Elections are the one time in the life of a democracy when the elected representatives of the people have to listen to the voice of the people and their mann ki baat, whether they like it or not. That time is almost upon us, with the Election Commission announcing that the first phase will be held on April 11.
But elections are not the only time in the life cycle of a government when citizens need to make sure their voice is heard. As we have seen clearly over the past five years, despots flourish when concerned citizens do nothing.
During a time of oppression, censorship and fear, particularly, it is imperative that citizens of a democracy speak up and speak out. But how does an ordinary citizen actually go about doing that? Not all of us can take part in peace marches and protests and not many of us will get the opportunity (or have the desire) to argue our point of view on prime time TV.
So how do we speak up at the workplace, where we are not sure how our colleagues and bosses will react? How do we respond to the casual (and sometimes not-so-casual) bigotry we bump up against at gatherings of family and friends and/or on WhatsApp groups?
Here is a five-point guide of sorts, gleaned from the real-life experiences of dozens of everyday ‘conscientious objectors to tyranny’, who have spoken out against the communalising and de-democratisation of India over the past five years in their various spheres of influence, and have gained some important insights and lessons in the process.
1. Make a personal commitment to speak up
Because if you don’t, you won’t. Every discussion doesn’t have to turn political, of course, and not every political comment someone makes needs a rebuttal. But if we are truly concerned about the social and secular fabric of our society, we need to make a personal commitment that we will counter comments like, “All Muslims are terrorists,” however smart, brilliant, clumsy or awkward we may sound in the process. (My personal response to that one is, “So one person doing something wrong makes the entire community guilty?”)
Sometimes just responding with a simple, “Please don’t send me hate-filled WhatsApps like this”, or “This is fake news” is enough. The important thing is to say something, because each time we remain quiet in the face of bigotry, it becomes stronger.
It is also important to find a deep, personal reason for speaking up. For some people, that reason could be their children, or the next generation. They are far-sighted to see that if they let authoritarianism have its way, then ultimately their children will end up paying the price by having to live in a world without freedom and self-determination.
For others, it is the idea of an India where all its citizens are considered equal which is worth fighting for. Once we have a strong and clear “why”, the “how” will naturally follow.
2. Keep it factual
One of the best ways to speak up and speak out against tyranny is to know the facts about events and share them with others as often as possible. Opinions are subjective; facts are not.
Regardless of the steadily thickening fog of propaganda all around us, the sad facts facing us today are clearer than ever – more than one crore people lost their jobs last year, unemployment is galloping, the agrarian sector is reeling, demonetisation did not end terrorist attacks and Indian society is riven with more suspicion, hatred and inter-faith tension than ever before.
Examples of sites and portals keeping an honest track of the government’s performance and India’s social and economic realities include Indiaspend.com, wadanatodo.net, modireportcard.com, altnews.in, Newsclick.in, the Oxfam Inequality Report.
Of course, there is no guarantee that sharing facts with others will change their minds. For those convinced against facts will be of the same opinion still, but doing so, whether in person or in cyberspace, will go a long way in making people pause and at least question the narratives that are being fed to them.
3. Find your own ‘voice’ and use it
Not everyone speaks up in the same way or in the same forums. Some people are better at face-to-face discussions, others feel more comfortable posting on social media. Some use humour, others use stats and figures.
Activism, as we have seen in India over the past five years, has become a multi-faceted thing. From Dhruv Rathee and Abhisar Sharma’s informational videos, to Kunal Kamra and Akash Bannerji’s biting satires, from Manjul, Satish Acharya and @DaBlockheads’ political cartoons, to the countless memes and song parodies being circulated, resistance has truly become colourful and multi-dimensional.
Many have discovered they have a gift of writing articles and posts. They express resistance through their words, others may have a gift of poetry, and yet others, a keen analytical mind that sees right through government propaganda. Even if we feel we might be lacking in the expression department, there is nothing stopping us from sharing the work and thoughts of those who are not.
4. Keep it courteous
In a day and age when hatred has vitiated Indian society terribly, it is important that those who speak up against tyranny do so in as civilised a way as possible. The issues we feel compelled to speak up on will invariably be ones we feel strongly about. It is easy to lose one’s cool while speaking or listening to those of a different political persuasion, but it’s good to remember that while an emotionally charged argument might generate a lot of heat, it will not shed much light.
It’s also good to remember that it’s not one’s job to convince other people to change their minds but to present the facts and an alternative narrative to the one being peddled. Fights on Facebook have seldom changed anyone’s mind.
5. Be a living example of the values that tyranny tries to crush
The past five years have seen the legitimisation of bigotry, division, exclusion and outright hatred against peoples and communities. Perhaps one of the best and most effective ways to counter tyranny is by being everyday examples of the values that it tries to trample – kindness, consideration, compassion, empathy, forgiveness and solidarity.
A Hindu temple opening its doors and allowing Muslim worshippers to offer Nawaz, members of the Sikh community and many others reaching out to help persecuted Kashmiris in the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama attack and the countless everyday acts of decency, kindness and courage make people pause and realise that the hateful, majoritarian narrative is not the only one. People may doubt what you say, but they will always believe how you live.
And when those moments of doubt hit when we are tempted to wonder if our individual or collective efforts are making any difference in the larger scheme of things, let’s keep Robert F. Kennedy’s thoughtful words in mind:
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man (or woman) stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he (she) sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescence issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.