The Idea of Democracy

Before I begin, (can be skipped)

I have a few things going inside my brain as if spun like the saw dust in convection experiment. Though mostly ignored, these things tend to jump in between a conversation or tend to pull conversations towards them so that they can show themselves. This has resulted in a number of “long pause” moments in my conversation. This poor blog is the place where I decided to pour them down, so this process of convection can stop.

The Scene

Most Indians would have had “democracy” explained to them them, as such, in their schools via the standard definition of “by,of,for the people”. What it means in real life, though is understood later in life when circumstances set right. I understood it when I watched a 70s, probably even 50s or 60s, movie. I don’t remember the entire story line, but the scene which gave me idea of democracy sticks to this moment. The scene unfolds as follows:

A group of rebels fight for the freedom and liberation of their land from the clutches of the king, they call evil and his rule tyranny, and establish democracy. On a particular day, they get hold of a bodyguard of the king. He is brought in chains and made to stand before the council of the rebel leaders, who are sitting over a table, discussing strategies. The bodyguard reveals nothing to the council’s questions and proclaims his loyalty to the king. The head of the council tells his men to throw him in a dark cell. As the men holding the chain wait for the council members to leave before they can take the bodyguard away, a man brings dinner to the leader and places it on the table and spills the drink on him. The leader becomes furious at this indignation in front of a enemy and beats the man (a servant in his mind). At this point, the bodyguard laughs aloud and asks:

“Is this what you call democracy? Is this the new world order you are fighting for? If this the example of the society you are fighting to create, my motherland is better served by my King than your democracy.”

And is pulled out of the room as soon as he finishes his rhetoric. The leader stands at the now empty hall, except for him and the servant now curled in a corner, stunned at what has just happened. He turns towards the man in the corner, goes and hugs him uttering “We are all one, we are all equal..” and the scene fades away.

The interpretation

No other song, no other writing, no other painting, no other teaching, and no other anything has made me understand the meaning of democracy as this scene from an unknown movie. It essentially captures what every true believer in democracy fears, “autocracy”. Although none of the governments in the world would accept it, each one them is autocratic with varying levels of autocratic influence. Things like occupy movement have tried their best to expose this wolf in sheep clothing, little has transpired to reality.

Having said that, I do not mean to take the stand of a socialist by condemning free economy and enterprises, nor do I support the capitalist propaganda of talking in terms of wealth. But I believe there exists enough moral ground between the two in order to explore and settle. And probably the correct interpretation of democracy lies somewhere in that space.

Amateurs We Are

A highly opinionated piece on the Student Hunger Strike Movement for Tamil Eelam. Why the movement doesn’t gain or will never gain importance due to the amateurish execution.

This post is a highly opinionated piece on the Student Hunger Strike Movement for Tamil Eelam. The views are my own and doesn’t reflect anyone else’s.

I have been getting emotional and all that due to the meager response we received for the student strike across Tamil Nadu pressing the Central Government to bring out a referendum condemning Sri Lankan Government for its genocidal activities against Tamils and a demand for a separate state(country) of Tamil Eelam. Some said our strike was already a success since the DMK party has walked out of its alliance from the UPA Government. Some said it to be the greatest student movement since 1965. Was it really a great movement? And if so, why are we still counting on Facebook likes and social media for news delivery? Why hasn’t any 24×7 new channel called any of us for prime time? Why do strangers still question us about impact of the movement? Sure, it has been on for 15-20 days, depending on how you count, and has mobilized students all across the state (Tamil Nadu) including entire colleges in many cases. It has students from all sorts of background, arts, science, law, engineering, medicine, charted accounts. If the educational diversity isn’t enough, the geographic is more amazing, we have got support from Pittsburgh, London, Paris, Melbourne, Malaysia, Canada, Gulf and the list flows. Despite all this diversity, variety, size and enthusiasm, we were still a inner page news. Impact? Big psychologically – among the people who followed us, encouraged us and supported us, but politically – measurable if you count that DMK walkout. If you want to measure the political impact based on our set goals, well, I would say NIL. Everything that happened in the last week would have happened just as it happened, despite the movement. Why? Why didn’t it move anything tangibly?

Update: A student representative talked in the 9’o clock prime time in Puthiya Thalaimurai as I wrote this. At last a tinge of impact.

The Answers

The answer is simple, we are still students, inexperienced amateurs. That is it? Nothing more? Judging by the Press Meet that happened on 22nd March 2013 in the Chennai Press Club, I personally think, Yes, that is it. Nothing more.

Peeking a little bit, trying to know the anatomy of this movement and its growth, I am trying to see what really ran this movement (yes, it is past tense already, at least for me). The movements roots are seen in the Hunger Strike by Loyola students, they fasted at least for a week before getting arrested and thrown into the hospitals. Early reports chided their demands. Other college students were heard joining the movement in support of the protest. When IIT joined on 17th and a public call was put forth for all Tamil Nadu student strike on the 18th, there was no stopping. To me 18th was the day of rising, but who gave the strength? No one. As I re-positioned myself on that day looking for the core of the movement, it struck me, there was “No one”. Everyone had been doing and everybody else was also doing, no central authority, no agenda, no multistage plan, no organization, nothing. Just an ad-hoc network that kept itself flowing. There is no structure in the anatomy.

We wouldn’t let any political party to guide us, we wouldn’t allow anyone dictate our agenda. We just wanted to go on and on and on. People who were there on the Marina that day (20th March) know that feeling. Some said it was fight until death, but the well-known untold truth was, the movement was bound to die on the day of Geneva UNHRC voting. 21st March is the day the movement will finally loose shape is what I suspected. After some field action on 21st,when I saw the update “There will be a press meet by 11 AM at the Chennai Press Club tomorrow“. I thought “this meet is the one that is going to make or break the movement” The movement was in its perfect infancy. I had tweeted earlier,

. Not just the students, the movement itself was perfect clay for mould.

The Press Meet

I would say the the Press Meet broke the movement, put it bluntly, it just said “We were just kidding guys, you just fell for a prank”. Don’t take it wrongly that I am insulting the movement or the people who gave the press release. It is just that we guys are amateurs. When I entered the Press Club someone (4 of them) was already getting ready to sit on the dais. They called themselves representatives from some student federation. They said that Center hasn’t yet reacted to the protests of students and in order to make it turn to their side they would give a deadline until March 31st. If they haven’t reacted by then, they would get students to protest in front of President’s residence. In the meantime they had planned to arrange seminars across all districts of Tamil Nadu to bring more awareness about the Eelam issue. That was it. Press meet over in a matter of 5mins. I really thought, wow, so short and simple, clear and crisp, this is going to be great. A week to plan, co-ordinate, maybe create alternate approaches and execute. Although I was a bit disappointed for travelling 40mins for a 5min press meet, the message was more than compensating. In fact, bright and acceptable to all standards.

But the day wouldn’t end that easy. When I came out, there was another group waiting, the people who have organised the Marina Beach event, the people behind the FB page and to a certain degree it was the core group who initiated the movement. Then who are those people who talked to press a moment ago? What? They are different? There are two groups? Forget groups, now we have two faces? Two identities? “A movement with two faces is history even before it is born” is my opinion. The second group was a loose congregation of individuals from various colleges, mostly one per college, rarely two. This explained the movement’s  structure-less anatomy and ad-hoc-ness.

The Amateurs in Action

I had the option to stand on the dais or to sit down as a audience. I chose to sit down, for I am not worthy to stand on the dais. I haven’t attended a press meet in life, but have seen a lot of project reviews. I presume both are almost same, there are people sitting opposite to you ready to strip your project naked, tease every part of it until they prove your work is shit or you prove them your work is gold. No body really bothers the actual outcome (at least in colleges), what matters is the work you have put in, things you have learnt, and what the future work is. So the students were on the stage presenting their project, this one was a real world one.

First an introduction and official statement was requested. Both proved we were kids. The introductions went haphazard with almost 10 people introducing themselves. It would have been better if spokespersons would have been decided and they introduced and started with the official statement. The statement was a lengthy one, thanking for the students who made this possible, condemning the nil response of the center, the important demands of the movement, and the future plan. The future plan is the one that poured ice water over the burning fire, it is to undertake a “Non Cooperation Movement” against Govt of India to pressure them to take notice of the issue. Non Cooperation Movement? Against British? No? Not the British India? Oops Sorry. I am still wondering, how did this people even conceive this idea?

Press had some unfinished business that day, they wanted first to know about the integrity of the movement before even talking about what the movement “plans” to do. With two parties issuing Press Release on the same day on the same dais, anyone would doubt the integrity. Luckily the clear and crisp guy who talked earlier was in the dais with the second group too, but gave a fuzzy reply. He said, “When you fight under a single banner, it might induce boredom. Since two bodies are there we can carry each other in times of slackness.”  What? Boredom? Slackness? After 1 week on field? Oh! Boy. Why me? Why did I feel good about this guy a few minutes before? The press pressed for more, students blurted out there exists some differences, but they are working hand in hand with each other and will support each other. I really wish they have resolved conflicts and issued a joined press release, hiding the differences under the dais carpet. If two groups are bad, different future plans are worse. Look at them, one wants to reach Delhi, one wants the Delhi to reach them. I personally felt, the press meet a disaster. The more they are going to talk the more damage would be inflicted.

Moving to the Non Cooperation movement, press wanted to know how students planned to implement it. The implementation would be by not paying toll fees, no taking tickets in trains, no paying taxes, not doing anything that earns a revenue for the government. So who would implement it? Will the students block the toll collectors, the ticket counters, lay siege to tax offices..etc.? “It is to be done by gaining the support of the public, and hence we are calling the public take up the non cooperation movement”. What? A call for the public? I thought it was a student movement. Public support is good thing to ask for, but telling public to take forward the movement? This is where I really really felt the “We were kidding……..” moment. Even if the directive was to telling students lay siege to toll gates and ticket counters I would have felt happy at the simple-thought proposal of “non cooperation movement”. But telling the public to take over indirectly was like “Hey play time is over go to bed now.” Actually this statement put the movement to bed. Someone was mentioning something about stopping the power from Neyveli Lignite Corporation at the last minute briefing when waiting outside, luckily they didn’t mention it inside, I would have stood up and walked home crying.

The official statement carried a phrase, “throwing the Congress Party out of Tamil Nadu by democratic process“.  I actually warned the guy before entering not to talk about political parties in general. It looked like Congress was already printed in the press note they brought. Fine, if hell breaks loose who cares about excesses? Then came the question:

Why congress?

Because they don’t support our agenda.

The BJP doesn’t support too. What do you say about that?

We do not support BJP either.

You want to make the center to act. If both parties are against your demands, whoever comes to power in center they won’t support you. How/When do you think you can achieve your goals?

We will create a third front.

This hit the floor square, everyone laughed, including me (pardon me,I didn’t mean to insult). Future movement organizers, I beg you, if you are creating a apolitical movement, make sure your entire process is apolitical. I personally would have preferred to talk about central govt in general not about a particular party. Or at least would have avoided the direct political questions by saying the movement is not yet fully grown to impact such big political changes. I am not thinking this over and writing, I was precisely thinking those “deflective” answers sitting in the audience, I just wonder why no one on stage thought the same.

With political immaturity clearly exhibited, it was time to take the Foreign Policy test. There was some phrase let loose somewhere about “boycotting US goods” in the students’ statements. When I heard that question, I actually thought myself sitting in pre-1947 era press conference.

“Why do you want to boycott US goods?”

“Since US has been supportive of the SL govt and has brought out a eye washing resolution in the UNHRC, we strongly condemn their actions and hence call for a total boycott of US goods in Tamil Nadu”

“Ok. What about China goods then? China too supports the SriLankan Govt.”

“We would call for a boycott of Chinese goods too.”

“Do you think this will actually work out?”

“That is what we want to convey in this press meet, we want the public to support us by boycotting these goods”

Personally I wanted to get up and reply, “The questions are beyond the preview of our planned agenda” and put an end to this leg pulling by the Press, but someone had put the US goods boycotting thing in it already. The water has gone above the head, would it matter if its a feet or a yard?

Then the purpose of these boycotts and non cooperation was raised. Drawing the attention of center govt, the US and others, making them to hear our pleas and getting them react was the response, at which a press member commented a bit bluntly “No one will come to talk you from the center. No one.” I think that guy really supported the students and wanted the movement to have a tangible outcome, but was completely put off by the amateurish way things turned out.

Someone asked, “Since you are against the center government completely, don’t you think this might affect the future prospect of Tamil Nadu students in getting passports, or central govt jobs etc.”. I don’t know whether this was a legit question. What I sensed was, it was a tricky question to bring out the secessionist ideals hidden under the movement, if any. I didn’t have answer, don’t yet have. The reply served the questions purpose though, “While two Kerala fisherman were killed by Italians, a lot importance was given to the issue, but more than 570 Tamil Nadu fishermen have been killed so far, but there is no concrete step taken by govt to stop this. We think we (tamilians) are already being treated as second class citizens, so being sidelined by center is nothing new”. There you go trickster, we have fallen for it. Satisfied? This response brought out the secessionist thoughts hidden underneath neatly.

Luckily my most feared question did not come up. If they have inquired about the presence of LTTE leader Prabakaran’s photos in the protests, we would have been goners. For many would have said Prabakaran as their leader and called themselves a LTTE cadre. I think since the majority was Tamil media, we were saved that moment.

There are a few more pain points to note as well,

  • at some particular point someone on the stage became emotional and started shouting
  • at the end of the press meet someone from dias called the press people and explained for some obscure question asked in the middle somewhere and was given no consideration
  • answered almost every question put forth, even for things that were beyond the purview of the movement
  • naive – couldn’t judge questions that would eventually bring out the bad hidden under

Last Words

I understand this was the first press movement most would have attended and there might be slips, but some I have put forth are blunders. At least I think them as political blunders. At the end, I am under the confusion, whether I am complete fool who thinks himself to be intellectual enough to write this piece or I am actually more mature than the amateurs.

I wonder when everything was shared over the facebook, Why wasn’t a call for opinions on how to take this movement was not called for? Why wasn’t the points to be spoken in the press meet discussed over with others? Did they assume themselves to be the leaders of the movement? It is more questions for me. If this press release is going to decide the future of the movement, then the epitaph has been written between the lines of the press release.

A Day of Activism in Anna University

A recollection of the events that happened on 18th March 2013 Anna University Strike in support of students striking all over TamilNadu to press for sanctions against SriLanka in response to killing of Tamilians.

Anna University, a silent place where political issues rarely rise to the surface saw its own share of Student Activism for a political humanitarian issue on March 18th 2013. This is a recollection of what happened on the day as I know it.

Pre-Strike Activity

Loyola Student Hunger Strike started about a week ago in support of a referendum against the SriLankan Government for Genocide of Tamilians during the Last Eelam War with the LTTE and ended only to snowball the movement across all over Tamil Nadu. With the IITians joining the protest on 17th March, it was time Anna University students came out of their comfort cocoons and took to the streets.

I was sitting at a WiFi hut near the canteen talking about the extra-ordinary presence of a large group of police posted in the Saidapet Court. I have been reading that the student movement has come to a conclusion that sitting and protesting wouldn’t move things and has decided to take things to the real world by picketing the central government offices. Just then a student near me was talking over the phone about the presence of police in the campus. I let it slip through, since the Computer Science Department was hosting technical festival Abacus ’13, and police, usually, is the topic when people come in to university premises, since they were deployed about a week ago in response to the Loyola Strike.

Getting there

It was about 10.40AM when I was sitting in the Student Research Lab of Institute of Remote Sensing trying to learn time series analysis using the R Statistical Package for my Thesis. The friends who have tried to go out for refreshment came back and reported that students aren’t allowed outside the building. There has been a strike called on by the students by 10.30AM and all the buildings have been ordered to lock down to prevent other students from joining them. I began tweeting..

At about 11.00AM my friends went on a scouting party and found a open door unguarded and slipped out, when I received the tip and by the time I went there staff have figured it out and the door was closed shut right before me. Then I saw the watchman going to the loo and walked out of the front door just like that, collected my friends and joined other in front of the red building by 11.20AM.

The Sitting

The tar road in front of the Red building at 11.30 in a sunny day. There couldn’t be a bad choice for sitting all day in the shady green campus. But this is activism and it has to be done (it looked like that). So we sat there all day.

Amid all this, someone informed us that the university VC is on his way to the scene and a poster is on its way, we are supposed to hear him talk and sign on the poster and move away. This created a small outcry and I think plan was dropped. What actually happened was, the VC arrived, talked without a public address system and the staff members stood under the building watching over us. Which effectively meant nothing to a large section of us who didn’t hear a single word.

Co-ordination and Organization

Sitting there all day, almost every word I heard was about the number of holidays they would get, how the internals would be affected, whether they would be given attendance for the day and what the poor souls from the Computer Science Department will do as their technical events start today. Every now and then among the shouts about posing right for the media cameras I would hear about the Sri-Lankan issue. I shifted my place 3 to 4 times trying to locate myself into the core group, but to no success, for I couldn’t find the core group.

There wasn’t a visible set of students organizing, everything happened ad-hoc. Someone thought people needed water in the searing heat and brought a sack of water packets, someone figured out they needed money for refreshments and collected money on the spot among us and brought biscuit packets and more water. Someone, who I think the core group which started this went out and returned back with a poster stating “Anna University Students Support Eelam Student Strike”. When someone thought the final year Under-grads should lead, or whatever, they formed a human chain surrounding us sitting there, then dissipated away as they began to realize it was a bit useless at that place. It took a lot of roasting on the metaled road before someone brought a roof over our heads around 3.00 in the evening. People were holding the support ropes in hands and standing in place of the pegs. Finally someone (me) thought they could place a big stone and tie the rope. Someone wanted to tie the poster to two poles and hold it, then they realised they are better off letting it hang from the tent roof top.

So it was all that “someone” who did things, the people who just did it without wanting credits, I do not know who bought me the water and I do not for whom my money bought biscuits. Almost no one knows who brought that tent, and no one know how it stood. It was all left for “someone” to do.

The Girls Standoff

My last update in twitter was this ..

I tried to update from mobile phone but a feature phone with a flaky GPRS connection wouldn’t suffice. So I rushed to my department where I have left my belongings, brought my laptop found a spot where I could get WiFi and posted those tweets. While I posted the last tweet I was really hoping there would be some sort of standoff by 5 and maybe we will leave by 8-9PM. To my surprise as I was posting my last tweet I could see people standing up and dissipating. When I rushed to the spot people were talking about dispersing as the time was over. I found that a group of 6 have obtained permission for the protest from the Dean and they have promised to wind up by 5PM and it has been given in written signed by the six. So that was what being explained to others, but the girls weren’t satisfied. They wanted the protest to continue, they said winding up at 4.30PM is kind of dumb and loked like as if we are office workers. They wanted to stay. While even the boys who wanted to stay were up on their feats and looking around hoping to get in touch with someone with the same idea, the girls didn’t even get get up, they just sat saying it was their right to express. They aren’t saying anything against the college or the government, they just wanted to show their support for the SriLankan Tamils. They wanted the government to understand. But the organizers clearly had their own plans, they informed people might be arrested or even worse lathi charged if they stay there beyond 5PM. Luckily there were a set of protest-aware girls who explained the difference between the arrest and detention and the police are here to give protection not beat them. Those who initiated the protest and their supporters clearly wanted their way out before anything could go amess, hence it was informed that, it was planned to be here until 5 and they will leave by 5 and anyone staying here beyond that is their own wish. With that girls chose to stay and some boys like me who thought protest should go beyond the office hours stayed.

The End

Those who wished to go were informed to shout a slogan and disperse. And so it happened. What was left behind were a group of Post-Grads with a handful Under-Grads. The police were consulted and they informed us we can do whatsoever silent protest as long as we are inside our house, that is our Anna University but the head of the house clearly wanted us out by 5PM. Then there was a lot of discussion and it was finally decided to create a group email, inform people, plan and organize a protest if necessary on the day the college reopens. For once we are out today, we cannot come in until it reopens, so there is no way Anna University is going to protest. What ever protest we want to do shall remain as a protest by the Citizen of India by coordinating with others organizing things outside. The protest of the day shall end there.