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Mitali Saran: Talking out the old year

Mitali Saran 

Mitali Saran

Salman Khurshid said, of the Khobragade affair: "It is no longer about an individual [...] It is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world." That is arguably the best summary of this mind-boggling year.

2013 began with the nation reeling from a barbaric gang rape. We set out to plumb yet-unplumbed depths of outrage, but also to contend with a new need to look beyond the easy reaction. We discovered a collective conscience - who knew that that cobwebby old national asset still works? We asked: what kind of country are we, and what kind of country do we want to be? As 2013 winds down, it seems clear that what we do not want, any longer, is business as usual.

We've talked about it all year. The widest conversation on record is probably on Twitter, though the loudest is in the television studios. (Those often end up online in a much more entertaining form - viz a foot-tapping remix of Arnab Goswami telling Meenakshi Lekhi to "never, never, ever, ever [ad infinitum]" accuse him of accepting funny money.)

The television studios aim to keep the pitch high, even when it makes them sound deranged. It was the news channels that were asking, 14 days after the December 16 Delhi gang rape, why "two weeks after the brutal gang rape of the Delhi Braveheart, women are still not safe". So it's no wonder that the news channels thought we should be responding to the beheading of Indian soldiers in January with warplanes rather than complaints.

We're still learning the art of nuanced conversation. When Afzal Guru was hanged, the news channels examined the case in particular and also debated, as a continuation from the Delhi rape case, the principle of capital punishment. But then, in April, when the Chinese set up camp in Daulat Beg Oldi, we were back to how-dare-they-Teach-them-a-lesson-We-need-a-leader-with-balls.

In June we saw the emergence, during the devastating Uttarakhand floods, of the PR machinery of the leader-with-balls, also known as NaMo. There was nothing NaMo couldn't do, said his PR machinery, including evacuate thousands of stranded pilgrims in dozens of SUVs. Mr Modi's rise is both a symptom and a feeder cause of the national confusion about masculinity, often confused with "our sense of self as a nation".

The silent, invisible half of the population that has ovaries is slowly coming into view and finding a voice. The conversation has been constructive, if rather fevered. In November, social media broke and kept alive the alleged sexual assault scandal at Tehelka magazine, which landed editor Tarun Tejpal in jail. That was followed by the escalation of the Justice Ganguly case, resulting in calls for his sacking from the post of chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission.

In December, there was widespread outrage at the Supreme Court ruling that re-criminalised non-hetero-normative sex. Ten years ago, the LGBT community might have retreated into silent despair; today, it is empowered enough to fight the ruling vocally and with significant social support.

As a nation we tend to react to, and talk about, specific incidents, maybe because we haven't had the energy or will to take on the formidable social and political forces that underpin the incidents. That is changing. Here we are, finally having soul-searching national conversations about the status of women and the deep-rooted patriarchy that blights our land. Our new-found sensitivity to patriarchy has excellent ripple effects: how do we treat our domestic workers, our children, our minorities?

Yet here we are, an electorate increasingly polarised along the lines of whether a leader "has balls" or not. Right this minute, as Khobragate unfolds, we are back to that same polarisation, with one grandstanding chorus focused on national pride and international image, overreacting in classic insecure style, and the other pointing out that Indians are, in fact, used to treating domestic staff very poorly. And yet, we're heading off into the sunset of this year with an electrifying political development: the mild-mannered Aam Aadmi Party's shocker finish in the Delhi elections is a weathervane for the mood of the electorate. As Arvind Kejriwal channels public frustration with corruption, and attempts to bring a new kind of politics to the capital, we can expect our conversations to broaden and intensify. There will be new voices in these conversations, whether female or dalit or poor or otherwise oppressed and ignored. Their expectations are dramatically higher than any political party until now has been willing to recognise. We have to learn to listen.

It's been a hell of a year, to put it mildly. This country is getting more and more interesting, more and more optimistic. And 2014, with a general election competing for the soul of India, promises to be that and more. Happy New Year.

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First Published: Fri, December 20 2013. 21:40 IST