It was the year when the people claimed the public space, when barriers were erected in their way, and when a powerful virus sought to push them back into private corners and places. 2020 began with people’s sit-ins against a discriminatory citizenship law in open spaces and mohallas across the country; it is ending with farmers’ dharnas on the borders of the national capital against laws that have stoked unaddressed anxieties. The anti-CAA protesters were dispersed by the onset of the pandemic but the farmers’ protests have seemed undeterred by the still raging public health emergency — the government sought to paint both as misguided and as a conspiracy but in the latter case has, belatedly but wisely, kept the door open for discussion. In between, the year of the coronavirus saw the very idea and reality of the public sphere become embattled and besieged in new and never-before ways. As people and institutions receded behind a mask, and swaddled themselves in PPEs, it also brought home the necessity in the new year of stepping out again — into shared spaces made more precious by being threatened, commons that must now be made larger and more encompassing.
This is the challenge of the new year and it will not be easy. It will require the vaccine but not just that. It will need the continuing efforts and innovations of the COVID warriors at the frontlines — the scientists, the doctors and the nurses, and other healthcare workers. The attempts to reclaim public spaces will be resisted by Government, which has spread and grown more powerful in the hush of the pandemic, and which would much rather deal with tidy and manipulable abstractions, rather than with the diverse and argumentative people themselves. Reclaiming public spaces will require the Opposition to step out of its solipsism and see the writing on the wall — people’s mobilisations on issues ranging from the CAA to farm laws have shunned these parties. If Opposition parties do not re-engage with the people, if they do not make an effort to reconnect with the public sphere, they will have only themselves, not the pandemic, to blame for their irrelevance. A re-enlivened public sphere in the new year will also call for unelected institutions, like the judiciary, to reclaim their moral authority in a constitutional system of intricate checks and balances that cannot be — must not be — reduced to the rule of the majority.
Most of all, the public sphere must be reclaimed by the citizens themselves. Because its shrinking and diminishment makes them isolated and powerless. If the pandemic has a message, if it has delivered a warning, it is this: The people need to step out, and reach out to one another again, in new and old life-affirming ways. Locking themselves in is not an option in the new year for those who want to leave behind the fear and the debilitating loneliness of the year of the coronavirus. Masked and socially distanced we may need to be for a while — but that shouldn’t curb our freedom for we will always need to feel the sun and the wind in our face. Happy New Year.
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