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Carnival society

There is nothing representative about the ‘civil society’ gathering at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar

Written by The Indian Express |
April 8, 2011 12:06:47 am

In the shadow of Delhi’s Jantar Mantar observatory,an architectural ode to precision and balance,an inchoate movement against the System is said to be now under way. The sit-in is rallied around activist Anna Hazare’s fast for the acceptance of his draft of the Lokpal bill. His fast-unto-death entered its third day on Thursday,and the Union government gave in by agreeing to a committee made up equally of members from government and from “civil society” to draft a Lokpal bill. But the talks broke down over who would head such a committee. Representing Hazare — and so presumably “civil society” — Arvind Kejriwal said Hazare’s supporters were firm that it should be Hazare,even if the fasting hero is not so keen on it himself. With the government showing every sign of tolerance to such passive-aggressive tactics,it has to be asked,how many “civil society” actors does it take to constitute a movement?

The question of representation is especially crucial,even as Jantar Mantar’s carnival atmosphere with assorted persons carrying placards of individual manifestos gets designated the “second war of independence”. Representation had been the touchstone of the Indian freedom movement,and progress towards freedom was in step with the gradual accretion of democratic rights wrested from the colonial masters. That legacy of seeing freedom as the privileging of the sovereign will of the people has served this country exceeding well. It is coded in the Constitution,with its checks and balances to guard against individual or institutional excesses,and its success is regularly seen in elections at different levels,from parliamentary to panchayat. This system of checks and balances,as is too obvious,is still a work in progress. Various reforms have been made to make the system more accountable — from mandatory affidavits for those contesting elections to guaranteeing the right to information. More is needed. Therefore,it may appear that the sit-in at Jantar Mantar is really another step to deepen this demand.

The danger is that such passive-aggressive tactics as a fast to cast a demand as that of civil society’s subverts the constitutional framework. Can the few gathered at Jantar Mantar,their voice amplified by saturation television coverage,really make demands on behalf of “civil society”? Can they,even as they keep the capital’s arena for free association clear of politicians,coerce a democratic system to set aside due procedure and cave in? A sound Lokpal bill is crucial,but what’s happening at Jantar Mantar is less about the bill than the assertion of a very few to represent the majority.

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