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What will define citizenship in India and the world in 2017?

<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>As 2016 draws to a close and many of us are emotionally spent lamenting events that we consider undesirable, citizenship has emerged as one of the murkiest ideas of the last year. Who is a citizen? What does citizenship entail? What should be expected of citizens and what is owed to them? Where does the writ of the state end, vis-à-vis rights and privacy? Every major event of 2016 has raised one or more of these questions. ComplianceIn India, demonetization has put the spotlight on compliance. Introduced suddenly and executed shoddily, those struggling to cope have found their situation exacerbated by what seemed like daily changes in regulations. The on-the-ground reality of cash shortages and non-functioning ATMs have plunged countless Indians into crisis. The broadcasting style of the government—they pronounce, we scurry, no questions asked—has left Indians helpless. We must comply because we have no way to challenge or defy.The absence of large protests was offered the other day on television as evidence of the success of this move. The reality is that most of us have been too busy trying to figure out withdrawals and deposits to organise! Most beleaguered are bank staff who have gone in fifty days from making patriotic noises to lamenting their choice of career—to ordinary account-holders, they are the face of this arbitrary government and the recipients of public ire. We are all complying because we have no choice.“Compliance” is not a bad thing—laws, rules and regulations are presumably intended to benefit us. Citizens should obey them. But should we obey blindly and should we be expected to obey without debate? ‘To comply’ means to conform, to follow along, to observe, to submit—and in the absence of debate, discussion, questioning and accountability, all these words are inimical to democracy. Compliance achieved by enforcement suggests that there is no consensus on the appropriateness or utility of a regulation. And if there is no consensus, that means the law or rule has not really been discussed adequately.Parliament sessions are listed on the calendar but how many days do Parliamentarians actually do any session-time work—debates, questions and answers? All Indian parties are responsible for this breakdown but governments—all governments—have turned it into an opportunity to govern by ordinance. This is a windfall for anyone seeking to push their will through to the public. That makes enforced compliance of rules-never-debated sinister. Yes, Indians are past-masters at flouting rules. But stressing compliance over an understanding of the spirit of a law or regulation is not the answer; it suggests that the government is keener on making us obey than creating a climate in which we engage with and together fashion the frameworks of our lives.In 2017, what I want to know is, will my citizenship be measured solely and entirely—by government and fellow-citizens—in terms of my willingness to comply without question? I suspect so, given the tendency to cry ‘anti-national’ when faced with any debate or questions. Judging by the last two months, I would suggest that we have definitely entered a phase in which citizens are expected to be subjects of a state that knows best.Embed from Getty ImagesCredulityPolitical smarts, when I was growing up, involved questioning the actions of the state. Being interested in politics meant asking before obeying, challenging before accepting and endlessly debating. Being apolitical was manifested by finding the loopholes and generally believing that it made no difference who was in power or what they did. Both poles kept the rhetoric of political leaders in their place—“Nice to see you, but no one really believes what you say.”This is quite a different moment. We now desperately want to believe in our political leaders. We crave strong paternalistic leaders who will tell us what to do—whether or not they actually know. We are okay with being ruled by people who give directions to places they have never heard of. We just want them to sound confident. We want to be children and subjects who are led into a better future. We ask no questions. We have obliterated from our minds every historical memory and so we have no fear of a return to other fascist ages. We have no interest in political agency—we would even like to vote by SMS as if life were a reality show—and so we surrender it to strong men who know (always men, by the way!). This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.We are content to swallow the dreams these strong men articulate, the road-maps they outline even if they keep shifting, their self-assessment as successful and visionary (this is after all, the age of self-nomination for awards and LinkedIn visionary leaders!) and their choice of a range of coercive measures. We accept with faith everything we are told about those who challenge them—human rights workers usually, who do their work in the face of great danger. Around the world, human rights NGOs are being charged with non-compliance—but it is becoming hard to distinguish whether it is non-compliance with rules and regulations or non-compliance with the government’s line that they are being framed and punished for. We have to remember that today it is them, but tomorrow, it could be any of us.Targeting dissenting elements in civil society is not unique to the present Indian government, to be fair. However, what has changed in the state-civil society equation is that citizens are stepping forward to sweep away any obstacles or rubble in the path of the state juggernaut. Nobody is asking questions. Most are not asking questions because they have chosen to live as subjects of a paternalist state that shows tough love for their own good. Some are not asking questions because they are afraid of being crushed by the juggernaut. A very small number are picking their battles so that they can outlast this moment. The fate of the handful of truly brave Indian citizens, who are undeterred in the face of government pressure and persecution and unsupported in this moment of absolute credulity on our parts, hangs in the balance. Will we ensure they survive 2017?ConvictionThe word ‘conviction’ is now associated more with being found guilty and punished than with having strong unassailable beliefs. Many of us around the world are proud of living in democratic political systems—in fact, those of us that occasionally ask questions are reminded that democracy involves accepting (unconscionable?) points of view and the outcomes of due process elections. Fair enough!This pride does not however seem to translate into much else. In an age when information is ubiquitous, democratic citizenship remains confined to expressing opinion and not seeking to have an informed opinion. This is why, on the morning after the Brexit vote, Google reported that the most-searched term of the day was “What is the EU?” Not knowing the answer to something, no longer precludes our having an opinion on it—that is democracy 2016-style. Democracy is about giving everyone a voice. The US presidential election suggests this is how we understand it: feeling alienated and excluded from the political and social changes of the last few decades, we can seek to exclude and alienate others. Democracy is not about inclusive and enabling processes but a tug-of-war about who is in and who is out. There are shades of this view of democracy to be found all over the world, including India and other parts of South Asia. We sway with the prevailing wind, giving uninformed opinion the clout of conviction. If someone comes to us sounding confident about what they are saying, we are convinced and do not find it necessary to question values, logic or facts. This is why “post-truth” was selected by the Oxford Dictionaries as the word of the year.Embed from Getty Images‘Conviction’ is a beautiful word. To say of someone that they are a person of strong convictions is to pay them a compliment. But should our convictions be so rigid that they cannot accommodate the experience of others? More critically, when we are talking about democracy and citizenship, should the strong men to whom we have handed over our agency be allowed to impose their convictions upon us?I want to know where we stand. As 2017 begins, I want to understand what we believe in—individually and collectively. Citizens of democratic states and societies around the world need to think about this and find ways to express themselves. Our casual submission betrays our values. Our silence emboldens those who would disregard our citizenship.Do we truly believe in democracy? If we did, our societies would not be as divided, our public debates replaced by monologues and tweet-binges and our ability to converse with each other so badly impaired. Our everyday engagement with politics seems confined to ‘who started it’ and ‘who said what to whom.’ Our so-called democratic convictions stop short of understanding citizenship and our own relationship with states. We see the purpose of government as ‘control’ (as reflected in many school civics lessons)—and so we submit to that control uncritically. Citizenship is naturally about compliance and credulity, rather than a conviction-driven engagement.CourageIn 2017, conviction-driven engagement will take even more courage than usual. We have lowered our defences everywhere to such a degree that every small thing—including writing a cheeky response to the requirement that we explain our deposits—appears bold. To say that we will not get Aadhaar cards (which, please note, are not mandatory) and we will not use a digital wallet now seem like volunteering to face bullets. What will we then do when the real lathis and bullets come?Where citizenship is expressed by over-eager compliance and utter credulity (really, rolling over and playing dead), then the work that is done by the groups like the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group is astoundingly brave. To understand how the politics of implementing demonetization ties in with the way that the government wants to suppress dissent, take this development. Shalini Gera, a lawyer from this group, travelled to Bijapur for a case and was told that a complaint had been filed against her for “exchanging old Rs 1,000 notes worth Rs 10 lakh for the Maoists.” Is this true or is this not true? Do we care enough to find out? The chances are we don’t. We are happy to believe that all human rights activists are engaged in nefarious activities involving anti-national elements. Because the government would never lie to us, would it? But people like Shalini Gera—or any of the many other human rights activists targeted by the government through tax probes or FCRA challenges—have the courage of their convictions. They stay the course. Thankfully.Right or wrong, every accused person has the right to due process and a legal defence. All citizens have the right to ask questions and get answers. The constitution of India gives us the right to ask what has happened to missing people; to expect that governments will do their work without exceeding their mandate and jurisdiction and to understand by what authority governments act. Citizenship is not an entitlement or a legal status alone; it is a privilege, and one that you exercise through agency, when political agency requires courage. Citizens—in India and other democratic countries—enjoy civil and political rights, but in 2017, we will get to see whether they have the conviction and the courage to reclaim and exercise them.CompassionIn 2016, political discussions hit a new low. At the good end, we had uncivil, uninformed and ad hominem discussions. At the bad end, we had trolling, cyber-bullying and hate speech. Sometimes, it was hard to tell the two ends apart. Nothing however, highlighted the absence of compassion from our public lives as much as the Syrian crisis and demonetisation.The world has been grappling with a Syrian exodus for a couple of years. As nearby states have quietly absorbed large numbers of refugees, this has precipitated an identity crisis and cultural debates in Europe and North America. To the extent that various European countries have taken in refugees and tried to help them settle down, this has become an issue in domestic politics. But even as we watched elections around Europe and discussed political trends there, news kept emerging from Syria about the deteriorating ground situation. People tweeted photos and blogged stories. We liked, favourited, shared and retweeted, and maybe signed petitions. What history will record is that we did nothing. More than a century since we began looking for collective security, we have not found a way to channel our compassion into action that strikes a good balance between interference and intervention, between helping and handling.Embed from Getty ImagesThe other, closer to home, is how middle-class Indians have responded to demonetization. When faced with questions about implementation and concerns about impact, I have been saddened by the things I hear people say.“Don’t worry about the poor! They have lots of cash.” “Do you think the street vendor is poor? He or she has other sources of income. And by the way, they don’t pay tax.” “See, everyone should have a bank account.”“What’s the problem? Soldiers fight on the front, we can’t stand in queues?” (Never mind the old, the frail, the arthritic and the diabetic, who stood for hours to maybe get a small portion of their money.)“It’s so easy to use digital if you have a smartphone.” (IF you have a smartphone, electricity and decent connectivity.)“Small businesses like tailors will take a hit but everything will be alright in the long run.” (“In the long run, we are all dead,” wrote Keynes.)Middle class resentment about those better-off seems logical. What has emerged is our resentment about those worse off than us. It is as if they are secretly better off. As we have palmed off our stashes of old notes to them, we have not considered that they might be accountable too. We do not consider whose who work in our homes and offices to be human, leave alone citizens. I have been alarmed by the payment in advance of salaries—does that portend a new version of bonded labour that ties the honest worker to the dishonest employer for an indefinite period?A government that appears callous and a credulous citizenry that seems to lack compassion—this is a lethal combination that is now in evidence worldwide. The likelihood that 2017 will redefine citizenship as a web of compassionate relationships seems non-existent, but because we cannot afford that pessimism, I list compassion here anyway.***What will we make of our citizenship in 2017? Wherever we live, it will be a year in which, consciously or unconsciously, we mark our place on the spectrum between credulous compliance and courage of conviction. Wherever we live, the experiences of others and our compassion for them will need to colour our political choices—if only because, in this political climate, any one of us could be the next person to need that support and compassion. As we countdown to this new Gregorian year, I wish you courage.Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training.

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