Students take part in a candlelight procession on April 13, 2018, as they protest over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomad girl, in Kathua, near Jammu. Photo: Reuters/ Mukesh Gupta

“Silence is not an option,” read a placard at protests in Delhi against the rapes of young girls in two Indian states. But being silent, not having an opinion or not voting in elections is not in any way antithetical to the idea of democracy. It is essential that a majority be vocal, express their opinions, and vote in order for the democracy to survive, but it is not a criminal offense if you desist.

In fact, democracy demands that individual choices are respected at all costs. Unless and until these choices impinge on someone else’s choices or are unlawful in nature, one has the right to live one’s life any way one wants. In India, even a 60% voter turnout in elections is considered high. So what has changed? Why are we suddenly demanding that the “silent majority” speak up?

The rape of a teenager in Unnao in the state of Uttar Pradesh and the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, have stirred the conscience of many in the country.

Statistically speaking, sexual crimes against children are not new in India. In fact, there has been a recent spurt in such crimes, as cases in such states as Assam, Gujarat and Bihar show. So what is so special about Kathua? It’s the only instance where members of a ruling party, agents of the state and lawyers have used all sorts of influence to protect someone accused of rape.

When those with the power and responsibility to carry out justice stand in its way, democracy is threatened. And there are no innocent bystanders when democracy is being murdered. There are no innocent bystanders when the very notion of humanity is being questioned. So what is the answer? The question for many is whether there is a middle ground between being part of the “silent majority” and of the “activist few.”

But what does activism mean in the era of mobile phones and social media? Where do the revolutionaries meet these days before launching an attack on the establishment? Definitely not the coffee shops. Not many would agree, but Facebook and Twitter are the French coffee shops of today. It is where ideas are exchanged, resolutions are made and revolutionaries are born. No change is ever brought about unless ideas are supported by feet on the street. But no change was ever conceived on the street.

In Delhi, when the first #Notinmyname protest was called, I landed there with a placard that read “Hindus against Hindutva.” Someone from the political circle, though sympathetic to the cause, said politicians don’t care about social media. They know that we are only a minority who rarely vote. A lot has changed; the opinion of that politician has changed, for sure. So it’s not difficult being an activist today. Then why did so many felt betrayed by those who were silent? And, why were so many silent?

The cries for response from the silent section were never as loud as they were in last few weeks. The appeals to speak up, to express some emotion, to prove that they are affected were never as widespread. The “activist few” demanded assurance that there was hope for humanity and democracy.

There are no innocent bystanders when democracy is being murdered. The ones who are silent have outsourced the defense of their rights and liberties to a few who can’t remain silent. There was a time when social media were seen as a space for vanity. But in recent years, we have seen how influence from small circles of individuals can force mighty governments into action. How a “MeToo” can make heads turn across the world, how a “NotinMyName” can unite millions globally.

We are in the era of hashtag warfare, and everyone can be an activist. Change does not demand forsaking of all that one holds dear. Change demands 140 characters. Then why are so many so silent?

Om Routray

Om Routray works with an IT industry association. He has a keen interest in food, fiction and politics and blogs at The Young Bigmouth.

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