IT IS agitation time in India again and the news from home isn't good. As of this writing, 11 people have died in police shootings and the government has packed 45,000 agitators into India's overcrowded jails. The agitators do not look different, in the news pictures on TV or in the daily press, from the crowds seen agitating when Indira Gandhi's state of emergency was declared in 1975. Then, as now, it was claimed that the government, by its actions, had brought about the demise of democracy. Now, as then, the government couldn't care less about what the opposition says.
It is agitation time and how easily one, as an individual, identifies with the opposition. The government's couldn't-care-less image is instantly recognized by one and all.
Three years ago when the emergency came, the state didn't care less that Babu Lal, a skilled mason who has worked with my theater in New Delhi, the Akshara, the last five years, was out at work the day the demolition squad converged on the neighborhood where he had his home and tore all the houses down.
Each householder, when he returned in the evening, got a shabby little piece of mimeographed official paper with a number on it -- to go claim a minuscule plot of land 20 miles out in the swamps and wasteland east of Delhi. By a few minutes, Babu Lal missed the official who was handing out these slips -- distributed for the privilege of building your home anew at your own expense, in another slum nowhere near your place of work but 20 miles out; with no transport, electricity, filtered drinking water or sewage.
Even so, the slips gave you ownership of one of those plots: 10 feet by 20 feet, side by side and back to back in barrack-like rows, with no way to cross-ventilate once it was all built up. Slummy by any standard, but it would have meant a place of his own for Babu Lal: 21 years old, a fine mason but schooled only to the 8th grade and newly married. Babu Lal missed even that and no official, no office of government, ever since has cared for his numerous pleas and plaints.
How does one cope with a system that performs on a strictly no-audience-participation basis? Not that you are not required to pay for the performance. Shortly after he became prime minister in 1977, Morarji Desai got his bill -- from Delhi Telephones, a government undertaking. It was so grossly inflated, and not for the first time either, that Desai refused to pay. The matter came up in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament -- where scarcely a member had not had the same experience for years.
The resulting furor in Parliament was brief and barely noted in the press. Privilege helped the VIPs to cope with it on this occasion. Serious debate on the issue -- which might have called into question the wisdom of state monopoly of all communications in the country -- was carefully avoided. The public -- the unprivileged who pay through their noses for Delhi's (or Bombay's or Calcutta's or Madras') nonperforming telephone system -- was left to fend for itself with a system that, by any international standards, is a disgrace.
For every call you get right, you must pay for at least four wrong ones and, on ideological grounds, the state retains its inefficient monopoly even though corrupt practices have created something like a parallel telephone system -- stolen out of authorized subscribers' lines by departmental employes. To aid such piracy, subscribers' bills have local and long-distance calls lumped together, unitemized; should you complain that you never made as many local calls as your bill suggests, it's easy to attribute the charge to long-distance calls. Who made them, you ask? Who can tell? And your individual word is never as good as theirs.
FOR THE individual, that is the syndrome: You wish to make a point, to be heard, you wish to be taken seriously. But the way authority is constituted, you soon discover that you must hear, not speak; that you will be told, not heard.
All things, good and bad, come to an end. One's sense of resignation too. Then you do not wish to live with it, this depressing situation, but change it. "Smash it" comes later, as it appears to have now, during agitation time. First, try and change it. Make your point somehow, speak up!
On stage (as far as I am concerned) of course. Easier said than done. The British Raj in India enacted the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 -- and it has stayed on the statute books to this day. I was 12 when independence came in 1947 and I remember performances in Lucknow, my home town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, of two first-class companies on tour. These were Uday Shankar's dance theater and Prithvi Raj's drama theater. They were part of the awakening that the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi had occasioned in all fields of endeavor.
With independence, the focus shifted exclusively to politics -- the bickering, manipulation, unprincipled pursuit of power. It did not take both the companies I had seen as a boy very long to wind up after independence. They could not earn their keep, could not say what they wanted to. Not even a highly ideologized company like the Communist Indian People's Theater Association managed to survive competition from the heavier real stuff going on in the political arena. Within 10 years of independence all legitimate professional activity in the theater was wiped out. Then, as now, the police commissioner had to pass the script before it could be staged. Where the police commissioner is lax about it, the entertainment tax commissioner is the one you must get clearance from. Not just admission rates, but the script, too.
What has the theater got for the state to be so frightened of? Nothing at all. And that is the way it is going to remain, the state decides. It doles out little grants here and there among amateurs, society ladies and their ilk, in an effort to keep it small and sporadic, not let it get out of hand. In Delhi, any play that runs more than seven consecutive nights is barred from the tax relief which amateurs, many of whom receive subsidies from the state, get in normal course. The professional theater person, who will work seriously and long enough to be effective, is the untouchable. Any wonder that, except for my own 50-seat Akshara, not a single city anywhere in the country -- Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Delhi -- has a nightly theater?
If the government will not let you speak up on stage, it is hardly going to welcome you with open arms on radio and television, both of which are owned and controlled by the state. There is absolutely no entree for the individual in broadcasting.
Films? India has the biggest film industry in the world and, perhaps, the least free. There is a Central Board of Film Censors which enables the government to keep this medium on a really tight leash. No discussion of political issues is allowed in the cinema, certainly no criticism of the state. To cap it all, no kissing, either -- but, for the moment, let that pass.
Shortly before the emergency a member of Parliament in Mrs. Gandhi's Congress Party at the time, Amrit Nahata, tried poking fun at the state in a satirical film called "Kissa Kursi Ka" ("The Chair of Office.") It was the emergency by the time the film went to the Censor Board -- from where it allegedly found its way to a shredding machine in Sanjay Gandhi's motor-car factory. Undaunted, Nahata, a Janata Party member of Parliament now, recently remade the film. But the Janata-appointed Censor Board ordered so many cuts and changes that it flopped almost before it was released. It flopped subsequently, too, and poor Nahata again had only his own party to blame.
That is the film scene: you have to see an Indian movie to be appaled at the unreality of the world they portray, the magnitude of their remove from life. Satyajit Ray in Calcutta is the solitary exception in that sea of puerility -- and perhaps a couple of other, younger film makers who follow in his footsteps.But Ray's films are rarely seen in India outside his native Calcutta. You see them far more frequently in New York and London than in New Delhi or Bombay.
COULD THESE issues not be brought up in the national press? This censorship of ideas, this debasement of democracy's prime constituent, the individual? The constant fear that the individual must live with, certain knowledge of one's individual inconsequentiality, helplessness against authority?
Several questions there, several answers too. Where does one begin?
In one's own experience? Last August, when the Akshara was under government orders for eviction and demolition, not one of the eight national dailies (six in English, two in Hindi) that publish from Delhi had a word about it. We lobbied the central Cabinet -- several members of which came out openly in support of the Akshara. Our legal counsel in that monthlong crisis was P.N. Lekhi, a fearless champion of individual liberty and, importantly, the chief government counsel in the historic Shah Commission hearings on the excesses of the emergency. Still not a whisper of it in the press. Not one supportive, protective voice -- editorial or reportorial -- for a free institution struggling for its life. Finally, we met Prime Minister Desai, who, seeing the injustice to us, stayed eviction and demolition proceedings. And, as if that were not enough demonstration of his commitment to freedom, fair practices, visited the Akshara five days after his own government's deadline for the theater's eviction and demolition to sit through a two-and-a-half-hour performance in it. Still not a mention in any newspaper.
Let your defeat proclaim itself, but beware any mention of your triumphs. That is not an ancient Indian proverb but rather a bitterly learned lesson for survival in a climate where the individual is ever suspect, ever mistrusted by the state. Creep along, somehow, one day at a time. Toward the end of my newest play, "Karma," that is what I tell my audience every night when they crowd into the Akshara: "Let there be no noise nor stir as you file out of this theater in the dark. In the dark, into the dark."
Resign yourself to it in protest!
Contradictory? As an individual, what option do you have? The system is so all-pervasive, so convoluted from being prone to corruption all the time, that only the most radical and drastic remedies seem logical. The emergency was one such. The Janata government has obviously no dearth of hotheads of similar persuasion -- judging by the numbers killed in the recent police shootings, the numbers slammed into India's antiquated jails.
In post-independence India only one last drastic, radical remedy remains yet to be tried: freedom. The way Mahatma Gandhi had wanted it: rapid and effective decentralization of power. Less to the state, more to the individual.
Of the powers that be, Morarji Desai stands out as, perhaps, the only one to know that the time for that is now or never.