I know that at this moment, soon after the entertainment industry seduced us to celebrate the new year with dance, music and food, it is not “cool” to speak of what Antonio Gramsci would have regarded as the “pessimism of the intellect”. Yet, I cannot escape the psychic trauma associated with the year 2019. As I write this piece, I recall a tragic moment in our history: Nathuram Godse’s bullets penetrating into Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s chest on January 30, 1948. It was an attempt to kill a dream, a possibility: An imagination of India tormented by the wound of Partition; yet, filled with the spirit of religious pluralism, cultural syncretism and egalitarianism. However, as I look back at 2019 and see, for instance, the loud assertion of the likes of Pragya Thakur (an inevitable consequence of majoritarian Hindutva), I experience with utter despair the merger of 2019 and 1948. Possibly, one day some of our sensible social historians would depict 2019 as a year that brought Godse alive, and sought to kill all that Gandhi stood for.
Can 2019 be seen as a distinctive marker of the age of darkness? Because of fragmentation, directionlessness and ideological impoverishment, the Opposition parties failed miserably to defeat Hindutva — a hyper-masculine doctrine of Hindu nationalism symbolised by “brand” Narendra Modi, and disseminated through a massive organisational network led by “loyal soldiers” of “Bharat Mata”. Despite the devastating consequences of demonetisation and GST, the spectacular electoral victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections further enhanced the narcissism of the ruling regime. As the might of majoritarianism destroyed the art of listening and negotiation, nothing could be done to resist the stigmatisation of minorities. Be it the abrogation of Article 370, or the CAA/NRC, the minorities were led to believe that Gandhi was no more, and they must know their “locations” — similar to how Savarkar and Golwalkar saw them as “alien invaders”.
Another manifestation of the dark in 2019 was the normalisation and celebration of violence. From mob lynching to the cacophony of “Jai Shri Ram”, from the cult of narcissistic/authoritarian personalities to the militarisation of the consciousness (imagine the army general’s critique of the anti-CAA protest), and from the gestures the all-powerful home minister emits for the people in the Kashmir Valley to the use of the metaphor of “surgical strike” in every sphere of life — we breathe violence. From Unnao to Hyderabad, rape victims were killed or allowed to die. The celebration of “encounter killings” revealed the hypnotising power of brute force in diminishing our moral sensibilities. Neither the presence of state-sponsored celebrity babas like Sadhguru or Ramdev, nor Modi’s dramaturgical “meditative” moment at Kedarnath could do anything substantial to eradicate this toxic culture. Sometimes I wonder whether a child growing up in 2019 would really believe that once upon a time Gautam Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath near Varanasi. Or, would it ever be possible for her to accept that there was a poet called Rabindranath Tagore who loved to see India as an oceanic civilisation — a confluence of multiple traditions?
Since darkness prevails, the light of education has to be extinguished. Is that why in 2019 we witnessed an organised attack on the very idea of public universities — the culture of critical/reflexive thinking, the ethos of inclusion and heterogeneity, and the art of interrogating even the “official” truth? In a way, the celebration of some sort of anti-intellectualism became the new normal in 2019. Even though a courageous television anchor like Ravish Kumar tried his best to bring journalism closer to people’s struggles and survival issues, it was sad to see the package of falsehoods many of our “star” anchors continued bombarding us with noise.
Only amidst this absurdity was it possible to imagine a television show where a “patriotic” Bollywood star engaged in a “conversation” with Prime Minister Modi on diverse forms of eating mangoes. Perhaps, at a time when manipulated public opinion has become the order of the day, it is naive to expect from these shiny “stars” a rigorous reflection on joblessness and economic hardship. Nor was it possible, then, to know about Medha Patkar’s hunger strike, or why the farmers marched to Delhi. Likewise, it is not very clear whether the much-hyped Chandrayaan mission really succeeded in intensifying the attempt to use the spectacle of space research to stimulate the ego of the nation and its messiah. However, one thing is certain: With the narrative of Ganesha’s plastic surgery, or of Kauravas as test tube babies, the spirit of what Nehru regarded as “scientific temper” has already been thrown into the dustbin.
Yet, it is difficult to diminish the human spirit. At the end of the year, young college/university students have begun to generate a new possibility. Even though the cops entered the Jamia library and reportedly brutally attacked the students, the mighty state didn’t succeed in destroying their spirit. From Jamia to JNU, from Hyderabad Central University to Aligarh Muslim University, and from even the IITs and IIMs, students are taking to the streets and dissenting, in an articulate manner, against the devastating implications of the CAA/NRC. In this non-violent and aesthetically enriched resistance, I have begun to see the return of the lost dream: The dream that Godse tried to kill, the dream that led Gandhi to undertake a politico-spiritual pilgrimage at Noakhali in 1946, and the dream that led B R Ambedkar to take the lead role in drafting our secular Constitution. Even though the assertive home minister has warned this “tukde tukde gang”, the dream of cultural pluralism and a spiritually enriched secularism has not yet died.
Can 2020 offer us the light of fearlessness to overcome the darkness of 2019?
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 6, 2020 under the title ‘Farewell, year of darkness’. The writer is professor of sociology at JNU.
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