Subhash Bose’s ‘Delhi Chalo’ call became a legend before such calls became clichés. It not directed towards the urban agglomeration of Delhi but at the seat of the British colonial administration in the subcontinent. The colonial extraction machine needed to be supremely centralised – one of the tell-tale hallmarks of an undemocratic set-up. Now that the browns have been in charge for sixty-five years, should we continue to view Delhi as the venue to lodge the ultimate protest or to celebrate the ultimate triumph?
Take the Anna dharnas. The place of choice was Jantar Mantar — the sanitised ‘democracy footpath’ in New Delhi, under the watchful eyes of the police and plain-clothes intelligence. If Anna’s group were performing a spectator sport (and I do not want to suggest that they were not well-meaning), it seems like Delhi is the stadium where it is worth playing, its inhabitants are the people in front of whom it is worth playing. It is tactically smart – headquarters of major ‘national media’ (whatever that is) are here, Lutyens bungalows of the powerful are here. The problem is that the media yardstick of success and failure of movements and protests played out in this mode is disproportionately influenced by the daily mood of an urban area that is unrepresentative of the subcontinent at multiple levels.
Delhi lacks a robust culture of street-democracy that is so characteristic of other places. It is a cosmetic town, with much of its underclass in the erstwhile-slums shoved out of it and chucked trans-Yamuna. The smoothness of that operation and how similar operations are not that easy in Mumbai or Kolkata are important pointers to the political culture and awareness of the cities, and if I may add, the humanity of the cities. That ‘Turkoman gate’ may mean nothing to today’s Delhiites tells us something. A state-subsidised veneer of opulence by design affects the self-perception of the populace of significant portions of the city, especially the ‘Indians from Delhi’ and the upwardly-mobile, migratory, rootless class. The artificial tweak of the demography of New Delhi by forcible slum ‘clearing’ also affects how issues of poverty and justice come to be viewed in the present public square of the city. A strong Delhi-based middle-class turn-out at the Anna events made it a ‘success’ by Delhi standards. That acute dependence on so economically and geographically unrepresentative a set is a bottle-neck for any party or movement that seriously aspires to speak for more people. This dependence on the Delhi theatre has another disadvantage. Protests and initiatives are forced to play by a set of restrictive rules of the game — a game that the specific ecology of Delhi has helped the powerful hone to perfection for decades now. Malcolm X’s criticism of the 1963 ‘March on Washington for jobs and freedom’ (and for rights of African-Americans) come to mind – “They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out town by sundown.”
Worse things have happened in Delhi. Malcolm X was talking about manipulation. Criminal apathy is quite another thing. In March 2006, a large group of survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster marched on foot from Bhopal to Delhi — years before a court verdict on the case made shedding crocodile’s tears on camera by national parties fashionable and politically encashable for what its worth. In the 2006 Bhopal protest sans young yuppies and cameras, police brutally beat up the protesters, including gas-survivors and senior citizens. 35 children under 12, most of who had walked from Bhopal to Delhi, were taken into police custody. There was a similar dharna this year too — you may have missed it between the toothpaste ad and ‘Indian idol’. More likely, it was never ‘on’. Innumerable others have marched to Delhi on other occasions over the years. Most of them, with robust and popular support in the areas they come from, came to a city of alien idioms and the city, in return, could care less. This loss of dignity of some of the most powerful and compassionate actors of grassroots democratic practice just because they are forced to perform in a hostile terrain makes each of us that much more complicit in their blank, dust-lashed look at the end of their Delhi day. And this will happen again.
In early October, the Gandhian local-governance oriented alliance of many grassroots groups called the Ekta Parishad marched from Gwalior to go to Delhi. 48,000 adivasis constituted a major part of this march for legal rights over their ancestral lands. This is not the first time the Ekta Parishad organised a march. Because this mass of non-perfumed humanity managed to grab 15 seconds ‘between the breaks’ and could potentially cause some traffic disruption, a minister showed up to cut it short at Agra. In return, they got homilies that may be mistaken for heart-felt solidarity. Tens of thousands of hungry and landless have marched before and will march again, only to be looked at with derision and suspicion, or most tragically, avoided by using alternative traffic routes. At a deeper level, this is not a Delhi-specific problem – it is Delhi where it is at its worst. The problem lies with the idea of a power centre – any centre.
Multiple centres that have a spectacular living culture of other kinds of political awareness and practice exist beyond Delhi – Kudankulam comes to mind. In a nation-state like the Indian Union, the ‘Delhi-as-location’ idiom limits the hues of democratic activism and strength of its punch. Why not ‘Chalo Bhopal’ or ‘Chalo Lavasa’ or ‘Chalo Niyamgiri’ – starting from Delhi? Duryodhon’s weak thigh might not be in Delhi.
Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral scholar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology