In this excerpt from his book ‘The Free Voice’, NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar explains why a dissenting citizen is the real strength of a democracy.
In recent times a new trend has emerged among citizens. Putting their unqualified trust in the leader they submerge themselves and their aspirations in him completely. This is not a good thing. When a voter merges in the leader, he is no longer the people, or even a voter. He is merely the dust swept up by a windstorm.
The power that resides in the people must not be frittered away. Be a film star’s fan, or cricketer’s, but never be a politician’s fan. Respect him, but don’t be so hypnotized by his words that you forget to evaluate his work and hold him to the promises he makes. You did not elect him or her to make stunning speeches. Your mandate was for social and economic well-being. Your loyalty, on a personal level, can be towards any leader and any political party. There is also no problem at all if you are a party worker. But as long as you consider yourself a citizen of the country, your conduct should be that of a citizen’s. The task of demanding answers, with impartiality and without prejudice, is yours, and overrides any obligation to an organization. If you behave like the agent of a political party or a religious or cultural organization, you will destroy this democracy. It is your responsibility that after you vote a party into power, you step back and become impartial once more. If you think something is right, and good, call it so; and if something is wrong, call it wrong, too.
We are already suffering the consequences that follow the erosion of our status as citizens, for which we, too, must share the blame. We are living in a perpetual state of uncertainty, wondering about the safe limits within which we can air our differences with authority, without ‘becoming’ or being branded a dissenter. It has become a pattern that the person one is talking to is invariably at pains to clarify, no, I am not a dissenter. My response to that is, so what if you are? I understand if you say you are not krodhi (resentful), I respect that, but why feel ashamed of calling yourself a virodhi (dissenter)? Is it written anywhere in our shastras that having an opposing point of view is prohibited? Truth be told, if you say you are not an objector, you are ranged against democracy. If you have a different point of view, say you are a dissenter. Post ten things on Facebook daily and say openly, ‘Yes, I have a difference of opinion.’ Being an objector is no crime.
If we are not vigilant about our rights in a democracy, it does not matter how much Bournvita and Chyavanprash we consume. It is time to stop looking for all sorts of excuses for our ‘lack of strength’, or powerlessness, and face the reality that this enfeeblement of citizens has come about because we have abandoned dissent and turned to supplication. There’s a world of difference between the two. The process of supplication is quite similar to the act of propitiation typical of a bhakt, a devotee—the gods are angry, they need to be placated; they are bound to hear us eventually, all we have to do is draw their attention towards us.
Take the trader-business fraternity of Surat which kept up its demonstrations against demonetization and GST for almost six months in 2017, suffering considerable economic losses in the process. I observed them quite closely. Whenever and wherever they came out to demonstrate, their numbers were impressive. However, and this is the interesting bit, instead of protesting, they were adopting a posture of entreaty. The Surat traders were putting forward their demands as devotees sing Sai bhajans, in full rhyme. Nowhere were any slogans raised. Cries of ‘zindabad’, ‘murdabad’, ‘ho barbaad’ are so commonplace in a democracy that they are hurled at politicians all the time, without a moment’s hesitation. But no such slogans were heard in the markets and streets of Surat. Only the number of bodies suggested there was a kind of protest going on. When we no longer remain the people, we are reduced to being just numbers. The movement had no impact whatsoever.
The way the traders saw it, their movement failed because the Union finance minister did not pay heed to their demands. In reality, their inability to see themselves as citizens was the sole reason for their campaign’s failure.
Some time ago in Delhi I received a phone call from a lady who told me that alarmed by the rising levels of pollution in the city she had been spurred into action. Now she wanted me to highlight the issue of pollution in my show and mention her work as well. She was convinced that if ten or fifteen television news channels highlighted her endeavour, which involved school children as well, it would have an impact. I pointed out to her that the serious problem of pollution was receiving steady coverage already. If her efforts were not having the desired impact, she needed to re-examine her approach. The lady thought I was a pessimist. I urged her to continue her efforts and never give up, to which she said, ‘We are protesting so hard. All I want is to draw the attention of the prime minister.’
So there it was again—entreaty; supplication. Sing bhajans at the supreme leader’s door till he turns his attention to you, if at all, and deigns to solve your problem, if he can at all. Approach the prime minister as a citizen, I wanted to tell her. If it is a bhakt you want to be, there is an elaborate system of crores of gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion. If perchance you are unable to locate the nearest deity, worship a tree. Hinduism can be liberal that way.
Excerpt from ‘The Free Voice’ has been published with permission from Speaking Tiger.