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The scent of 'middle class' revolution

H R Venkatesh

Updated: April 9, 2011, 7:44 AM IST
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H R Venkatesh recorded impressions during a night out at the agitation in Jantar Mantar.

"Is there even one person here who is not going home tonight to sleep within four walls and a fan?" The young man is almost shouting amidst all the singing and chanting. "Is there even one person here who cannot afford to catch an auto [rickshaw] home?" he asks. The sweat on his face is at odds with the coolness of the night at Jantar Mantar on Day 4 of Anna Hazare's hunger strike. He is angry, but not at us. He is angry at the irony that almost every 'satyagrahi' here - me included - isn't really a victim of the crushing corruption that is crippling this country.

I'm only half-listening since there is so much to see. Close to me, a TV correspondent is preparing for a live link. Or to be more precise, he is 'standing by', sweat oozing out of the collars of his shirt, a tie hanging preposterously from his shirt, hand fussing about with his earpiece. Within the next 10 seconds, or perhaps in the next 10 minutes he will begin his link, but for the moment he is just standing, neither talking nor looking at anyone but staring vacantly into the camera lens, as if he has done this a hundred times. Clustered tightly around him are people, mostly wearing placards or waving the Indian tricolour.

Beyond him, with their backs to us is a wall of people standing on a wide semicircle of benches. Contained within that wide semicircle are hundreds of people sitting down all around a stage on which Anna Hazare sits with several people for company. A huge Indian flag is being waved about his head, as if it were a fan intended to cool him. Also on the stage is a collection of speech-makers, Dilliwallas, and musicians. A song is being sung: Hum Honge Kamiyaab (We Shall Overcome), and several people are singing along - even the seemingly thousands that are milling about outside the semicircle.

Back to the young man. From the snatches of conversation I manage to catch between him and the mini-group that has formed loosely around us are references to Bolsheviks and Marxism.

Everything about him screams JNU, or Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is shorthand for 'leftist' in Delhi. "I'm not a Maoist", he says vehemently at some point, but the context of the conversation is lost on me. The larger point that is being argued there is whether Anna Hazare and his fellow-agitators, chief among whom are RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal and former supercop Kiran Bedi, are correct in demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill.

When I'm asked for my opinion, I serve up what I have been reading in various media - that the agitation, despite its moral force, is dangerous in asking for a bill that will confer upon a body legislative, judicial AND executive powers. It is dangerous for democracy I say, amidst some more head-nodding. It is a conversation that I am mainly having with people I don't know. It's just that our being here together has conjured up a kinship, a kind of temporary 'brother from another mother' sort of feeling.

A few hundred feet away, a group of people with placards around their necks is posing for pictures. One of the placards says, System = India, OS = Indians, Virus = Politician, Antivirus = Anna Hazare. Every few seconds someone bursts out, Bharat Mata Ki Jai! And people respond. I wonder, as I wander around, if what the young man is saying is true. It mostly is. Many of the people walking about with candles wouldn't look out of place in a mall, and it seems like some of them are wearing FabIndia. To be fair, most people here aren't really upper middle class, but not too many people look impoverished either.

Our group gets into a conversation with two elderly gentlemen. One of them is a Sikh, and somewhat bizarrely the conversation turns into the art of how to tie a proper pagadi. The other gentleman says he was a government officer who had to serve under a corrupt man. They are both here for the same reason as I am. I have been drawn in, despite my scepticism, by the prospect of being part of a true revolution.

At some point in the evening, I realise that for many people, tonight isn't really about whether Anna Hazare and his few good men are going to create a saviour or a monster. Or if it matters that the people here are those who can mostly live without needing to bribe someone. Or whether a new legislation will really be able to rub out corruption. This is no Tahrir square, but the symbolism, this feeling of being part of something that may just change India is a drug all by itself. As we chant our songs, we have fused into one.

But we aren't fools. We know things are not going to change so easily. Tomorrow will be the same as yesterday. Unless we can bottle the essence of his evening and take it back with us, and change our lives. As the angry young man says exasperatedly when asked if he has any answers, "mein khudi rasta dhoond raha hoon yaar".

Yes, I too am looking for the way out man.
First Published: April 9, 2011, 7:44 AM IST

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