Why Do People Revolt?

Vithal Rajan

Vithal Rajan

India experienced two unprecedented and totally unexpected, mostly leaderless mass uprisings of the middleclass in the recent past. The latest, the so-called ‘jallikattu’ protest of the students of Tamil Nadu has just ended. The previous one was nominally led by Anna Hazare, a Gandhian ex-serviceman, and roused the people of Delhi and its environs against rampant and open corruption in government circles.  In that case, a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party, was formed in short order, and it swept the polls, securing 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi legislature. The extraordinary success of this party baffled the moneyed, well-organised long-in-the tooth national parties of the Congress and the BJP. This AAP, aptly called ‘everyman’s party, had brought into a real people’s movement in its early stages an extraordinary range of people, from retired Naval Chief, Admiral Ramdas, to Medha Patkar, the organiser of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, to Kiran Bedi, retired police chief, and hoards of teachers, auto-rickshaw pullers, and housewives. It received enthusiastic national support from almost everybody, except seasoned politicians.

As was anticipated with satisfaction by politicians, the new party soon seemed to clone itself with the all the other parties, mutual accusations of corruption, incompetence, and malice flew all round, and the tide of baffled protest receded. It was soon business as usual.

In the recent ‘jallikattu’ agitation in Tamil Nadu, millions of students and other young men had become suddenly and unreasonably incensed over the seemingly trivial issue of an animal rights ban on bull running during a harvest festival. The agitation left Madras looking like a warzone. This blaze of fierce anger has baffled both politicians and administrators, at the centre, in Madras, and at the local district levels.

One of the most sophisticated instruments of governance is the Indian system of administration. This hierarchal and commandist structure was borrowed almost without change from its military origins in the East India Company. It has weathered many protests. It knows how to localize trouble spots, isolate leaders, use religious or caste divisions to break up groups, use the liberal language of religious and cultural sentiment, bring out gurus and poets to call for peace, and assure the masses that all will be done as required given time and patience. As final arbiters, there are the huge well-trained police and Armed Forces on stand by. Ethnic isolates, such as India’s diverse and culturally rich tribal communities living in forest lands, coveted by mining or other interests, are ruthlessly eliminated without benefit of the usual public relations manoeuvres.

The foci of administration during colonial days was to extract wealth from India, maintain an army to serve in imperial hotspots, and finally to pacify the people. The cultural and religious heritage of the people, their own good forgiving nature helped secure the last purpose despite horrible famines that killed more than the population of England during the nineteenth century. But there is a breaking point even for the mildest of people, and to prevent a political revolution, the British designed food-for-work programmes during periods of harvest failure, and other ameliorating measures. These programmes continue to this day, to prevent famine and political revolt but not endemic hunger and poverty.

After Independence, the small aristocratic group of rajahs and zamindars could be brushed aside in favour of a new burgeoning commercial class, which soon coalesced with the politicians, and later increasingly with the higher echelons of the bureaucracy. India today has over fifty dollar billionaires and over a hundred thousand dollar millionaires, who live in secluded protected areas, and whose lifestyle is unimagined by the vast masses of rural folk, and visualized only on TV screens by millions of slum dwellers. The rapidly widening gap between the haves and the wretched millions of have-nots has been created by using the very plans of development to enrich the few and beggar the many. Whether it is an issue of irrigation, agricultural inputs, power supply, urban development, communications, or even defence procurement, that plan will be chosen which will first reward the rich – large dams over micro-irrigation, subsidies for agri-manufacturers over credit to farmers, nuclear energy over renewables, expensive roads over livable housing. Even the perfectly adequate public health and educational systems left behind at the dawn of Independence have been dismantled in favour of private corporate hospitals and schools.

At the very pinnacle of the large administrative structure are the privileged group of the Indian Administrative Service, a clone of the old colonial system, recruited after graduation and specially trained to exercise authority as rulers. This layer of generalists work closely with their political masters to serve the will of the ruling class. Ideas and plans which emerge from highly experienced engineers, doctors, teachers, foresters, which could be of service to the poor, but which do not accord with the interests of the ruling class, are dismissed by these top bureaucrats.

Most of the time the ordinary masses of India and even the lower rungs of the middleclasses are too busy trying to cope, and have neither the time nor the information to challenge any public policy. The British created a series of bureaucratic delays entwined in long reams of red tape, operated by several gatemen at several confusing levels, all trained to first suspect any Indian who approaches them, and deny any claim of entitlement unless wrested from the machinery after a long delay. There are unconscionable delays and matter of course rudeness to be met at every desk. Perhaps, this system more than any other component best prevents the masses from raising any political question.

But the middleclass has some resources, which gives them the strength to question the government, if they wish to. However, its members are not expected to rebel, but compete with each other for the loaves and fishes of office. So, it is totally unexpected and unnerving when the middleclass rises up as it did with Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, or as the students have done in Tamil Nadu. Corruption was always there, since it was developed as a cultural routine by the politicians after Independence, so what was new for the people of Delhi? Few of the students who brought Tamil Nadu to a halt have most probably never seen an incensed bull, let alone tried to snatch a purse from its horns. So why the anger?

Repeated denial of opportunities, repeated harassments from officials, a state of permanent frustration, a futureless future for many creates a store of resentment against ‘them,’ – those who live in posh mansions beside sprawling slums, running around in Mercedes and Jaguars buying jewellery as if there is no tomorrow, and this simmering anger is regularly stoked by an electronic media which lives on sensations. Inchoate seething anger bursts out in spasms like Vesuvius over Pliny’s Pompeii, or like bison suddenly goring lions to death after allowing the predators to prey on them for so long.

Seasoned politicians will forget all this tomorrow and it will be business as usual. Few have read their history, so few may know that it is the middleclass that has led all the world’s revolutions. But a series of unfortunate accidents could occur, climate change, years of monsoon and harvest failure, a sweeping epidemic, the United States closing immigration doors, a rash move like the recent demonetization, and the army and police jawans, who are from the impoverished peasantry themselves, could falter in their duty. It might then be too late to take steps to assuage the crisis as the tumbrils move towards the guillotine.

(The writer is a well-known author, economist, and a renowned rights activist. He is on the jury to select Alternate Nobel Prize)

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