“Pradhan mantri ke vision se suryast suryoday mein badal gaya hai, raat ho rahi hai lekin hum dekh rahe hain ek nayi subah (The prime minister’s vision has turned sunset into sunrise, night is falling but we are watching a new dawn)”
This is how Doordarshan chose to describe the advent of a new era under the leadership of a prime minister who continues to remain new even after two years in office. Pradhan mantri chairman and the sentence assumes a familiarity, at least for those who are steeped in the Stalinist or Maoist political culture. Everything in Maoist China had to be informed by the vision of the chairman or was worthless. Similarly, in the Soviet Union, for any idea to be valued it needed to bear the Stalin stamp.
The sheer obsession with the adjective “new” or “historic” also takes one back to the days of these two “greats” of history, who were red and not saffron. Stalin wanted to engineer the souls of his dear people to carve a “new man” and a new society out of them.
For a new to be created, the old has to be destroyed. The appeal for the new thus becomes the legitimiser of the death of the old. The only problem is that the old lingers on in many forms and threatens to sabotage the project of building the new. So, its residuals need to identified through a campaign and destroyed completely. The old is also made synonymous with the elite.
When Chairman Mao gave a call to the Chinese people, it was the youth he mainly addressed. The Cultural Revolution in China started on May 16 fifty years ago which, again in one of the ironies of history, is the date when a new “revolution” started in India two years back. Chairman Mao divided his people into two categories: One belonged the revolutionary masses and the other a part of the old privileged elite, remnants of the past, who needed to be weeded out. Mao called for a protracted revolution. It was called cultural as it sought to change the way people lived, their notion of relationships and transform them from individuals to soldiers of a great mission.
Such regimes confer the title of the real or true people on one set of the masses, who are then unleashed on the other who are termed enemies of the people or non-people. Mao’s cultural revolution or Stalin’s purge witnessed people voluntarily participating in not only eliminating the enemies but also creating them. Such non-people ranged from school teachers to entrepreneurs, doctors to cultural workers, scientists and researchers, homosexuals and Jews or simply “non-productive” people. Children reported on their parents and teachers and participated in their public humiliation and, in most cases, organised their killing.
The list of non-people officially sanctioned and promoted by the new regime of India is growing: “Terrorists”, “love jihadis”, “beefeaters”, “religious converters”, “infiltrators” and, finally, “anti-nationals” or “saboteurs”. A more neat division was suggested by the prime minister on May 26. “I can say there is development on one side and obstructionism on the other. The people will choose which side to choose, that I firmly believe,” he said. The trust in the intelligence of the people is touching.
The horrifyingly interesting part of the Cultural Revolution was it gave a sense of agency to people who were, in fact, conforming to the orders of the leader. Power was handed over to the ordinary masses who craved for it and which they exercised on the obstructionists or anti-nationals. People did not have the luxury of not choosing their side. Else, they became suspects.
The rush to join the officially sanctioned category of the people does not have anything to do with a particular ideology. Germans, Russians, Chinese, Americans, Israeli, have been complicit in the crimes their leaders unleashed on fellow beings. Even the persecuted offer themselves. They self-denounce and seek purification. The joy of disempowering your neighbour always pushes human goodness to a dark corner. It is revived only after the departure of the bully from the scene. The narratives of the red guards of the Cultural Revolution, or the veterans of the Vietnam war or Israeli combatants reveal the scale of moral devastation all of them have gone through. There are people, however, who are in the job of intellection, who can see through the game. They alert the people to the danger of loss of humanity. Maxim Gorky did it in the heyday of the Bolshevik Revolution when he condemned Lenin for turning the working masses into murderers and immoral morons. Lenin nudged off Gorky to Italy. Others were not so lucky. Ironically, Gorky later returned to the Soviet Union to work with Stalin. Denunciation of intellectualism and disinterested scholarship is thus one of the main features of such drives. Masses are pitted against intellectuals, who are portrayed as parasites who must be made to do real work.
The May 16 circular of Mao, which became the manifesto of the Cultural Revolution, said, “This concept which makes no class distinction on academic matters is also very wrong. The truth on academic questions, the truth of Marxism-Leninism, of Mao Zedong’s thought — which the proletariat has grasped — has already far surpassed and beaten the bourgeoisie. The formulation in the outline shows that its authors laud the so-called academic authorities of the bourgeoisie and try to boost their prestige, and that they hate and repress the militant newborn forces representative of the proletariat in academic circles.” There is nothing then that remains as scholarship or professionalism.
China is now the envy of the developed world. But it is a deeply wounded society. A witness of the Cultural Revolution says it turned the country into a moral wasteland. The memory of the sense of powerlessness of their victims gnaws at the hearts of the former red guards of the Chinese revolution. Will their lost humanity be ever restored? This question came to me when I read Professor Bandukwala in this newspaper and felt his sense of helplessness, when he says he forgives to hope. He knows it well that there is no one seeking forgiveness and, therefore, his offer has no value. But by doing so, he is desperately trying to claim the power of humanity for himself. It is a pathetic sight. How much time would Bandukwala’s tormentors need to realise that by making people like him powerless they were in fact robbing themselves of their humanity?
Such realisation on part of the tormentors is not easy, as journalist John Pilger tells us. He writes: “The breathtaking record of perfidy is so mutated in the public mind, wrote the late Harold Pinter, that it “never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. It didn’t matter…”. Pinter expressed a mock admiration for what he called “a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis”.
Let us examine ourselves: Are we in the spell of hypnosis?
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