Saturday, 5 November 2016

Essential perspective on Indian society

Redrawing boundaries of public thinking is going to get bloodier

One year of rabid debate may have proven exhausting, but it is the price we pay for having a skewed public discourse.

Gayatri Jayaraman
Chetan Bhagat is not the best of writers. He still simmers for the hot dog a classmate brought to class while he had to pull out his theplas and wished he could hop off to Disneyland. His metaphors may be quite mixed and facile, but he's not all wrong. He represents, in more ways than his plots, the cowering inferiorities of a mass that believed that it would never measure up.

For those of you who have forgotten, in liberal India, a short leap and a hop before 2014, debate was wholly black-and-white. There were those who were bad and there were those who were good. There was pre-Godhra and post-Godhra. There was pre-1993 and post-1993. 1984 was someone else's problem. As were the Kashmiri Pandits. It always has been. Leaders were allowed the occasional errors, be they Operation Blue Star or Emergency or the LTTE. And the Gandhis and the institutions they built were never mocked - The Red Sari was withheld, films on Nehru's relationship with Edwina Mountbatten were withheld, everything was named Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi something or the other, and any mockery of beloved Bapu as experimental with more than just his truth was withheld, the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Prevention of Activities Act), which several have protested and been incarcerated by - Arundhati Roy herself was charged with sedition in 2010, very much so by a Congress government's Union home ministry with absolutely no protest from the reigning intelligentsia beyond a strong statement by the PUCL.

In Mumbai, you just have to follow Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira's blog on DailyO to see how much of venom and quiet oppression has been heaped on those who would dare speak against the system, well before the BJP rule. Ramchandra Guha was the unquestioned king and when he said "the quality of discourse is dropping in Parliament" nobody pointed out to him that it possibly meant that more people who were not privileged with Oxtonian reading were now being represented, and that could only be a good thing as far as democracy went.

The liberal forces that today retain a liberty they never afforded the masses when they took the reins, very much so publicly, at lit fests, in newspapers and magazines, online columns or the social media, to rain mockery down on anyone standing for another point of view, and rightly so, erected their own totems. The press, populated by several drawn from these privileged stratas, alongside the institutions of India, were all unquestionable tiers on these totems. It was not considered that they could have been wrong. Today it is assumed they always are. Foreign degrees obtained higher pay all else being equal across the board, it was not cool to be too Indian, it was okay to be seen as disowning this in small ways - my children are all convent educated, went abroad, Wharton, jazz not Hindustani classical etc etc... historians, publishers, thinkers and all those setting the tone of the discourse were Nehruvian, Gandhian economics, for some reason, was considered a valid field of economic study, from Robert Vadra to Shashi Tharoor to Nayantara Sahgal, the Indian masses were "mango people", "cattle class", and "stupid"... those who ascended into the system via the reservation queue were all just getting a free ride. People were, admittedly, free to not subscribe, to the publishing, intellectual, filmmaking, writing, artistic cliques, but if you didn't, well, old chap, you just didn't fit in now did you?

It is not wrong that these were the people who were in charge, or that this is how they ran things. Indeed, it gave us a lot of ground on which we stand today. It is just necessary that we acknowledge that we've been living on an Animal Farm where ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL SOME JUST MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. This is an integral part of understanding the mandates that India delivers, our mini revolutions and takeovers, whether that is to the Shiv Sena in the Kalyan Dombivili municipal elections or in Bihar. This is who we are, the posse that will right the unright.
India has been like a joint family living quietly in their separate rooms as the misdemeanours of the elders have been quietly swept under the carpet and gone uncommented on. It's like a scene out of Monsoon Wedding coming up to the boil. Pretty and colourful on the surface, a fractured bone that healed without setting beneath.

What one year of rabid sniping has achieved, though exhausting, is a cumulative cleaning out of our closets. It is our pre-Diwali cleaning. A lot of the angst has been vented. The names have been called. The seculars have been vilified. Extreme stands have been taken to prove points. Tempers have flared and a lot of things nobody really means when they say it, have been said. Typically, I would see a lot of the Right-wing threats of the non-violent kind as the extremism of cats who have been let out of the box. The comparisons Irfan Habib makes of the RSS to ISIS are sorely misplaced because they come from not understanding that an army has been raised out of fear and defensiveness, and not out of a desire to take control and inflict. What the Right-wing is saying is we sat here nicely for 69 years and you didn't notice us. So now we will have to take our spot in the sun.

This is what Chetan Bhagat means when he says my books sell, my films sell, but you still do not acknowledge me as a valid thinker. In the old guard of intellectual India, there is no space to be wrong. Those who take charge now take charge with the vehemence of their right to be wrong.
This is a right that has not had the room to find its voice and make its mistakes. You cannot thrust a people onto the podium unrehearsed and expect them to get it right the first time. They say the things they have been hiding behind: unpractised, unrehearsed and unschooled. As Alec Baldwin put it on 30 Rock when told his date had plastic surgery: "You know, I thought you make love like an ugly girl". It takes time to adjust to a new face when you are speaking from behind an old one, one you were told all this while didn't work. The face may have changed but the psyche needs to catch up.
Several who today stand accused of attending the RSS camps, or schools like those floated by Baba Ramdev, went there because that was what was accessible to them. Neither did they have the money for the fees, or the confidence to walk into private institutions of higher learning and acquire more sophisticated ways of speaking and thinking. What was made available to them by this Nehruvian system that locked them out of the occupied ivory towers, was a passport to lesser cliques. The system has reaped what it has sown.

So, it is valid to say the Right wing does not have a very pleasant way of putting across what it means. It won't until it is able to set up its own institutions and figure out what it means, and acquire the vocabulary of its unburdened self. It needs confidence to do that. It must acquire a comfort with its own grammar and linguistics, whether that be Panini's or Shakespeare's. The comfort to borrow from or allow from cultures not our own can only come when our own is identified, defined and made secure. We do not know what our own is today because what that is has been, for decades, defined by only a part of us. Allow the lines to be redrawn.

Yes, there will be points of view that are stupidly erupting. But how will the man who has lived in a milieu where he has been told and where in turn he tells people without being contradicted - family, villagers, voters - that it's the woman's fault for going out at night and that invites rape, change his views unless he airs that statement and receives appropriate backlash? Redrawing the national psyche is a bloody process. To imagine that the nation would be on board a single unified point of view today is to belie an understanding of how varied and vast this country and its circumstances are. If the "standard of discourse is dropping" it is only because it is becoming more inclusive of those whose voices were never heard before. This includes those whose views are regressive, parochial, patriarchal and unhealthy for us. Let them speak. Let them face the flak. Let them be corrected. This is the only way forward. The council of elders can't keep marching to monuments in the name of freedom of speech and insist that those who do not speak their language have no voice. They would achieve much more in sitting down and speaking to those who oppose them. They may not agree, but a conversation will have been made possible.

Much of the churn, as painful as it may be, is good, and is unprecedented in the history of intellectual India. Why? We have opposed our own. We are saying no to Gandhi as equally as to Aurangzeb, what then of intellectuals who have never been questioned before. All someone asked was is Wendy Doniger valid? If she was, it should have been fought on. Bigger than the affront to the book itself, by all accounts questionable by her peers, very few would vouch for it in reviews, is the idea that an intellectual could be questioned. There is no India prior to this point in which we as a nation would have considered the possibility that Godse might have had a point. It will be irrelevant what that point may be and that we ought to reject it in the end, but the ability to consider points of view, albeit be horrified by them, is necessary to who we become in the next 70 years. In any argument someone is wrong. It is nevertheless important to have that argument. We are that strangely dysfunctional joint family that is currently screaming pent up frustrations at each other. The Ambanis had their spat and they survived. Share prices survived. The Indian markets survived that. More importantly I think for the future of this nation, all their children continued to play and still do celebrate together. India will survive this.

John Derrida wrote about the formation of the European Union, (paraphrasing) that when confronted with otherliness of the larger unified identity that he must acquire, the European man tends to shrink back into his regional identity that he is too afraid to let go of.

The idea of India is bigger than it is conceived as being by a trophy-clutching strata. It comprises the war cries of those who feel safer in their regional identities and need to be assured it's safe to come out and let go of who they used to be.
Let's talk.

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