(Please see an update made at the end of this post.)
I am watching the fog of tear gas shells descend on Ramlila Maidan on the live television feed on my computer. What was supposed to be a ‘yoga camp’ led by Baba Ramdev, and the fully-funded-free circus of his so-called ‘indefinite hunger strike’ against ‘Black Money’ has now turned into a tear-gas purgatory. It is midsummer, but inside that big tent it looks like a particularly foggy-smoggy night in a Delhi midwinter. It must hurt like hell, in the nostrils, in the lungs. With every breath that Ramdev’s disciples take (and how well they know the art and science of heavy breathing) their eyes must sting. Pranayam was never so painful. I hold my insomniac breath as I sit watching, riveted.
Crowds are running helter-skelter. I can see an atmosphere of total chaos unfold before my eyes. I can hear the NDTV correspondent/commentator say, “the police have not as yet hit anyone with sticks, but some supporters of the Baba have started pelting stones and bricks.”.
There is still no sign of Baba Ramdev. The NDTV voice says, it seems “he has been whisked away”. He asks someone who is referred to as a ‘senior aide’ – “kya baba ko leke gaye” (“has Baba been taken away”) – the man answers saying he does not know. The Baba has left the Shivir (camp).
Ramdev came into our consciousness from nowhere, like Narad-Muni descending on hapless and puzzled mortals in the epics. He made his way into our TV screens, urged us to rub our fingernails and suck in our abdomens and steadily occupied the void, the lack of imagination, the absence of vision that tears right through our collective social, cultural and political space. He built his empire, pushed his dope, made his deals and caught us in the vice-like grip of an ‘asana’ (posture) that refuses to let go our minds.
He played with the Congress, he played with the BJP and the Sangh-Parivar, and while on the stage with Anna Hazare he hobnobbed with the naive liberals and do-gooders too myopic to see the Frankenstein that they were manufacturing.
A few days ago, we saw the obscene sight of four senior ministers, including Pranab Mukherjee, the de-facto number two man in the UPA cabinet, kow-towing to this charlatan (what else can we call a man who says he can cure cancer and AIDS with Pranayam / Breath Control) at the Delhi airport.
Then, over the last two days, we witnessed the farce of negotiations, the slime and sleaze of the UPA being countered by the irrational grand-standing (“this is a systemic change” – as if a minor tweaking of double taxation avoidance treaties with Switzerland and Mauritius is the cornerstone of a social revolution in India) double-speak (“No, the PM should not be under the purview of the Lokpal” followed by “No, I never said that”, “the government has met 99% of our demands”, “we will now end our ‘tap’/meditation”, followed by – “no i never said that”) and chicanery of the Ramdev camp, constantly nudged along by the cloak and dagger departments of the RSS and the BJP. Even the so-called mainstream left, smarting from its humiliation in West Bengal, wanted a piece of the action. The gerontocracy of the CPI thought it fit to dignify this pathetic circus as a peoples’ struggle. The CPI(M), comatose, has so far chosen to stay silent. And now, finally, as tonight turns to morning, we are seeing the obscene sight of heavy handed police action, that will scar the memories of all those who walked into Ramlila Ground at Ramdev’s whistle.
We even saw what threatens to become the ‘purloined letter’ – the note Kapil Sibal said had been drafted by Ramdev’s aide which commits to end the ‘fast’, which then prompted the greatest playground huff and turnabout in history that I have seen, as Ramdev angrily denied having ever made any such commitment, which in turn precipitated the crisis that resulted in the tear-gassing of the Ramlila Ground campsite.
And then, all hell broke loose.This government effectively handed the gathering storm of the resurrected zombies of the till now dead far-right that is collecting around Baba Ramdev the stick with which they will beat their drum for the coming days, perhaps for the coming months, perhaps (I sincerely hope not) for coming years.
Just when the idiocy of the Ayodhya movement had seemingly died its definitive death, here we go again.
The same trade-mark Congress dithering – Indira & Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao style – first build up the fascists, talk to them (covertly, if not overtly), give them the issues and the platform, and then panic. Remember Bhindranwale, remember Shah-bano case, remember the ‘unlocking’ of the door of the Babri Masjid. And now watch the circus get going at Ramlila Ground.
Nothing suits fancy-dress fascists, especially of the morally righteous variety that Ramdev represents better than the patina and glamour of martyrdom. In one stroke, the UPA government, with the aid of the Delhi Police, has offered them that halo.
I can now see a man wearing blue fatigues (Rapid Action Force?) carrying a man in saffron robes, holding a tricolor flag, a Ramdev clone, as if he were carrying a sack of potatoes past a large backdrop featuring a pantheon of ‘patriots. A stoic Savarkar smirks on the plastic surface of the backdrop as blue man and saffron burden careen past him, with the ‘sant’ kicking the air, like a petulant child.
The NDTV voice (Vishnu Som) says – “some reports say that Baba Ramdev has been whisked away by a helicopter…upward from 30,000 people were there…who took the operational decision ?” Who indeed?
Tejas Mehta, an NDTV correspondent, is speaking to some more people, a young man says – “this is like Jallianwala Bagh” (any fool can see that it is not, the police have not fired live bullets – but of course, now the righteous right will go to town saying exactly this sort of rubbish). A woman says, “the police crushed women at one’ o clock at night”, (she is probably right, there seems to have been unseemly pushing and shoving) the correspondent asks – “was there stone throwing?” – they say, “no, there was no stone throwing”.
Suddenly one young man seizes this opportunity to make his piece to camera, he hyperventilates the words ‘Shahid’ (Martyrs) and ‘Kurbani’ (sacrifice). We will hear a lot more of these words in the coming days. And everytime I hear them, I feel sick at the pit of my stomach, because I know that they are the clarion calls of a creeping authoritarian consensus that always feeds off the pasturage of beaten and bludgeoned people.
Two months ago, I had written on Kafila:
…The current euphoria needs to be seen for what it is – a massive move towards legitimizing a strategy of simple emotional blackmail – a (conveniently reversible) method of suicide bombing in slow motion. There is no use dissenting against a pious worthy on a fast, because any effort to dissent will be immediately read as a callous indifference to his/her ‘sacrifice’ by the moral-earnestness brigade. Nothing can be more dangerous for democracy. Unrestrained debate and a fealty to accountable processes are the only means by which a democratic culture can sustain itself. The force of violence, whether it is inflicted on others, or on the self, or held out as a performance, can only act coercively. And coercion can never nourish democracy….
…The tragedy that we are facing today is that the legitimate public outrage against corruption is being channeled in a profoundly authoritarian direction that actually succeeds in creating a massive distraction. [Link]
I feel no pleasure in having the suspicions that I had then being confirmed. The first act of this tragedy/farce was performed on Jantar Mantar with Anna Hazare as its central character – to the fanfare of television. Then we had an intermission marked by some variety entertainment, fake or not so fake CDs, ego battles and backroom intrigue. Now, that interval is over, the second act has begun and the acrobat called Ramdev appeared on stage, performing his contortions, playing to the gallery, setting the stage for a hairy-happy-clappy fascism that brooks no doubts about itself. Ramdev, like all fascists, loves talking about ‘revolution-kranti’. He has himself photographed triumphantly in front of Bhagat Singh’s statue in Delhi, with a bronze ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ flag billowing sculpturally behind him, and it makes it to the front page of yesterday’s Indian Express. He is all image, all costume, all ready for the show.
But no, this is not Tahrir square. Not yet. No matter what television tells you. And nor are homophobic hysterics who call for death sentences at every provocation the likely agents of democratic transformation. Corruption is only their fetish. Tomorrow it will be something else. As Hartosh Singh Bal of Open Magazine remarked recently on a discussion in Times Now, Ramdev had demanded a war against Pakistan in the wake of 26/11. Tomorrow, Ramdev, or someone like him, may well go on hunger strike again, demanding a war, or that homosexuals be castrated or sent to prison or (like in Iran) sentenced to death for ‘corruption’. When corruption becomes a fetish, then anything that anyone chooses to call corruption will do as the catalyst for any number indefinite feasts unto death. (These fasts are actually feasts, and should be called – ‘Amaran Mahabhoj’ not ‘Amaran Anashan’. He is not hungry, he is eating us alive.)
A city where you cannot rent or buy the tiniest bit of shelter, without paying unaccounted for cash cannot pretend that its citizens are clean, no matter how often they vacuum their nostrils at their Baba’s bidding. A society where shopkeepers and traders smirk when you ask for a bill or a receipt cannot play-act at ethics, unless it wants to perform a charade. A country where every land deal, every dam, every road works and flyover, every arms deal is lubricated by kickbacks cannot afford to be selective about its villains. It cannot outsource them to Swiss bank accounts, pretending that the only villains were politicians and foreigners. Ramdev, and the entire ‘India Against Corruption’ movement talk a lot about a corrupt state (and no doubt it is a corrupt state) but they have nothing to say about the crony-Capitalists who actually run the show. They gun for the Rajas, the Kalmadis, the Hasan Alis, the Kanimozhis and the Marans, but the Tatas and the Ambanis who serve the volleys in the same game are passed over in silence. Perhaps there is a special asana – a pose that marks a great step forward in hatha-yoga as well as raja-yoga, especially attuned to selective hearing, selective vision, selective attention, selective chagrin, and selective menus for how and when and for what to stay hungry?
Ramdev talks a lot about the “…crores of rupeers stashed away in foreign accounts”, and yet, he purveys ‘remedies’ for cancer and AIDS against hard cash – cash which comes his way through television appearances, corporate donations, endorsements and gifts. His business enterprise is built on this enormous exercise in fraud, on wilful, knowing mischief with a society that is sick to the core and desperately needs healing. And he, of all people, has the temerity to talk as if the colour of his money were as spotless as the milk he wants children to drink so that they can grow ‘oh so gora-fair and lovely‘.
This is the savior we have given ourselves on this tear-gassed midnight. This is the lila unfolding on Ramlila ground as a battalion of Keystone Kops and a regiment of Saffron Scamsters contest the shape and meaning of our future.
I am sad, angry, and my laughter is black and bitter with rage. And if I were in Ramlila Ground, instead of being awake writing this, I am sure there would be tears too. Tear-Gas can make them come, easily.
Meanwhile, NDTV tells us that Baba Ramdev has been found, dressed in drag (what a wonderful bearded lady he would have made). He is in police custody. He will be escorted, ‘externed’ to Haridwar.
UPDATE : Sunday, June 5, 2011, 10:12 PM
Since I wrote this post this morning, a lot has unfolded on television. The clowns of the government circus are in a huddle with the ringmistress, wondering how to wipe the egg off their faces. The holy fool is back in his nest. And the chorus of civil and uncivil society is singing its dirges.It now transpires (this was revealed by Devendra Sharma, a close Ramdev associate, on live television, on NDTV) that the Ramdev Camp had indeed written the ‘letter’ stating that they would end the ‘fast’ soon in response to their ‘understanding’ with the government – something that the Baba then disavowed angrily, calling Kapil Sibal a ‘cheat’ for having let the cat out of the bag. Devendra Sharma, shamelessly admitted that this unseemly pirouette and counter-pirouette was a ‘tactical necessity’ – comparing it to ‘Shivaji’s ruses with Aurungzeb’. Leading Barkha Dutt, the anchor of the programme to ask whether or not the Ramdev camp could now be held liable for ‘cheating’ its own constituency and the public. I think that this would be the logical question to ask, even if it was first asked by Barkha Dutt, for whom I hold no brief.
I’d like to say a big thank you, readers, for all your responses, both appreciative as well as critical. We need a serious debate on what ‘black money’ and the darker recesses of the world economy are. I hope this can be a forum for that.
A clarification does need to be made at this hour. I had written, while dawn was breaking, – “The CPI(M), comatose, has so far chosen to stay silent.” Since then, the CPI(M) has released a statement, and it is fairly sensible. Brinda Karat, CPI(M) spokesperson, has been vocal, robust and clear on television about how she and her party view the matter – they have held both the government and the Ramdev camp responsible for this mess – and have (correctly, to my view) deplored the draconian and uncalled for police action. I think that is commendable. Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a very harsh critic of the CPI(M), (I am also very glad that they lost the elections in West Bengal and Kerala) but, I do believe that when a party, or a person, (regardless of whether or not I agree with them, and clearly, I don’t with the CPI(M), or with Brinda Karat on most issues) does take a correct stand, they should be acknowledged for having done so, especially if they have been criticised for not having done so. To do anything else would be irresponsible.