Living with the known devil

We’re half way into the lockdown and we’ve had a lot of time to reflect, learn and, perhaps, change a few views. But I wonder how many of you have thought of the remarkable response of our poor and most vulnerable fellow citizens? No doubt we’ve all expressed horror and deep sorrow at the sight of hundreds of thousands — maybe millions —walking home to villages hundreds or thousands of miles away because they don’t trust the government or our system to take care of them. Forgotten, forsaken and cast aside by officialdom, they have greater faith in the communities they grew up in. But that’s not what I’m referring to.

Let’s today consider what this reveals. It’s an acceptance of what has to be. That may be resignation but it’s also resilience. It takes an inner strength many of us do not have to change our lives overnight and move in the opposite direction. Yet that’s what they did. Without demur or protest. They simply assessed the odds they faced and decided they were better off back in their villages. And then they started walking.

Those who couldn’t leave sat quietly and peacefully outside feeding centres, in lines that seemed to stretch beyond the limit of a television camera’s sweep, patiently waiting for their turn. The Delhi government says its providing food for up to 12 lakh people twice a day. That’s another million who’ve accepted what has happened without demur or protest.  


Did we expect this? Not really. I’ve done multiple interviews where our best informed spoke of social unrest, food riots and violence. In South Africa, the police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets to maintain order in townships. As far as I know, nothing similar has happened anywhere in India. In fact, even when provoked, our fellow citizens did not hit back. So, when a mofussil policeman “punished” them, they uncomplainingly jumped like frogs. And when officials in Bareilly hosed them with disinfectant they simply shut their eyes and gritted their teeth.

Now you might wonder why I’m writing about this? Why do I find this passive response, this acceptance of what will be, so remarkable? It’s because I see in it a quality we may not have recognised or even realised existed. The strength of the Indian people to withstand adversity. Not just god-made but also man-made.

Of course, there are times when we riot. We’ve just lived through one instance, although it seems a long time ago. And there are occasions when passion and prejudice can drive us to meanness and violence. We’re not saints.

But it’s this unrecognised strength that’s kept our country a democracy for nearly 75 years. Without it, the malgovernance and thoughtlessness of our system would have provoked revolt and disrupted the country. You don’t need me to remind you how often our governments and elite have blundered. Infact, in terms of economic decision-making they’ve done so with their eyes wide open. Some would say knowingly and deliberately. In other third world countries such circumstances have abruptly and violently ended their democracy. The list is long: Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, Argentina and it goes on and on.

India is different. No one at Independence thought our democracy would survive. But it did. Many believed it would collapse after Nehru. It did not. Then they thought it might not continue after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Nearer our time, we asked if it would crumble with the Citizenship Amendment Act. But each time the sceptics were wrong. Famine or flood, earthquakes, tsunamis, war and plague have hit us and almost each time the system’s response was faulty yet our democracy has not been vanquished.

I used to wonder why. Now I think I know. It’s the capacity of our poor and most vulnerable fellow citizens to accept adversity and struggle on.

Of course, this also means they’ve allowed a dreadfully flawed system to continue and not correct itself. But then, would the alternative have been better? It wasn’t in any of the countries I’ve referred to earlier. In all of them,  the change was for the worse. I guess our fellow citizens believe they’re better off with the devil they know...

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel