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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 37, September 3, 2011

‘Common Man’ versus ‘Invisible Man’ through the Prism of Anna Movement

Tuesday 6 September 2011, by Diptendra Raychaudhuri


Karl Marx talked about class divisions and two warring classes. I assume that was valid in his time. But it had lost its relevance since long. The society has got divided in tens of classes in a country like India. And if the society has so many classes, one cannot organise it according to Marxian thoughts characterised by class interest.

But, of late, these tens of classes have organised themselves in two broad categories in our country: one category is referred to as the ‘common man’; the other category is faceless, and I like to categorise it as the ‘invisible man’. It is very important to study how the society is getting increasingly divided into these two categories, and how one category is trying to corner everything by depriving the people of the other category. It will be further interesting to study the great divide in the light of the move-ment of Kisan Baburao ‘Anna’ Hazare, a movement so much hailed by the media.
A motley combination of professionals and businessmen and other white-collar workers are now bracketed as the ‘common man’. Even the rich and the filthy rich describe themselves as belonging to the category of the ‘common man’. All columnists and interpreters of news, all politicians, and almost all activists shed tears for this ‘common man’. That is why we hear a hullabaloo when the price of cooking gas rises. Following the fashion, the wife of a Prime Minister or even of a man who earns crores a year laments the rise in the price of cooking gas. Thus the ‘common man’ has acquired a definite identity, which is basically a psychological aspect.

Standing away from them is a much larger population who belong to the category of the ‘invisible man’. Consisting of at least 75 per cent of the population in this country, the woes and miseries of these people are seldom reflected in the media. Political leaders seek votes in their names, but at a time when ‘neo-liberal’ thoughts dominate no one acts for them. These two categories have made two distinct worlds within the same country called India. Very disturbingly, India has become synonymous with the world of the ‘common man’, and this was best exemplified during the movement of Anna Hazare.

WE, the Common Man

THE ‘common man’ flooded the streets of the Capital recently, in solidarity with the demand raised by Baburao ‘Anna’ Hazare. Designer shirts, costly jeans, snazzy ornaments abounded in those crowds of men and women. Supporters also poured in carrying banners like ‘Indian Medical Association’ and so many other big organisations in metros like Mumbai, Bangalore, and so on.

This crowd was, as described by the media and Team Anna, of the ‘common man’. So, it was evident that people holding important positions in foreign banks or IT companies, middle-level managers of corporate India, students from famous colleges, universities and institutions, and also veterans who have retired from their various important jobs—all belong to the category of the common man apart from small businessmen, low-ranking white-collar workers and so on. I believe the minimum criterion for joining the ‘common man’ club is a regular employment that translates to an earning of about hundred rupees per capita per day. As for the maximum, I am not sure what the limit is. Secondly, the ‘common man’ is not directly connected to the upper-level power-structure. Thirdly, they have access to some information, and are in a position to comprehend available information. Thus, it is a psychological category, and there are several common traits among this category. These traits include ‘grab-all mentality’, forcing the government to work for and only for them, feigning ignorance when responsibility of things is to be taken up, and so on.

This ‘common man’ always had this grab-all mentality. They were opposed to reservation for the Dalit and tribal people, the two weakest category of the society who consist nearly one-fourth of the population. And when more reservation was added again for another deserving category called the OBCs, the anger of this ‘common man’ burst out in the streets of Delhi and other cities. For many days, during V. P. Singh’s regime, we witnessed the might of this ‘common man’. The sole motive of the ‘common man’ was, is and will ever be the same: avoid sharing the prospect of prosperity with those who have fallen out of the process of ‘development’. V. P. Singh was an aberration in the system (but for his efforts a sizable section of OBCS, mostly from the dominant OBCs, could not have entered the category of the ‘common man’). Otherwise, our governments have tried hard to serve this ‘common man’ from the very beginning. ‘Development’ abounded all about us, and it meant laying roads, constructing flyovers and modernising airports, unimaginable invest-ment for the beautification of Delhi through decades (a model imitated by State governments to beautify the capital and one or two more cities), and so on.

Then came Mannohan Singh who opened up huge scope for private initiatives (often at the cost of government initiatives where a small but significant scope of employment for Dalits and tribesmen existed). More importantly, he and his followers killed the great old values of plain living, and encouraged the new, cheap values of consumerism. Money-making became a noble profession. Philanthropy and thinking about the weaker people became old-fashioned and irritating (encouraged by Singh’s thoughts, throughout the nineties the media denounced all measures to benefit the poor as ‘populism’). The process had to culminate in opening up the huge scope of corruption. Now, the skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboards, and the Congress party is still trying to hide behind the old icon, who in his three-decade long public career has never fought the corrupt system. He brought an end to government control and that helped a wide range of people from Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh to A. Raja and Suresh Kalmadi.

The angst and anger of the ‘common man’ is genuine, for corruption and loot of public money has reached astronomical dimension and is now hurting the image of what they call the ‘resurgent India’. But who are the beneficiaries of this all-pervading corruption? The vast majority of them are from the category of the ‘common man’. A bank officer who takes a bribe and gives loan to a person who he knows will not repay it. A police officer who supervises the extortion structure of the police in the area under the station (every police station designates an inspector for this). A chit fund manager who cheats lakhs of puny investors. A BDO, an SDO, or a lower or middle-level government officer who awards contracts against a cut. Employees of various agencies, both public and private, who make ‘deals’. And, of course, the ‘common man’ is always eager to avoid paying taxes. And that is not the end. The daughter of the ‘common man’ loves to marry one such ‘common man’ who not only earns a genuine salary, but also has extra ‘hush’ money. However, the girl or the boy is not to be blamed alone, for the families they belong to have inculcated these values in them. But, when one Anna comes out, these common men and women too come out and apportion the blame to someone else. Now, it seems that those in the ‘common man’ club have risen against a certain amorphous ‘corrupt man’.

They are being encouraged by the elite in this endeavour. The whole movement of these common men are being sponsored by the elite by telecasting it live. The ‘common man’, once again, does not mind it. The ‘common’ men know it is their birthright to equate what they do, what they demand and what they aspire for with that of ‘ India ’. For the common man the rest 75-80 per cent is just an unwanted appendage that should be, at least, ignored. So, the media can easily describe the gathering around Anna as a mass upsurge and ‘mini-India ’. Or, can call it ‘India for Anna’. I am sure it was not done with any intent, for this is what the reporters, the sub-editors and editors have known from their birth: if people come from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, UP and a handful from any distant southern or eastern State, it becomes India. It does not matter whether Dalits and tribals are absent, whether Muslims are absent, whether a very large chunk of the OBCs (particularly MOBCs) are absent. It does not matter whether Kashmiris are there or not, Nagas are there or not. There is no question of blaming the media for this, for Kiran Bedi has already announced that ‘Anna is India and India is Anna’.

Thus the ‘common man’ and the elite have come together to stop the corruption of an entity called the ‘corrupt man’. All the politicians cutting across party lines are supporting this effort. In fact, there is now a grand alliance against the ‘corrupt’. So, naturally, we assume all the politicians, all the high-level bureaucrats, all mediamen, all persons who move about in the corridor of power, each of them are honest. Because, they are all with Anna. One may wonder against whom the movement is directed then? The whole thing has become very confusing. Is it not that the whole thing is being reduced to a shadow-war? Will the Lokpal be able to stop money going to the party coffers? Or, will the institution just catch one or two here and there, thereby giving an impression that the system has turned clean? In that case, our existing institutions are doing that.

To my mind, this is a game that will ultimately satisfy the whole of the ‘common man’. In the process the system, so discredited in recent times, so disdained, will once more emerge unblemished, untainted. Everybody will be happy. After all, the interests of the politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, media managers, Army officers and corporate heads are closely connected with each other. And, of course, the common man too has so many axes to grind. What are those axes? Simply, taken everything together, the ‘common man’ wants guarantee that the system will be ignoring the existence of the larger section of the population. Subsidy should be there for the ‘common man’, and not for the ‘invisible man’. Development should mean only our development. Tax rates should be lowered for us, even if that means less money to look after the poor. Whatever happens, more jobs, more prosperity should come to us. Laws should help to make available for us cheap flats, and not for some faceless farmer. And, more importantly, no law should ever be enacted and implemented that ensures minimum wage, fixed working hours and weekly off for the millions of domestic helps. The list is tiringly long.

And at whose cost? It will be clear if we just look at these questions: Do we care as reports come that in the graveyards in Kashmir there are 2156 unidentified bodies? Did we care for those tens of people who went missing in Bengal during the Left regime (to be more particular, during the regime of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee whom both Lal Krishna Advani and Manmohan Singh had praised at different times)? Or, do we care for thousands and thousands of tribal men, women and children whose lives were merci-lessly destroyed in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh? Do we care for hundreds of cases of police atrocities that come to light (not many through the ‘national’ media) every year? Did we oppose the organisation of something like the Commonwealth Games spending tens of thousands of crores (Rs 18,532 crores for Games plus Metro expansion plus building T3) when the majority of people were living on Rs 20 or less per day per capita income? Do we know that poverty rates in rural Orissa (43 per cent) and rural Bihar (41 per cent) are higher than in the world’s poorest countries such as Malawi, according to the ‘Development Policy Review’ of the World Bank? Do we know India has a higher rate of malnutrition among children under the age of three than any other country in the world (Inclusive Growth and Service Delivery: Building on India’s Success by the World Bank)? Do we know Indian children suffer more malnutrition than in Ethiopia, according to The Times of London (Page, Jeremy; February 22, 2007). Do we care?

We don’t. And, we the ‘common man’ do not want our government pay much heed to these facts. Because then our share of the pie will be curtailed.

THEY, the Invisible Man

WHEN the Hazare movement was at its peak, some people took out a procession in the streets of Delhi and sat at Jantar Mantar, the site where Anna was on fast on the earlier occasion. These people and their demands went unnoticed. One national daily, probably it was Hindustan Times, published a photo on an unimportant inside page. Others ignored it as it had no news value. No one said a word in its support. No one actually cared, for this was not a procession by the common man. It was a procession of the street vendors, and their demands were so very different: enactment of a law to protect their right to livelihood and their ‘honour’. The placards they carried read: ‘Roti-rozi aur samman, loktantra ki yehi pahchan’. This slogan cannot find its echo in the city of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, or any other metropolis. The people who thronged Anna Hazare’s campaign were not fighting for roti-rozi and samman. Those who fight for these ‘petty’ things are not the ‘common man’. Their demand, their processions, their existence go unheard, unseen and unattended. No Kapil Sibbal, no Pranab Mukherjee ever come to meet them.

These people can be categorised as belonging to the ‘invisible man’ club. They are those who cannot influence the decision-making process in any way, and who in varied extent depend upon social security systems, starting from treatment at ill-equipped and ill-managed public health service. They cannot speak English, they cannot phrase their demands in fine language, and so they cannot ignite a passion to fight for their cause. Their skin is neither fair, nor smooth. Their hands are not manicured. They do not know what is called branded clothes, forget about designer clothes. Fighting for their cause does not win kudos from the media or the elite. If Anna Hazare was on fast for roti-rozi aur samman, that is, the rights of the vendors, of the beedi workers, of the kendu leaf collectors, of the construction workers, of the landless labourers, share-croppers, marginal farmers, or domestic helps, all the TV cameras would have vanished from the Ramlila Maidan. Crowds pouring in from different parts of the city of Delhi would have melted in thin air. Then, Anna Hazare would have become another Irom Sharmila Chanu (if you do not know who she is, ask someone from Manipur, but please do so after locating Manipur on an Indian map), and ‘India’ would not have cared.

Unfortunately, they make up at least three-fourths of the population. They want roti-rozi, well that is a basic demand and millions of pages have already been written on that topic since independence. The governments have not reacted significantly; and worse, in the last twenty years an attempt to fudge the figures about the incidence of poverty and other related matters was clearly evident. And when the country was busy with the India Against Corruption-type issue, the elite pulled up another coup against those invisible men and women and children. Somehow, by someone’s (maybe the then Minister B. K. Handique’s) misconceived initiative, the Mines and Minerals Development Bill proposed that for mining in an area the companies will have to give back 26 per cent of the profit to the locals, who are the poorest section of the people. But, Manmohan Singh, ably aided by his close aide Montek Singh Ahluwalia, has successfully thwarted the attempt by putting forward the argument that then there will not be enough profit for the miners! After the removal of the Minister and placing one Dinsha Patel in that place, it has now become payment of money equivalent to royalty (which is only about 15-25 per cent of the amount stipulated earlier) except for coal. Even for coal, the objection against payment of 26 per cent of the profit is getting stronger, like ‘power would become costlier’. True, it should not be so. Profit of the rich, and power consumed by the ‘common man’ or the elite should get priority over availability of food for the children of the ‘ghosts’ living in remote areas. Very true.

There is no Anna Hazare for taking up the cudgels of these people.

These invisible men do not even know that those of them who live in 50 mining districts of India have lost about 70 to 85 per cent of Rs 9000 crores (as estimated by the CSE, Centre for Science and Environment) annually. They do not have access to information. But they know that the police do not take an FIR when they go to the police station. Even in Delhi, when such a man or woman comes up with a grave charge against a rich man, the police see this as a grand opportunity to extract ‘ransom’ from the rich man to absolve him of all charges. The repetition of the same process has created a tremendous sense of impunity among the rich (part of the ‘common man’ club), who now walk in solidarity with Anna Hazare. It happens everywhere in India. The powerful can kill them and dump their bodies in a pit, or can burn them alive, with the local police smirking and looking the other way. I am sure the Lokpal will make little difference in the situation, which calls for a radical change in the criminal justice system. The impunity of the police force has turned this country into a jungle for the invisible man. No Anna Hazare risks a fast for them to bring in change in the criminal justice system.

What changes are needed to protect the invisible man? That every policeman not acting to save the life and honour of a citizen should be sacked. Every policeman not acting even after the right to life is violated should be put to trial. If circumstantial evidence fingers to police acting in connivance with the murders, at least eight years imprisonment should be awarded to them. Again, wherever the police themselves violate the fundamental rights of a citizen or citizens, they should be immediately taken into custody and treated as ordinary criminals. These are the major issues for the ‘invisible man’ who live perpetually in a police state. Stopping collection of hafta, weekly extortion, by the police comes thereafter. Unless wide-ranging amendments are made in our legal system to bring about such changes, unless people have a forum to directly appeal against police inactivity with intent and police atrocities, our democracy will remain at best the democracy of ‘India’, that is, of 10-15 per cent of our motherland. We all know at the core of our hearts that if Jessica Lal was a maid in a remote village serving food to customers and killed by one of them, no one in this country would have cared. No Lokpal, no Lokayukta can change this situation. And, of course, no Lokpal, no Lokayukta can bring an end to the Delhi Police collecting hafta from tens of thousands of vendors and other petty fellows.

The ‘Common Man’ takes it all

IT was such a nice coincidence that when Anna Hazare was on his mission of fast at the Ramlila Maidan, our Prime Minister suddenly started harping on issues that are ominous for the ‘invisible man’, but good for the ‘common man’. He indicated a revision of the proposed Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. He brought in the question of the industry’s interest, and called for ‘a balance between a fair compensation and to ensure that it does not become an impediment to meet the needs for infrastructure, industrialisation and urbanisation’. (PM’s speech at the Planning Commission on August 20, 2011) In the same breath, he stressed on ushering in ‘second generation’ reforms, which means more tax reforms and opening up the insurance and banking sectors and so on. Probably the package will include opening up of retail for MNCs and such other measures that will hurt the poorer sections and benefit the middle class and the rich. Taken together, the indication of more hardship and loss of employ-ment opportunity for the ‘invisible man’ looms large again.

Why suddenly the Prime Minister had to bring in all this to the centre-stage? The answer is easy. For the last two decades he was the ‘icon’ of the Indian industry and so-called middle class. Now, again suddenly, another man was about to replace him. That another man, Anna Hazare, today has the support of sections of the industry, media, and middle class. To win them back, our ‘neo-liberal’ (recently, some people have started suffering from amnesia about the meaning of this word, but I hope Mainstream readers are not among them) the PM can play only one card. The reform process has slowed down. Too much was being conceded to those who should not matter. So, now go the whole hog for reform, stop thinking about the poor, and win over the middle class.

I have great respect for Anna and his associates like Prashant Bhushan, Santosh Hegde, Kiran Bedi or Arvind Kejriwal. They are crusaders against corruption and injustice. But, inadvertently they are playing into the hands of the media. It was reported in Hindustan Times on August 22, under the headline ‘Corruption is not Anna’s only concern’ that Team Anna is going to take up issues like the ‘Land Acquisition and Rehabili-tation and Resettlement Bill’, and the Indo-US nuclear deal. I personally will be looking forward for the day when Team Anna will take up the N-deal in a big way. That will be like catching the bull by the horn. I am sure, the day Anna will dare to challenge the N-deal in the real sense, the support for him will be over. And if ever Anna fasts for enacting a legislation to ensure abolition of hunger from the country, the ‘common man’ will start thinning out. If he ever fasts for a legislation to ensure minimum wage and fixed hour and weekly off of the domestic help, the ‘common man’ will be nowhere around him.

No doubt, corruption is a very, very big issue. But, there is another such big issue which too is related to the corruption issue: enactment and implementation of a proper Food Security Bill that will abolish hunger from this country. There is a very big racket in this country that wants to sabotage this. Sonia Gandhi earmarked it for enactment within hundred days of UPA II. More than eight hundred days have passed. Our rulers have the capability of sending it to cold storage. I only hope that over-enthusiasm about the Jan Lokpal Bill (which can in no way be thrust upon the nation for it has been drafted by a few and supported only by a crowd) will not help our PM to do so. The contradiction between the ‘common man’ and ‘invisible man’ has grown unimaginably in the last ten-fifteen years. The more it grows now, the darker will be the future of this country. Darker, not because some more invisible men or women or children will die by then. Who cares for them in this country? Darker, because it will give birth to unimaginable social unrest and anarchy that may demolish the very structure on which the ‘common man’ is living a happy-go-lucky life.

Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a journalist by profession and author of A Naxal Story. His e-mail address is dip10dra@yahoo.co.in.

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