Historically it has been the physical space where social interactions between different publics produce perspectives, values and norms of citizenship and ‘civil’ society. How can we build and support active citizenship in these times of lockdown and social distancing? asks Rajesh Tandon, Founder-President, PRIA.
My first experience of a city without its public was in the third week of September 1965 during our war with Pakistan. When air raid sirens screamed through the neighbourhoods of Kanpur, where I was growing up, we ran for cover, into our homes with blacked-out windows, and stayed indoors till the ‘all-clear’ signal was given. My next experience of ‘all indoors’ was in December 1971 during the Bangladesh liberation war. The period of Emergency in the mid 1970s did not really create a lockdown for citizens going about their everyday life; it was a ‘political lockdown’, with deep security checks.
I first encountered ‘silent and vacant’ Delhi on November 2, 1984 in the aftermath of the violence against Sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For a couple of days, flag marches by army to prevent violence resulted in vacant streets and ghostly neighbourhoods.
Within a month of that, when the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal leaked highly poisonous MIC gas on the night of December 3, 1984, people began to run away from the city. When I reached Bhopal after two days, it was a deserted city, the streets eerily silent with no one around, but thousands of affected people crowding hospital compounds.
In comparison, the currently imposed total lockdown for 21 days in India in the face of coronavirus is for us to ‘stay at home to remain alive’. This situation is historically unique in that several countries and communities are being impacted. Fear of the unknown and serious restrictions on our everyday life are causing panic, confusion and stress to us, our loved ones and social/professional networks. How can we build and support active citizenship in these times of anxiety?
For those of us who have for decades been espousing citizen participation for deepening democracy, dedicating our personal and professional lives to promoting and nurturing ‘participation for empowerment’ of the excluded and marginalised, these times are posing a new calling for us. We had made several assumptions about the relations of citizenship and public sphere. Public sphere, beyond the realm of immediate household, has historically been the physical space where social interactions between different publics produce perspectives, values and norms of citizenship and ‘civil’ society. Citizens are used to discussing issues of common concern in parks, sports grounds, offices, markets, conference halls, religious venues, schools and universities — physical spaces for interaction. In several parts of India, unique public spaces have emerged as ‘hotspots’ for popular conversations where people of different walks of life gather to chat and listen — ‘addas’ in the tea-shops in Kolkata, the ‘paan’ shops in Benares, milk dairies in Haryana, women around wells when they go to collect water, men reading local newspapers around cigarette shops…
It is the freedom to have such public spaces where disagreements in views and values can be respectfully spoken and heard that creates the public sphere for learning and practicing citizenship.
How does this ‘making sense of the world’ and practising citizenship in everyday life operate under lockdown? The lockdown is not just in a neighbourhood or city, but the whole country, and restricts movements and gatherings of people to ensure ‘social distancing’ – a crucial method to prevent rapid spread of the virus at this juncture.
Quite unlike the previous times of silent, empty streets and neighbourhoods, we now have the Internet, 24×7 television news channels, mobiles and social media. These keep us ‘well-connected’, virtually and remotely. Instant chats, photos and greetings are possible. For the past decade, much of our human interactions have actually been about practicing ‘social distancing’. We greet, applaud, complain, laugh and cry in cyber space. Citizen interactions in the physical public sphere have increasingly been taken over by WhatsApp and Facebook groups, Instagram stories, tweet chats, and such other ‘cloudy’ spaces. In these online public spheres, mutual disrespect, abuse, faking, manipulation and threats of violence seem to be the common experience of citizens, in many parts of the world, and more so for us in India.
If we have to learn and exercise citizenship in this time of lockdown, then our capacity to use such virtual spaces needs thorough overhaul. Historically, and even more so today, citizenship is about horizontal relations between citizens; we do have implicit rights and obligations towards each other. We have these towards our families, clans, friends, neighbours, colleagues. Most of us learn such horizontal practices of citizenship when growing up, through our socialisation.
In times of lockdown, of social distancing, how do we ‘socialise’ to learn these norms and practices of citizenship, when depending on digital means? How can we now ‘re-tool’ our habits, styles, languages and gestures to use virtual public spheres, to practice citizenship, responsibly? How do we claim, re-organise, shape and facilitate open, respectful conversations, dialogues and chats, even if we disagree and differ with each other, about shared concerns and interests in these virtual spaces to make it serve as a social public sphere?
In the lunar New Year beginning today (Vikram Samvat 2077), may we learn to become active citizens during the lockdown too!
March 25, 2020