Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Nissim Ezekiel | Making every individual count

The Indian democracy needs a new spirit of cooperative thought and action

In this piece published in Freedom First in September 1980, noted Indian-Jewish poet Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004)—who was editor of the magazine at the time—wrote of Indian politics and the potential for change in a democracy through “constructive action by the general body of citizens".

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The combination of bad government and non-government which we have in India today is easy to criticize. It is also easy to criticize the various opposition parties for their dissensions and failures. What is needed urgently is self-criticism and constructive action by the general body of citizens, in their own interest and in the interest of the masses who are the worst sufferers as the system deteriorates.

Let us accept the fact that there are no solutions in sight for our malaise, no leaders who will show us the way out of it. The responsibility then falls on every individual who has some awareness of the country’s real difficulties and dilemmas. To take on that responsibility seriously, to find what he can do in his personal circumstances for the welfare of the public, to which he belongs (emphasizing his sense of belonging), and to demonstrate initiative in small, day-to-day matters is to make a specific contribution to the needs of our society.

This moral imperative brings better immediate results than merely swelling the voices of protest, though that too is necessary. I am not recommending the replacement of the present modes of political and social action by debates and discussions, even of fundamental issues. Nor am I suggesting introspection and self-scrutiny as an escape from the noise of national and international events. It is the morale-rising example I have in mind, a way of functioning in public life, on however small a scale, which inspires emulation among those who hear of it.

Publicity and public relations, propaganda and organisational activity, partisan agitation and support to various causes, all these may be unavoidable in political participation. But the question of embodying values in one’s way of life, and of projecting personal quality in rapport with the people, remains to be tackled. He who succeeds in doing that today will do more for the nation than the leader with followers and the guru with disciples.

If it were otherwise, the ablest editorial commentators and wisest seminar paper-readers would lead us to the promised land. But they can’t: they are to be admired and respected for the critical function they perform. They know what they know, and they can teach us what to do, but they don’t do it. They leave it to others to do it, who pass on the message to others, who agree or disagree. There the matter rests.

The kind of leader I have in mind would be more interested in encouraging the emergence of other leaders than in consolidating his own. He would not see talent and intelligence in the ranks of his followers as a threat to his dominant position. He would not surround himself with yes-men who expect to share the fruits of power—the main motive of collective effort. And he would not depend on his ‘charisma’ to get away with dealings that would land a common man in jail or at the very least destroy his reputation.

It is possible for every man in varying degrees, to make and remake himself in his private as well as public life so that the norms I have briefly indicated became visible to others. As the contagion, so to speak, spreads, however slowly, life will improve for millions in human terms. This, in turn, is bound to affect the material conditions of existence, as people begin to give more of themselves to their work, no longer frustrated by the impersonal cruelties they patiently endure today. That kind of patience is never very productive.

What does it feel like to work in newspapers championing the democratic cause where not even the semblance of democratic consultation exists? What does it feel like to work in an educational institution where the leading lights shine for democracy everywhere except within their very own private property?

We all know what it feels like: it is the experience of millions who are not consulted and do not, in their turn, consult others where decisions are taken that are in reality the common concern for all. The consequence is that the democratic struggle in the true sense of the term is no more than every individual’s personal effort towards upward mobility. At such stage of his climb he does unto those below him as those above him did unto him when he was below them. This is as true of socialists as it is of others with a variety of ideological complexions.

A new spirit of cooperative thought and action is waiting to be born.

This piece has been selected for publication by IndianLiberals.in, an initiative of Centre for Civil Society. It is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and other Indian regional languages, with an aim to preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition.

Source: September 1980 issue of Freedom First

From the Annals features republications of out-of-print Indian writing and journalism.

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