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US and THEM

 – Dr C K Mathew, IAS (Retd)

I had the unique opportunity to take part in a workshop organized by three institutions, the Institute of Management in Trivandrum under the Government of Kerala, the Mc Gill University, Canada and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan lead by Mrs Aruna Roy. It brought together prominent personalities and institutions from the world of the civil society organizations, within the country and without, and provided a platform to them to express their views and opinions on a wide panorama of subjects, largely pertaining to the small woman and the voiceless man. The specific subject was “Unpacking Participatory Democracy: from practice to theory and theory to practice.” The key note address was given by Mr Gopal Gandhi and there were a galaxy of speakers present, too long to mention here. Suffice it to say, that they were, each one of them, significant persons in their own right, doing work in difficult areas of social discrimination and exclusion, as well as inclusive and participatory development.

But then that is not I wanted to speak of. What was really significant to me was that for those three days, I occupied a planet that was different from the one I had walked on for almost forty years. In the monsoon months of 1977, I had, travelling far from my home state of Kerala, joined government service at the national IAS Academy at Mussoorie, and spent the rest of my active career in the desert state of Rajasthan. That itself was a cultural and geographical shock: from the land of overflowing rivers and lush green paddy fields, to the harsh and hot sandy tracts of that western state. To me, Kerala was us and Rajasthan was them. It took me several years to understand that Rajasthan would be my home for all real purposes and therefore it would transform itself into us in a few short years.

But then, when you sit on one side of the table, on the side of the government and authority, and face the countless supplicants who meet you almost every day, there is then a different kind of us and them. Us, the ones with the privilege and the power, the ones with the white cars and its red beacons flashing, and a gun man to protect you from the hoi-polloi, that is us. And them, the ones who come streaming in, all day, every day, with the endless tales of misery and injustice, with lined faces, and hopes dashed from their eyes, with blighted dreams and burdensome unending grievances that never go away. As the years roll on, even the most dedicated of us feel the failing spark of enthusiasm, of a sense of the dying of selfless public service.

We fail to realise that the them, lumped into one large faceless mass of humanity, is, in fact, a multi-coloured and tiered hierarchy of social patterns, the variety and diversity of the nature of their exclusion and discrimination, staggering beyond belief. There are levels and hierarchies within their mass that militate against the sense of oneness that they should be feeling against the rest of the varnas, and with bitter prejudice they will contest their right to be one level above the next; the one lower will face much the same discrimination from the one next above, that they will dole out to the one next below. It is a layered world of shaded discrimination that throws its shadows wherever caste and class raise their heads.

In the thirty seven years I spent in that second home of a state, I cannot deny that Rajasthan has progressed. From 1977 to 2014, when I retired, the state had indeed advanced in leaps and bounds, and in nearly every parameter there has been progress. Yes, in comparison to the rest of the states, indeed the pace of development may have been slower. Especially in the social sector, in health and education, and in matters of women’s empowerment, the state, though it tried as hard as it could, has faced disappointments and serious concerns. But in economic terms, in general prosperity, there has been progress perceptible and clearly discernible.

But that is only half the story; sitting in my ergonomically designed executive chair in the various offices I have held over the years, I came to know early on, the fractured nature of the society lying simmering around me, I came to know too that the system of our governance does not know how – does not have the skills how – to heal the wounds lying below the skin. We know too that politics thrives best in this cracked earth, we know too that economics perpetuates the divide, that the nature of rapid growth enhances inequality, and that, truth be told, no Ram Rajya is waiting around the bend in the road we travel.

So, when I heard Bezawada Wilson talk about his tortured life as a manual scavenger, when Ira Anjali Anwar spoke how ashamed she was of her multicultural family that she used to drop her father’s name from her own, when Gopal Gandhi spoke of the arrogance of power and how far we have travelled from the heaven that his grandfather had dreamed of, when the choir turned Subramanya Bharati’s scorching poetry into music, when an illiterate Rajasthani woman tore into the truth of demonetization, then… then, though I knew it was the truth that was pouring forth from their troubled lips, I felt the chasm between the them and the us.

I knew too, I would never cross the gulf between those two worlds, that I would always be on the other side, the safer side, the bright-lit urban side where Bharat was always India, where after a life time of bureaucratic duty, I earn a more than satisfactory pension, duly embellished by dearness allowances and handsome increases every ten years. I am ashamed that I would never have the strength of purpose, the heart felt courage to step over the thin red line separating the them from the us.

So when I returned back to my lovely flat at Koramangala in the better part of Bengaluru, adjoining a leafy lane next to the local park, I felt more than secure and content. My three days at the workshop had made me ask myself all the questions that had bothered me all my life. But then, I know that it all ends with those questions, with this blog I have quickly typed out to get rid of the qualms of some passing conscience. I have paid obeisance to those questions that my country will never resolve. I will never have the courage to step over and join the them. I have done my duty to myself. It is after all not my war.

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