Democracy is not a free ride

A plate of upma and a banana. If in a game of word association you said “Republic Day”, that is what I’d come up with in response: upma and a banana. That is what came to mind when, yesterday, I tried to mine my memory: Going to school, taking my place in the serried ranks of boys in their pressed uniforms and shined shoes, standing at attention while the principal unfurled the flag and made a pompous speech, then trooping off to the demarcated area to wolf down upma and a banana, and rushing back home to play cricket with friends.

Rinse, repeat right through my school years and yet, for the life of me, I can’t remember a single thing that was said; not a word, a phrase, a line that meant something, a thought I could enshrine in my mind and carry with me as a guiding light through life. Republic Day for me and my generation was dried upma and over-ripe bananas. Oh, and the horrors of the Bhuj earthquake of January 26, 2001 which, as a journalist, I helped cover for

It never occurred to me to think there must be more; that there should surely be more to this foundational day of our nation than that. And then, on July 4, 2002, I attended my first Independence Day celebration in New York City. I knew there would be fireworks on barges lining the East River, so in order to get a good vantage point, I set out early from my apartment on the corner of 9th and 34th, and walked down to First. Only, I never got there. The streets from, if I remember correctly, the 4th had been blocked to traffic, and a block party was in progress.

People came with their boom boxes and beer coolers and barbecue kits and they spread blankets in the middle of the street and settled in to party. Little groups at first, but as more people flooded in and the boundaries between your blanket and mine blurred, it grew into a communal event. We shared each other’s food, went on beer runs when the supply ran out, squabbled over which group’s turn it was to play music; we laughed and sang and danced. The official fireworks after dusk was a brief interlude, after which we got back to the serious business of partying through most of the night.

It occurred to me then that this was what I was missing: this sense of joy, of celebration. Of meaning.

To be able to decide what sort of people we would be, and to write that formally down as a Constitution, to become a free country and a free people owing allegiance to none, to be able to chart our own destiny — that is no small thing; it is — or should be — a matter of national celebration. And yet here we are, making boring speeches to bored young people and eating upma. (You even have media houses and sites offering helpful ideas and tips about how to make a Republic Day speech.) “Words, words, words, no matter from the heart,” Shakespeare wrote with characteristic prescience about our prosy, preachy, po-faced ideas of “celebration”. And then yesterday, this:

They read the Preamble at midnight, and they sang songs far into the night. Come the dawn, the mothers of two promising young men, one of whom was lost to institutionalised prejudice and the other to the mindless fury of a mob, joined the now-iconic dadis of Shaheen Bagh to hoist the national flag. Two grief-stricken women who have every reason to hate the state and none to love it saluted the flag while thousands cheered, and clapped, and danced. And then they just kept at it, through the day and into the a night lit by cellphone torches and hope.

Shaheen Bagh celebrated with pride in what our ancestors had wrought, with joy for the gift that we had got that day 71 years ago.

It is this Shaheen Bagh, and all that it stands for, that Home Minister Amit Shah wants to get rid of. He wants to be rid of it so badly, he is going around Delhi asking voters to press the button on the voting machine so hard, the shock will be felt in Shaheen Bagh.

That is the language of the Home Minister of the country, and that is no surprise, because this is the same Shah whose actions, as Home Minister of Gujarat, were so egregious that the Supreme Court, no less, ordered him to stay out of his own home state. It is this language that enables — at his own rally, no less — thugs to beat up a naysayer in his presence (with metal chairs); it is in this rally, as in so many others, that you hear the hate-filled goli maaro saalon ko slogan, a direct outcome of his incessant gaslighting, his othering, his pointing to “enemies of the nation”.

This is the lawless, irresponsible man responsible for law and order in the capital of this country, and indeed across the country. And he — and the incompetent, bigoted, extremist party he represents — is the reason thugs mark our founding day by attacking and vandalising a Republic Day celebration.

Pause a moment to consider the politics, though. Here is a man, and a party, going around asking for votes to validate his intent to end a peaceful protest. A man who is asking for votes in the name of ‘deteriorating law and order’ — hoping, even as he speaks, that no one will remember that law and order in Delhi is his direct responsibility, since the police reports to him and not to the chief minister. Notwithstanding, Shah goes around gaslighting Shaheen Bagh and by extension all protestors while his stormtroopers turn up for ‘pro-CAA protests’ armed with naked swords and hate-filled slogans.

So, to the politics: can we now take it that the Delhi elections are a referendum on the Shaheen Bagh protests — since that is what Shah has chosen to campaign on? And if on February 8 the BJP loses, as every indication says it will, will Shah admit that Shaheen Bagh has been validated, or will he hide behind weasel words such as “local issues”, “not a referendum on Modi” etc, which he has been forced to do through successive electoral defeats last year?

Yesterday, I watched from a distance as Dalits in their numbers added their signature blue to the tiranga in Bangalore — another visible manifestation of the growing socio-political coalition of the disaffected: the women, the students, the unemployed, the farmers, the Dalits, the Sikhs… an emerging coalition that is finally shifting the political emphasis from tribal loyalties and from jingoism and caste divisions, towards an inclusive affiliation of the oppressed, the disenchanted.

Back home, I saw and heard on Twitter about Ranchi celebrating the day as Ek Shaam, Samvidhan Ke Naam, with poetry and song and dance. I read of how, on the eve of Republic Day, people in the hundreds of thousands turned up in Hyderabad to herald the birthing of our Republic with the poetry of Shabeena Adeeb and Manzar Bhopali; Sampat Saral and Hussain Haidry and Aamir Aziz and Rahat Indori and others, and I teared up with a desperate, futile longing to be young again, to be a teenager again, to be able to celebrate the day with poetry, with words I could hold deep in my heart; words of flame that could light me, warm me, through a long life ahead.

In Chennai, the city I grew up in, people with disabilities gathered for a midnight reading of the Preamble. In Jaipur, outside the premises of the Lit Fest, young people joyfully marked their protest with slogans set to music, to a pulsing beat (and were manhandled for their pains). In Bangalore, I watched from a distance as the Dalits added a fourth rang, electric blue, to the tiranga.

And I thought of how very lucky today’s young, who turned out at Shaheen Bagh, at Hyderabad, and around the country are. So very lucky that they have been guided, enabled, to reclaim with joy and pride the meaning of Republic Day, the essence of the Constitution and what it stands for — and therefore what we should stand for. As they stood in Kolkata, and in my home state of Kerala, where they came in their multitudes to build human walls of resistance.

To the strains of Faiz translated and sung in Malayalam, the chief minister of the state – not barricaded by a wall of security but standing shoulder to shoulder with lay citizens, affirmed the foundational tenets of equality, of secularism, vowing to stand firm in defence of those values.

Newlyweds of various denominations, handicapped persons, young mothers with babies in their arms, they all turned out and stood, not spaced out as I expected in order to make a 620-km chain, but actually three or four deep, to the point where the final estimate is that around 70 lakh people turned up in that tiny state — a tribute both to the determination of the people and their investment in this struggle, as to an incredible feat of mass mobilisation and organisation. And somewhere in there, I went back and listened to this:

“We are strong,” the Sean Penn character in the movie Fair Game reminds us, “and we are free from tyranny, as long as each one of us remembers his or her duty, as a citizen… Ask those questions. Demand the truth. Democracy is not a free ride.”

I listened to the brilliant and brave Ravish Kumar reminding us that we are voters only on one day in every five years; the rest of the time, we are citizens, and as citizens we have the duty to question, to demand better of our leaders.

It was not all joy. I read that the PM, in his Republic Day Mann ki Baat, spoke of the peace that had come to the North East — on the very day that five blasts rocked Assam, a state that has born the brunt of the CAA/NPR/NRC trifecta for far longer than the rest of us. I read that Chandra Shekhar Azad had been arrested, again, this time in Hyderabad — not because he had done something wrong, but because the state is afraid of the power of his voice, of his presence.I saw this image of the historic Lal Chowk — a symbol of a Kashmir where communications were cut to “ensure a peaceful, smooth Republic Day”, oh the irony; a Kashmir that is empty, deserted, desolate, on what should have been a day of celebration.

But still, it is those images of joy and of celebration that remained with me as I drifted off to sleep on the first Republic Day, in my 62-year memory, where millions of us showed up on the streets and in front of historic monuments or thronged town squares to celebrate, and to recommit to protecting the Constitution we were gifted this day 71 years ago. I was happy because what I saw was an affirmation of what I believe — that this Republic is strong enough, despite the best efforts of the divisive group that rules us, to protect us if we, in turn, realise the need to protect it, to stand up for it.

I’ll leave you with this reminder: