It’s Time for the Middle Class to March Barefoot

The middle class doesn’t have the foggiest idea that it is consigning its vital identity of being ‘the people’ to the ritual flames of evening television day after day.

Flatowners protesting against the Amrapali Group. Credit: Twitter/@ProtestAmrapali

Flatowners protesting against the Amrapali Group. Credit: Twitter/@ProtestAmrapali

When political consciousness assumes farcical proportions, people start organising havans instead of protest demonstrations. A few days ago, harassed home buyers organised a havan outside the corporate office of the Amrapali Group in Noida. The ritual was performed by a priest who happens to be caught in the same dilemma.

The much larger lot of harried home buyers, which is suffering at the hands of realtors like the Amrapali Group and Jaypee Infratech, has done its share of demonstrations too. Recently, as I went through the routine of gathering newspapers from the table to consign them to obscurity, my gaze fell upon some photographs of such demonstrations at Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

There was something off about the pictures which bothered me for a long time. The people have elevated the politician to the level of the supreme benefactor and reduced themselves to beggars, whereas they were imagined as something else entirely in a democracy – as those who determine the destiny of the nation.

For the last 12 days or so I was toying with the idea of dedicating five prime time shows to the plight of distraught home buyers but, inexplicably, something inside me held me back.

In the meantime, the woes of the owners of 70,000 flats totally at the mercy of the Amrapali Group and Jaypee Infratech continued to receive extensive coverage in the mainstream newspapers.

If the circulation figures of these newspapers were to be added up, they would cover a huge swathe of the population of Delhi and neighbouring areas. These newspapers must be reaching ministers and finding their way to bureaucrats’ tables. In fact, the harassed lot of flat owners includes officials as well.

If there is any power left with the media, then the incessant blanket coverage of this issue in the mainline newspapers of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh should have the desired impact. There should be no need for primetime television coverage. As it is, the distress, campaigns and meetings of flat owners has received regular coverage in the last two or three years.

Amidst all this, the central government even enacted a law covering all residential and commercial projects, namely the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016, which became effective from May 1, 2017. But official advertisements have been mum about the extent to which the law has ameliorated the problems of flat owners. Moreover, there hasn’t been a single crowing tweet from any minister about how, following the enactment of the law, anguished citizens of middle class India have gained access to flats.

Naturally, news channels too would have gone through the paces of covering the Amrapali and Jaypee affair. Anchors would have caught national watchdogs by the scruffs of their necks and grilled them. The ethical standards of journalism are among the most worn-out of democratic riches and resources of our times. But, even though the media is under the heel of the emperor, the people persist in seeing it as the crown and saluting it.

Soon the channels reporting on l’affaire Amrapali and Jaypee would have shifted gear towards those favourite hunting grounds where the middle-class flat owner spends his evenings. I have given those haunts a name – the ‘Hindu-Muslim issue’. The pumped-up egos and prejudices of the same suffering lot would have continued to be on boil. They would have felt that they were becoming part of a vast and imposing Hindu force, visions of which were being fed to them through the television day after day.

This being the case, why do they have to resort to dharnas? Has the power of the media lessened or is it the power of the people that has shrunk?

Seventy thousand flat owners – this is one among their many identities. However, when this identity assumes centre stage, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Mishra, Agrawal, Yadav, Shah or Modi. Flat owners are the byproducts of the realty sector which has been brought into being by a nexus of cunning politicians, officials and builders.

Last year too we regularly highlighted the plight of flat owners on prime time. We were not the only ones. In channel after channel, the sunset sentinels of the nation, or anchors of our beloved country, proved their commitment to the subject; every now and then, they have to keep the interests of their middle-class audience in mind. After that it was back to the Hindu-Muslim topic. For months, flat owners demonstrated outside the offices of builders in the Noida-Greater Noida area on every Sunday. Nothing changed.

The middle class doesn’t have the foggiest that it is consigning its vital identity of being ‘the people’ to the ritual flames of evening television day after day. The anchor is the new high priest of nationalism. In the name of nationalism, he exhorts everybody to sacrifice his or her identity.

The more power the people have, the stronger the democracy. Lose the identity of being the people and you will find yourself becoming a minority before the system’s behemoth power conglomerate – yes, the very same minority whose killing tickled you, made you clap in delight. While doing so you clean forgot that you too are turning yourself into a minority before the powers that be.

I can see the minorities as clear as daylight – 70,000 flat owners, lakhs of shiksha mitra, jobless educators armed with BEd degrees, lakhs of cloth merchants in Surat and crores of farmers. They all belong to the majority community, but before the power dispensation they have undoubtedly become minorities.

This is the reason why, despite all the protest demonstrations and slogans, there is no redress. When the flat owners of the Amrapali Group and Jaypee Infratech say they are performing havans because god is their only hope, they are accepting the reality that they no longer comprise ‘the people’ of the great democracy of India.

Had they been the people, they would have named politicians in their slogans, not taken refuge in the name of god. The media is running a narrative that the results of the election two years hence are already a settled matter. Content to don the garb of devotees, the people too are complicit in this game.

They have no idea that by behaving thus they are sacrificing the strength of being the people to the raging fire pit of political power, thereby losing all capacity for negotiation. To try and catch god’s ear through bhajans and havans instead of making the politicians hear their voice is the most shameful picture of democracy that there can be. Do they no longer possess the strength to hold protest demonstrations and call out the names of errant politicians in their slogans – those very politicians with whom builders form a cozy twosome, brimming with confidence that the nexus will keep them safe from the long arm of the law?

The people have merged, dissolved, into the leader. When the people become a mere shadow of the leader, they will be nothing more than a cutout of that leader.

My dilemma is that I am besieged by phone calls daily. When the cloth merchants of Surat almost start sobbing on the phone, I don’t know what to do. I cannot carry the guilt of not having covered every issue that looms large before us. I do not have the resources or the capacity to do so.

When I attend to 10-12 such phone calls daily, I don’t get the feeling that I am talking to the people. When they declare the name of a specific political party as the victor of an election that is yet to come, why would the concerned political party bother about their issues?

I am told I cannot lay claim to a good seat on the TRP bandwagon. Nonetheless, if I receive so many phone calls a day, think of the number of phone calls that anchors of news channels covering 40-70% of India must be receiving.

From Chatra in Jharkhand to ASHA workers in Gujarat and radio announcers across India working on a casual basis, I get so many calls that I feel like crying sometimes. I have been getting constant messages on WhatsApp such as this – “for the last eight days about 57,000 Rajasthan government employees have been on strike, you are the lone voice, please do something”. Sometimes I get irritable and refuse only to be overwhelmed by regret.

I do not watch news channels; they must also be covering these issues. If that is so, then why don’t these issues get resolved? Am I right in thinking that when they face the government, people are no longer ‘the people’? They are just flocks – a Hindu flock, a Muslim flock. The Hindu flock is further divided into the forward flock, the backward flock and Dalit flock. The Muslim flock has its Shia and Sunni flocks.

People are indifferent towards the people – is that one of the reasons why issues remain unresolved? Were the flat owners, themselves a troubled lot, disturbed by the deaths, in police firing, of agitating farmers burdened by rural distress? Were they restless on hearing about farmers’ suicides? Are they concerned about soaring unemployment or moved by the anxiety writ large on the faces of people sitting on dharnas at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar day in and day out?

Has this section of the middle class India ever spared a thought for a Medha Patkar, fasting for the people displaced by the Narmada dam? The answers to these questions will show whether there is any sense at all in performing a havan at Jantar Mantar.

Recently I read an interview of Gandhian activist P.V Rajagopal in the Hindi edition of Down to Earth magazine. Journalist Anil Ashwini Sharma mentions the fact that on several occasions in the last decade, Rajagopal has walked along with Adivasi farmers on long marches to Delhi. The journalist wants to know if their movement was successful in making its voice heard in the corridors of power.

In reply, this is what Rajagopal has to say:

“Satyagraha means a force born of truth. In 2006 there was a march to sound a warning note. In 2007, 25,000 Adivasi farmers marched with us. One benefit of this yatra was the enactment of the Forest Rights Act and we can say that 60 lakh people have got land under this law. After this, when nothing happened in the next five years, we prepared for a march of one lakh people. Jairam Ramesh was aware that if one lakh people marched to Delhi, it would send a wrong signal about the government. He consulted the prime minister and when the march reached Agra, he himself went there, signed on a 10-point agreement. It was a historic agreement with the satyagrahis. Prior to this the Central government had never signed an agreement before an audience of a lakh people.”

Now it is for the 70,000 flat owners of the Amrapali and Jaypee housing projects, the Surat cloth merchants, thousands of railway apprentices and ASHA workers, and unemployed teachers to review their campaigns and movements – do they contain the force born of truth? When Adivasis can achieve victory through their struggle, why is the powerful middle class on a losing streak? Why does its campaign begin and end with media coverage, with no palpable impact whatsoever?

Until such time as the thousands of vexed flat owners come up with an answer to this question, I would like to give a suggestion – march barefoot from Noida to Jantar Mantar, all 70,000 of you, not once but hundreds of times. March not for your demands but to assume the mantle of the people once again. Infuse your movement with the force born of truth.

You continue to pin your hopes on the media – the same media that you have had a hand in destroying. And so the media, which is firmly under the heel of the emperor, has become useless – it can’t do anything for you. Don’t let it be your Achilles heel.

March barefoot.

Ravish Kumar is an anchor with NDTV India.

Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan. 

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  • My heart bleeds for the author. Some years ago I used to get tearful phone calls from the parents of students who were unable to write a simple sentence in any language- even their mother tongue. I wish I’d had the courage to suggest to those parents that they should do barefoot padyatra or engage in some other type of satyaghraha. What held me back was that it was part of my job to listen to such complaints. Also the parents weren’t stupid and so they knew that no one in history- not even Adivasis- have ever achieved anything through barefoot padyatras or any other such nonsense.

    Still, I salute Ravish Kumar. He admits that the Media- or at least the company he works for- is worthless. Apparently it is under the heel of some Emperor who is not fastidious about placing his foot in a hot mess.

    I suppose, I could have actually taught my students how to write properly. No doubt, Ravish Kumar could do some proper analytical reporting. But what is the use? Heel of Emperor is stepping in our stinky substance.

  • Anjan Basu

    Being an insider, Ravish Kumar can speak about Indian media culture with an authority rarely matched in our country. He believes that even the most impassioned pleas to media organisations to awaken to their basic duties will fall upon deaf ears today. So, he has chosen the path of ‘subversion’, of mocking and railing against a complacent, self-seeking indolence that reigns in the Indian ‘mainstream’ media space currently. Very few others can do this, not only because each one’s style is different from the others’, but also because not many can lay claim to the same kind of intellectual honesty that is the hallmark of Ravish Kumar’s work.

  • Ravish Kumar was simply wrong on the facts. The 2006 Act doesn’t give anybody any land at all. Adivasis were well aware of this. That is why they were and are pursuing a rational legal/political strategy and not relying on some silly padyatra by a senile self-publicist.

    Ravish is a great communicator. He could do a program focusing on the people who mooted the creation of a Regulatory Agency, financed by a levy upon the Construction industry, able to provide a collective insurance scheme for middle class house buyers. He could highlight those MPs and MLAs who are involved thus boosting their profile. The Party high command will then take notice. Thus the Media can help get the Bill tabled more quickly and do proper follow up and ‘progress chasing’. That is its job. Moreover, their own ratings and popularity will rise. Ad revenue will increase. Ravish will get a bigger bonus.
    I know it is easier just to cover Hindu Muslim issues and say ‘Secularism is in danger’. But people are switching channel. Not all Advertisers are Corporates seeking editorial leverage.

    Most people, even in the bureaucracy or in ‘Socialist’ politics, have known since the Sixties that the whole thing is a sham. My father did know one or two journos or ‘Public intellectuals’ who were ‘naive’ and ‘self-assured’ and ‘arrogant’. Not one of them could speak a single Indian language with any degree of fluency. Why pretend that we Indians- a practical and pragmatic race- were actually bamboozled. We did jugaad with Socialism and Secularism so as to have our own Housing Colonies in which only the kirtans of our own Religion would create noise pollution.

    I appreciate that, like my Father in his time, you have the spark of idealism in you. So do we all. But let us not pretend that dharnas or padyatras or bhook hartals or tatti bandhs aren’t arrant self-seeking hypocrisy. For one Anna Hazare we have countless Arvind Kejriwals.

  • The Indian middle class is a minority in virtually every constituency in the country. Historically, they have had a low turn out. Nothing inevitable results from the voting patterns of a class with zero Shapley power. This is why this class protects itself by extracting rents and hedging on overseas markets.

    In the late Thirties, an anglophone class struck a deal with the Political class- they could escape the consequences of Prohibition, beef ban, Vernacular language instruction etc in return for comprador services. This is still true.