Tag Archives: Democracy

Of Rights And Responsibilities

I have several conversations with friends where we discuss various issues concerning India. One theme I usually find myself constantly returning to is the question of rights and responsibilities.

I have often bemoaned the lack of acceptance of personal responsibility in our country. We all desire freedoms of various kinds but in a democracy, rights always come with responsibilities. And what saddens me the most, is when we complain about law-breakers and corruption in India, we often indulge in it without realizing the inherent hypocrisy of it.

To give an example, we can recall Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption of 2011. Waves of people rose up in support of what was at the core of it, a group’s struggle to bring some accountability to the system. Now leaving aside all arguments of whether his plan was well thought out or not, he had support.

But support is not limited to sharing a photo on facebook or retweeting something. This activism of convenience is what we have become used to. We give ourselves a pat on the back and convince ourselves that we have done all we could. But when it comes to translating words into action, most of us fall well short. I personally know people who would pay 100 Rs. to a policeman as a bribe when they are caught driving without a seatbelt. And the same individuals are vociferous in their support for all anti-corruption movements.

And we have a habit of bending the rules and outright breaking them when it is convenient to do so and where there is a reasonable certainty that we won’t be caught. If we want to really to take a stand against corruption, why don’t we start by doing simple things like obeying simple traffic rules and not using our cities like garbage dumps? Surely this doesn’t call for anyone to risk life and limb.

The only way to bring accountability to the system is to bring accountability to ourselves. A friend is fond of pointing out that the times are changing and people are improving slowly but surely. The fact remains that people improve because individuals go out of their way to improve things. If things are to be changed, it is necessary that we become agents of change and not rest in the comfort of knowing that someone somewhere is exercising his responsibility. We have to do it ourselves.

 

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The River of Freedom

As a Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was a controversial figure. Whether she was a good prime minister or merely a power hungry hypocrite is left to individual discretion. What is undeniable is the fact that she was a born leader, an eloquent speaker and a brilliant writer. In a 1967 convocation address at Shantiniketan she says –

As we enter the third decade of freedom, certain over-simplified ideas of democracy have begun to gain currency. There is a feeling that whatever the people do is right. But the divine right of the people, which is enshrined in democracy, also requires that the will of the people be expressed through reflection and judgement. Every democratic system evolves its own conventions. It is not only the water but the banks which make the river.

This marvellous analogy of democracy and even society being a river is especially true today. Too many people today mistake democracy as merely being a right and not a responsibility. Indian democracy is a river not like the Amazon, wide and strong, but more like the Mithi, narrow, meek and a cesspool of much that is wrong with us.

People I know whine about the legal drinking age not being 18. They want the freedom to drink, yet some do not respect the laws which are aimed at preventing drunk driving. They complain about the rickshaw drivers cutting them off yet they inch over the zebra crossing till they are halfway across the red light. They complain about the noise made by neighbours but don’t stop yelling out at their friend’s birthdays in restaurants.

Truth be told, we all hold some things sacred and we cannot bear to see someone violate our principles. If what someone else does is their personal choice which does not harm anyone else, what is our problem? But hardly anyone shares this view. Even if they do, they do not practice it. And the people in power take advantage of our hypocrisy and make the river even narrower.

If any of my MNS or Shiv Sena supporting friends go outside Maharashtra and get the same treatment as “outsiders” get in Mumbai, naturally the reaction would be outrage and anger. Yet they don’t stop to think about this but espouse Raj Thakarey’s views.

The freedoms we enjoy should be limited to the point where we respect the freedom of others. As Uncle Ben says to Peter, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Cliched as that sounds, we should stop and ask ourselves what we want to be, the Amazon or the Mithi.

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My Untitled Article for Disha 2009

I have finally completed my article for Disha 2009 but I have run out of ideas for the title. Until the time I think up a catchy one, i present it to you in its unedited format. (Title suggestions welcome).

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“Jaago India Jaago”, “Exercise your right, register to vote”, and other miscellaneous slogans have been around for a long time now. But following the carnage of the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, where the ineptitude of our government in dealing with situations of this kind was exposed by Kasab and Co. with brutal efficiency, these slogans have taken on a new dimension. Activists and concerned citizens have taken the next great step in democracy by repeatedly calling for the blood of the incumbent politicians and have been urging the common man to play an active part in selecting his leaders.

Though the rise in general awareness about the election process due to tireless efforts on the part of many organizations is commendable, the effort seems to be wasted as the major audience towards which the campaigns are targeted, i.e. the youth, have had very little opportunity to see democracy in practice throughout their lives. The only experience of democracy we have seen is the meaningless election fervor that surrounds us every five (sometimes less) years. The line between democracy and politics has blurred to the extent that we easily confuse one with the other.

Every government that has come into power has been as disappointing as the previous one and with only the progeny of our “revered” leaders showing an interest in following their sire’s footsteps, there seems to be no hope for change. Students have never seen free and fair voting succeed and never consider politics as a viable career option. Compare this situation with successful democracies (comparatively) like the USA and one would hardly see examples of dynasty rule (George Bush excluded).

The democratic process has to be urgently reviewed at the grassroots level in India if we are to ever have leaders who are genuinely interested in serving the nation. In America, leaders are groomed for public service from an early age. Elections for posts like Class President and Student Council President are held from the kindergarten level. Future senators and governors often take courses like law and political science that would help them in their future political careers. 

Contrast that with students in India where most want to be engineers and doctors so that they could earn hefty pay packets and ensure comfortable futures. There is nothing wrong with this mindset and it is also not true that engineers and doctors cannot become good politicians. But even at their undergraduate levels, their exposure to true democracy is woeful.

In a typical engineering college, the posts of General Secretary, Cultural Secretary, Magazine Secretary and Sports Secretary are coveted by students. But many want to apply for these posts for the wrong reasons. Many probably feel that being the GS of the college would enhance their resume. However no one views these posts as opportunities for enhancing one’s planning, management and leadership abilities and honing one’s people skills because the posts are seldom portrayed in such a manner.

The Class Representatives (CRs) from the third year contest elections for the post of GS and CS. They are voted for by CRs of every other class. But when the process of selecting the CRs itself is flawed, how can one expect fair elections for the post of GS? The students who stand first and second in class the previous year are automatically declared Class Representatives. That the class may want someone else to represent them or that they themselves may be least interested in the responsibility is not taken into account at all. Perhaps the reasoning is, that toppers are less likely to be mavericks and would not feel the urge to play around with money. This is justified to some extent but the leadership potential of a scrupulous middle ranker who can do a much better job is allowed to go to waste and the responsibility is thrust on to the hard working topper who is now compelled to meet the expectations of the rest of the college concerning festivals and other activities which he or she might only be vaguely aware of.

In many colleges there is a provision for students really interested in applying for the post of GS and CS viz. obtaining “No Objection Certificates” from everyone higher ranked than they are but this rule is disregarded in some colleges. Besides it gives some people an opportunity to settle scores with people lower ranked than them by denying them the NOC. Giving preference to certain individuals over others goes against the very ethos of democracy.

The issue is not with the election of the GS and the CS alone. Many colleges follow a completely flawed procedure for the selection of the Sports Secretary (SS) and Magazine Secretary (MS). The primary qualification for a candidate to be chosen as an SS is the number of sports he or she has played and the various certificates he or she has obtained in them. More than being an excellent sportsperson, an SS has to be good at managing the budget allotted to him and has to have overall leadership and organizational abilities that will help improve the overall standard of sports in the college. Similarly, the magazine secretary does not need to be someone who has written a bestselling novel or published an anthology of poems. He can be a complete writing novice. But if he knows what goes into creating a magazine and has a knack of getting the job done before the deadline, then he should be preferred over any budding Milton who does not know what an A4 size sheet is but can fill it in 2 minutes at the drop of a hat (possibly with rubbish).  

 People are chosen for these important jobs despite being completely unqualified for them. This is as ridiculous as Sarah Palin stating that she knows a lot about foreign policy because she can see Russia from her home state Alaska. In a classic example of politics of pacifism, more than one person is elected to one post in order to soothe bruised egos and to retain some kind of influence within the student body. This does nothing to reassure students that sycophancy will be of no use is the real world, and ability is the only thing that counts.

 Clearly, college politics is an accurate reflection of the drama that is played out in our legislative bodies year after year. A large percentage of India’s population consists of youth who would have the power to bring about change in our nation’s fortunes. However if the concepts of true democracy are never fully grasped at the right age, this power will soon wither away into oblivion, leaving in its place false hopes and a mockery of the precepts of the ancient Greeks.  

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