The politics of public space in India
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The politics of public space in India

By Pradip N. Thomas

Jantar Mantar is the location for public protests in Delhi. It is a site at which literally scores of major protests have taken place – the Right to information, anti-corruption, the Nirbhaya and Hathras rape cases, anti-CAA (Citizen Amendment Act) rallies against contentious citizenship laws, the Farmer’s protest among numerous others. This, despite attempts by the National Green Tribunal, the police, right-wing groups to restrict, disrupt protest. A range of National Security laws including a colonial-era law on Sedition, have been used to place journalists, students, social activists and protestors behind bars – a prospect that in the context of Covid-19 can turn into a death sentence.

Arguably, spaces such as Jantar Mantar are where the meanings of democracy are debated, expressed and listened to, where truth is held up to power, where causes and issues become ‘public’ and where people become aware of the strength of collective power. Democracy, however, is an anathema to the current hyper-nationalist government in power and its proto-Fascist leadership that is very much in the tradition of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the USA and Erdogan in Turkey. And in this context, the networked public sphere simply has to contend with a centrally supported misinformation regime – often referred to as the BJP’s infamous IT Cell and its support for troll farms and counter-publicity initiatives at spinning the story of the government’s successes even in the context of its tragic, even criminal mishandling of the second Covid wave in India.

While this propaganda machine is in full flow, what we are seeing is the relentless death of the public’s right to speak, to critique, to offer alternative stories. It is quite extraordinary that those who speak up against the government’s lack of preparedness, the lack of hospital beds, oxygen in Delhi and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh have been jailed. While all manner of traditional remedies such as smearing cow dung and drinking cow urine are given publicity, there is little space for evidence-based public communications. “Positivity Unlimited” is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS, a cadre-based National organisation and power behind the government’s) PR response to the Covid crisis and it is quite extraordinary to see the media embrace and communicate the wholly fictitious and manufactured message of Positivity Unlimited.

Politicisation of public communications and public space

Public communication is more than just the citizen’s right to communicate or to enjoy being in communicative environments. It is the right to exercise our senses – of touch and feel, to socialise, to share, to eat, to be along with others, in the context of collectivities that are at the very core of public communications. In this sense there are definite correlations between freedom of expression and the right to public space for the one cannot exist without the other. While governments the world over are chary of the right to free expression they have, over the years whittled away at public space that is fundamental to the enabling of free expression. What we are seeing in country such as India is the politicisation of public communications and public space.

While it is perfectly normal to be involved in public forms of religious communications that involve many millions of publics, such as at the Kumbh Mela, an important gathering of Hindu sects and devotees, in the current dispensation, it is not natural for collectivities to gather in a public space and /or share communications or communicate the need for reform and social change. So, what seems to be happening is that the very idea of what constitutes a public is being redrawn, reimagined, reassessed in exclusive ways.

Another example of the ruin of public space is the grand project of establishing a new Parliament complex – The Central Vista (that sounds like a hotel complex in Singapore!) ostensibly because the previous one created by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens across 2,800 hectares, with 3,000 government-owned properties and 600 private bungalows is a reminder of India’s colonial heritage. It does not sit well with the muscular men and women belonging to Hindutva who would rather include cows and peacocks but not the ordinary people of India in their vanity projects.

There is an assault on public space in India and common lands are fast disappearing under the twin onslaught of the State and the Market. In fact, Lutyen’s Delhi is up for sale. God men and gurus too have played their role in expropriating public space. The South Indian godman Sadhguru built his massive Isha Foundation on forested lands inhabited by tribal groups and which were also important elephant migration corridors. It would be such a perfect gesture if that property were to be taken over by the government and deliberately allowed to disintegrate and revert to forest, elephants and tribals.

Forgotten public spaces

Arguably, one of the consequences of Covid-19 has been a retreat into private space – and very little possibilities to “encounter”, to meet, by chance or by design, the Other. In that sense Covid-19 lock-downs have led to the death of public space and to a certain unmaking of cities that were meant for crowds and for minglings. At the same time, people in lock-downs have used their balconies to communicate – to sing, play music, to share and collaborate in a range of social and cultural activities – highlighting the value of public spaces that we often take for granted.

Here again there are distinctions to be made – of the forced symbolic publicness imposed by the political class to celebrate the contributions made by poorly paid nurses in the UK and in India or the clanging of pots and pans and the lighting of lamps to shoo away the spirits of Covid-19 as against the spontaneous manifestations of publicness and celebrations of public space by neighbours in Covid-stricken neighbourhoods around the world. Perhaps such spontaneous expressions of publicness need to be recorded in a repository of pandemic convivialities – ideas from which could be drawn up to enrich and enable public spaces in a post-pandemic environment. 

Online public space

What about public space online? Often theorised as limitless space, it is really available for all to take part in? In the context of Web 2.0 governments, the private sector and civil society have all placed their trust in the digital revolution as the pathway towards economic productivity, citizen participation, and multiple efficiencies in access to goods and services. While there definitely are efficiencies in the platform economy, grandiose, supposedly public projects such as Digital India, have in Covid-times been exposed for what they are – exclusive, market-driven in a context in which opportunities for both market and state surveillance have become immense.

The experience of Covid has brutally exposed the digital divide. While online education was good for the privileged who had access to laptops, to smart phones and the Internet, students from lower caste and class backgrounds in prestigious institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) at one end of the spectrum and kids in rural schools at the other suffered because of a lack of access to basic technologies such as a connected laptop. There are some amazing stories of a single smartphone being used by multiple children in a rural setting because lessons and learning resources are being delivered through Whatsapp. There are heart-breaking stories of rural folk who simply had to take their stricken loved ones by foot, or autorickshaw to a hospital because they did not have a smartphone and did not have access to social media to find out the availability of an oxygen cylinder in what are poorly equipped, neighbourhood health facilities.

The turn towards online registration for most, if not all social security schemes has left informal workers without any connectivity high and dry. Even Covid-19 registrations under the government scheme CoWIN require the use of smart phones that are just not as ubiquitous as media coverage has consistently reported. The dire state of rural health facilities – the lack of primary health care, basic health facilities, lack of doctors and health professionals has been exposed by this pandemic – in other words, the woeful state of public health in India. It is distressing to think that billions of dollars have been spent on a variety of vanity projects while ordinary Indians have been left to fend for themselves.

Limits of the digital revolution

What Covid-19 has perhaps demonstrated is the very real limits to the digital revolution. The fact that those who have smart phones can access services but also fall prey to misinformation and disinformation does not say much about the quality of online spaces that people inhabit. The atrocious circulations of Covid remedies on social media in India, ranging from the benign to the surreal and downright harmful, reveal the gaps in digital literacy that exist today. In a largely unregulated environment, anything goes and all sorts of religious charlatans and self-made doctors prescribe all sorts of remedies. Baba Ramdev, the entrepreneur guru and yoga specialist actually made fun of those frantically looking for oxygen – for according to him, there is enough oxygen out there in the atmosphere that can be sourced through the deployment of effective, yogic, breathing techniques! Such are the parallel worlds that people inhabit in India today.

So where can one find examples of people protecting, maintaining, and expanding public space in India? There are many examples with decentralised public services run by women in the Southern Indian state of Kerala – the Kudumbashree project that focusses on the financial inclusion of women through micro-initiatives being easily one of the most progressive of its kind in the country. This project that began in 1998 has been successful because of the key role played by women in neighbourhood groups who have helped each other in empowerment processes.

Perhaps the best source of material on people and public space is contained in the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) that was established by the well-known Indian journalist P. Sainath. This archive contains a wealth of stories from rural India on the incredible challenges faced by the forgotten people of India whose public spaces have been steadily eroded but who also maintain incredible resources of hope that are public in nature – from music, art, and performance to traditions of sharing that keep these communities and public spaces alive. The section Things We Make offers a wealth of examples of creativity and the skills and traditions that continue to provide musical and artistic goods and services that are essential to public performances.

I remember a short-lived experiment in Chennai – the Sangamam – a government-based initiative that brought all music – both Carnatic/Classical and folk forms to select parks. It was free of cost and open to everybody rich and poor, low caste and high. The paraiattam, Dalit drummers and Brahmin Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists shared the same stage and were at least momentarily of equal worth and status. The urban Chennai crowd witnessed the wealth of performative traditions from their home state – from the exuberant to the staid. To my mind this was one of the best examples of publicness – and one that is rarely found in the rest of the country.

Another example of such publicness is the Carnatic vocalist T. M. Krishna’s experiments with bringing both Carnatic and folk music to the Urur Olcott Kuppam, a fishing village, located in Chennai, South India. T. M. Krishna’s remains one of the most significant innovators in breaking down the barriers between “high” and “low” cultures in India and facilitating public spaces for all.

Conclusion

Public spaces are subject to political will. In India, where rampant and rapacious forms of neo-liberalism have defined public space and the terms for public encounters, there has been a steady securitisation of public spaces leading to the creation of walled and privileged publics. In other words – a separation of publics across caste, religion, and class lines. This marks a dangerous precedent.

In order to counter this trend, there is a need for cultural and political literacies and movements that support the public, and environments online and offline that enable celebrations of commonality, of minglings and understandings, of the unity in diversity that the framers of India’s Constitution believed in – but all of which is under threat from the forces of Hindutva.

 

Pradip N. Thomas (PhD) is Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Arts, University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author of Digital India: Understanding information, communication and social change (New Delhi: Sage Publications India, 2012); with Elske van de Fliert, Interrogating the theory and practice of communication for social change: the basis for renewal (Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); The politics of digital India: between local compulsions and external pressures (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019); Communication for social change: context, social movements and the digital (New Delhi: Sage, 2019); Empire and post-Empire telecommunications in India: a history, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019).

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