In defence of dissent

The irony of Narendra Modi’s ‘Talibans of Public Life’ remarks and other complex metaphors


Tridip Suhrud | May 13, 2010

“The one who loves my Gujarat is my soul. The one who loves my India is my God.”

With these lines from his poem Narendra Modi signed off his blog of March 28, a day after he faced a 10-hour interrogation from the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT). It was a characteristic Modi intervention. He ably deflected the attention to Amitabh Bachchan and the Congress’ inept fumbling. He characterised all those who opposed Amitabh (not Modi) as ‘Talibans of Public Life,’ accusing them of spreading a new form of untouchability about all things Gujarat and Gujarati. The next day, on March 29, he intervened through the cyberspace again wherein he cautioned, “Any unsubstantiated criticism of the land of Gandhi, Sardar can never be tolerated. Gujarat will give a befitting reply again, and again and again, come what may.”

We shall put aside the irony of the formulation ‘Talibans of Public Life’ coming from a person whose government banned —though unsuccessfully—Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah, whose government colluded with the unofficial ban on films such as ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Fanaa’.

But clearly, Modi has discovered a new religion. It is called liberalism and let me assure you that it is different from liberalisation, which has to do with political economy. Liberalism for beginners is not a deep commitment to a plural, egalitarian, compassionate polity and society. It is merely an exercise in table manners, in good behaviour, initiation into a Rotarian life. And a blog is as good a place as any to begin.

The issues are larger and go beyond the controversy of Shri Bachchan’s decision to be a brand ambassador for Gujarat tourism. The sub-text of the argument is what we need to focus on. It alludes to three processes. One, Shri Modi personally, his government and people of Gujarat have been victims of ‘canards of untruth’ since 2002. Two, any critique of Shri Modi or his government is a critique of the people of Gujarat and her ‘asmita.’ The critics are, by their very act of dissent, purveyors of a new form of untouchability.  Three, the nuances of what constitutes Gujarati asmita has to be the one that is ‘officially’ accepted and put out. Any deviation from it is an act of ignorance, treachery or secession.

We are not unfamiliar with this trajectory. That forgotten comic figure, Dev Kant Baruah, made a lasting contribution to the lexicon of sycophancy with his ‘Indira is India and India is Indira.’ The man did not realise that incarnation is a subtle process. Dev Kant Baruha died in ignominy but not before he gave us a methodology of loyalty that Sanjay Gandhi understood. What seems a comical formulation was one of the legitimising principles of the Emergency. The idea that a nation and her people are wholly constituted by their unreserved identification with a leader is the first principle of demagoguery.  The logic is simple. The nation and her people are because the leader Is. Those who are not so constituted are not just dissenters but in fact traitors. This inevitably leads to muzzling of dissent and hence loss of democratic polity. Creation of a closed society and polity necessarily requires a monolithic imagination, wherein dissent and polyphony are seen as dangerous to national life and hence require to be eradicated.

But Modi has created a more complex range of metaphors. Earlier, the critics were ‘outsiders.’ If they were seen as sophisticated, then they were ‘English educated.’ The non-governmental actors were ‘five-star NGOs.’ But with the metaphor of the Taliban he has surpassed himself. One does not have to be a cultural psychoanalyst of Ashis Nandy’s originality to realise what the term implies. The rules of the game are simple. If I do not like you, you are the projection of my worst fears. Taliban is that undemocratic, violently fundamentalist Muslim that he cannot control or turn into decent middle-class entrepreneurs. It is a blanket term that allows for blanket elimination.

Rhetoric apart, what does this signal for our democracy and more importantly for our society? A society becomes a democracy because of difference; political, ideological on a range of issues that concern the life-world of its people. People become citizens because they participate in this polyphony. Expression of dissent is an act of responsible citizenship. Criticism is an act of commitment to a democratic society. Only in a closed, autocratic system would dissent be seen as unpatriotic, anti-leader, anti-national. This is what the movement for our national freedom taught us. For Gandhi—also because he is invoked in the blog —Swaraj required an internal critique. Critique of the Hindu society for its caste oppression, critique of tradition in so far as it subjugated. And even Gandhi did not go unchallenged, not only from the Sanatanis, but even by the bard of Santiniketan. The open debates between Gandhi and Tagore on the very idea of Swaraj made the national movement one of the most culturally and philosophically sensitive freedom struggles ever. In absence of the critique of Gandhi by Ambedkar the distance that Gandhi traversed in his understanding of untouchability would have been impossible. The RSS itself is based on a critical understanding of Hindu tradition. One does not need to remind a RSS pracharak the uneasy relationship that the ideology shares with the caste system. Not once during the freedom movement the dissenting imaginations were castigated as anti-people, anti-national.

But this search for consensus runs deep in our polity. The Congress is no stranger to censorship of ideas and dissent. Its search for a monolith continues unabated. But Gujarat might have something to teach even the grand old party as to how to forge a consensus that works.  Gujarat’s ability and need to forge agreement has its roots in its merchant-capital imagination. The new consensus that we are seeking goes beyond the benign bricolage of the Mahajan tradition (Ahmedabad’s erstwhile mill-owners). The consensus is also different from the one that was witnessed during the Mahagujarat movement that led to the creation of a separate state of Gujarat. It is also not deeply felt politics of the Navnirman movement that gave Gujarat its first non-Congress government. It is different from the political coalition of castes and communities called KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) created under the Congress. The new consensus that Gujarat has forged is simultaneously cultural, economic, political as also religious. It involves two other processes, loss of a certain kind of speech—aphasia—and a loss of certain kind of memory— amnesia. The most significant loss of memory has been the liminal existence of Gandhi. Let us remind ourselves that Gandhi left Sabarmati Ashram on March  12, 1930 never to return. It is evident that the self-imposed exile applied not only to the Ashram but also increasingly to the city of Ahmedabad and Gujarat itself. In the remaining eighteen years of his life Gandhi was to spend some 301 days in Gujarat. His last visit to Ahmedabad was on November 2, 1936. His exile from Ahmedabad is reminiscent of a tap. He did not visit Gujarat after January 1942.

The other phenomenon is a loss of a certain kind of speech. Gujarat has created unanimity of opinion around key issues that is unprecedented in any society. Be it Narmada, be it what we call development, be it our capacity to turn against ourselves in frenzied violence with unnerving regularity, we have attained a unity in our self-perception that precludes speech of another kind. We have come to believe that all those who pose questions to our cherished beliefs are not just critics, but enemies of Gujarat and the Gujarati people. We castigate them as anti-Gujarati. This allows us to preserve the self-image that we have created. If we want to peel off the layers of this cultural self-image some things are apparent. First, we think of ourselves as pragmatic entrepreneurs. We are wealth creators. This pragmatism is a strange thing. It is forward looking, but in so doing it also prohibits a backward glance. In this memory becomes a burden that we wish to shed. Be it Gandhi, be it violence, be it our culpability, we would rather look forward. Absence of such memory impedes self-reflection. Thus our pragmatism comes with the blunting of self-awareness. This entrepreneurial instinct allows us to reach out, to search for possibilities, to be outward moving. At the same time it allows us to believe that all things, including ethics, are negotiable. The second layer of this self-belief tells us that we are peaceful and peace loving people. We speak with justifiable pride that women in Gujarat can go out late into the night unescorted, free from any fear. This is true, but this narrative does not allow us to look at the alarming slide in our sex ratios. This allows us to forget that Gujarat has one of the highest rates of domestic violence and what are termed as unnatural death of women. This notion of peace loving, vegetarian people also allows us to brush aside the regularity of communal and caste conflict. We either see them as mere aberrations in the even flow of life or as just reprisal meted out to the muslims or dalits.

Between amnesia and aphasia we are forging a new asmita. The cultural self-image that we are forging is part fantastic and part grounded in our society. That it should be such is not a surprise.

We have borrowed the idea of Gujarati asmita from K M Munshi. Munshi in his trilogy—Gujarat No Nath, Rajadhiraj and Patan Ni Prabhuta—created a ‘fantastic history’ of medieval valour. In this we marginalise other forms of imaginations that went in making of modern Gujarat. The asmita that we speak of is not rooted in either Gujarati language or creative expression. Most Gujarati writers express dismay that we do not read serious literature, at least not in our language. Our whole-hearted endorsement of English as a preferred medium of instruction even in semi-urban areas is held up as an example of the sorry state of Gujarati language, which compelled us to take out ‘Matru Bhasha Vandana Yatra’. We speak less and less about ourselves in our tongue. In this asmita the West as a source of consumption and opportunity plays a role. Ahmedabad is dotted with buildings that bear the name ‘New York,’ and believe it or not we also have a very un-aesthetic and stunted Statue of Liberty in the main shopping artery of Ahmedabad. And yet, we wish to create an identity that is aggressively exclusive and not inclusive. Instead of a dialogue with those who challenge us, we would prefer their annihilation.

The most active part of Gujarati civil society is religious sects. They have become arbitrators not only of our relationship with the divine but of the cultural space itself. They facilitate commerce, pass literary judgements and provide bedrock on which the politics of Hindutva is forged.

It is in this cultural context that a formulation such as ‘Talibans of Public Life’ finds legitimacy. It deepens our sense of victimhood. It castigates the plea for justice and compassion as deeply undemocratic. We must realise that a plea for justice can be a cry, a shrill, jarring note and even a deep, melancholic silence. It is not expected to be a sublime, sonorous melody. We cannot shut out these voices or silence as noise. It is our ability to hear these voices which is 
going to determine the future of our society.



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