THE HINDU | Jan 25, 2014 05:41 PM IST

Who is the Aam Aadmi?


We cannot become the "common man" by simply wearing a cap or chanting “main bhi aam aadmi”.

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 asked me, “What are all these tiny shoes doing here?” She was pointing to the mountain 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, at the site of the deadliest concentration camp of Nazi Germany. I pretended not to hear her question and looked away. I did not tell her that it was people — common people like us, aam aadmi, if you will — who manned the camps; that it was common people who sent other people to gas chambers; that it was the people who elected Adolf Hitler to power. It was ordinary people who eliminated nearly one million of their countrymen in Rwanda. And gathered in Naroda Patiya to loot, rape and burn their own neighbours.

The aam aadmi has risen. And we must celebrate that. But what do we mean by the aam aadmi? Does it include people who live in a 27-floor mansion surrounded by other people who live in slums?

The task of defining what is common and ordinary confronts us. What classes 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 commonness should imply. Because we have already seen what ordinary people are capable of doing to other ordinary people.

We cannot wish away these questions by simply wearing the aam aadmi cap or chanting, “main bhi aam aadmi”. ‘The people’ cannot be a singular entity devoid of complexities and contradictions, or of class, gender, and ethnic divisions. If we do not recognise these divisions, and a democratic way to mediate these conflicts, democracy turns hollow. The rule by ‘the people’, 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 collective turning authoritarian and dictatorial, capable of committing the worst atrocities.

One of the dangers of celebrating the rise of the people is the equating of ‘people’ with ‘most popular’. Democracy is not just a 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 most popular, we might have to conclude Big Boss on television is the most democratic activity in the country because it involves voting! In fact, a few years ago in the UK, when Big Brother (the parent of Big Boss) was the reality television rage, there were debates about whether more young people were voting in it than in the general elections.

People in a democracy are an ethical category, not just an empirical one. We are not born as a 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.

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 represented the most marginalised and oppressed in society. Unless the concept of the aam aadmi does that, the ordinariness and commonness it claims become vacuous.

When the Mexican government tried to tarnish Subcomandante 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 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 and oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough’'? Can the aam aadmi become, like Marcos, ‘every minority now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen’? Can the aam aadmi become a Dalit in Khairlanji, an Adivasi in Bastar, a Kashmiri woman in Kunan Poshpora, and a Thangjam Manorama in Manipur?

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

If there is no recognition of these questions and no attempt at providing some answers, there will be nothing aam about the aam aadmi. On the other hand, if one does attempt it, even the people 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 people, as history shows, are caught in what the philosopher Theodor Adorno calls the “dialectic of culture and barbarism”. After all, it is the people who stormed the Bastille to overthrow monarchy, and it is the same people who participated in the most successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

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


The writer is Associate Professor, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada.