November 23, 2012


“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” 
Bertolt Brecht

In the span of a couple of hours, I was part of an audience that was witness to performances by Anwar Khan, mangniyar and folk artist from Rajasthan hold forth with his magnificent voice, Priya Srinivasan, a bharatnatyam dancer recently graduated from Kalakshetra, songs from Vinay and Charul Mahajan who sang in the voice of children who live on railways tracks and Ley Mashaley, a one woman play by Ojas S V on the life story of Irom Sharmila. The cultural diversity of this evening in itself is enough to wow anyone, but what it reflected about the larger space in which this was able to happen, is even more worthy to note.

This was part of the third national youth convention in Udaipur on 20th and 21st October. Like the previous two conventions held in Beawar and Bhilwara in Rajasthan, the idea behind these conventions is to engage with a cross section of young people from rural and urban areas, to create a public space to listen to people who are working for social change, to take part in workshops anchored around broad issues (gender, caste, communication, legal rights etc.) and enjoy cultural evenings. In the cultural plenary, speaker after speaker urged the young people present there to express themselves; 'aapne aap ko abhivyakt karo'. It's really important to express yourself they said; expression acquires a life of its own, it travels in a way you can't imagine right now. Ojas asked - What is media? Aren't we all mediums? What we think and talk and choose to be is always defining the world around us. 

While I enjoyed the convention by itself, I was struck by how seriously under-rated such available spaces were in the world as I have also been watching the series, Activate on Al Jazeera English. This show is about "getting close up with activists as they create change from the ground up, challenge authority, demand justice and build democracies. This is real grassroots activism." These episodes are stories from across the globe, and in a quick comparative glance, an event like the youth convention at Udaipur, suddenly took on far more meaning. 

In Russia, 29 year old Roman Dobrokhotov, is a member of the Decemberist's party working for democratisation in Russia. Roman and his group, through a series of symbolic stunts, including - demonstrating with blank placards and tapes across their mouths (for which they still got arrested) and trying to gift Putin a rake on his sixtieth birthday as a gift for their grandfather to retire (and still getting arrested) is part of the large numbers of opposition forces in Russia who are asking for a real democracy in their country. 

The interesting part of this episode, is when Roman goes to a pro-Kremlin youth camp at Lake Seliger, where youth from the opposition have been invited for the first time. 16,000 young people gather for a Kremlin funded holiday, and Roman is to give a talk on corruption in the Kremlin. He speaks cogently and matter of factly and is met with a mix of apathy, hostility and a couple of serious listeners. This is followed by a couple of questions before one person announces that they traditionally gift all their guests a present, but to him they gift a paper airplane to fly to the USA and take his ideas with him. The crowd then starts cheering, hooting and throwing paper planes at him. However, after they wrap up, a small but significant crowd gathers around Roman, asking him for more information on the facts that he was talking about, on how to connect with him, on how they can contribute, whether he's on social media etc. 

In Sudan, GIRIFNA, (translated as 'we are sick of it') is a youth movement for social peace. In the run up to South Sudan being declared an  independent nation, they prepare for a rally in support of the South Sudans' independence and work towards sending a peace delegation to the new country. Though this sounds innocuous enough, the fear as they go about preparing for this rally is palpable. From the time they’re at the photocopier getting their pamphlets ready, to the time they drive around Khartoum announcing the rally they are followed by government security. When a GIRIFNA activist talks to a group of people gathered around him in a public space, within 5 seconds he’s intimidated and stopped by security guards and taken away. They do manage to get to South Sudan though and then the relief is a super counter point to their fear. 

In China, Debbie Chan from Hong Kong, member of Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour, is relentless in her documentation against the terrible labour working conditions at Foxconn, the manufacturing company which makes Apple products. In this episode, she travels to mainland china on her second fact-finding mission, to Foxconn's southern campus in Chendgu and talks to the workers there. She captures on video, cramped living quarters, workers lining up pre-dawn, to work in a unit that is operational in spite of being under construction. She interviews workers who complain of sore throats due to exposure to aluminium dust and back-breaking working hours. The recording and broadcasting of this information is important, because these violations are routinely denied by AppleOn her way to Chengdu, at the airport while checking her email she learns of explosions at Foxconn's factories. When she goes there and tries to talk to the family, she is escorted away and when she goes to the hospital where the critically injured workers are, she is again taken away by officials from the state propaganda unit. None of this is surprising and is almost expected, for someone asking these kinds of questions. 

In Mumbai, Simpreet Singh, part of the Ghar Bachao Andolan (Save Our Homes) fights for people who are routinely threatened with demolitions of their homes. These slum areas are the most densely populated parts of the city, and its residents provide labour and services without which the city wouldn't be able to function. . These residents are never recognised as legal and are constantly harassed and threatened. There is documented footage of police taking their lathis and sticks out from the garage of the building company (who are in the process of acquiring the land the slum rests on) and not from a police station while going to police a slum-dwellers protest. This episode captures the entire process, of documented corruption, of the pitch of confrontation gradually increasing, of mass arrests being made, of a night of high tension at the police station, of demolitions going through, of life going on after this, and of people eventually rebuilding their homes. More than any of the other episode, the documentation of this struggle had a sense of urgency, and of a lot more being at stake. If the residents don't protest, and if they don't claim their rights, they will be out on the streets. There is also a much larger number of people directly involved, as well as a lot more political maturity in dealing with the situation. In spite of history repeating itself over and over, there is still a lot of fight left in these people. 

Thus this brought me back to what it means to live and work in our country. We have an inheritance of extensive civil liberties, of a democracy, of one person one vote, of minimum wage legislation, of fundamental rights. However, as these glimpses into grassroots political work in other countries indicate, and as Usha Ramanathan said at the youth convention - if you stop exercising your civil liberties, they will be taken away from you. So to take stock of what we have - the ability to question our government, to gather publicly and to live and work in democracy, however compromised and however intermittently it might function, is still very important. A space like the youth convention tries to do just that, recognise the political space we inhabit.

It also plays another important role, of linking specific issues to larger ideas. Like the episodes in Activate, which are on specific issues (freedom of expression, working conditions in factories, dictatorship, slum evictions) but reflect a much broader arena of questioning authority, of ideals of justice, equality and peace. In each of the episodes, there are various points of confrontation. The courage and sense to come through those, does not get acquired over night but clearly comes only after years of hard work and of understanding and reflection on this wider political space. In the Before and After of that flash of confrontation, life continues, relentless efforts to keep speaking out continue. After watching these stories from across the world, I could appreciate the available political and democratic space in our country much more, beginning with that weekend in Udaipur for a youth convention. 

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