Kannan Gopinathan, the former IAS officer, first caught the nations eye when he stepped down from the service to protest the lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir. He resigned as secretary, power department of the Union Territories of Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Now the intrepid 34-year-old is in the thick of the nation-wide movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
On a cold January evening, he said at a Bengaluru meet organised by Align India: Democracy is a difficult project, and it becomes dictatorship when citizens become lazy.
In an interview, Gopinathan says the country is seeing a political churning.
Edited excerpts:
What about your work in the IAS makes you feel most proud?
There are many instances. If you are able to go beyond government-prescribed work, you can achieve a lot. In Hnahthial [Mizoram], a senior told me that apart from the governments work, I need to take an interest in peoples work. Hnahthial had no Internet or even an ATM in the sub-division, but one letter from me triggered these off in just three months. Although that was a small thing, I felt that the priorities of a district are different from those of the government.
But your resignation was sudden…
I have never been a big rebel, nor was I in student politics. When Article 370 was abrogated [in Jammu and Kashmir], I felt the deafening silence around me that was when I felt the need to speak out, to take a stand. I did not want to resign due to the decision to revoke Article 370, because an elected government has the right to take a decision. I felt compelled to speak due to the removal of the right of the people to react to it. And the rest of the country just kept quiet.
Currently you are part of the protests against CAA, NRC and NPR. The government seems jittery, but it is also stubborn and does not seem to be backing off.
The government is putting up a brave face, but is also aware that CAA is blatantly communal and arbitrary. Either way, it is not a sustainable law. The country is going through a very tough time economically. So it is not in the interest of the country if the government thinks of its own ego rather than the countrys welfare. The government really need not worry about losing face if it takes back the law, as it can say that it is in response to the peoples protests. A number of Acts and Bills in the country have been passed and taken back in the interests of the people, after all.
The Hindu Rashtra ideology is an emotional one. But the counter to that is intellectual. Dont we need to find an emotional counter-argument?
I dont bother about ideology. I am more worried about the way people react when they are confronted with an alternative point of view, or with others who think differently. There is an enmity towards people who disagree, who are immediately called anti-national. What Im saying is that people are not bothered about accepting resistance. We havent taught our children how to disagree and how to debate. We dont teach our children the logical fallacies, the hierarchy of arguments. We need to teach the culture of arguments.
You mentioned the decline of democracy. But when were we really a democracy? Havent we elected people on the basis of image-building, branding and dynasty?
Well, we were not an ideal democracy in any sense, but in the last five to six years we have deteriorated. There was a substantive democracy and a formal democracy. In terms of party politics and internal restructuring we needed to improve. But we were a formal democracy. The post-2014 scenario is that the supporters of the government honestly believe that they are there to silence dissenters. Not to answer them, but to silence them.
Was there respect for democratic institutions earlier?
There was. Currently, the model is very patriarchal and supports a family structure, with a strong, key father figure, who is perceived as doing everything for the betterment of the family. Questioning the father figure is not allowed. These are all simple, patriarchal family constructs, which also help build the old, authoritarian government structure. Earlier, there was no one authority but a loose coalition of parties and no one could control it the way it is being controlled now. But then, one should not judge a good party by what another party is not. It should aspire to rise above the norm.
The one overriding issue today seems to be hatred of the other.
It is this perceived victimhood of the majority, shared by all fascist countries, which has caused the real threat. They are defining the Hindu today as who he is not. This forging of a negative identity creation has helped. Hindutva is sustainable only as long as they define who you are not. But what will you define as a sustainable pan-Hindu identity creation? There are so many contradictions. Does a Hindu mean an upper-caste Hindu? Or is it about a way of life that defines the lives of Dalits?
The fear of the other is a perception created by a continuing narrative that has been going on for years, but we never confronted it. For the first time, it is out in the open now.
Dont all movements need a strong leader?
Well, this movement is not like the Delhi-centric India Against Corruption movement. It is a pan-India movement. Local leadership is coming out, which is a political churning after 30 to 40 years. Leaders are emerging in every city, every village. Its everywhere. We should not look up to a leader but should look up to ourselves.
So what next? Arent these protests actually about a hope for change in the character of polity and transformation in hearts and minds?
Well, beyond even that, I find in my tours from September onwards, that for the first time, the Muslim community, which has generally always kept quiet on issues that it had strong feelings about, is now, for the first time, coming out and asserting its Muslim identity as well as its Indian identity. It is something unique that is happening. The other remarkable thing is that the youth are breathing the air of democracy. Some questions that are uncomfortable and were never asked are now being asked. So even if there are 30 crore people who are able to stand together, that itself is a huge, huge transformation in the country.
The interviewer is a freelance journalist who studies developmental issues.