The shameful attack by the Shiv Sena on Sudheendra Kulkarni and the frenzied response to the writers protesting by returning their awards or quitting the Sahitya Akademi show how all possibility of meaning is being hijacked.
It would be easy to deconstruct the Sena’s action in the context of Maharashtra politics. It is a party with no direction, trying to tell the BJP who is boss in Maharashtra by returning to its hardline roots. But in the process, it has already shifted the markers of language and public norms, where we lose control even over basic meanings. Can you imagine a democratic country where a ruling party calls a blatantly criminal act (and yes, throwing black paint on someone’s face is a criminal act) an act of democratic protest? The Shiv Sena wants to openly acknowledge that criminality and democracy have been fused. It calls a violent act an act of non-violence.
So, India can remain a non-violent country because all acts of violence have been renamed as non-violent. The Sena stakes claim to the valorous heritage of Shivaji. But it translates it into a cowardly creed, unable to withstand difference. It lays claim to a democratic mandate, as part of a government. Yet it acts as if it is street opposition. It lays claim to the language of patriotism. But it has shifted the marker of patriotism to xenophobia. It claims to stand against terrorism. But it is a definition of terrorism that excludes the dread and insidious terror its own actions produce; a terror that forbids you to think certain thoughts. It claims to stand for Maharashtra. But it is a conception of Maharashtra that excludes a large number of its inhabitants. The drivers of its politics may be local. But its goal is to redefine the meaning of all that we cherish: Freedom, democracy, patriotism, law, identity.
But the danger is not just the Shiv Sena. The danger is that the political response will speak in forked tongues. Forget the BJP. Even the Congress and NCP in Maharashtra have long colluded with the Sena’s assaults on freedom in the name of identity. They have been consistently supine enough to embolden the Sena. The Maharashtra chief minister allowed Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book launch; the RSS condemned the attack on Kulkarni. But these small mercies came with riders. The state will not allow “anti-India” discussions, as if only the state can decide what is pro- or anti-India. The RSS response came with riders on what counts as patriotism. The ultimate gambit that the Sena has put out is the gambit of patriotism. But it is a gambit that immediately seems to put everyone on the defensive and shift the line on what can be said. Patriotism is not just the last refuge of scoundrels. It is a wedge to control all meaning. Even in resisting the Sena, we fall into its trap if we play on the ground of patriotism. Even patriotism cannot be a condition for free speech: Those calling for a referendum in Kashmir have as much right to air their views as any alleged patriot. But the canard of patriotism has made all of us needlessly defensive.
The Sahitya Akademi writers’ protest has elicited various responses. Comparisons are being made with the role of “self-moved” intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre. But these comparisons should be made with care. Sartre was a great thinker but a moral charlatan of the first order. In fact, Sartre thought little of “abstract” liberty, like freedom of expression, for which our writers are fighting. In his letter to the Nobel Committee, he placed economic well-being above freedom.
The three charges against the writers’ protest are these: The first is hypocrisy. This is a tiresome argument. It is often false. It is an excuse to simply divert attention; when you don’t like the message, impugn the messenger. But it is also a deeper attempt to control meaning. It is said that writers’ protests are symbolic, as if that were a reproach. But the hypocrisy charge, at the level of discourse, is something more totalitarian: It is taking away the possibility of symbolism.
The charge is exaggeration. Given that there is actually a lot of dissent, aren’t these writers crying fire in Noah’s Flood? There is something to this point. The Shiv Sena notwithstanding, the comparisons with the Emergency or fascism are way too facile. A lot of the resentments and conflicts of Indian society are working out in unpalatable ways, with the complicity of the highest echelons of the political leadership. But it is misleading to suggest that the scale of what we are seeing approximates the Emergency or fascism. Indeed, I would argue that the dominant social forces are still trending in the opposite direction, political closure notwithstanding
But the importance of the writers’ stand is not in literal description. If it is exaggeration, it is one in defence of liberty. It is a warning that our institutional fabric is no longer preserving values. As a timely warning, their protest is important. The attacks on them prove the point. It would have been so easy for political leaders to get up and say, “Trust us, we will do everything in our power to protect freedom of expression.” The depths to which the political leadership has fallen can be gauged by the fact that this simple response to defuse a protest is not available.
The third charge is that of publicity-seeking. Again, this is impugning motives. But it is also an attempt to control. After all, the intolerant have used publicity as a ruse to set themselves up as true representatives of public opinion. They claim to represent opinion by being visible. In some ways, publicity has become the only repertoire of power in our society, and it is an inherently corrupting one at that. But to accuse protesters of seeking publicity is a way of saying to them, become invisible. Even the riposte of publicity is a threat to silence.
Finding repertoires of protest is not easy. All political parties lack the conviction to be reliable conduits, social movements are rare, representative institutions are dysfunctional, courts are lotteries, the media is unreliable, civil society a fragmented patchwork of contradictory forces, and the traditional grammar of strikes and marches so ephemeral and without authority that people feel helpless. Detractors can dismiss this helplessness as irrelevance, as the ruling dispensation is apt to do in all its aggressiveness. But that is yet another attempt to colonise all meaning, and make it serve the interests of power. We will have to find repertoires of action and example where the meaning of important values like liberty and democracy is not hijacked.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared on the Wednesday print edition under the title ‘The hijacking of meaning’.