Does the Nation Really Even Want to Know? Shweta Radhakrishnan

This is a guest post by SHWETA RADHAKRISHNAN

I noticed yesterday, a tweet from Anupam Kher where he compared state action over the events of the last few weeks, as a kind of “pest control” – required, of course to keep the house clean. His exact tweet is – “Gharon mein pest control hota hai to cockroach, keede makode ityadi bahar nikalte hain. ghar saaf hota hai. waise hi aajkal desh ka pest control chal raha hai.”

The similarity of this thought to Hitler’s on ethnic cleansing hasn’t gone unnoticed (look at Rajdeep Sardesai’s tweet and this article – http://www.jantakareporter.com/india/anupam-kher-hitler-modi/38514) and I’m sure much more will be written about it in the days to come. Anupam Kher’s inability to develop a logical argument or even notice the illogicality of his own actions has never ceased to surprise me, but the casualness with which he endorses state violence is interesting. But mere tweeting is not sedition. Do I find this tweet distasteful, offensive and also legitimizing state and mob violence? Yes, I do. Am I worried by the sentiment expressed in this tweet? Yes, I am. Am I additionally worried because this is not a man, sitting in an obscure corner somewhere, just airing his views, but a well known personality whose words seem to garner some weird kind of legitimacy because of his status as a Hindi film actor? Yes, I am. Do I think he should be arrested? No.

And nowhere (despite his exceedingly sickening rhetoric) has anyone asked for his arrest. People are not and will not rush to brand him a terrorist and manufacture fictitious links to organizations, the very mention of which is enough to make rational people lose their ability think clearly and start shouting for arrests and detentions. (“Anything! Here take my rights. Just make the damn terrorists stop, I tell you! Just make them stop!”) And Anupam Kher knows this. And so with the very free speech that his ilk derides and makes fun of, that very free speech is what allows him to publicly, and without fear of fallout, make such statements – which to my mind are more dangerous than the statements made in JNU, because of the kind of climate they are made in. Casual tweeting, Uncle Kher knows, much like casual sloganeering, is not a crime.

For a while now, I’ve been seeing arguments being put forth about if “freedom of speech guarantees you the right to say *insert controversial slogan of choice* then I’m entitled to say you should not be subsidized from tax payers’ money “ followed of course by suffixes like “Yeh left-wale, yeh sickular libtard (an offensive and hurtful term for a whole host of other reasons), yeh terrorist supporters.” If there is still doubt on whether we’ve shamed the other side enough then usually the way to go is to invoke the army – “tumhe sharam nahi aati yeh sab kehke. Army wale apne jaan de rahe hain taaki tum terrorist ko support kar sako?”The barrage of insults against anybody that does not endorse a specious, jingoistic brand of nationalism, so lacking in imagination and richness, one that is unable to comprehend true diversity and difference and one that excludes more people than it includes, has not only been irritating because of the sheer banality of its insults, but also because it marks a stubborn refusal to engage.

Most of the people who have taken offense to the events of Feb 9th and after (and I’m sorry if this seems like a generalization but I’m basing this in large part on the kind of debate I’ve seen on social media, television and one-on-one conversations) seem to have barely read more than one article before making up their mind on the issue. Having an informed opinion is not the same as intellectualizing an issue. It is, at the very least, about watching more than just Times Now and News X before making up our mind. I know and love people who are firmly devoted to the RSS and have tried valiantly to put up a defense for the government’s high handedness over the past few days, only to find themselves unable to manufacture fiction to support the government’s current handling of this situation. Over the past few days, through the cracks and fissures in the television coverage, they have had to renegotiate their political allegiance. This does not mean they’ve suddenly aligned themselves with the Left, simply that they are now questioning what it means to support the BJP-RSS in these times. I’m not saying this is what it is and how it should be – i’m not asking for RSS or BJP supporters to be browbeaten into agreeing with a contrarian version of things but if you’re going to take a stand, at least be fully aware of what it is you’re lending your support to and that might lead us to a more reasonable debate on the matter, rather than simply going round and round on the national-antinational merry go round.

There are certain things that need to be cleared up right at the outset – the first being that questioning the hanging of Afzal Guru is not the same thing as celebrating the Parliament Attack. Nobody celebrates the attack on Parliament and nobody is celebrating Afzal Guru as a convicted terrorist. An event questioning whether Afzal Guru’s hanging was just or not – is raising the question of was he a terrorist at all and did he in fact deserve the punishment that was meted out to him and it is nowhere close to saying we celebrate him because of his role in the Parliament attacks. If we’re going to speak in the language of nationalism – the question is – was an Indian Citizen, wrongfully convicted of a crime – in which his role has not been established clearly enough.  The question remains whether in Afzal Guru’s case, the death penalty was merited or was it simply to assuage the collective conscience of the nation. And if you still want to play nationalism-nationalism – the Hindu Mahasabha launched a website in memory of Nathuram Godse (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/hindu-mahasabha-launches-a-website-for-nathuram-godse/article7880713.ece) – a man, who beyond doubt, killed Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi, a man we revere as the Father of the Nation. This has never provoked the kind of outrage that merely questioning the hanging of Afzal Guru has had. So what is it about the Hindu Mahasabha’s celebration of Godse, that makes our blood boil less than students questioning the legitimacy of Afzal Guru’s hanging?

Now, the question of raising Azadi slogans in the context of Kashmir’s right to secede from India. The question of Kashmir’s right to self-determination is a legitimate one, and is an argument that predates the current JNU row. Those who raised the slogans in JNU are not the first people to have spoken of or raised slogans putting forward Kashmir’s right to self-determination. It is also a question that is not limited to Kashmir alone. We have seen different parts of the country, put forth their desire to secede at different times. Instead of emulating the reality television stars of our (prime)time and shouting down opinions that are remotely divergent, the responsibility of the state lies in introspecting and trying to reconfigure its relationship with the group in question. The government seems to be making that effort in Nagaland, which leads me to wonder, that even the current government doesn’t really see the putting forth of the desire to secede as inherently problematic. So, what’s the big deal if students put forth that question? And again, how can it be anti-national – if it is being raised by your own, on behalf of your own? Surely, Kashmir, to you, is more than just the land? But I might be wrong – given the burning headlines I’ve seen in the last few days which speak of Kashmiri students ‘infiltrating” campuses. The paradox of saying that Kashmir is a part of India and then speaking of Kashmiris (who we’ve cried ourselves hoarse saying are Indians) “infiltrating” Indian colleges and universities – surely, we can see it?

The slogans of “India ki barbadi” and “Pakistan Zindabad” (among others, I believe – someone just mentioned a few more slogans they said they saw in a news-story, but those are not ones I have seen on the news, which is why I’m not referencing them) are troubling, of course. For many it also brings up memories of certain kinds of violence they have been subjected to. But this speech is not seditious. The Supreme Court, in its interpretation of sedition law, has established that time and time again. (http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/jnu-row-a-test-of-freedom/) So asking for them to be arrested and detained, for something that is not a crime at all, is deeply problematic. There is also the question of how much of what we hear today, on the news, is actually what was said at all and how much of it was manufactured. (Zee News Prodcuer, Vishwa Deepak’s resignation letter to Zee, prompted by the channel’s handling of the JNU issue – http://scroll.in/article/803943/my-conscience-has-started-to-revolt-a-zee-news-producer-quits-over-channels-handling-of-jnu-row) Videos, taken by parties with a bias, are being shown on air, before they have been verified. Judgments are flying fast and thick before anybody has had the time to even look at what is being presented as evidence. It says a lot for us, as a collective, that we are willing to believe anything – rumours and lies – peddled in the garb of the truth, and mete out the punishment we arbitrarily decide to those we’ve condemned in the kangaroo courts of our news studios. And of course, we don’t let the unconstitutionality of our acts remotely bother us while we go enact our new absurd version of what we believe is a people’s democracy.

And then we come to the question, if technically no crime was committed, then what is the hoopla about? Shouldn’t we just have registered our irritation with what was said, through our words? Countered speech with speech? Surely, if we’re so convinced by why it’s problematic, other than the fact that it hurt our sentiments as proud Indians, surely then we must have an argument that doesn’t solely rely on emotional hurt? In the last few days, we have thrown about terms we don’t fully understand – like nationalism and sedition – and tried people in media courts for it. We’ve manufactured evidence when the truth was not what we wanted to hear. We have created and let loose lynch mobs on people whose politics we don’t even fully understand for us to truly disagree with. We’ve arrested Kanhaiya for seditious speech and it turns out the freedom he was asking for was from the shackles of caste, capitalism and from the iron grip of the Brahmanical tyranny of the Manusmriti. (His Full Speech –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21qExVVuhhk) We brand Umar Khalid, a terrorist – with links to JeM, based on a headline that had no evidence to back its claims. The conveniently leaked IB report that said he was a terrorist, is retracted a few days after the damage has been done. What a glorious culture of half-truths we have weaved, that an atheist, who evidently did not even agree with his family’s religious beliefs, is branded a religious fundamentalist and a person who evidently chose not to study abroad so that he could continue to work on the ground, is branded an ‘anti-national’. (His speech on the 22nd of February – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9K8ZM_6Tc4)

As Anais Nin put it, “It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.” We sit, smugly, in our little alcoves of entitlement, and either pretend to ignore or actively choose not to know about Indias that make us uncomfortable – an India where tribals’ rights are constantly undermined in the name of the ‘greater good’, an India where Dalit scholars face systemic and institutionalized discrimination, an India where workers are subject to the violence of the management, an India where minorities are constantly otherized. Why must we know how many our dams have displaced or how many farmers do not get electricity, so long as our malls continue to gleam manically in the night? It is our silence, and our unwillingness to engage, that also makes us complicit in the violence that these Indias and a myriad other Indias face every day. We sit, either silent, or too busy screaming to drown out the voices of those other Indias.  Real democracies demand real engagement. The “liberals” (a term thrown around again loosely, and without full comprehension of what it means) are accused of trying to shut down right wing speech. But countering rhetoric with rhetoric is not clamping down or muzzling the right to speech, unless of course, we believe that our arguments stand on such shaky ground that they cannot stand the slightest scrutiny. That is a problem with the rhetoric then, not with the person who reveals its inadequacies. Engagement demands that we have more to say to people’s views, other than just call them “Randis” (and only some will be able to explain why sex worker is an offensive term at all), “Anti-nationals”, “Maovaadi”, “Atankvaadi” or with threats of physical violence, including but not limited to – rape, acid attacks, beating up, maiming, disfigurement and killing. At a time, when engagement has been discredited as “intellectual foolishness”, we sit, refusing to participate, or show solidarity with those whose constitutional rights are being violated, foolishly believing that because of our location, because of our class, because of our caste, and because of how our thoughts currently line up with those in power, they will never get to us.

If for no other reason, today, other than a selfish one, it is necessary to engage. When you write off unconstitutional behaviour on the part of a party or a group of people, or a corporation as sometimes necessary, you are also giving them ample reason to violate the same, when they deal with you. If there is one lesson to take away from history it is that a politics rooted in hatred, especially one that is as blind and misguided as the one we’re seeing on full display right now, is one that eventually turns on itself. In this game of “My Nationalism is more national than yours”, as self proclaimed “nationalists” we seem to be unable to see beyond own noses and our own sectarian interests, “nationalists” who as Nivedita Menon, so wonderfully put it in her speech after the first fracas at Patiala House, love pieces of land but not the people that form the very lifeblood of the nation, “nationalists” whose very definition of nation is an exclusionary one, rooted fundamentally in the process of otherizing those that do not share their views, we could do with some lessons on what it means to understand the concept of nationhood through the lens of love, empathy and knowledge. Maybe then instead of feeling so ridiculously threatened by anybody who challenges our own incredibly myopic view of nationalism and the nation state, and feeling the need to shut down or shout down arguments we do not understand, we might see how fundamentally necessary dissent and difference are to nationalism itself. And why even though my skin crawls at Uncle Kher’s statement, I will call him out on the vitriol in his statements, his sanction of state and mob violence, his poor rhetoric, but I will not call for his arrest.

Shweta Radhakrishnan is currently a freelance documentary film-maker who has worked for the last three years in the community radio sector in India.

One thought on “Does the Nation Really Even Want to Know? Shweta Radhakrishnan

  1. What an exceptional article, well-reasoned yet dripping with emotion. And what a tragedy that the other side can simply not engage in equally reasoned debate.

    Hearing the constantly growing shrillness of the rabid voices in recent times–led, nay, incited by the surfeit of ridiculous, despicable news media which has shed all pretence of respectability and integrity and where it seems pretty much the only qualification needed is an ability to froth at the mouth on demand–has been very dispiriting, making one question whether they have already taken over the nation. But the spate of excellent articles on Kafila that the current crisis has spawned, as also the increasing response of different citizens’ groups everywhere, gives one strength and allows one to hope again. And there’s Ghalib with his inspiring words, “mauj-e-khuun sar se guzar hii kyon naa jaae/ aastaan-e-yaar se uTh jaayen kyaa”.

    You are right, it is vital to engage, for those who do not see the danger, and for those who do.

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