no country would people have taken such a disruptive and insensitive step like demonetisation in their stride, with such equanimity. Is this the same country that had mobilised itself against corruption just five years ago, when the Anna Hazare movement had gained momentum? Are these the same people who had vociferously protested crime against women following the infamous ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case in 2012? So what explains their lethargy in the face of this blatantly ‘organised loot and monumental mismanagement’, as former PM Manmohan Singh aptly put it?
Is it the Indian citizen’s famed fatalistic attitude at work? Or are we waiting generously for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 50-day window to get over, before we become restive? Perhaps, there are more cynical calculations in our studied patience like the hope of being rewarded, since speculation is afoot of a few thousands being put into our Jan Dhan accounts by ‘mai-baap’ sarkar, if not the promised 15 lakh.

Or it could be that what Justice Markandey Katju once wrote in a blog is indeed the real truth that 90% Indians are fools. Why else are we unable to figure out that our schadenfreude about rich people losing black money coupled with ridiculously mushy notions of sacrifice and patriotism are being exploited to the hilt by those in power for pushing an atrociously undemocratic and hugely risky decision down our throats?
For an otherwise easily excitable populace which works itself up spontaneously over the most minor issues, our sheep-like acceptance of the humiliation of being rendered cashless for days on end or being cut off from accessing our own money, is strangely inexplicable.

If none of the above reasons are true, then it leaves us only with one of two explanations – that either there is no outbreak of protests and agitations because opposition parties are not stoking, supporting or sponsoring them (which also disturbingly indicates, that no protests are ever spontaneous).

Or, people are not protesting spontaneously because they recognise that such tactics are ineffective tools against an authoritarian government, like the current regime has revealed itself to be. Thus, UPA could be agitated against, because it was a coalition led by a mild man but NDA is a brute majority government, with a strong man at its helm. And therefore, we have literally fallen in line, grumbling and suffering patriotically in queues, several times over, but not protesting.

The question is can we really afford to be silent? Can’t we see that expressing dissent is infinitely less dangerous than keeping quiet? For, it is not just the current regime but also political parties in the opposition who are watching our reactions. If the government gets away unscathed, uncriticised and unquestioned after committing a blunder of this magnitude and the resultant pain it has made us undergo, it will be tempted to inflict more such ill-thought out misadventures on hapless citizens.

Because we are giving it a message that we don’t mind our democratic rights being set aside so perfunctorily that we are mugs who will fall for more gimmicks if marketed and packaged as initiatives of national interest and be ready to bear more indignity and inconvenience without complaint.

And opposition parties too will learn about our fatal weakness of mistaking injustice for sacrifice, await their turn in power and seek to emulate what Modi is doing today – taking us for granted and treating us as guinea pigs to test his unproven magic drugs, for cementing his own place in history.

Enormous latitude
Already, because of the enormous latitude we have given our leaders over the decades, it makes them interpret our mandate as a carte blanche to behave not like our democratically elected representatives but as influential and powerful satraps, bestowing favours.

Now, if we surrender even our right to ask questions, the relationship is sure to become one between a supreme ruler and subjects, which is not democracy at all, even if there is a parliament and elected representatives.

Isn’t it high time common people started asking questions about the whole demonetisation exercise, now that even a month later there is no respite and it is quite doubtful if the objectives will be met, or whether the so-called long-term benefits are going to be worth all the pain? The media has tried to pose legitimate questions and the Opposition has made efforts to create a furore. But that’s clearly not enough, for the prime minister avoids media grilling and seems to have disdain for parliamentary oversight while claiming he has taken the decision in public interest.

Well, then, shouldn’t we, the public, also share our ‘mann ki baat’ with him through RTI queries, write to Modi and his party MPs, file online petitions, get active on social media platforms or ask hard questions, protest the huge inconvenience and distress, demand transparency, logic and straight answers rather than emotional speeches, tears and melodramatic announcements?

Because, if we are just content to swallow the oft-changing government narrative, the day won’t be far when the preamble to our Constitution would be amended as follows – “We, the obedient people of India...”

(Desai is an author and film-maker based in Pune)

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