‘Where is India’s Tahrir Square?’

This is a question that may be as interesting for people in Egypt as it is for those in India. The answer also has some implications for activists in the much-vaunted western democracies
Saroj Giri
17 February 2011

Where is India’s Egypt, India’s Tahrir Square? This question is being asked in India, both publicly by leaders and activists and also quietly in personal conversations. Eminent social activist Swami Agnivesh told the media on Feb 6, 2011 that “it is time people should go to the streets against corruption. If corruption goes on at this level, what happened in Egypt may repeat here also" (Indian Express, Feb 6, 2011). Agnivesh’s campaign held its big rally on Jan 30 2011, commemorating the day Gandhi was killed in 1948. Its leaders hoped that “thousands of people will take to streets to demand effective anti-corruption law”.

India’s constitutional democracy of course differs from Egypt, as it has competing political parties, interest groups and elites without one dictator at the top. This means that India is “the land of many Mubaraks, a land of rising scamsters like A Raja and Satyam Raju” (Mahima Sharma, ‘Time for an Egypt in India?’). In India now the charge of ‘acting like Mubarak’ is levelled by one politician at another. Exhorting the people assembled at his party’s conference, politician Mulayam Singh Yadav, recently called for an agitation “such that (Chief Minister) Mayawati is forced to step down like Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has been forced to”. This external example has also inspired references to India’s own past history of protest: so Agnivesh calls on Indian youth to rekindle the spirit of the JP movement of the 1970s.

But is Egypt possible in India? Where is India’s Tahrir Square? Let’s take two responses, both answering in the negative, but with different approaches. The first argument deals with the huge population of the poor, while the second focuses on the upper middle classes. The first response is to be found in a newspaper article by a prominent Indian sociologist (Dipankar Gupta, ‘The Tenacity of Hope’, The Times of India, Feb 7, 2011). Gupta points to two reasons why an Egyptian-type uprising is not possible in India. The first is obviously, democracy. We are not a banana republic. There are numerous political parties that can organize people and express their demands: “Our political elite is spread out in different parties and in different states and express diverse views.”

Gupta argues, even though India has 40-50% of the population below the poverty line, any destabilising political effects are attenuated by social mobility. Growth might not have ensured vertical mobility but there is horizontal mobility provided by the presence of a huge informal sector which absorbs the poor and their anger: “A far, far greater proportion of Indians than Egyptians are searching for jobs and setting up homes in places their parents never would have contemplated.” There is a massive horizontal movement, from farm to non-farm work, from village to towns and cities, a constant floating population which is deeply invested in finding new opportunities and livelihoods: “New ambitions and expectations are released. In this process, frustrations have their outlet and the current state of deprivation does not look so bad.”

Self-employment has increased in India and private non-agricultural jobs have increased hugely, unlike the trend in Egypt where the informal sector has not quite risen to the occasion. Related to this is the other factor of the feminisation of the work force in India, which has given hope to lot of poor families here. India, like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, has huge numbers of women working in garment factories and other household units.

While living conditions are harsher than in Egypt, democracy and the informal sector give the poor some investment in the status quo. But, what about India’s burgeoning urban middle class and ‘the youth’? Are they Facebooking their way to a Tahrir square?

They are definitely not. This is the conclusion from the latest survey of youth attitudes (18-25 years) in India (Sagarika, Ghose, ‘Still Old at Heart’, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, Feb 8, 2011). While Egyptian youth were spearheading an unprecedented upheaval, what did we discover about their counterpart in India? According to Ghose, the survey shows that “the 18-25 generation in twenty-first century India doesn't want revolutions. Far from it. In fact they are highly risk averse, more politically right-wing than before, extremely socially conservative and disinclined to opt for rebellion”.

Such risk aversion means that not only do they not ever imagine anything like a progressive or left wing rebellion, but even when it comes to becoming entrepreneurs and capitalists, they will be the most boring conventional kinds. For Ghose, the problem is: “with such a shockingly conventional generation, where are the free thinkers, the adventurers, the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Bill Gates going to come from?” Instead,  “rich parents in metros are rearing a generation of cosseted spoilt brats who will touch the feet of their parents in ostentatious mock respect but recklessly flout the law on the street in a bout of drunk driving, confident that Dad and Mom will get them off any trouble with the law.” More to the point, she explains that “Facebook and Twitter may have created the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. But in India, Facebook and Twitter are dominated by young people openly pouring scorn on 'pseudo-secular liberals', minorities and so-called 'anti-nationals'.”

Indeed it is not very uncommon to hear this class of people declare that ‘India needs a dictator’, so that all the social problems can be fixed. This particular sentiment often translates to chucking the poor out, like clearing away clutter. This was in evidence during the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in Oct 2010 when ‘unauthorised colonies’ were demolished, the poor dumped out of sight in the most inhospitable areas outside the city, and beggars picked up and abandoned in deserted outskirts. Extreme belief in neoliberal private enterprise, a deep and clever social conservatism often mixed with a modern pub-going culture, hardline attitude to minorities and the poor and patriotism towards a tough, nuclear-armed state are basic attributes of this youth of the urban upper middle class.

Let us bring these apparently unrelated explanations – one related to the poor and the other to the upper middle classes – together. Indian democracy then turns out to permit a social order which nurtures such an upper middle class precisely by keeping the poor busy in circuitous ‘horizontal movements’. Maybe, democracy is the name for the highly inequitable relationship that this middle class and beyond this, the capitalist class, maintains with the poor? India clearly has one of the more rapacious capitalist classes – when a recent government committee ventured to suggest that mining companies must share 26% profits with the communities they displaced, these companies were immediately up in arms. Such sharing is routine in many other countries.

Unlike in a dictatorship where direct measures of coercion are used instead of any form of mediation, India’s relationship of exploitation and subordination is layered and mediated, thanks to democracy and the market (the informal sector). Unlike the emergency in force in Egypt, one-man rule and the open repression of human rights, India always maintains what has been called a ‘functioning democracy’ – which spelt out actually means, as it does in other democracies, that exceptions are always permitted, such as the use of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Kashmir and the north-east and regular extra-judicial killings, including Operation Green Hunt against Maoist rebels.

What is interesting in Gupta’s analysis is that India shows higher inequalities and far lower standards of living for the majority of people than Egypt. That is, exploitation of the poor is significantly higher in India and yet there is no possibility of any massive challenge to the ruling classes, no Tahrir Square! Democracy, then, ensures that worse living conditions for the majority of the poor can safely co-exist with a well-off urban elite, as long as ‘a constitutional civilian order’ is not disturbed. Increasing inequalities, exploitation and plain stark poverty cannot lead to destabilising political consequences like those seen in Egypt, since democracy is constantly and continuously at work here, precluding mass uprising. So, democracy good or bad?

At this point, of course, one has to reintroduce some of the legitimizing claims made by Indian democracy ever since the days of Nehru. Its moral and ethical legitimacy operates at two levels. One is its role in stalling the emergence of a full-blown Hindu right-wing upsurge. This relates to the defence of secularism and the safeguarding of minorities, particularly Muslims. The other saving grace is the slew of rights and benefits that the poor have secured, including the rise of the lower and middle castes in electoral politics. A final judgment of Indian democracy has to be willing to identify the often complex and layered mechanisms at work here, and the many mediations through which democracy co-exists with a highly unjust social order with openly reactionary upper classes.

But is there also a lesson India might impart to the Egyptians? Simply that fighting for multiparty democracy and constitutional order as an end goal seems rather inadequate with the story of India in front of us, particularly when the radical ferment in Egyptian society today seems to point to more positive outcomes. At least if Hillary Clinton does not have it all her way. Maybe unlike India’s democracy, which goes out of its way to identify itself with US and Israel’s hawkish policies, so that for example it is now a key but strategically silent ally of the US in Afghanistan – the new democratic dispensation need not be hostage to the US-Israel axis. But already we are told that Hillary Clinton particularly wants India to ‘help’ Egypt in its democratic transition since “Washington and New Delhi were almost consonant in their approach of wanting a peaceful transition” (‘US seeks India role in Egypt’, Times of India, Feb 14 2011).

But then this is a lesson which Egypt can learn not just from Indian democracy but democracy elsewhere too, in France, in the UK or in the US, where discontent with so-called democracy is simmering. Something like Egypt’s uprising cannot be ruled out in these ‘old, mature democracies’ – indeed it can be highly recommended. The way people rose in protest and workers strikes in France last year, paralyzing life in the country for several days; the massive student protests in London where Prince Charles faced the direct ire of the protestors in a particularly anarchic moment; the recent protests in Greece, not to talk of French strikes of 1995 or the widespread riots of 2005 in the Parisian banlieues, the protests in the UK against the war in Iraq – maybe we have a sequence here too, a sequence as yet without a colour or a name.

This sequence is not to be confused with the ‘pro-democracy movement’, the name given to an overarching trend said by some to have started with the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 and to be traceable all the way to Egypt today. With no dictator to remove, a mass uprising of what I have called the ‘unnamed sequence’ is more likely to turn its attention to questions related to the core nature of the social order, the deep inequalities between classes and so forth. One can fully understand why western democracies, and indeed India’s democracy, might be more comfortable contemplating the ‘pro-democracy movement’ rather than the ‘unnamed sequence’. Which poses a slightly different question about Egypt. Will Tahrir Square finally come to be known as just another moment in the series of colour revolutions? Or could it go beyond that, inspiring Tahrir Squares in today’s much-vaunted democracies too?

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