Friday, 1 May 2009

Candles Aren't Enough

When, a month or so after the 26/11 attacks, I had written my post, After the Candles, some friends told me I was being cynical. I had criticised the swish set of Mumbai for their meaningless candlelight vigils, spewing venom at politicians and `the system’, calling for tax boycotts and use of Rule 49 O of the Conduct of Elections Rules, which allows one to register presence at the polling booth and say that one is not exercising the right to vote. I had said these people need to go beyond lighting candles, that the system is made up of individuals and each one of us needs to change for the system to change.
But the voting turnout in the third phase of elections, has shown that, finally, all the ranting on Facebook and on television channels was just that - idle ranting. Voter turnout in South Mumbai (the hub of all the protests) was a mere 43.33 per cent, less than the 44.22 per cent turnout in 2004.
I had written a feature for The Telegraph on 4 January chronicling individual efforts to bring about change and had spoken to some Bombay-ites who were attempting this. One was Owen Roncon, an entrepreneur but better known as Priya Dutt’s husband. He was working to promote active citizenship and said confidently: "Things are going to happen." Maybe I should go back to him and ask what happened.
Another veteran social activist - Samuel Paul of the Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre – had sounded a note of caution: "This will not be easy to sustain. All this is more a reaction to a crisis than a lasting shift to a higher plane or a mass movement." How right he was.
This is not the first time I have been accused of being cynical about the middle class. In April 2006, I had written an article, Middle Class Angst, in DNA, after candlelight vigils in Delhi and Lucknow and sms protests. This was seen as THE definitive sign of middle class awakening and that this section was shaking off its apathy. I had questioned this view and said in that article, “It's so much easier to light candles and send outraged SMSs. That's a quick salve for our collective guilty conscience.”
That feeling has only got reinforced since then. I am particularly impatient with all this candle lighting business. It has become a meaningless fad. Someone gets murdered and if the case is not solved within two days, there’s a candlelight vigil, with posters demanding justice for the victim. The merits or the difficulty of the case don’t seem to matter. The candlelight vigil worked in the Jessica Lal case because the issue was so outrageous – the murderers had been acquitted by the court after the case dragged on for years because the police botched up on the investigations. But now we have candlelight vigils at the drop of a hat.
But ask these very people to cooperate with the police in solving crimes and they’ll immediately back off. Ask them to not turn away when they see something wrong being done – or worse, not do wrong themselves – and they’ll ignore you.
The middle class is not capable of ushering in any lasting change. That requires an effort that will make our lives a little less comfortable, as I explained in Middle Class Angst, to which I am providing a link. Heck, they’ll have time for nightlong vigils but they can’t go out and stand in a line for an hour or so to vote. This is the middle class awakening that we are all applauding?
Another Bombay-ite I spoke to for the article in The Telegraph was Vishal Dadlani, the singer (of the Vishal-Shekhar duo) who filed a petition against the media coverage of the 26/11 attacks. He said: "It's no longer about sitting in drawing rooms and criticising the state of affairs. Each individual needs to stand up and say I will do one small thing to change things."
Forget it Vishal, just forget it.

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