Missing in action

When was the last time you attended the association meeting of your apartment complex? Did you alert the EB office about that live cable dangling precariously over the sidewalk? Did you call the local Corporation ward office to complain about your potholed street or the over-flowing drain? Have you ever called the police station to tip them off on an accident or crime or some suspicious activity in your vicinity? At least, are you familiar with the location and contact numbers of all the public utilities in your locality, for your own sake? Did you lend your signature to that memorandum brought to your doorstep by one of those familiar but few good samaritans seeking redressal for a long standing local grievance? You are shaken, doubtless, by the corruption at every level, but have you for a minimum, given vent to your anguish in any forum? For that matter, did you vote? Well, if your answer is ‘no’ for all or almost all of the above queries, as is likely, you are already an unwitting silent member, drafted by default, of the ever expanding club of ‘Apathetics Anonymous’!

History is replete with the popular image of a protest, revolution or rally for a common cause: People pouring into the streets or thronging a square or such other public place. Where are all these crowds today? Sure, they are there at political agitations in the form of committed partymen or paid mercenaries and filmi events. But is it possible at all to attract a spontaneous crowd for a public cause, unless it is a sponsored show, brought to you by some slick marketeer and does not clash with a serial or cricket telecast on the telly? Sure, the vintage visages alluded to above belong to an era whence rebellion was romanticised but would be grossly misplaced in the current milieu wherein such gatherings are more likely to be a public nuisance, throwing normal civic life out of gear. Still, the fact remains that there is a marked reluctance on the part of the citizenry to step across their household threshold and lend voice to a matter of common concern.

So, is public activism dying? It would seem so and one is not just relying on street statistics to come to that conclusion. Forget mass public demonstrations which have always been far and few and grossly disproportionate to the populace and its problems. What of other modes? There is no dearth of non-profit associations. But most are either for some exclusive groups or to safeguad some vested business or political interests. Associations for valid public causes struggle to remain in the mental space of the ‘beneficiaries’. Many activists are already disillusioned by the diminishing numbers of volunteers and worse, the futility of efforts to make people aware of the immediate and pressing problems facing them. Most citizens’ association meetings lack quorum. Community living, as in flats, instead of bonding people has actually imprisoned them in comfy cocoons of blissful oblivion, thanks to TV, internet and mobiles. Even self interest seems an inadequate bait to lure the burgeoning middle-India outdoors.

Or consider a larger canvas. For a country claiming to be an emerging power but in which provocations for public outcry comes by the dozen daily, the PILs in courts are painfully paltry. And so are RTI queries. While RTI activists constantly agitate for more friendly laws and a better response mechanism, the sorry reality is that only a small minority are aware of the legislation and just a miniscule bother to use it! Now, how can the machinery be rectified unless it is put to use? Or sample the Letters to Editor columns in newspaper. Should they not be overflowing what with the litany of woes confronting all and conveniences like e-mail for instant articulation? But barring the familiar names who seem more prolific than even the editor, how many new ‘bylines’ do we find? Let’s not take TV activism seriously, for, a sweeping camera can make an activist out of a casual bystander too and worse, byte-hungry mike-wielders can draw conclusions even from your cough: that activism is as ephemeral as the candles that are lighted on screen. Again, the vote, another barometer of public activism, is no doubt a blunt instrument, given the electoral matrix of money, muscle and media. Yet, almost 40% keep off booths,vitiating even the residual democracy much more.

Apathy is a national disease. And it looks to be a genetic disorder embedded in the national psyche itself. This country could not have been enslaved, militarily, politically, and later, intellectually, for centuries on, without the aid of an acquiescing population. Bharathi talks of his countrymen’s ‘adimayin mogam’ — passion for being slaves. The poet also bemoans the ‘indifference of the masses even when their own brothers are burning’ and the peoples’ penchant for ‘petty small talk instead of concrete action’. Gandhi sure, succeeded in mobilising the masses on to the streets with slogans, but is there a subtle subtext to his success? Why was Subhash Bose, with a far more effective formula unable to make a mass movement of his militaristic manoeveres? After all, the British ruled this country of millions with a handful of minions. Would it have been difficult for a small part of those millions to take over the administration in every town by force which was what Netaji envisaged? Alas, Gandhi knew his people better. He played on their passivity with his ahimsa call. The people in turn found in it a good excuse for inaction. And the white man took his time to relieve himself of his burden and quit only at his own convenience!

This insulting introspection is warranted because the legacy of lethal laziness still lingers. The much vaunted virtue of vigilance seems to have gone on a very long vacation even as the vile and the wicked vie to fill the vacuum! Just scan the scenario. The most dangerous place on earth, Pak, is just a bomb’s throw away. Along with the Bangla infiltrators numbering thousands daily and who have spread themselves out across the country, Bharath is now the Mecca of jihad. If still peace and tolerance pervades our minds, is it not criminal inertia? Or look at the soiled spectrum of power wielders just in the past two or three years: A President who made it to the office despite unprecedented corruption charges; a super PM who allowed a favoured compatriot to scoot with a gun loot; a ‘clean’ PM whose dirty linen got washed in public during the most dubious trust(?) vote ever; a cabinet whose collective responsibility got eclipsed by the staggering ‘collection’ made by just one minister. A CM who finds it perfectly rational to foist his family in positions of power; A prospective SC judge who is now accused of, inter alia, land grabs and misuse of office; a chief election commissioner who despite being under the darkest of clouds, has already conducted a slew of fateful polls. Indeed, almost every high office and institution stands scandalised. The nation however is fast asleep under this sprawling, shady umbrella of sleaze.

Well, the whistle-blowers can keep raising a hue and cry; and the watchdogs may bark and even bite some of the offenders; But so long as the people are under the spell of self-imposed slumber, wrought by a cocktail of ignorance, indifference, insensitivity and inaction, the villains, within and without, will only be emboldened to target your homeland as well as your own home. Deliverence from these demons, then, will become a dream!

e-mail the writer at [email protected]

Jawahar T R