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As I sift through the sands of Indian democracy, and the desolation wrought by its enemies, some resistant and life-sustaining cacti have come to view. I still have to get to an oasis, though.
Among the television channels won over by propaganda, money, ratings chase, and the fear of men in authority, I see and hear a young, bearded man of cool demeanour, doing “reality checks” on governmental claims and motivated fake news, seeking to set the record straight even on such forbidden things as what ought to be due to Muslim Indians as against what they get.
In the unperturbable accents of his anchoring, I see fear losing out to the power of truth, and the noisy assertions of the mendacious reduced to gibberish. Kudos, Srinivasan Jain. May your noble endeavour have a long life.
I see Ravish Kumar, doyen of truth-seeking journalists, especially as those truths pertain to the wretched of the earth, name and count those dead of whom the government has no record, and wishes to have none — migrants who perished in their long peregrinations from cities to villages, doctors, and medical support staff, including safai karamcharis, in whose name utensils were sounded but whose count is neither heard of nor available, it seems, in official records; journalists of whom some 380 have so far died doing their perilous and often unpaid and unprotected duty of reporting the pandemic from far flung hinterlands, without support or notice, but with plenty of intimidation from governments and goons here, there, and elsewhere.
I hear him day in and day out bring news of the millions who have not found the jobs they were promised; of desperate young men and women who, having taken job tests years ago, still await their results, and prepare for fresh tests; of people protesting their lot in state after state but never featured by any electronic channel; of the hundreds of desolate young men and women who died by suicide; all losing out in the news bulletins to the one suicide of a film star.
And I hear from Ravish stories of police brutalities, of the law’s contumely, the truth of hate-mongers with official backing, and stories of inspiring inter-communal living and love drawn from all across, even those belts which are most devastated by anti-minority campaigns.
And I see him call upon knowledgeable and impartial experts like Faizan Mustafa to acquaint both himself and us with the subtle and fine points of the constitution, and the laws thereof, never claiming to be a know-all himself, unlike most anchors these days, including ones just born.
And much, much more; so I say to Ravish, most deserving winner of the coveted Ramon Magsaysay award, live long in safety and keep us alive in our residual humanity.
I see Sudha Bharadwaj and Safoora Zargar, Natasha Narwal and Debangana Kalita, standing unbowed in the face of the state’s attempts to ensnare them in contrived cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
And, more poignantly, my mind turns to the women at Shaheen Bagh, and the Shaheen Baghs across the republic, who truly built a civil disobedience movement reminiscent of what Bapu had done. And to the hundreds of young women in student and youth organisations across communities, both in civil society and in educational institutions, who gave their all fearlessly to stand for the rights of the marginalised and the poor, suffering both injury and calumny.
I turn to a Prashant Bhushan and draw my breath in pride that such advocates of little people’s causes exist who do not practice in law courts for humongous sums but to protect the hard won rights of “we the people” as enshrined in the Constitution of India — a man who suffers the slings and arrows of the bench and of rude opinion without batting an eyelid. A man of exemplary and undeterred conscience who constantly reminds the dispensers of justice of their own conscience.
I read of a judge belabouring a viciously sectarian electronic news channel for mounting programmes to malign an entire community; and I read a noble and upright ex-police DGP arraign a police force for launching unwarranted cases against citizens who were merely protesting peacefully a blatantly sectarian and unconstitutional law, and for targeting its investigation, not against those who actually fomented violence in those protests but against those who became the victims of their shenanigans.
I salute Julio Ribeiro for the courage of his conviction, and the impartiality of his advocacy and critique that testify to his commitment to his oath of office. And I admire yet another ex-DGP, Vikram Singh, for endorsing his stand, and for often setting many a record straight in a no-holds-barred integrity of mind and fearless uprightness.
I read a newspaper, almost alone among many, speak truth to power from its editorial columns, and I see web portals that still carry on with the work of critiquing authoritarian subversions of democratic, constitutional, and humanist values, and the work of protecting, preserving, and disseminating the wholesome ideals of pluralism and secularism rooted in the anti-colonial freedom movement, and, indeed, in the still healthful minds and hearts of ordinary women and men across communities, castes, and classes.
I see hundreds upon hundreds of educated professionals willing to lend their names to causes that are anathema to the powers-that-be, without regard to their own careers or safety. And outstandingly selfless humanists like Harsh Mander who had the commitment to chuck his Indian Administrative perch in order to devote himself 24/7 to the cause of justice for the defenceless and downtrodden. And many like him who likewise mix with the soil and tirelessly function as keepers of the nation’s conscience.
I hear voices from among the political opposition still unfazed by the brute majority of the ruling party, and regional satraps determined to keep out the forces of homogenising decimation from their spheres of influence.
And I see faces and hear voices from among the common people who, despite unconscionable suffering and exploitation, mince no words about the rulers of the day who promised them much, but left them holding the sack of interminable miseries.
I count the cacti and keep alive the hope of a springtime when the desert may be dotted with one oasis after another, till the sands are no longer overbearing.
I turn the pages of history and remind myself again and again that cruelty has a day, and, when it crosses all bounds, the least voice raised on behalf of justice and freedom knocks down its elaborately built edifices.
I recall that only some seventy grandees were present in the first Congress of 1885, none of whom dreamt even of dominion status, not to speak of Independence, and yet Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah, Subhash, Ambedkar, Nehru, Azad, Aruna and Gandhi followed, lifting millions of women and men to heights of courage and resolve, until the goal of freedom was attained.
I know that in my own life, what is left of it, I may not, indeed, will not, see the Spring I spoke of; but I also know that time and history did not begin with my birth, nor will it end with my death.
I trust the soul of the nation to find tongue again, and, in simple but decisive syllables, say no to hate and bigotry, and yes to love and camaraderie.
Badri Raina has taught at Delhi University.