Monday, 26 January 2015

How NaMo Transformed Sarkari Festivals into People’s Festivals


It speaks volumes that two of the most important days in the political calendar of modern India – namely Independence Day and Republic Day – are marked by mere sarkari ceremonies.  On August 15 school children are brought in as audiences under the hot sun or pouring rain to be passive audiences at the PM’s speech to the nation.  On 26 January, the sarkari function is a long spectacle with armed forces followed by school children going down Rajpath in a grand parade peppered with colorful floats of each state.  However, for all its grandeur, the Republic Day is without any participatory role for the public. (See my article: Some Thoughts on India's Republic Day ‏ --Republic Day Celebrations without the Public The same pattern is repeated on a lower scale in all state capitals.

For the average citizen, both these days are just two more official holidays – though more quiet and relaxing than most because even the bazaars are compulsorily shut down.
However, Narendra Modi changed all that  in the second year of his term as  chief minister of Gujarat. From 2003 onwards he converted these two deadpan official functions as well as the May 1st, Gujarat founding day celebrations into people’s festivals with the government of course playing a leading creative role. The first major change  it involved was to shift these functions away from the state capital into the various districts of the state. In 2003, he announced that henceforth the focus of celebrations on January 26, May 1st and August 15 would not be only in the state capital as is the practice in all the states of India.  Each of these major functions would be celebrated in a different district of Gujarat. This didn’t mean simply replicating the standard official function in some district headquarter.  It meant a whole new orientation.  The function was not only made participatory but the occasion began to be used to give that particular district a total facelift and a new pride in its own unique history regional culture as well as the past and present accomplishment of its people.
When Modi first announced that the locale for the 2003 Independence Day celebrations would be the ancient historic town of Patan, Gujarat Congressmen protested vehemently.  They even held black flag demonstrations and organized their own parallel function as a matter of protest.  The Gujarat media too gave big mileage to these protests and made it out as if this was some kind of mad Tuglaqi move of NaMo.  They held similar protests for the Republic Day and Gujarat Founding Day celebrations in district towns. But these protests dwindled in size and significance as these regional functions became more and more popular and evoked an enthusiastic response for the following reasons:
1)   Whichever district got selected for hosting the Republic Day, the Gujarat Day or Independence Day celebrations, was simultaneously expected to prepare well in advance a whole list of small and big development projects for the area.  The Deputy Commissioner (DC) of the district prepared this list by consulting local panchayats and municipal corporations.  DCs were also encouraged to come up with their dream projects for the area that involved innovation and had the potential to infuse new life into the district.  These projects ranged from minor things like a new bus terminal in a hitherto poorly connected place, water harvesting structures, a new Industrial Training Instituteor new hospital, new hostel or connecting government schools to e-learning or a major river front development project with new recreational and commercial complexes built into it.  The budgets for these were also sanctioned with speed well in advance and each DC made to deliver those projects within the given time frame.  The budget typically ran into Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 crores depending on the size and requirements of the district. 
2)   Fifteen days before the scheduled event all the Cabinet ministers were made to tour the district not just to oversee the satisfactory completion of commissioned projects but to inaugurate those falling within their ministry’s domain.  A day before the event the chief minister arrived in the district and inaugurated some of the major projects.  Thus in one go the selected district would witness major uplift in civic infra-structure and new educational and health facilities leading to all round development in a time bound manner.
3)   The local government in each instance was also mandated to launch a major cleanliness drive for the entire district with the aim of making it garbage free. This included setting up the required municipal systems for garbage management.  Modi made it a point to communicate to people of the district in his public speech that from then on it was their job to maintain high level of hygiene and cleanliness in their district.  The district headquarter in particular underwent major sprucing up.  On the eve of the big day, the district headquarter would also be lit up and decorated to make key segments of the town carry a festive look.  Its impact on society at large can be gauged from the fact that many commercial establishments as well as private homes joined the celebration by lighting up their respective buildings.
4)   On the eve of Republic Day, Gujarat Day and Independence Day a major cultural program began to be organized in the district headquarters.  Typically 30,000 to 50,000 persons attend the meticulously arranged cultural program also attended by the chief minister. Almost everyone is provided proper chairs even though the scale is mammoth.  World class audio-visual arrangements are made so that even with a giant gathering, there is no disorder and no chaos and the program is seen and heard by the last person in the last row.  I attended two such programs (Republic Day 2013 in Bhuj and Independence Day 2013 in Banaskantha). The discipline and orderly arrangements in both were awe-inspiring. 
The unique thing about this two hour cultural program is that it is neither a Bollywood song and dance bonanza as is becoming common in India these days in the name of cultural programs, nor is it marked by amateurish performances as is common in small towns of India.  The artists are always local but they are given proper professional training even though many may be performing for the first time.  The two functions I attended involved an elaborate high tech-audio-visual dance drama that enacted the history of Bhuj and Banaskantha districts respectively. They were both conceptualized and directed by known Gujarati writers with Gujarat Government’s Secretary of Info and Culture Bhagyesh Jha, himself a known poet and writer, playing a key role in formulating the script and artistic inputs.  Both these docu-dramas provided a scintillating crash course in the socio-political and cultural history of that district from times immemorial to the present day. Both provided gripping performances that included hi-tech audio-visual inputs, regional music, dance, poetry and dramatic narrative through selecting key revealing moments in the history of the area.  Both had world-class sound and light effects.  Both used local artists from within the district.
Another major highlight of the evening bonanza is that, NaMo set the tradition of honoring local heroes – be they educationists, artists, writers, medical professionals or dedicated social workers selected through a transparent process.  This too generates a great deal of public enthusiasm in the entire district.
But the biggest star of the show would be NaMo himself who would deliver a public address exhorting people to take pride in their region along with other social-political messages.
Thus the entire focus of the Republic Day Gujarat Day and Independence Day eve programs is to enhance the self esteem of that region and get familiarized with their own unique history and culture – not just celebrate being Indian or being Gujarati but also celebrate their own micro regional cultural identity.  By combining folklore, mythology with cultural and political history, these programs encourage young people to value the study of their past and celebrate their local heroes.  However, they have meaning for the rest of Gujarat as well.  Through these programs, each region of the state gets to better understand and appreciate other regions of the state.
The next day the celebrations are more official – the usual parade or flag hoisting and a formal address of the chief minister to the people of his state.
It is fortunate that Anandiben Patel, the new chief minister of the state has decided to keep alive this tradition with equal aplomb.   
This time Narendra Modi has not had time to refashion the Independence Day celebration into a people’s festival as he did in Gujarat because he has had no breathing space from the day of his swearing-in on May 26, 2014.  The main change that one witnessed this time in Independence Day celebrations at Red Fort was that space for over 30,000 ordinary citizens had been provided to witness the Prime Minister’s address to the nation from the ramparts of Lal Quila.  But this is too little going by NaMo’s penchant for bringing about major tectonic shifts in the way things are done in government.  I hope by the time of the coming Republic Day, he has acquired enough grip over governance in Delhi to make 26 January 2014 the most historic Republic Day in Post-independence India.

Reposted on January 26, 2015


Republic Day Celebrations without the "Public"

With US President Barack Obama as the chief guest at the Republic Day function this year necessitating unprecedented security measures in Delhi, the following article (written some three years ago) on the absurdity of celebrating Republic Day while shunning ordinary citizens becomes all the more relevant.

I have never felt like celebrating 15th August, Independence Day. For me, coming from a family of Partition refugees, it marks the date of India’s Partition.  However, I do want to celebrate Republic Day because it is on this date in 1950 that the Indian Constitution came into effect. It is a document held sacred by millions of its citizens, including those of us who think its drafting was an elitist exercise and did not incorporate some of the key concerns of Mahatma Gandhi and his vision of institutions that would promote a culture of Self Rule or Swaraj.
But despite its limitations and flaws it offers each citizen—rich or poor --the promise of equality and many important freedoms as fundamental rights.
The government of India, however, has a strange notion of what is an appropriate way to celebrate the occasion; it not only shuts down all its offices but forces by law all commercial and corporate establishments to take a compulsory holiday.Public transport is also withdrawn. In Delhi for instance, the Metro and Delhi Transport Corporation run only a skeletal service—that too after the Republic Day Parade is over. Even flights are not allowed to take off from or land till the Parade is over and done with. Streets are deserted, markets are all shut and our usually bustling urban centres look like ghost cities.
There was a time, anyone could go and witness the celebrity Parade on Rajpath in Delhi by turning up early enough to get seats in the janata enclosure. Today, only VIPS are allowed access anywhere near Rajpath. The “people” who gather to witness the parade are overwhelmingly government officials, politicians and their families. There was a time thousands would gather en route to welcome the Parade as it moved from India Gate to Red Fort. Today, security scares have resulted in far fewer people venturing out  of their homes to cheer the marchers. In smaller towns the celebrations are even more dull and grim, with bored school children brought in to sing the national anthem and applaud bored officials who do the flag hoisting ceremony while the population at large is excluded from any role on what is supposed to be a historic day for citizens’ rights in India.
But nothing saddens me more than the pompous display of military might during the Republic Day Parade in Delhi. Instead of happy citizens we see contingent after contingent of military regiments—Punjab, Madras, Bihar, Assam Rifles, Gorkha et al-- march past the President, Prime Minister and other dignitaries gathered at Rajpath. They are followed by the display of the muscle and might of our air force and navy. The soldiers are accompanied by armoured tanks, ballistic missiles, anti aircraft guns, torpedoes and other deadly weapons.  These are followed by various contingents of armed police—the CRPF, Railway Security Force, Border Security Force, CRPF, CISF and the works. Why on earth did our post independent rulers choose this Soviet style display of the armed might of the Indian state on of alldays, Republic Day? Is it meant to make the rulers feel secure from their own people? Or is this display of weaponry and military--police power meant to awe and frighten the citizens?
This is not at all to belittle the vital role played by our brave soldiers in defense of  India but simply to point out that there are better occasions to celebrate our armed might. January 26 ought to be a people’s festival. Instead it has become a deadpan sarkari ritual. It is significant that the colourful and lively contingents of school children and folk dancers come at the fag end of the Parade. In a genuine republic people come first. It is only where there are militaristic authoritarian regimes that coercive arms of the state machinery take precedence over people.
After giving us a glimpse of the gung ho, macho Indian state, we are subjected to a series of mostly unimaginative tableaux put together by various state governments and Public Sector Undertakings.
Deprived of the life force and energy that ordinary people bring to any occasion with their participation, the Republic Day Parade has become such a sombre event that TV cameras hardly catch a happy or smiling face among the select audience, except when school children or folk dancers appear on the scene or jaanbaaz soldiers display their acrobatic skills on motor cycles. Our ministers and bureaucrats look bored as though going through a tough ordeal. 

Narendra Modi had changed the face of Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations in Gujarat by transforming them into vibrant events with far greater participation of local people. I hope something similar is done to transform these two historic days in Delhi as well.

Postscript:
One of my young friends, Wahid Parra from Kashmir, happened to be in Delhi on 26th January--his first experience of Republic Day in Delhi. He went to Connaught Place thinking the city centre will be in a festive mood. His shock at what he saw is aptly summed up in the following words: "Madhuji it was like being in Kashmir on Republic Day. There everything shuts down due to hartaalcall given by terrorists/ separatists. But here the government is enforcing ahartaal on the entire population. Strange country indeed!"

Posted on 26th January 2015

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar
इक उम्र असर होने तक… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …اک عمر اثر ہونے تک

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