Middle-class Appetite for Social Activism

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; Indeed it is the only thing that ever does

Civil movements with a middle class flavour were a major highlight this year. While the Arab spring in the middle east dominated the international news, closer home we had our own anti-corruption mass movement that was expertly led by eminent social activists like Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi. These movements though completely independent of each other and triggered for different reasons, had a noticeable common thread running through them. At the centrestage of these protests was a hitherto reluctant middle class directing it’s ire at an arrogant officialdom. The middle class which has mostly been an invisible entity in mass protests and demonstrations in India, was suddenly in the forefront of the movement, taking up the lost cause of battling corruption that has slowly but steadily been eating it’s way into the very moral fibre of our society.

As the movement grew in proportion, most of us belonging to the middle class strata took to the streets, holding placards, shouting slogans, waving flags and participating in group fasts. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter were pivotal to the movement participation, organization and recruitment. In fact, spontaneous protests erupting in several pockets of the country, marked a major turning point in the movement, forcing the incumbent government to sit up and take notice. The political class of the country which so far had faced pressure either from the business enterprises or the BPL community,initially wrote off this middle class unrest as a harmless protest. But when it started becoming clear that the movement won’t just die down silently and that the people on the streets meant business, the government machinery finally started churning and cabinet leaders were found on the backfoot. They soon realized that this was not the middle class with the trademark “chalta hai” attitude; this was not a scared lot; on the streets were law abiding citizens who had decided they were not going to tolerate the government’s complicity in corruption any more;this was a society finally out of it’s inertia and establishing it’s assertiveness in public and political causes with an uncharacteristic firmness.

Middle class involvement in public protests has largely been unheard of in the history of this nation. They were not a prominent force during the freedom struggle; in fact the middle class had not yet evolved at the time. The middle class was never a driving force behind the most important reforms this country has seen. The only time some feeble protests could be heard from them, was whenever there was a fuel hike or food inflation. Even on such occasions, the opposition political parties would be the ones leading the protests, and the middle class would be largely inconspicuous on the streets.Of late, officialdom excess and delayed justice as was in the case of Jessica Lal murder or Ruchika Girhotra molestation, has sparked protests from the middle class. But once again this has been mostly sustained by the growing social activism of the media and press and not by any leadership demonstrated by the middle class.Middle class hesitation in getting involved with political causes, or issues that resonate with them, or for that matter their reluctance to even stand up for each other has been only too apparent to ignore and brush aside. Fuelling this apathy has been a lack of awareness and a sadly absent public opinion. The middle class has been neutral at best, and it won’t be a far-fetched thought to say that they have even been co-conspirators with the powers at worst.

Given this background,one would instantly question the seriousness and sustainability of middle class social activism that has of late been dominating our news headlines.Has the middle class come of age? Is it drawing it’s strength from it’s growing numbers? Is the middle class ready to realign it’s interests away from the political system? Is the middle class evolving into an influential constituency and effective pressure group? Is it becoming a clout to be reckoned with?

Only time will tell us, whether what we saw this year was just a flash in the pan or was it the beginning of the demonstration of strength by the middle class. This country has so far been witness to a complex relationship between governance, political democracy and the middle class. But the Anna Hazare movement has proved that the middle class can come out of it’s shell and take part in movements that are not limited in scope by their apolitical colour but which in fact aim to reform the political system. This was not a movement driven by a mad fit of rage. This was a middle class movement that was well thought of and driven by a long term vision of change.

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