Monday, January 8, 2007

Middle Class Activism: Spadework for Paradise?

Thankfully for Goa, the pogrom in Sanvordem resulted in a whole lot of soul searching as citizen groups around the state inquired why exactly the events transpired and what was it that we could do to make sure it never happens again. One of the issues that emerged and received some amount of support was that this was a good opportunity to make sure that we went on a demolition drive of all ‘illegal’ shrines across the state.

This suggestion and the manner it was attempted to be brought into action is indicative of a common malaise in our vibrant democracy; the danger of middle class activism. The example cited is perhaps not the most appropriate since it forces us to get into a debate on secularism and the space of religion in the public space, but we should perhaps risk that so as to ground this discussion in an immediate and personal context.

What makes this suggestion so typical of middle class activism is that it reflects so clearly the position of some of the liberal middle class’s opposition to religion in the public sphere. A position that is not shared by a good amount of the population. A population that sees religion as being appropriately celebrated in the communal space. A population that possibly sees these shrines not as markers of their religion alone, but as concessions to realms that we cannot see but nonetheless have an impact on us. These sensibilities do not find space in the law as is currently contained in the law books, but nonetheless is tolerated in practice because of the support that it contains. Nonetheless if one chooses to implement this letter of the law, the shrines go, since they are, according to the letter of the law, illegal.

And yet, why did we choose to focus only on illegal religious structures? Why not on the many illegal structures that are growing rapidly all over Goa? The class bias is pretty much obvious, the more humble of Goan folk erect religious structures as they relate to their land and community, while the Gulf (and otherwise) rich Goan (and recent immigrant) erect buildings that will allow to indulge themselves in the consumerist paradise that awaits those who can pay. This is where we need to focus on the manner in which the law is implemented to make our world a better place. All too often, middle class activism uses the law as a tool to push its interest without creating a space for other groups to articulate their opinion.

There can be no other description of this process than the tyranny of the middle class. The tyranny was visible in Delhi when the Supreme Court legislated, without concern for the men who made a livelihood through autorickshaws and taxis, the need to switch from diesel to CNG. The fact that Delhi is visibly less polluted is not reason enough to condone the act. What we have to be more mindful of is the destruction that pursuing solely the middle class interest caused for those few months. Men who barely got a few hours sleep as they waited in line for barely available CNG. Or men who had to cease work (and the growling of their stomachs) to re-equip themselves with new technology. The upper middle classes barely felt the pinch, the industries that supplied them their transport, were poised to make the switch, or they used petrol anyways!

In Goa we saw this sort of middle class activism when the gaddos in Panjim were shifted from various parts of the city into defined zones. In doing so we refused to recognise that the gaddo operates best as the corner store, rather than just another shop in a long line of shops. The reason for their banishment was their scattered presence violated the upper middle class’s vision of what the picture perfect city should look like. It also violated their right to use the sidewalks. What is surprising is that this group of people rarely walk the streets; they move from point to point using their own private vehicles.

Panjim is currently attempting to drill into its residents a system of waste management. If this measure adopts as its guiding principle the fact that it is being implemented to ensure a decent working environment for the municipality workers, then we ensure it does not degenerate into middle class activism. What we have to keep in mind, especially in a socially stratified society like ours, is that the end cannot ever justify the means. To be an effective democracy we need to ensure that the means are as laudable as the ends. To ignore this fact would be to lay the framework for a repressive system of laws that soon enough could be used against us, just as we use it against those whose point of view we do not deem important.

(published earlier in the Gomantak Times, 2006)

No comments: