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RIP. The end of activism

By Saisuresh Sivaswamy
May 19, 2005 10:59 IST
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Her photograph stared at me from the newspaper, which had relegated the issue to the inside pages. Medha Patkar, carrying the dust of India on her visage and the hopes of millions on her back, her hair unkempt as always, was surrounded by throngs of slum-dwellers at one of Mumbai's maidans used for a show of strength.

Only, here there was no strength on show. There was numbers, yes, but no strength in them. Let no one fool you into believing that democracy is all about numbers. If it really was -- for at any given time, in free and democratic India the dishoused, the dispossessed outnumber the haves, the have-mores and the want-mores -- that rally being led by Medha Patkar would have been a triumphant one, not one that beseeched.

And what were the crowds beseeching? Not clean air or clean water, two simple things our cities are unable to provide almost 60 years after we freed ourselves from foreign rule. Not free health, free power or free education, or any of those luxuries reserved for voting blocs. This crowd wanted to not be dishoused by the city they chose to make a home in.

They were not seeking to live in one of those high-tech townships that builders are planning all over the city. They lived in shanties before the bulldozers came roaring down, and they would be perfectly happy to live in shanties again. But the prettification of Mumbai perforce demands that those who do the city's dirty jobs should not be visible. Ideally they should not even be living within the city limits.

And most of these families that were brought to the streets did have a vote, and they did vote, for they were told before the election that they will not be touched in the city's drive to look like a megapolis, not an over-grown slum. So trusting in democracy, they voted in a government that today has no qualms about forgetting them.

It is people like these that Medha was campaigning for. Sure, she doesn't make it to the front-pages of newspapers anymore, the television cameras may not find her, or the cause she espouses, attractive anymore, but she carries on. And somewhere, drives a pang of guilt home in the likes of me who have turned away.

How different the situation is from what it was 15, 20 years ago! Those were the days when Mumbai had a heart; more importantly, it had a voice too, and made sure it was heard. Activism was alive and kicking then, in your face if you want to use a more current term. You couldn't lay a finger on a slum-dweller without the likes of Shabana Azmi raising a protest, going on hunger strike at Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk for today's crowd), and making sure no wrong was done. Remember the Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti, anyone? There were strident voices that spoke up for the city in the media as well. Remember Darryl D'Monte, Pritish Nandy, Nikhil Wagle, anyone?

Sure, there were jeers, roars of derision, but people like Shabana carried on. They made waving the jhola a fashion statement, and not just reflective of one's bank statement. It is not wrong to say that Mumbai has now sold out to Mammon over Marx, leading to the end of activism; Mumbai has always run after moolah, but through the gold rush it did pause to listen to voices of reason.

Not anymore. Today the government can order adult women to stop dancing in beer bars and find alternative employment, too bad if they can't; it can send in the bulldozers anytime anyplace to raze unwanted constructions, it can do just about anything in the knowledge there may be one or two like Medha Patkar bravely soldiering on, but for the rest, the city has ceased to care.

How and when did it happen? Was it because of the city's changing character, with its mills getting squeezed out and finally selling out, the employees forced into other avenues?

The city was always closely associated with its textile mills, and the activism that permeated the environment stemmed largely from its trade unions. It was a time when the working community mattered, and had a voice.

The mills dying out by itself may not have taken the sting out of the activism, if it did not coincide with another development: economic liberalisation. Suddenly poverty, which was always considered a virtue in India and to be worn on the sleeve, became a 4-letter word. The middle class, which lent its ears to the Cause, suddenly realised that with a bit of effort it could break out into a higher strata. It was not merely the force of consumerism, it was also the pressure of suppressed individual aspiration that was suddenly liberated.

And the youth, finally the youth. A child born in the first flush of economic liberalisation in Mumbai would be a teenager today. Who could blame the activist for opting to provide his offspring a better life in circumstances vastly removed from what they were in his own childhood. Heck, it could happen to you and me.

But the discomfort remains, as nagging as a pebble in your shoe. I see the dishoused by the roadside almost everyday, rubble standing where their one-room shanties were the previous night. Sunfilm on the windows does little to keep away the sullen stares, for it is to ease the ride of the likes of me that their homes have been flattened. Sure, the city needs good roads and other facilities, it needs to become a world-class conurbation, but it needn't trample on others dreams to do so. Absence of protest does not mean absence of resentment.

Why do you think this happened? Write to me at with your thoughts.

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy