Friday, April 22, 2011

There is more to change than mere laws

Indians  seem to have a love affair with laws. They imbue them with talismanic properties, and so they have laws for the right to information, the right to education, to prohibt dowry, pre-natal determination of a child’s sex, child labour, and a basic law on the right to work. A law to guarantee food for all is currently being debated within government. And now there is a demand for a law  to fight corruption.
No doubt the fertile National Advisory Council has some more exciting laws in mind for the future. All this is despite the   experience which shows that laws, especially those that seek to alter social behaviour,  don’t always work —  think of the continuing problem of dowry, female foeticide, caste discrimination and child labour. 

Looked at one way, there could be an argument that this faith in the letter of a law is born out of a desire to force the pace of modernisation. In today’s India, sadly, it also reflects a bureaucratisation of politics, where social reform and entitlements are dished out by a benevolent government and bureaucracy, rather than through a process of politics that shapes society and is in turn shaped by it.
In that sense, it represents an atrophying of our mainstream political parties who are content to rule through grandstanding, usually to TV cameras, rather than undertake the hard work of educating and mobilising public opinion towards desired end. In such a climate of lassitude, evil triumphs, be it in the case of sex determination which is preventing millions of girls from taking birth, or the brutal rule of the misogynist and anti-social khap panchayats of Haryana and Western UP. 

In greater measure it represents a lack of understanding of the fact that the elimination of social evils, and affirmation of human rights, are products of social, political and historical processes, not merely laws. A law is just the codification  by a legislative body to a social or political demand. These thoughts come to mind as we look at the Anna Hazare phenomenon.
 Corruption has been a slow burning fuse in India. But in 2010, it flared up with the revelation of a spate of scams and scandals across the country. It began, arguably, with the IPL episode that led to the downfall of Lalit Modi and Shashi Tharoor, and was followed up in quick succession by  the long-playing CWG fiasco, accompanied by the CAG’s confirmation of the scale of the 2G spectrum scam, the UP humongous food scam and culminating in the arrest of Hasan Ali, who had allegedly stashed tens of billions of dollars abroad for corrupt politicians and officials. 
To the horror of the middle class even the revered Indian Army got embroiled in the process through the Sukhna and Adarsh society scams.
 Many have commented on the middle class nature of  Hazare’s support. Perhaps this is a fact, if so, it is probably what persuaded the government to compromise. Revolutions are  a middle class phenomenon as the English, French and even Russian revolutions reveal. The middle class  was central to the upsurge against Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s. And it was the class which gave us the independence movement and our first wave of reform in the late 19th and early 20th century.  
Sadly  the  Indian middle class of today cannot be compared to their counterparts in Europe who provided a leavening to the European advance — Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Lord Keynes, Hegel, Darwin —  to take a few random names.
 Our middle class of today produces great managers, scientists and economists, but its philosophers, social reformers and academics occupy the margins of an intellectual wasteland.  For the bulk of the Indian middle class, intellectual inspiration, if you can call it that,  comes from new age gurus like Ramdev, Jaggi Vasudev, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Sai Baba and others.
 Like all middle classes, the Indian one is  vocal, and its sense of outrage — often self-centered and hypocritical — is magnified by the 24x7 news channels and newspapers, particularly the influential publications in the English language. So our politicians — themselves Grade A rascals —  feel compelled to heed them.
Mature democracies have all gone through the stages we have, but in time that spans hundreds of years. Child labour played an important role in the industrialisation of England in the early 19th century and in the United States in the last part of that century.  Criminalised politics, mass prostitution and ill-treatment of women, the poor and the under-classes were all features of democracies whose societies are the envy of the world today.

 In some ways India is  at the point where the United States began its Progressive movement, whose emphasis was on rationalism, pragmatism and democracy, an effort whose bottom line was to create a political apparatus which could meet the needs of a country that had undergone profound economic and social change.
 Late 19th century US had all the social evils we see around us today — the oppression (reinforced by violence) of blacks, criminalised and corrupt politics, predatory businessmen who thought nothing of manipulating governments and stock markets, child labour, gender oppression, extreme exploitation of labour, especially that of migrants.
The Progressive movement was not one coherent affair. It spanned several decades and involved many  political currents and counter-currents. It was illuminated by the writing of “muckrackers” like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and writers like Upton Sinclair and buttressed by the work of intellectuals like Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen. And it involved thousands of middle-class activists, writers, lawyers, journalists, clergymen and social workers.

 By World War I, it had helped break up business monopolies, regulated railroad competition, created vast national parks, modernised municipal governance, promoted direct elections to the US Senate and strengthened the power of the federal government. It was in this era that the steel baron Andrew Carnegie began a trend when he sold his business and gave away his entire fortune for education, research and peace. It was also the era that gave birth to  voluntarism in the US.
An anti-corruption movement requires far greater depth than the one that went into the Anna Hazare fast. Reform movements around the world have come about in clusters in the 1830s, 1860s and 1920s  in  UK,  in the 1830s, 1900s and 1930s in the US.  Reform occurs in a  certain climate and covers multiple subjects — education, health, temperance, the rights of labour and so on. The activists often straddle several interests. Jyotiba Phule was involved in movements to uplift Dalits, gender equality and reforming religion.Gandhi’s various interests, too, are well known.
The reformist impulse in the first half of the 20th century yielded laws, passed immediately after independence, leading to universal franchise, abolition of landlordism, reservations for Dalits and the codification of the Hindu personal laws. They were underpinned by the huge effort of  intellectuals and  activists too numerous to name here. And, most important, they drove the politics of the nation, not professional politicians.  
Mao once said that a revolution is not a dinner party. It need not be the charnel house he created in China, but neither can it be a flash mob that gathers for a weekend of agitation and then disperses. Political, social and intellectual change must march in a mutually reinforcing lock-step. A law is — or ought to be — merely a final legal stamp of a forward advance which is already with us.
Mail Today April 22, 2011

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