The power of the signature

The power of the signature

HT Image

It’s the middle class’s secret weapon. The signature campaign or public petition or chain letter—call it what you will—has gained ground, empowering a class often derided for its apathy.

The latest to do the rounds is a petition written by author Vikram Seth and endorsed by Siddharth Dube of UNAIDS, former UN under-secretary general Nitin Desai and Swami Agnivesh asking that same-sex relations among consenting adults be decriminalized (see accompanying story). Currently being circulated among opinion-makers from media, entertainment, law, etc, the response, says Gautam Bhan of Voices Against 377, a gay advocacy group, has been overwhelming. “People have been calling up and asking if they too can sign up,” he says. The letter will be released on August 15.

From Jessica Lall to gay advocacy, from saving tigers to BT cotton, there’s a petition for every cause. But perhaps the efficacy of the signature has never been felt more than in the Jessica Lall case.

A spontaneous outburst of public feeling followed the additional sessions court’s acquittal of all nine accused (see accompanying story). Public opinion—channelized through a signature campaign, candlelight vigils, SMS messages, and a sustained media campaign had such power that the high court issued a suo motu notice to the police, effectively reopening the case. There’s been no looking back since.

As recently as June this year, a Forum of Indians Against Reservation announced a ‘One Coin, one sign and Save the Nation’ signature campaign. The plan? Each signatory would pay Re 1 and sign a petition to be presented to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam before the monsoon session of the Parliament.

Those in favor of the reservations also got their act together. In Tamil Nadu, Students Federation of India activists mobilized a signature campaign saying that reservation for the backward classes was long overdue.

Signature campaigns have always been around, but technology has made mobilizing a huge number of people much easier now. Online petitions were seen during the Gujarat riots when the pro and anti-Hindutva lobbies kept the Net buzzing. A website for Youth for Equality, a group of medical students that has been vociferous in its demand that reservations be scrapped, puts forward its case and invites all Indians to “make a powerful statement on this issue”.

Obviously, not all petitions are as driven and there are any number of crackpot causes waiting for endorsement (see accompanying story). But the signature campaign is undeniably a part of the new social consciousness that seems to be sweeping much of middle-class India. “There’s a rising sense of prosperity, and with it, a new grasping of values,” says image guru Dilip Cherian. “Today, many Indians have the luxury of being able to agitate.” Adds Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal: “It reflects the participation of civil society. This is the only time a signature becomes an expression of an opinion.” For a class of people frustrated with the system and agitating for change, a signature campaign is a potent tool. Can anyone dispute that?