Swami and Friends c.2011

Written by  //  June 7, 2011  //  National Politics  //  15 Comments

If anyone was ever in doubt that India is changing, this should put the thought to rest. To most of us growing up in eighties India, Swami and Friends signified a most enjoyable half an hour in the week where we would be transported to the innocence of RK Narayan’s Malgudi and the antics of ten-year old Swami, his wealthy friend Rajam and the ever-likeable Mani. For impressionable minds today, you wouldn’t be surprised if Swami and friends mean Ramdev and his purported satyagrahis, political machinations, reneged deals, midnight confrontations, far from innocent and farther still from enjoyable.

The jury is out regarding the wisdom of the government’s crackdown on Swami Ramdev’s hunger strike at Ram Lila Maidan. The opposition has likened it to the Emergency, newspaper columnists, with the odd exception, have condemned it for its illiberality and civil society, at least certain sections of it, have questioned the consistency of the government’s resolve in fighting corruption with its inclination to suppress a peaceful anti-corruption protest by force. Having looked carefully at the reactions for the last two days, I will argue in this piece that the government’s action in forcibly breaking up the mass hunger strike at Ram Lila Maidan and dispersing the protesters, in the circumstances that have prevailed since Anna Hazare’s fast, was a politically astute move. By making a controversial religious godman a symbol of the anti-corruption movement, it has fractured civil society forces introducing a communal element within their ranks, saddled the opposition with a divisive sadhu whose popularity is far from widespread and has attempted to restore a semblance of order in political activism in India which was slowly but surely going out of hand.

Let me preface the argument with a caveat. Ideally, the government should have ignored the hunger strike by Swami Ramdev. Protests such as these are common in a democracy and more often than not key to its vitality and good health. And a protest by a divisive godman regarding black money in an air-conditioned pandal in Delhi ought hardly to have caused more than a flutter. But having made extraordinary concessions to its predecessor hunger striker, bent over backwards in placating the Swami when he announced his fast and then struck a purported deal with him, ignoring the fast was never a real option for this government; a pity since that would have been an ideal way to disincentivise future hunger strikers without undue fuss. But the government’s Plan B, of forcibly breaking up the strike, while questionable in principle, was undoubtedly a politically clever strategy, whose benefits far outweigh its costs.

Its biggest and easiest achievement was to expose the Swami and his friends as faux satyagrahis. All it took was a few threats, a lathi charge and a few tear gas shells for the supposed 1 lakh committed satyagrahis to empty the pandal. Not to speak of Swami Ramdev himself. Whether he actually attempted to escape disguised as a woman is debatable; what is certainly true is that he made offered little actual resistance on refusing to be led away. Historical evidence of satyagrahas, in pre-independence India and elsewhere, clearly indicate the incidence of violence when satyagrahis resist. The fact that the violence was minimal and the pandal was emptied expeditiously clearly demonstrate that there was little resistance offered. Swami Ramdev and his friends wanted black money stashed in tax havens abroad to be confiscated, but certainly not at the cost of physical injury to themselves, let alone at the cost of their lives which is purportedly what they were engaged in doing by fasting-unto-death in the first place.

Second, the crackdown has ensured maximum publicity for Swami Ramdev and his anti-corruption crusade, and by doing so has made the divisive Swami the latest face of civil society. Now ‘civil society’ in India is an amorphous term. Its traits are broadly understood as middle and upper middle class, liberal, secular and urban. Now Swami Ramdev is not the most natural poster boy for civil society. He is a Hindu Swami in saffron, which per se raises hackles in such circles; he is distinctly anti-modern and nativist in his outlook, swearing blindly by Swadeshi and the pride of Indian nationhood; and to top it all is clearly anti-intellectual, as is evident from the statements he makes on national television. However the issue of corruption which he is championing is certainly a live issue in civil society. This has put its members in a bind—the civil society members of the Lokpal Bill Drafting Committee have talked tough and stalled talks, whereas other vocal members of civil society have been conspicuously silent. This is unsurprising since public opinion, while firmly in favour of steps to tackle corruption, is more equivocal regarding Swami Ramdev’s role in it. This is partly due to Ramdev himself and the views he holds, and partly due to the fear that with his emergence, the civil society movement against corruption would be conspicuously supported by communal forces, an uneasy alliance for most. Hence with one broad brush, the police action has forced civil society’s strange bedfellows, former police officers and saffron saints, kar sevaks and senior counsels in the Supreme Court to choose between coming together over their deeply held ideological differences or not doing so, fracturing the hitherto united face of civil society; a veritable trap between a rock and a hard place.

Third, the crackdown has cut the Swami down to size from a larger-than-life conscience of the nation to a political activist of questionable integrity, with none of the calmness and the tranquillity that men of God are supposed to possess. Of course much of the moral highground was accorded to Swami Ramdev by the government itself, laying out the red carpet and attempting to strike a deal with him to call off the fast. But the crackdown represents a course correction, and an important one, which both deals with the Swami as a recalcitrant political activist, while bringing out the deep double standards that characterise his position. Since the crackdown, the Swami has brought up Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue and alleged that she does not feel the pulse of the ordinary Indian because the Indian soil has not nourished her, in the same breath lavished fulsome praise on statue-happy (and corruption-happy?) Mayawati and requested his ‘adarniya behn’ to give him permission to continue his fast in Noida, and claimed as most politicians do that he never agreed to the purported deal that the government says had been breached and that his representative had been forced to acquiesce. The crackdown has thus brought out the politician in the Swami, and by painting him as a political opponent, sponsored by communal forces and supported by Mayawati, the government has put its rival political parties on the backfoot, saddling them with the task of defending an itinerant Swami, a loose cannon, who divides India as much as fighting corruption unites it.

Finally, with Swami Ramdev’s fast, hunger-striking-at-a-whim was fast becoming an easy way to gain publicity and the favourable attention of the government. The crackdown has made the issue significantly more complex for such potential protesters, since they now know the possibility of police action is imminent and likely. While this would not be a deterrent to those fasting for legitimate issues, members of civil society, both celebrities as well as non-celebrities, who lead and join such fasts for publicity, kicks and camera time, would now have to think closely before taking their decision. A natural fast-filtering process, essential to restore the order of political activism seems to have been put in place as a result of the action, much-needed today in an India where satyagraha, once the byword for courage and bravery, is on the verge of becoming a political joke.

15 Comments on "Swami and Friends c.2011"

  1. aandthirtyeights June 9, 2011 at 1:49 am ·

    Very nice, Arghya. 🙂

  2. Arghya June 9, 2011 at 7:53 am ·

    Thanks Mami!

  3. Gayatri Kumar June 9, 2011 at 10:07 am ·

    My thoughts as well, just articulated in a much better way 🙂

  4. Harsh June 11, 2011 at 9:12 pm ·

    Superb piece Arghya! But I have a query, if we say that:
    (1) “Ideally, the government should have ignored the hunger strike by Swami Ramdev”; and
    (2) ” The crackdown has made the issue significantly more complex for such potential protesters, since they now know the possibility of police action is imminent and likely”
    Then can one say that the ‘Crackdown on the strike’ which in its aftermath has showed the many colours of Baba, reducing him to a gimmic, a part of the ‘Opposition’ an actual masterstroke in terms of strategy, since he does stand a bit exposed however high profile.
    Very good piece again!

  5. Arghya June 12, 2011 at 9:28 am ·

    Hi Harsh, thanks for the comment. I said ideally the government should have ignored the protest because that would have been constitutional and would have had the same effect because I think Ramdev would have exposed himself anyway. It would have been a little long-winded but the ‘correct’ course of action. The alternative is of course clever strategy but the rightness of the action is of course something that is questionable.

  6. Dushyant June 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm ·

    very nice post!

  7. T June 13, 2011 at 6:46 am ·

    Do you think the crackdown will affect the public’s perception of the Government/State – in terms of its commitment to a ‘democratic’ resolution of the black money demands, and its use of force to temper dissent (in the context of such movements in other countries)?

  8. Arghya June 13, 2011 at 6:53 am ·

    No I don’t think so. I think the government has been fairly successful in presenting it as an exceptional situation which required such exceptional measures. Besides, the institutional memory of the Emergency is still alive in the political class and the public knows that, so it would take a lot of convincing for people to think that the government was committed to force as a general strategy to counter anti-corruption protests.

  9. Anony June 16, 2011 at 11:08 am ·

    I appreciate the points that you have raised. A very well written post indeed.
    Although I think that you have missed the real issue at hand. The real issue is not whether beating non-violent protestors is a “politically astute” move or not? The real issue is whether the state at can do such a thing in the first place? In other words, whether such actions can be termed to be repressive (and illegal, an action that reeks of state absolutism) and do they discourage the people from stepping out and voicing their opinions.
    Prefrace: I dnt know for certain what were baba ramdev’s real intentions. Nor will I claim that i have figured it all and have all the answers – because, let be honest, we dnt have access to primary sources of information. And the mere fact that he is an excellent entrepreneur is not something that i will hold against him in any way until he is proven conclusively and finally guilty of tax evasion (or any other crime) by a competent court of law.
    1. “Ideally, the government should have ignored the hunger strike by Swami Ramdev” Again, if I have understood you correctly, you say “ideally” not because you think that the government ought to let people exercise their personal rights but because it would have been a politically shrewd move. Agreed, you then admit “Protests such as these are common in a democracy and more often than not key to its vitality and good health”, but it is interesting that concept of liberty of an individual or a group of individuals has found no space in your blog. What I wish to understand is why are not people questioning – who ordered the police to lathi charge people? Did the order flow from appropriate authorities? And if indeed it came from an appropriate authority, were there adequate reasons for the state to take such an action (please remember, ordinary citizens have sustained injuries)? Was there legitimate exercise of discretion by such appropriate authority? Because it just baffles me, to be honest. The only question that kept coming to my mind when I saw the news flash was “How dare the state attack its own citizens without provocation?”
    Just because something makes political sense doesn’t mean it should be executed. I would want to believe that what distinguishes India today from a China/ Libya is exactly this. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and protection against arbitrariness – our political and personal liberties. After all democratic theory draws strength from the theory of individual liberty and freedom, and on that night, it was these concepts that were trampled upon.
    2. “But the government’s Plan B, of forcibly breaking up the strike, while questionable in principle, was undoubtedly a politically clever strategy, whose benefits far outweigh its costs.” Really. I dnt think that you have taken every aspect into account. One cost for instance (and quite a major one that too) you have brushed aside is – what kind of precedent this sets for people? Basically what this tells me is that irrespective of the manner in which I protest, the state is still likely to use force if that helps the state politically/ or if the state doesn’t agree with you. Well, sorry sir, but I’d rather not be a part such utilitarianism because last I read the Indian constitution it granted me the right to protest. Secondly, cost benefit analysis is not an ideal scale to justify/ condemn actions of the state. For instance, using cost benefit analysis the actions of even Nazi germans could be justified but (and I hope you agree with me here) if they are acceptable in civilized society is another thing altogether.
    Nonetheless, why should there be a “fast filtering” process at all? Is it legal? Because clearly, the very people who were satyagrahis during the british raj and then went on to be a part of the constituent assembly did not think such a “filtering” process should be in place. And why should every group of protesting citizens have to accept the brutalities of the state and undergo this baptism by fire kind of process to exercise their rights. I really want to ask – have you ever even been hit by your teacher with a wodden ruler? Remember how that used to sting? Now multiply that sensation with a thousand times and just try and feel that pain on your head – your skull would crack. And wait, it doesn’t end here. Simultaneously try and feel the same amount of force on your shin, hips and arms. Because obviously, once the police corners you…Anyway. Clearly, you dnt really know what a lathi charge is! So please dnt brush it aside in such a nonchalant manner.
    I mean think about. Because then tomorrow someone else using your arguments will come along and say –ok, lets have a “filtering” process for voting as well (to ensure that only people who really wish to vote and believe in who they are voting for should vote, and hence, strengthen our democracy.) .
    I understand that you are a lawyer. And a litigation lawyer that too. Well then sir, I am sure you must have mooted at law school. And remember how sometimes at moot courts the judges used to grill us on jurisdiction and other such issues, without going into the merits of the case. Well, I think, this is one such case.
    I offer no opinion on the latter part of your entry

    P.S.: And you know what was a politically smart move: running away from the Delhi thullas. That was smart. Bloody smart. : )

  10. Anony June 16, 2011 at 11:20 am ·

    Just a few edits. Please ignore previous entry.

    I appreciate the points that you have raised. A very well written post indeed.
    Although I think that you have missed the real issue at hand. The real issue is not whether beating non-violent protestors is a “politically astute” move or not. The real issue is whether the state at can do such a thing in the first place. In other words, whether such actions can be termed to be repressive (and illegal, an action that reeks of state absolutism) and do they discourage the people from stepping out and voicing their opinions.
    Prefrace: I dnt know for certain what were baba ramdev’s real intentions. Nor will I claim that i have figured it all and have all the answers – because, let be honest, we dnt have access to primary sources of information. And the mere fact that he is an excellent entrepreneur is not something that i hold against him in any way until he is proven conclusively and finally guilty of tax evasion (or any other crime) by a competent court of law.
    1. “Ideally, the government should have ignored the hunger strike by Swami Ramdev” Again, if I have understood you correctly, you say “ideally” not because you think that the government ought to let people exercise their personal rights but because it would have been a politically shrewd move. Agreed, you then admit “Protests such as these are common in a democracy and more often than not key to its vitality and good health”, but it is interesting that concept of liberty of an individual or a group of individuals has found no space in your blog when you are trying to justify the government’s actions. What I wish to understand is why are not people questioning – who ordered the police to lathi charge people? Did the order flow from appropriate authorities? And if indeed it came from an appropriate authority, were there adequate reasons for the state to take such an action (please remember, ordinary citizens have sustained injuries)? Was there legitimate exercise of discretion by such appropriate authority? Because it just baffles me, to be honest. The only question that kept coming to my mind when I saw the news flash was “How dare the state attack its own citizens without provocation?”
    Just because something makes political sense doesn’t mean it should be executed. I would want to believe that what distinguishes India today from a China/ Libya is exactly this. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and protection against arbitrariness – our political and personal liberties. After all the democratic theory draws strength from the theory of individual liberty and freedom, and on that night, it was these concepts that were trampled upon.
    2. “But the government’s Plan B, of forcibly breaking up the strike, while questionable in principle, was undoubtedly a politically clever strategy, whose benefits far outweigh its costs.” Really. I dnt think that you have taken every aspect into account. One cost for instance (and quite a major one that too) you have brushed aside is – what kind of precedent this sets for people? Basically what this tells me is that irrespective of the manner in which I protest, the state is still likely to use force if that helps the state politically/ or if the state doesn’t agree with you. Well, sorry sir, but I’d rather not be a part such utilitarianism because last I read the Indian constitution it granted me the right to protest. Secondly, cost benefit analysis is not an ideal scale to justify/ condemn actions of the state. For instance, using cost benefit analysis the actions of even Nazi germans could be justified but (and I hope you agree with me here)whether they are acceptable in civilized society is another thing altogether.
    Nonetheless, why should there be a “fast filtering” process at all? Is it legal? Because clearly, the very people who were satyagrahis during the british raj and then went on to be a part of the constituent assembly did not think such a “filtering” process should be in place. And why should every group of protesting citizens have to accept the brutalities of the state and undergo this baptism by fire kind of process to exercise their rights. I really want to ask – have you ever even been hit by your teacher with a wodden ruler? Remember how that used to sting? Now multiply that sensation a thousand times and just try and feel that pain on your head – your skull would crack. And wait, it doesn’t end here. Simultaneously try and feel the same amount of force on your shin, hips and arms. Because obviously, once the police corners you…Anyway. Clearly, you dnt really know what a lathi charge is! So please dnt brush it aside in such a nonchalant manner.
    I mean think about. Because then tomorrow someone else using your arguments will come along and say –ok, lets have a “filtering” process for voting as well (to ensure that only people who really wish to vote and believe in who they are voting for should vote, and hence, strengthen our democracy.) .
    I understand that you are a lawyer. And a litigation lawyer that too. Well then sir, I am sure you must have mooted at law school. And remember how sometimes at moot courts the judges used to grill us on jurisdiction and other such issues, without going into the merits of the case. Well, I think, this is one such case.
    I offer no opinion on the latter part of your entry

    P.S.: And you know what was a politically smart move: running away from the Delhi thullas. That was smart. Bloody smart. : )

  11. Arghya June 17, 2011 at 6:05 am ·

    Hi T,

    No I don’t think it will. I think the action was specifically directed at this fast-unto-death by Ramdev especially after the failed deals; I don’t think this would either deter political protesters who feel strongly about their causes and neither do I think would the government use force with every such protester. We should see this very much as a peculiar case in peculiar circumstances.

  12. Arghya June 17, 2011 at 6:23 am ·

    Dear Anony,

    Thank you for your very detailed and pointed response to my piece. I offer, by way of defence, the following points:
    1. You say the real issue is whether the state’s action is justified or not. I agree with you that is ‘a’ real issue. And my piece is on another real issue which is on the strategy rather than the justification behind the government’s actions. These are two separate issues and I believe that by writing on the second, I have by no means, tried to belittle the importance of the first. In fact, as I point out, ‘ideally the government ought to have ignored such protests’. The ideally here is not in terms of political strategy but in terms of constitutionality. And later, more expressly I say that the government action may be questionable in principle. So in no way am I defending the government’s action in terms of its justifiability. I am merely saying it was a politically smart move. To conflate shrwedness with justification and attribute such a view to me is erroneous.
    2. Cost- benefit analysis: Yes, I agree that a cost-benefit analysis may not be the most appropriate lens to look at state action; however it does provide an excellent framework to understand whether it is a politically shrewd tactic or not. This of course, is without prejudice to the fact, that the actions may not be justified, which is an independent determination that must take place. Let’s take another example- of the Hindu Code Bill, initiated and pushed through by Nehru in 1956. Now in constitutional terms, it is severely questionable, that the personal laws of one community are reformed to the exclusion of others. But in a cost-benefit calculus, as hindsight shows, it certainly proved to be a politically smart move and didn’t have any particular electoral consequences.
    3. Fast-filtering: Everyone has a right to protest and should do so in whichever manner they deem fit. If your frame of reference is the law, as I think it is, then it’s counter-productive because fasts-unto-death are nothing but attempts to suicide which are strictly illegal. So the state has a ground to put such people in jail, strictly by the book, which you seem to have full faith in. But I think there is a necessity for protests movements to secure their legitimacy to use the extreme devices at their disposal, such as hunger strikes sparingly. That means it will have more effect when actually used. So the state’s action filters half-hearted protests out. In addition, as I replied to the comment above, I don’t think this is of any precedential value- it was a one-off and India, is far too mature a democracy, that all popular action will be met with force; that is a totally unimaginable circumstance.

    Finally, yes I haven’t faced a lathi charge. So I am guilty as charged. But my right to write incidentally about lathi charges and protests is as much as your right to write incidentally about the law. And our collective right to write about politics. So let’s not go any further down this line.

  13. Anony June 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm ·

    Thank you for your response.
    First, please you may write about lathi charges as much as you like – that goes without saying. Lets not make this personal. What I was trying to highlight is that please dont just brush it aside in such a nonchalant manner (Or may be it just your piece that gives that impression.). That is all. My pointed description was to just sensitize you to it.

    Its interesting how you draw comfort from the fact that this was a one-off incident and that India is far too mature a democracy. Well, all I can say is that I am not too sure where I stand on that point. To answer this question completely may be one may have to consider various related issues as well – like why majority of the legal fraternity believes that (unlike England) our constitution needs a basic structure. But at a general level, I agree we are a democracy and usually, our government acts in a responsible manner. However, I think (and am pretty sure that you agree with me here) that there have to be appropriate checks and balances in place. And which is why I think we need to ask questions like – who ordered the police action, blah blah blah.
    With respect to reform of personal laws and the constitutionality of such laws/ reforms I think that it is more a matter of ideology than legality. Its somewhat similar to the right to wear hijab. Consider this – are we being truly liberal by regulating people’s behavior? Because by forcing people not to wear hijab, we are in a way taking away their right to liberty and expression. There are many levels and layers to this debate and lets not digress.
    Its not advisable to reduce such complex social/ legal issues to mere cost benefit analysis. I am not saying that you did that but all I am saying is that we may be jumping the gun a little by giving it so much weightage. So, I think while it may be reasonable to conduct a cost benefit analysis, what is more important (and not only an independent consideration) is to understand whether such actions are legal/ legitimate or not. (This bill will be a huge issue in the coming elections and so the cost benefit allocation process is not completely over, is it?) My point is that “cost benefit analysis” can only be truly carried out in hindsight. Wrt this issue, I think that we have not yet reached the hindsight stage.

    Ok, I am not really sure if fasting unto death is an attempt to commit suicide – though you make an interesting observation. Suppose I am an alcoholic and a chain smoker and doctors have told me that if I dnt moderate my intake of such substance I will die within 2 months. Due you think that I, in such a case, should also be put behind bars? All I want to understand is that where do you draw the line? Which actions can be conclusively construed to be attempts to suicide?

    Anyway, what I do agree with you is that perhaps we may have a “filtering process” for such actions. Not for any other reason but because such actions should be treated as a separate class of rights/ entitlements. However, I (and with me a considerable part of India’s population) absolutely abhor the ‘filter’ that the government used in this case. And like you astutely pointed out, the government should have just ignored Baba and let him be (provided of course till they remained non-violent and were not causing any damage to public property etc). There was no need to filter the protest in such a manner. Politics shrewedness or not, it is just not acceptable. And government has very successfully done that in another case, which has been hitting the headlines in India. Apparently, a swami died a couple of days after fasting to save ganga from illegal mining being carried out in Haridwar. Which one is the greater evil and how do we address such situations, are we comfortable leaving such issues and not protesting against them (and sometimes having to justify our right to protest), has the government shown the required levels of sincerity after common wealth and 2g spectrum scam – my head just starts spinning. I need a beer.

    Cheers. 🙂

  14. Ruchira July 20, 2011 at 8:59 am ·

    I agree completely.

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