India’s Constitution guarantees equality before the law. “But are we, the people of India, really equal?” asks Prabhat Sinha in the following article, as he shows how common people are routinely treated with gross inequality.

In any country the citizens’ rights remain only on paper if its government sits at a distance, with powers too centralized and leaders too secure in office. These are the ailments that India suffers. The remedy, I have argued, is to adopt a U.S. model of government which offers more decentralization, separation of powers, and frequent and direct elections than India’s current parliamentary system. This will make Indian governments more inclusive, responsive, and accountable to the people.

-Bhanu Dhamija

[Excerpts of article published on The Wire website on 15 February 2022.]

The Unequal Republic

[By Prabhat Sinha]

It was around 6 am on a freezing, misty morning. I had woken up early to attend the flag hoisting ceremony at the local gram panchayat office in my village, Mhaswad, located in Western Maharashtra. All the prominent villagers had assembled there to celebrate our 73rd Republic Day.

I was gazing up at our flag and singing the national anthem when, in my peripheral vision, I saw a young girl standing outside the gate. As I looked at her, I noticed that she had sharp facial features and was singing the national anthem in a nervous manner. She was clutching a bunch of small plastic versions of the Indian tricolour in one hand and holding her younger brother’s hand tightly with the other. They were both shivering; their teeth chattering due to the cold. I think she wanted to come inside the compound to sell those flags.

What stood in her way was a large chair by the entrance on which a man in his forties was seated, probably a security guard who had not donned his uniform that day. After the anthem, she exchanged looks with the guard, who stared at her with a mixture of haughtiness and anger. He was enjoying the authority the guard’s chair had bestowed on him. Witnessing this power spectacle, the girl took the hint and left the premises without saying a word.

The bitter truth: No place for twelve-year-old Savitri and her brother in the local Republic Day celebrations in a village in Western Maharashtra. Photo: Prabhat Sinha

Upon further enquiry, I discovered that the girl was named Savitri and she was twelve years old. Savitri hails from the nomadic Paradhi tribal community in Maharashtra, which was branded a ‘criminal tribe’ by the British colonial government. However, even after decades of being denotified post-independence, the tribe’s ‘criminal’ tag refuses to go away; the stigma endures.

Are all people, sitting in their respective chairs of power at every level, virtually erasing Article 14 during the execution of their roles and functions on a daily basis?

I wonder what would have happened had that guard not seated himself at the entrance of that compound? Would Savitri have felt more comfortable approaching us then?

Just like that guard, thousands of official functionaries across India assume that sitting in an office chair gives them the power to brazenly dismiss such helpless Savitris. Is this the equality we were celebrating on Republic Day; the day our constitution – which made all Indians equal before law – came into effect?

As Article 14 of our constitution says, “The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” But are we, the people of India, really equal?

On India’s 73rd Republic Day, I was haunted by one question: are all people, sitting in their respective chairs of power at every level, virtually erasing Article 14 during the execution of their roles and functions on a daily basis? Is this the only narrative that the chair – kursi in Hindi, khurchi in Marathi – is capable of in a democracy such as ours?

Growing up in rural India and witnessing the spectacle of the chair and the power it wields over local social life has been a bewildering experience. It was only when I started working in the social sector that I became familiar with the nuances of these power dynamics.

It starts at birth. Savitri does not have a birth certificate since she was born in a temporary dwelling due to her Paradhi family’s nomadic background. Her younger brother was born when her family was moving in a tempo and thus, the parents simply named him ‘Tempo’. He does not have a birth certificate either. The siblings have no permanent home and have never been to school.

I am not sure if Savitri and Tempo’s father has ever visited the offices of the gram panchayat or the nagar parishad to get their birth certificates or get them admitted into school, and I can understand his reason for not doing so.

In India, when you approach any administrative building, even before entering the premises, the guard will gauge your status from your appearance and the resources at your disposal and treat you accordingly. Even if someone from the Paradhi community were to muster up the courage to visit a government office, there are a number of challenges she or he will have to face.

First, the security guard will try to shoo them away at the entrance itself. If the guard is kind of heart and allows the individual inside, the peon sitting outside the officer’s cabin will tell them to go away with an imperious nod of the head, not least due to the stigma and oppression that the tribe continues to face.

Years of being at the receiving end of this kind of treatment has resulted in a mindset of submitting to the oppression and has created an ingrained feeling of servitude among the people belonging to this community, which is a microcosm of the feudal mindset still largely prevalent in our country. Savitri and her family are denied their basic fundamental rights because someone sitting in a chair of authority repeatedly turns them away.

Farmers, marginalised communities, women and the youth are always expected to respect the chair and its occupant, even if the chair rejects their pleas most of the time and treats them on the basis of where they were born, which community they come from, what they wear and how much money they possess.

The chair and the power associated with it have dominated our hierarchical social landscape in every possible way. Take Anandi tai (elder sister, in Marathi), for example, who used to work on our farm with my grandmother. She had never been to school; was married and widowed at a young age; and had been an agricultural labourer ever since. Owing to her life experiences, she would not make eye contact with anyone while speaking; she was constantly looking down. This is the bitter reality of the vast number of women in our rural areas.

When Anandi tai heard about the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana in 2019, a scheme meant to give financial assistance to destitute, divorced and abandoned women, among others, she wanted to apply for it.

After getting approval from the concerned government office, Anandi tai was told that she was required to open a bank account to facilitate the direct benefit transfer. I accompanied her to the nearby bank to help her out with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of our banking system. The much publicised idea of the bank as a customer-friendly organisation that constantly calls you to open an account or offer you a credit card is far from the reality, especially in rural areas.

The first sight that greeted us in our neighbourhood bank was a staircase, pock-marked with the spit of the bank’s paan-chewing staff. A clerk in one room asked us to fill out some very confusing and complicated forms. I politely asked him to help us out, but he did not even look at us; he just shrugged his shoulders. He was chewing paan with great concentration; no doubt he was one of the artists behind the crimson canvas we had seen while entering the building.

After some time, I asked him again to help us out. He stood up and spoke in a rude tone, “I have other work to do. If you don’t know how to fill the form, don’t apply for the scheme!”

This infuriated me. I asked him to take me to the branch manager. In response, he shamelessly pointed towards a cabin about ten metres ahead. On the door of the branch manager’s cabin was an unambiguous warning in Marathi: ‘Do not enter without permission’. So much for prioritising customer interaction.

We were reduced to watching the manager through the window, hoping he would see us and call us inside. But the manager gave us the royal ignore as he peered into his phone, laughing uproariously as he did so, revelling in the power of his chair.

This ‘Game of Chairs’ goes on at every level, everywhere in the country. Farmers, marginalised communities, women and the youth are always expected to respect the chair and its occupant, even if the chair rejects their pleas most of the time and treats them on the basis of where they were born, which community they come from, what they wear and how much money they possess.

I experienced this when I wanted to get a passport for Poonam, an athlete whom I mentor. She had been selected to represent India at a cross-country tournament in Virginia, USA. It was a fantastic opportunity for any young athlete, more so for Poonam, who hails from the marginalised Dhangar (shepherd) community. Because of the nomadic nature of her community, she did not have a permanent address, which is one of the requirements to apply for a passport.

It took us three days to get an American visa and three months to get an Indian passport for Poonam. Each time, the ‘authority’ seated in the chair in the passport office gave us different reasons for rejection. I remember addressing him courteously as ‘saheb’ during our interactions, but all he did was send us back to the village at least five times to get some document or the other.

The passport office is in Pune, a five-hour drive from Poonam’s village. By meeting all the sahebs and babus occupying different chairs, from the passport office to the police commissioner’s office, we got the passport for Poonam after three tedious months. We felt like we had won an international medal without even participating in the actual competition.

Ironically, every office we visited, from the gram panchayat office to the commissioner’s office, had pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar on the wall behind these chairs; the chairs from where they authoritatively say ‘no’ to the neediest of people approaching them.

The authority of the chair and its subsequent abuse by the person sitting in it and uttering ‘no’ is slowly destroying the power of knowledge and accountability in our society. I have discovered, through my experiences, that the chair which denies birth certificates to Savitri and Tempo, throws challenges in Poonam’s way while she tries to get a passport and prevents Anandi tai from enjoying the benefits of government schemes, is obstructing the very promise that Article 14 of our constitution makes to the people of India.

So, what exactly are we celebrating when we observe Republic Day year after year?

[Prabhat Sinha is a former athlete and runs a sports programme for rural and tribal children.]