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Killing our mockingbirds

As an honest, hard-working citizen who is rather disinclined towards politics, I believe politics need to be treated just like other professions.

Soumyanetra Munshi | New Delhi |

Just after crossing the airport and turning towards Chinar Park from VIP Road, I found the road to be completely chock-a-block. I was returning from office, but the vehicular stagnation was much more than usual. Inching forward in my car, I discovered after a while that apparently some political heavyweight from the district had showed up and hence the sudden unanticipated crowd hindering the normal flow of traffic. The gathering was on the other lane, the lane towards the airport, and it had come to a standstill. As I listened to the loudspeakers blaring out some very provocative speeches of politicians, I wondered how many people would miss their flights, and for what. As I discovered later, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

A couple of days later, the city came to a standstill when a mega meeting of politicians took place in the Brigade Parade Ground. The auto stand in front of our house had no auto. There were no buses plying on the street and the road wore such a deserted look that I got reminded of ‘bandhs’ which of late had truly faded from memory. Sports in my daughter’s school which was initially scheduled for that day, got advanced. Some other exams and events that were originally scheduled for that day, got rescheduled. In short, massive disruptions were expected and most of the citizens tried to avoid facing them as far as they could. Everything that could be planned for that day got shifted to other days. Well, almost everything.

I know of someone who had to go to the hospital feeling unwell and bleeding from nose and mouth because of high pressure. He got stranded in standstill traffic and who knows what became of him? Who cares? Surely there were numerous other instances where people had to venture out on various errands including medical emergencies – how badly were they affected? Could there have been irreparable losses? And I hear there are more such rallies to happen. In fact, this has been the historical truth for our city – politicians have arrogated to themselves the audacity of holding the city’s normalcy at ransom, wrongly claiming the withholding of activities to be signs of political allegiance.

As an honest, hard-working citizen who is rather disinclined towards politics, I believe politics need to be treated just like other professions. Just another vocation that people pursue (even though one can argue about inherent differences, the focus of this article is not on them). And which other profession would be allowed to engage in activities that could cause disruption at such a massive scale? Imagine New York coming to a total standstill because of a political rally by the Republicans or the Democrats. During the years that I was in the US, I hardly noticed when it was election time.

There were no cut-outs of politicians lining the streets. No loudspeakers blaring out speeches that you probably didn’t want to hear. No imposition of political thought on your psyche, in your day-to-day dealings, in public place. In other words, you could keep yourself immune from getting involved in politics if you wished. Why do we have to subscribe to politics even if we don’t want to here? Why should we be surrounded by political posters and cut-out of politicians even if we are not politically inclined? Whose money pays for these anyway?

Not only did it bring the city to its knees, the convergence of massive crowds (I do not want to reiterate the statistics and the figures of the number of people etc. staying in various places that appeared in the dailies), from days before the rally, undoubtedly put further pressure on the already compromised health of the place. If you look at the air quality index in the city, it usually reads ‘very unhealthy’ to ‘hazardous’ at around 200-400. Right after the rally it shot up to >400. And compare that with the air quality index (as I’m writing this) in some of the other places that are much healthier: New York 52 (moderate), London 3 (good), Frankfurt 33 (good) Washington 25 (good).

Even other Indian cities fare better on this front: New Delhi 152 (unhealthy), Mumbai 152 (unhealthy), Bangalore 72 (moderate). We are all living in veritable gas chambers and yet I did not hear anyone say anything significant about reducing pollution. And all the while our lungs are getting blackened by the air we inhale every moment of our already curtailed lives. And not to mention the huge accumulation of leftover plastic bottles etc. on the ground after the meeting.

Somehow, I am reminded of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. This classic novel of course, had its own mockingbirds. Think of Tom Robinson framed in a case of which he was innocent. Drawn by circumstances into a situation that didn’t let him escape. The symbolism of the mockingbird first appears when Atticus, having given his air-rifles to his children for Christmas, warns them that, although they can “shoot all the bluejays they want”, they must remember that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” and that is because as they later learn “mockingbirds never harm other living creatures”…. “They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” We’re like mockingbirds in the hands of the political machinery.

On the day of the rally, a large number of citizens, completely against their wishes, were helplessly and inexorably drawn into the vortex of unimaginable inconvenience. Mockingbirds are all those who couldn’t travel because there was no conveyance available. Mockingbirds are those who were left stranded and bleeding. Mockingbirds were those who had to make alternative plans of meeting their loved ones because it was too inconvenient to venture out. Mockingbirds are those who got a little more suffocated in this already choking city. And how the political whims have caged them. How, across the spectrum of our political dispensation, do we see the complete lack of resolve in setting them free.

And I feel scared – not because such a rally happened but because no one who could have said “No” to such massive disruptions of normal life, did. The powers that could have abated such a grinding halt on normal activities, instead aided it. The dictatorial instincts of political leaders of our country have made an unabashed mockery of the wills of the ordinary citizens by impounding their work and whereabouts for a day and slapping a complete standstill on the momentum of their daily lives. Where are the checks and balances that democracy boasts of? Aren’t there other means of communicating with the public like TV and newspapers? Why do political realities have to take precedence over other realities and aspects of life? Why are politicians more entitled to make other citizens’ priorities subservient to their own will? Where is our Atticus who can warn not to kill mockingbirds?

The children are playing with the mockingbirds and there is no Atticus around. And I really don’t want to go into any debate about the content of what the politicians blared out from the dais that day – those could have been lofty speeches or debased cliches. All I want to say is that nothing, utterly man-made and pertaining to a vocation called politics, should have happened or should have been allowed to happen, that throws the normal tempo of life of an entire city, so much out of gear. No more killing mockingbirds please! Is anybody listening?

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Economic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)