Dayamani Barla, who is leading a popular movement against the acquisition of fertile land in the village of Nagri in Jharkhand, was recently granted bail by a local court. She had been arrested after staging a dharna demanding the equitable distribution of MNREGA cards. She was re-arrested on the day of her release by the police on the basis of a different, but equally contentious, charge. She remains in jail; her bail petition was rejected on October 29.
The relative anonymity of Barla’s struggle in urban public fora, including the media, can be attributed to the fact that the space for dissent in India can no longer afford to accommodate multiple voices. In such a shrinking turf, movements that command greater resources (funds and technology) and focus on issues that the urban audience relates to with relative ease (institutionalized corruption, for instance) often succeed in displacing the ones representing distant and marginalized communities. This has helped Arvind Kejriwal monopolize the space of dissent in the public imagination of urban India.
This element of competition has been exploited by the State to fragment the culture of dissent even further. A devious strategy based on selective engagement and discrimination is usually implemented in order to do this. It is significant that India’s political class is far more comfortable engaging with Kejriwal through the exchange of canards than with Barla. This is because Barla’s battle is more democratic than that of Kejriwal’s as she has chosen to sensitize citizens to their legitimate rights without trying to take decisions on their behalf. This worries an apathetic State more than Kejriwal’s choice of entering the political fray, a move that not only makes him larger than his movement but also threatens to blur the lines that distinguish him from his detractors. Given the contamination of politics, the line that separates the functions of the executive from those of civil society must stay in place.
The difference in threat perception can explain the extent of discrimination between Barla and Kejriwal. Recently, Kejriwal’s followers were involved in a skirmish with Salman Khurshid’s supporters in Farrukhabad. Yet, it is Barla — her movement has remained peaceful — who is having to battle the perverse might of the State’s legal arsenal. There has been talk of protecting RTI activists with the help of the ‘whistleblowers protection bill’. But Parliament continues to maintain stoical silence on the suppression of social activists through a combination of fabricated charges and draconian legal instruments. It is thus imperative to scrutinize the operation of lower courts that seldom take into account the premeditated nature of the investigation and the flimsy evidence against activists. Many of their verdicts — most notably, the one passed against Binayak Sen by a sessions court — have later been dismissed by a higher court.
The differences in the movements led by Barla and Kejriwal — in terms of ethics and intent — signify the growing polarizations within democratic dissent in modern India. But, together, these movements are also symptomatic of the trust deficit in the relationship that binds the people to their elected representatives. This chasm is likely to encourage disgruntled citizens from the margins to align themselves with those who scoff at India’s faulty democracy and pose, according to the prime minister, the greatest internal threat to the nation.