Guest Post by RAJARSHI DASGUPTA
We must not celebrate every time we see a movement. Movements can be very popular without being very meaningful, disturbing only the surface of society. Some can be pretty and harmless like candle light vigils; others dangerous and ugly like ‘love jihad’. Some want efficient governance like Hazaare; others regime change like Nandigram. For those tired with political apathy, it is of course good news that a spate of new movements is emerging thanks to new technologies and media coverage. But it is equally true that they seem to be going indifferent directions, without any common end. The picture is not clear. Who knows better than us how ‘change’ can be purely rhetorical? It is not difficult to imagine why people are weary of dramatic social unrest. They hardly fail to bring yet more conservative and unscrupulous sections to power. If we don’t want to get carried away, it is because of repeated disillusionments with the promise of change that everybody makes but nobody keeps. Politics is not, we better understand, about promise but manipulation, bargaining for daily needs, livelihood and resources, and so it should be. Movements may come and go like fashion, they are incidental to reality, which changes very slowly if at all. There is an institutional process of elections we have put in place, and it has proven to be resilient and reliable.
Bandh Bhengey Dao – Break All Bonds –
Lyrics and Music – Rabindranath Tagore & Asian Dub Foundation
From the Original Sound Track of ‘Tasher Desh’ a film adaptation by Q
of Rabindranath Tagore’s Joyous Anarchist Opera
Movements are unwelcome strangers in this realist understanding of politics. They are like passing fads, creating disturbance, unnecessary commotion and noise. But is it possible that many taking part in movements today are not only aware of this perception, this skeptic perspective, but actually they are responding to it? How does one know if there is only noise to hear, that too of too many voices? But then we know from our own lives how noise is part of social communication, how it colors our expressions, transmitting what we cannot do with words so adequately. I know music collectors who take immense pleasure in listening to old recording noises that digital technology has cleaned up. They like to have the noise restored for a closer listening of the music. We know of hunger-striking prisoners who signal protest by making rackets with their gruel dishes. We are often subjected to boring lectures that tell us nothing and make us all fervently pray for silence. Should we then not make some room for thinking about noise in thinking about politics? Can we stretch, in other words, and try to understand something that does not make sense to us immediately? At least, we should be curious when there is a deliberate quality, an intended distortion in such noise. If they speak to us in a language we cannot understand, it shows up their alienation from us and from our available protocols of communication. It should make us think what is wrong with these protocols. In any case, let us not pretend the noise doesn’t tell us anything – it disobeys authority, it demands freedom.
Moushumi Bhowmik Singing at a Vigil at Jadavpur University, Courtesy Hillele TV
What kind of freedom is this – what does it imply, and where does it draw its limits we should ask. But movements appear to be more tactful with regard to these matters than ever before, they escape efforts to define their agenda in our given formats. The freedom they want, it seems, involves the freedom to play a new language game that is a little different from the realist or familiar vocabulary of politics. They want to an extent to recast the terms of political discourse. Fair enough. But is there a genuine or concrete concern among them at all? What commitment do they feel to economic equality, social justice, and political democracy? What understanding do they have about the hard questions: poverty, caste and crony capitalism? Until they address these macro issues, some will insist, call them old-fashioned, such freedom means nothing but the license to undermine authority, escape discipline and indulge in immoral habits of consumption. We must not forget that most of them are students and youth, who must get a job sooner or later rather than making trouble. Others will point out anyway a convenient ad-hoc-ism about these short-term unrests, which fizzle out at the very first conciliatory gesture from the state or remain too narrowly focused to address structural issues. On the whole, they fail to bring up anything that is new in a substantive sense and which contributes to politics in a positive manner, either in terms of practice or institutional norms.
We can say a number of things in response, if we imagine a perspective of the movements. In fact one need not entirely imagine such a dialogue. The noise is often a texture of many voices, which are making points about precisely norms of public institutions. They are exposing vested interest for administrative wrongs and rejecting specious reasons for brutal crackdowns. And they are doing it with a sense of humor and flair for asking tough questions in return to the authorities: How serious are you about social justice? How compromised? When are you willing to change? In short, they are articulating their expectations of a just social order. Many in these movements are aligned to other formations, directly engaging with exploitation and patriarchy, communal and caste violence, casual and migrant labor. But I think the distinctiveness of the new movements is their agenda of radicalizing democracy. It is linked to but not overshadowed by socialist imagination, secular thinking, rights discourse or nation building. While drawing on these concerns, the new movements are additionally alert to the intimate everyday sources of marginalization, experienced in public spaces, especially by the women and social pariahs. The engagement with public space gives a concrete shape to their sense of freedom, physically expressed in a range of practical gestures, from the occupation of outdoors to turning bodies into text and streets into carnival grounds. It seems cacophony to us because we are used to thinking of politics in very different and exclusive terms. Politics is a grim business with its discipline and apprenticeship, involving techniques that few can manage to master. This structural exclusion is the best compromise between parties and power. It spells serious trouble only when a democracy takes itself seriously.
If our democracy is finally taking itself seriously, it should be refreshing in the light of what some of our authorities are busy doing. There are for instance academic authorities that would like to ban politics for those that are already eighteen and eligible to vote. If not movement, there are forms of movement they want to criminalize and put an end to. There are political bosses who patronize criminals for lending a hand to the police to break up students’ movements. There are political parties suffering from policy paralysis and bureaucratization of politics. It will not be wise to measure the success of what movements like Jadavpur are doing against campaigns run by cadres who shore up support for elections. The appeal of a movement like that of Jadavpur today rests precisely on the non-instrumentality of their actions, generated by the courage of conviction alone. It is a simple conviction in tomorrow as a new possibility, which our realism has forgotten. It is not every day that our democracy is gifted with a new jolt of idealism. Even if the authorities scuttle it soon, too many are already infected with hope. Let us celebrate by all means.
Rajarshi Dasgupta is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Thanks to Q and Hillele TV for the Video Clips on Youtube, and to Moushumi Bhowmik, Rabindranath Tagore & Asian Dub Foundation for the music. Hok Kolorob !