The protests in Tunisia and Egypt have won the first of what will have to be many victories. Mubarak and Ben Ali have fled and dictators have fallen to people’s uprisings – the street and the public square have, at least for the moment, reclaimed their voice from the boulevards and corridors of power. Globally, these have been reported and rightly hailed as victories over entrenched dictatorships. Yet the uprisings have much to teach those of us who live in “democracies” – we must not lose the opportunity to ask what Egypt and Tunisia can teach us, no matter where we are.
I’ve been trying to write something about this for a few days now – nothing quite settles at the end of the pen. So here’s a set of thoughts/questions/ruminations that I think we must take on – in rambles, and intended as a provocation to comments and hopefully follow up posts.
It is worth remembering what began and catapulted the first set of protests in Tunisia and what has been the resounding cry throughout the uprisings. Mohammad Bouazizi, an unemployed man, immolated himself alleging police harassment. It’s a story that could and does belong to any village, town and city in India. Within it, lie two strands of injustice – economic inequality and the indignities and injustices of everyday life in the deeply hierarchical and stratified societies we inhabit. The question lies in the spark that tips them off and the moment than then takes sparks and turns them into organized and unorganized fires. The story of how the uprisings were organized, in a way, is slowly coming to light now – but I doubt we’ll ever fully know or that there is any “one” story of what tipped the scale now as opposed to other moments in Egypt’s history.
Egypt and Tunisia have both invaded and been driven to their streets. Decades of structural adjustment, “reform”, the withdrawal of basic subsidies and privatization of services and industries alike, has resulted in a deepening and increasingly structural economic inequality. As India’s growth story continues unabated in many people’s eyes despite falling real incomes, persistent regional imbalances, the continuing existence of destitution and hunger, rampant food inflation, deeply flawed and imbalanced land and housing markets in cities alongside rural stagnation and neglect, the echoes of recognition are hard to miss.
The last few times Egypt took to its streets was over bread and unemployment. Aren’t these uprisings not just cries against the political repression of a brutal dictatorship but also the voices of dissent against an economic regime that closely parallels our own?
How the protestors and the new regimes can fight the structural economic roots of their discontent is more difficult to ascertain than how they will demand more political freedom – but in the relationship between the two lies the challenge for both them and us. It poses a question to us: how do we wed our own economic resistances to political ones?
This reminds me of something that activist and scholar Usha Ramanathan once wrote (I’ll dig up where if anyone is interested) about displacement in the 60s versus in the contemporary moment. She had argued that in the heyday of nationalism when inequality was acknowledged, when the goal of “national development” was ostensibly still the development of all and the needs of the poor were given importance (if not actual resdistribution) — then displacement was politically different. No one used the word, she said, because people believed they would benefit in the end; that the national project was also about them. This, she says, writing about slum evictions, is what has changed in contemporary times – there isn’t a belief that there is a national developmental project. There isn’t a belief that development and growth have to do with the poor at all.
There are many arguments and counter-arguments about whether the welfare state of the 60s-80s was actually better for the poor than the reformist post-91 state. That debate isn’t my point here – my point is to say that the reality of economic inequality is as important as how it is politically acknowledged, talked about and imagined when one thinks about the political space it creates. A visiting scholar from Singapore said to me yesterday that he believes there is a political moment in India today that is full of possibilities of resistance because there is both the expectation of gains from growth but also a simmering anger at those left out of it — not just out of the resources but out of the story itself.
Is the changed political management, imagination and narrative of inequality that we so often lament on this site and in many of our writings also an opportunity we must take? Movements across the country, of course, are doing this in different ways – but is there a meta-narrative that could be told? or even a meso one? Is such an aggregation a value-add?
Democratic spaces manage inequality in different ways than dictatorial ones [with many exceptions, of course, where they are indistinguishable from each other]. Egypt was seen as politically “stable” despite mass political arrests, a stifling of dissent in the press, control of information flows, and systematized state violence. Its economy was seen by international financial institutions as “well performing” and following a “correct” path to reform. Both these stabilities were built on systemic and sustained exclusions. India arguably has less of the former than Egypt – though many would argue that the gap is increasingly narrowing between draconian laws like the AFSPA, POTA, TADA and a score of others and cases like those of Dr Binayak Sen and others in Chattisgarh. We no doubt, however, have equal or even deeper economic exclusions within our “growth story” as Egypt or Tunisia. We also have the same deliberate and sustained pretence at (and narrative about) both our political and economic “stability”. They key is to recongise the different ways in which this pretense is maintained in order to effectively challenge it.
How does one fight pretense especially in a “democracy” where its levers and pipes are not as starkly visible? We live in a contemporary political moment where economic inequality is openly, morally, ethically and economically defensible and indeed defended – through our media, our leadership, by ourselves and our courts.
What Cairo must remind us of is how critical it is to challenge this paradigm. What it cannot help us understand is how it can be done – Tahrir Square is one kind of resistance – what are the others? How can the value of work and life and the dignity of many become the barometer of how we judge ourselves as a nation? Will it take our own Tahrir Square? If so, then what is it that we fight against? What can take the form of Mubarak – a single, unifying other? Do we need one? How do we bring people together?
Another thing that keeps returning to my head is the images of the numbers in Tahrir square and how important the square was in and of itself spatially in the moment and the movement.
I think of a rally a few weeks ago for Dr Sen. After a long time, a protest in Delhi wasn’t at Jantar Mantar but actually walked its streets – from the Red Fort to ITO. I remember being struck by how different it felt, and how long it had been, to walk in the city in the name of dissent and protest. Images from Tahrir and the streets of Tunisia now stand next to that feeling in my head. Dissent need not be but often necessarily is deeply physical – the presence of the bodies on the street is as near an experiential sense of the “public”, in one sense, that one can get. Public spaces are the heart of challenging the centralization of control and of creating cultures of equity and dignity – be it in the city or in the nation-state.
In Delhi, for example, the increasing instances of gating, the control over gathering anywhere outside the two hundred square feet of Jantar Mantar, the spectre of Section 144, and a deeply inequitable and fractured housing and land market, have, in very different yet particularly spatial ways, all render the idea of the “public” as an afterthought, a residue – a space that no one can claim. The physical absence of residents in public spaces is both the chicken and the egg of a story of a changing and depleted imagination of a shared public among the city’s residents – be it of services, of resources, of aesthetics, of citizenship and of a very simply idea of dignity, of who can, should and does belong to the city. This story – in similar and different ways – is being played out the scale of a nation as a whole.
Could reclaiming public space for conversations, debates and voices – regardless of what these voices want to say and whether “we” agree with “them” or not – become a single point agenda for a movement of our own? Could the idea of the public bring urban residents together – regardless of what we want to do once we’re in that space? Could public space be an answer that rallies people together – the more voices, the more noise, the more debates, the more antagonism that come, from any point of view, would that noise not represent a resistance to the single story being told about India today?
Could such spaces be created? Would anyone come? How can they be sustained? How can we use new forms of information flows and technologies in this process? What are the new sites and spaces of struggle open to us?
New Forms of Mobilisation and New political practices
This is something that many are writing about so I’ll just flag it – do Cairo and Tunisia represent new forms of political practice? How are they and how are they not “new”? Certainly there is a visible and immediate absence of identifiable leadership – the framing of the “people” as leading the revolt was critical and the organizing, the people, the smaller sets who must have run some elements of the show (or must they have?) of this “organic” gathering and uprising that was so organized have now been begun to be talked about but still remain largely hidden. What is the import of this?
The uprisings offer us a renewed hope and also indicated a new mode of political mobilization that we must take seriously – uprisings that are not just based on the structured spaces and familiar institutions of revolution but create a new space where the unions, the Muslim Brotherhood, the elite, the young and the Army found a common language. We may not have a Mubarak to unite us so easily, but could our own political strategies learn from how these various factions spoke to each other, even if opportunistically and momentarily? What could speak across India’s widening political poles in the same way? What would it take to get our own exclusions and injustices back to the heart of our public discourse, the pages of our newspapers, the airwaves of our radios, and the public spaces of our cities?
To me, the need for us to build our own Tahrir is clear. It may or may not take the same form as Cairo but this moment must energise us to find our own version of this story. Onward!