I, the Citizen

By Dr. R Balasubramaniam

For the past many years now, there has been a buzz around the word ‘Citizen engagement’.  Active citizenship is increasingly being seen as a ‘middle-class’ phenomena and activism is assumed to be the role that neo-intellectuals play.  While on one side, we do see young, educated urban citizens beginning to engage on issues that matter to them, there is still a vast majority of the population who consider activism and citizen engagement as risky and stay away from it. While traditionally, people imagine citizen engagement to be confrontational, it is not really so.  Engagement can be collaborative and constructive as many recent examples show.  Though each of us individually feel that our actions may be too small to make any meaningful difference, it is not necessarily true. For instance, one can hardly imagine that ordinary men and women in rural and tribal pockets of India can actively engage as citizens and negotiate change and development for themselves through sustained interaction with the State and its organs.  All this and more is possible and citizenship need not be the preserve of the elite and the educated alone. The more people from all walks of life and all kinds of places use tools that further democratic participation of people, the stronger will be the foundation of democratic development.  The spirit of ‘Rights’ or ‘Entitlements’ do not alone need to drive citizen engagement.  It can and should be based on a ‘Responsibility-based approach’.  These are some of the concepts that are well captured in the book ‘I, the Citizen’, that I wrote with real life examples and anecdotes I have experienced.

The book, I, the Citizen is a milestone in a journey of reflection that began about seven years ago when I started writing about my more than three decades of experiences in the development sector. In that, I have worn the hat of a development activist, leadership trainer, policy advocate, civil society campaigner, anti-corruption investigator, academician and a researcher at various points in time. The story of Mudalimadiah is one of such anecdotes included in the book that help understand how ordinary citizens can affect lasting change. Mudalimadiah is a very senior and respected chieftain of the Kadukuruba tribal community. Though I have known him since 1987, we became close only after 1996 when we started our engagement with the National Human Rights Commission on the issue of displacement and rehabilitation of the tribals in Heggadadevanakote. It was a time when the tension between the forest department and the tribal communities was quite palpable, and even small incidents could potentially turn into explosive situations. The forest department and the police’s callous and insensitive attitude was making the tribals increasingly restive as the struggle for justice kept becoming longer In particular, the younger generation was showing signs of turning the protests violent and were pushing me to take more visibly strident steps. I had very little to show in terms of success and my arguments to continue with the non-violent struggle were either weakening or ceasing to have an impact. At times, I was myself feeling low and wanted to give up.

It was around that time that Mudalimadiah offered to join me in the struggle. Despite being a senior chieftain whose words mattered, he had not involved much in the struggle so far. He suggested that we spend the next few days travelling from one tribal colony to the other, which I agreed. We started our journey the next day and began our march with Jaganakote Hadi, Mudalimadiah’s colony. We talked and explained the tribals the need to keep up the pressure and continue our struggle. He coaxed, cajoled or threatened his fellow tribals and also spoke nostalgically of the life in the forest. Over the next ten days we covered the thirteen tribal colonies in the area. We ate the food that the tribals gave us and slept in their huts. This was the time I really got to know Mudalimadiah and my respect and admiration for him increased manifold. His father was the local chieftain and he owed all his knowledge and wisdom to him. I found his involvement very difficult to explain. He had no personal stake in this struggle and stood to benefit in no way. He only seemed to care about setting right a wrong.

On one occasion, I asked him about his motivations to join. His answer was a leadership lesson. He said that being a Yajamana (chieftain or leader) was not a position of authority but one bestowed with a sense of responsibility to the entire community. As such, he had to stand up for what was morally right and he felt responsible to compel his people to fight for this just cause. He knew that continuing the struggle with only the 154 families that were affected had very little chance to succeed. The government would possibly yield only if all three thousand families living in the area got involved. He realized that my charisma and credibility was not enough and he needed to use his emotional authority. persuasion and traditional position to mobilize and get people to join in the struggle.  He clearly understood that I, as an outsider, may have legitimacy in the eyes of the government, but he would always have greater legitimacy with his people. He was strategic enough to realize that, unless we combined our strengths, we stood very little chance in our negotiations with the Government. More importantly, he advised me not to lose faith in myself and made me experience, firsthand, the tribals’ life and their trials and tribulations to keep the flame burning in me. And this definitely worked. I was so moved with their plight that I decided to keep the struggle going till we reached our goal. Suddenly, this was not only the communities’ problem, but mine too. Looking back, it was this sense of ownership and understanding of the problem at a very intimate and emotional level that kept me going until the end. True to his word, Mudalimadiah neither claimed any credit nor any physical benefits for his efforts. Even today, he fondly recollects our time together and the sleepless nights we spent thinking and dreaming, despite all the odds stacked against us.

Just as in rural India, citizens around the world are now increasingly engaging with the state and its organs.  This engagement can be challenging, frustrating and sometimes fulfilling too. And this is where we can learn and reflect from the experience of Mudalimadiah. While in his actions, they are lessons of leadership, they also throw light on facets of citizenship. With nothing to gain personally, Mudalimadiah showed how citizens could step up and engage in a process that brings justice to a much larger community than their own. What is also demonstrated is the cognizance of the bigger picture, the perseverance of the highest order and the realization that we should never give up on dialogue and constructive engagement.  Belonging to a community that has seen marginalization and deprivation, he can, on the one hand be deemed to be a victim of the process of development driven largely by economic growth. On the other, he has displayed an exemplar model for citizenship and has done so much more towards promoting citizen engagement than a large number of us with more resources at our disposal. Essentially, there is every trait in this indigenous tribal leader that is needed to build an ideal eco-system for citizen action.

The book starts with an attempt to understand development and its various aspects. Then, it takes the reader through interpretations of development initiatives at the grassroots and what good governance means to ordinary people. The book unravels the power of citizen engagement through my experiences of leading civil society campaigns against corruption and towards strengthening democratic participation of people. In the book, I also deal with the philosophical underpinnings of public policies, drawing from my on-the-ground experience as well as engagement with those in the higher echelons of policymaking and implementation. The last section of the book provides glimpses into milestones of a development movement I founded and led; milestones that are responsible for a continued faith in citizen engagement despite the hindering forces.  Throughout the book, I throw questions at the reader, rather than providing solutions or answers, to foster the discourse on perspectives of development and citizen engagement.  The power of the book, from my perspective, lies in the versatility of the ways in which it can be used – to read, to draw inspiration, as reference or to teach from; it is a book that should be put down multiple times to reflect, to question and to engage.

As Justice M N Venkatachaliah, the former Chief Justice of India observes in his foreword to the book, “In essence, ‘We, the people…’ the words at the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of India is not different from “I, the citizen”. Both call for reflection and action from all of us to make sure that democracy evolves into something better than it already is and India as a nation can be a testimony to the world about how democracy and development can indeed be compatible.

Finally, it should be noted that the book is being published by GRAAM (Grassroots Research And Advocacy Movement) a member of the GPSA, through crowd sourcing of financial resources. In alignment with the spirit of larger citizen engagement, smaller contributions by larger numbers of people were encouraged to meet the expenses of designing and publishing this book.  I, the citizen would be useful to the general reader as well as an audience that is connected to the world of policy making directly and indirectly.

For more information on Dr R Balasubramaniam’s book “I, the Citizen”, click here.

About the Author

Dr R Balasubramaniam

Having embarked on his journey in the development sector by living and working for more than two decades among remote forest based tribal communities in the southern Indian district of Mysore, Dr. R Balasubramaniam (Balu) is a respected development activist, leadership trainer, thinker and writer. He has uniquely been able to combine a vast development sector experience with studying and teaching at the world’s leading schools of policy and development including Harvard and Cornell Universities. He has also been a special investigator for Lok Ayukta Karnataka in addition to holding membership & consulting positions in government bodies and commissions, academic board and development agencies. Dr. R Balasubramaniam, the founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement and Grassroots Research And Advocacy Movement, India, embodies a rare blend of grassroots and macro perspectives on development and policy through his multi-faceted experience of more than three decades, which is well reflected in the book.

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