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Prof. T.K. Thomas
Prof. T.K. Thomas
Opinion

CROCODILE TEARS FOR CHOWKIDARS?

Prof. T K Thomas

The chowkidar discourse was initiated by our honorable Prime Minister claiming to be a chowkidar or security guard protecting the nation’s frontiers and wealth. Given to using the national language to relentlessly attack political opponents, the opposition especially the grand old party has struggled hard to match his verbal onslaughts. The PM indeed is almost incomparable when it comes to reaching out to his supporters, especially his ‘bhakts’ who seem to applaud and enjoy every word, slogan, catch phrases or acronyms he utters. During the last general elections, when he was CM of Gujarat the ‘’chaiwala’’ comment by an acerbic Congress spokesperson Manishankar Iyer was deflected and used to the hilt to portray himself as a person of humble origin. Earlier, another comment by the then Congress President, Sonia Gandhi portraying him as “Maut ka Saudagar” was also appropriated to raise the passion of the population of his home state. The hapless Congress lost under the weight of his vocal and histrionic accomplishments.

This time around the ‘chowkidar’ analogy seems to have snowballed into an unseemly and never ending political discourse. When the Congress president Rahul Gandhi popularized the term “Chowkidar Chor Hain”, pointing towards the PM and the alleged corruption charges, eyebrows were raised by citizens across the board questioned the propriety of such a slogan, especially when it is used at public rallies. Not to be outwitted, the ruling party at the center and the PM have once again tried to deflect it on the opposition. So all of a sudden another campaign has been launched- “Main bhi Chowkidar”[I too am a Chowkidar ]. Soon his twitter handle was renamed, ”Chowkidar Narendra Modi”. All his ministers and loyalists have added the ‘sobriquet’ Chowkidar’ to their names especially on twitter handle etc. So it is Chowkidar Amit Shah, Chowkidar Rajnath Singh. Chowkidar Piyush Goel, and so on.

One of the PM’s twitter messages reads thus:- “Your Chowkidar is standing firm serving the nation. I am not alone. Everyone who is fighting corruption, dirt, social evils is a Chowkidar….” . However, maverick BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy, who answering a Tamil channel in Chennai said last week that, ”I cannot be a Chowkidar, because I am a Brahmin”!

Interestingly, announcing the “Main bhi Chowkidar” campaign when 75 lakh ‘Chowkidars’ are supposed to take part on the last day of March there was the following tweet:-

“Chowkidar Narendra Modi

@narendramodi

The #Main bhi Chowkidar programme on the 31st will look even better with the attractive merchandise!

“Have you ordered yours?” In another tweet there is a bright saffron T-shirt with the inscription ‘‘MAIN BHI CHOWKIDAR”

Is this yet another first for the PM in trade promotion?

Some of the following observations are from political leaders and ordinary citizens on the chowkidar campaign-

Arvind Kejriwal:- “Modi ji wants the entire country to become chowkidars…..If you want your children to become a chowkidar, vote for Modi ji. But if you want to provide a good education for your children and want them to become doctors, engineers, lawyers vote for honest and educated AAP candidates”.

Yashwant Sinha, the former Finance Minister made rather sarcastic comments, “PM was ‘’Chaiwala” in 2014, became “Pakodawala” somewhere in between and now “Chowkidar”. This shouldn’t be the discourse. Rather we need to talk about jobs, agri -distress, women safety.”

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claiming that “Main bhi Chowkidar” campaign has become a people movement and a global trend commented, “But some people are opposing it. These are people who are born in affluence and are out on bail. They have things to hide”.

Interacting with over 25 lakh chowkidars via audio bridge on the eve of Holi, Prime Minister Modi invoked opposition’s “Chowkidar Chor Hai” jibe and said that it is an insult to chowkidars everywhere but the gallies [abuses] would be embraced and worn as badges of honour. Stating that abusing chowkidars and calling them chor is an insult to the chowkidars of the nation he stated, “I apologize to all Chowkidars that some people, for their own interests, have been abusing chowkidars and saying ‘chowkidar chor hai’ raising questions about the dedication of chowkidars of the nation”.

According to PTI, the ex spokesperson of the BJP, I P Singh who was suspended yesterday [25th March] for bad mouthing the top two leaders of the party had used the prefix ‘Usuldar’ [Principled] to his name in his twitter handle. For marketing party’s Chowkidar T-shirt, he called Pradhan Mantri, Prachar [Advertising] Mantri in one of his tweets.

A number of people with whom one interacted felt that in public life the term “chor” should not be used. Some others however asked what the self styled chowkidar was doing when Pathankot, Uri or Pulwama were attacked by Pakistan aided terrorists.

So far we have looked at the politics of the chowkidar campaign. It is reported that the PM is going to address a mammoth group of chowkidars this week end. Let’s wait and watch whether it would mean political gain to the ruling party.

One has serious reservations about the term ‘CHOWKIDAR’. Who after all is the chowkidar we are referring to in the present discourse? Village Chowkidars [VC] have been an unsung, underpaid and unglamorous group of people worked in many of the North Indian states like Uttar Pradesh. After speaking to a number of police officers one has realized that these are men in far flung villages who used to be paid a princely sum of five rupees a month for donning unkempt khaki clothes, a belt and a long lathi to assist police stations. They would report crimes or identify criminals. They belonged to marginalized communities and had no social recognition. The post of Village Chowkidars is still in vogue and one understands that of late their emoluments are two or three thousand rupees! Are we referring to these miserable human beings known as VCs in the present campaign?

Then there are people who work as security guards in urban and rural areas, also known as Watchmen or Darwans, but commonly referred to as Chowkidars. In most cities there are recruiting agencies doubling up as security agencies from who shops, establishments or residential colonies hire security guards. The professionally run agencies mostly run by former police or armed forces officers have proper screening of men they hire and may be better paid and looked after. However most of the small time agencies or contactors get unemployed men from villages across many states migrating to cities and towns. So when we refer to the ongoing chowkidar Campaign of the ruling party are we referring to this category of security guards?

The humble chowkidar is in the limelight today. For those of us who live in multi storeyed apartments or gated colonies in the national capital, the presence of these men at our gates and entry points gives us a sense of security and once we enter our homes, we are sure that we are secure and sleep without any threat of intruders. Our little ones cycle around or play with gay abandon in the open premises as the security men at the gates ensure that the kids don’t go out of the gates. One often speaks to the security guards at the gate. Most of them are poorly educated, with hardly any skill and can find no jobs in their respective north Indian states. The land holdings back in their villages do not provide them with necessary sustenance for farm work and production of food to refrain from migrating to the ”El Dorado” they think Delhi or Mumbai is.

Most of the government departments have discontinued the practice of hiring permanent security guards and have started outsourcing the jobs or have security personnel from forces like the CISF or CRPF. So the hope of the poor unemployed rural youth’s ambition of a government job is shattered.

How much do the private sector security guards earn? The average salary is between 6/7 thousand to nine thousand rupees. There are often no schedules for the payment of their meager salaries and they can be fired at will of their contactors or employers. They work for almost 10 to 12 hours at a stretch in shifts. Most of them live alone and try and save as much as they can to send to their families back home. As they are not educated and skilled, they have no aspirations to get a better paid job and resign to their fate.

This indeed is the profile of hundreds of thousands of chowkidars most of who are not paid living wages or the much hyped minimum wages. It is sad to see these poor men being used as unknown actors in today’s political/electoral drama. Does any politician really care for the miserable plight of these men? But they seem to shed crocodile tears when rival politicians “abuse” them. How many elected representatives have raised in their respective legislatures the question of living wages, living conditions and ’job’ security for these hapless chowkidars? Has there been any survey as to how many of them are there in this unorganized sector? Whatever nomenclature we may use for these people- security guard, watchman, darwan, guard or chowkidar- it is important that the political class ought to work for improving the quality of life of these men without eulogizing them or shedding crocodile tears!