In Search of the Aam Aadmi


Nissim Mannathukkaren
Associate Professor
International Development Studies
Room 339, Henry Hicks Arts and Administration Bldg
Dalhousie University
Halifax, NS, Canada B3H 4H6

As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become.
                                                                                                                       -- Jean-Paul Sartre

A couple of years ago, my then four-year old daughter asks me, "what are all these tiny shoes doing here?" She was pointing to the mountain of pairs of shoes in glass cases. There were nearly 80, 000 pairs, including 8,000 that belonged to children. We were at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, built at the site of the deadliest concentration camp of Nazi Germany. I pretend not to hear her question and look away. I did not tell her that it was the people-common people like us, aam aadmi, if you will--who manned the camps; it was the people who sent other people to gas chambers; It was the people who elected Adolf Hitler to power.

Was it not the same people who eliminated nearly 1 million of their own countrymen, twenty percent of the nation's population, hacking them to their deaths using nothing more than machetes in Rwanda? And was it not the same people, exhorted by elected representatives of the people, who gathered in Naroda Patiya to loot, rape and burn 36 women, 35 children and 26 men of their own neighbors, in their own mohallas where they had lived together for years?

The aam aadmi has risen. And it is the time to celebrate that. After all, what is a democracy without the aam aadmi? What is a democracy without the people? But we still do not know what we mean by the people. Who are we talking about when we talk about the aam aadmi? It seems that it does not include some people like the people who live in a 27-floor mansion surrounded by other people who live in slums. If the former are excluded, then we have already whittled down the concept of the people to include only the supposedly ordinary and common people.

But the task of defining what is common and ordinary still confronts us. What class positions and what standards of living are excluded from the definition of "common"? Even if we empirically account for that, there will still remain moral and ethical questions about what values should commonness imply. Because we already saw what common and ordinary people are capable of doing to other common and ordinary people.

We cannot wish away these questions by a simply wearing the aam aadmi cap or chanting, "main bhi aam admi ". "The people" cannot be a singular entity devoid of differences, complexities and contradictions, or of class, gender, caste and ethnic divisions. If we do not recognize these divisions, and a democratic way to mediate these conflicts, democracy turns hollow, and the rule by "the people" itself, as theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, can become the rule of "the one" over "the many." This is the irony of the people as a collectivity, rather than a single 2 individual, turning authoritarian and dictatorial, capable of committing the worst atrocities.

This dangerous potential is what leads to the aam aadmi, again led by their elected representatives, exploding in racist vigilantism against African nationals in Delhi. In a land in which the aam aadmi worships fair skin, what are the chances that the dark-skinned foreigners will get a fair hearing? Perhaps those people do not count as people.

The dangerous potential was also evident when the recent raising of the question of a referendum in Kashmir, instead of leading to a democratic discussion, was "violently" scotched--violent, because such things cannot even be mentioned. After all, issues like national identity are assumed to be non-negotiable for the aam aadmi even if it means that such a national identity is built on the systematic silencing of the aspirations of a certain section of the same people. Perhaps those people do not count as people.

Thus, one of the dangers of the celebration of the rise of the people is its equation of the people with the most popular. Democracy is not just the question of "opening the phone lines" and asking what the people think (as a certain television anchor threatens to every night). If we go by what is the most popular, then we might have to conclude that watching Big Boss on television is the most democratic activity in the country because that also involves voting! In fact a few years ago, in the UK, when Big Brother (yes, the parent of our Big Boss) was the reality television rage, there were debates about whether more young people were voting in it than voting in the general elections.

The people in a democracy are an ethical category, not just an empirical one. We are not just born as the people, we become one. By our social locations, all of us are not the aam aadmi; even those who are, might not have the desires and aspirations of one. But all of us can become the aam aadmi. What is more important is deciding what kind of aam aadmi we should become, for there is not one kind of aam aadmi, but many.

Historically, the most just outcomes have resulted when social and political struggles have alluded not only to a concept of the people, but when the concept stood for, or represented the most marginalized and oppressed in society. Unless concepts of the people or the aam aadmi do that, the ordinariness and commonness that they claim becomes vacuous.

When the Mexican government tried to tarnish the image of Subcommandante Marcos, the legendary leader of the Zapatistas (who fight for the rights of the indigenous people of the Mexican state of Chiapas) by branding him gay, Marcos responded:

     Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an 3 Asian in Europe, a Chicano in
     San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a
     Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro
     at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student
     and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.

Can the aam aadmi become, like Marcos, "all the exploited, marginalized, oppressed minorities resisting and saying `Enough'"? Can the aam aadmi become, like Marcos, "every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen"? And in the Indian context, can the aam aadmi become a Dalit of Khairlanji, an Adivasi of Bastar, a Kashmiri woman of Kunan Poshpora, a Thangjam Manorama of Manipur, a Maruti worker of Manesar and a Ugandan in Delhi?

Should the aam aadmi only represent their immediate needs and aspirations or should they not be equally aware of a world beyond themselves? Should the aam aadmi only be proud patriots or should they not be aware that there is a larger responsibility, beyond one's country, to humanity itself? And finally, in our precarious present, should the aam aadmi not have plausibly a greater responsibility to save the planet?

If there is no recognition of these questions and an attempt at providing some answers, there will be nothing aam about the aam aadmi. On the other hand, if there is, even people living in 27--„floor homes can aspire to become the aam aadmi. In that sense, it is disingenuous to claim that the aam aadmi does not have any ideology. If there is an ethical imputation to the concept of the aam aadmi, it cannot but have a robust ideology.

The fundamental mistake would be for us to believe that asking what the aam aadmi thinks is the acme of democracy. Democracy is fortunately not only that. Instead, it is the summation of the best of the thinking that has been thought by the people across ages and geographical spaces. It is also what the people are capable of imagining better in the future. And this can very well be at odds with what a particular people in a particular social context think. If this were not the case, then the village which unanimously sentences a woman to be stoned to death for committing adultery would also be democratic.

The people, as history shows, are caught in what the philosopher Theodor Adorno calls as the "dialectic of culture and barbarism." After all, it is the same "people" who stormed the Bastille in the French Revolution to overthrow monarchy; it is the same people who revolted against their slavery in the most successful slave rebellion which established the Republic of Haiti; and it is the same people who spoke through
Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire to ignite the entire Arab world's yearning for democracy.

Let us continue our search for the aam aadmi who will refuse to serve as the janitors, clerks, guards, teachers, physicians and managers of the Auschwitzes, Rwandas, and Naroda Patiyas of the future. Let us build our own aam aadmi.

The author is with Dalhousie University, Canada (email:

A shorter version of this article was published in The Hindu.


   Published on 27/01/2014

 Source: E-mail 25/01/2014

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