Three Questions to Friends
I have been taking my time to reflect on the positions that have emerged in the fairly polarised debate on the on-going anti-corruption struggle in Delhi. I take very seriously the questions raised by critics on the right-wing inclinations evident in the movement’s leadershi, but I think it is both a strategic mistake and a disawoval of responsibility on the part of those of us on the left of the political spectrum to stay out of it. We should engage with the movement from the inside, strategically and persistently, and this means thinking afresh on the means by which we may support the larger binding issue with clear awareness of the risks involved. In this connection, I want to raise three questions:
First, when did we start to be so reluctant to acknowledge the fact that any civil social movement is bound to be contaminated by regressive positions and ideologies and so we cannot avoid thinking of ways of participating in them guided by awareness of the risks? I have recently been trying to collect narratives remembering the fourth national conference of the Indian women’s movement held at Kozhikode, Kerala, in 1990. The participants who spoke to me often pointed to a contrast between the dominant left parties who opposed the conference from the outside, and many, many groups who participated in the conference fully, but raised sharp criticisms which were quite like those of the former. They remarked that these critics were listened to with considerable respect because they were inside, unlike the dominant left.The participant who mentioned this, a well-known radical activist here, still remembers their arguments vividly. Another participant remembered sharp disagreements between urban feminists and rural participants on the question of justice to rape victims. While the former were opposed to the ‘solution’ of marrying the victim off to the rapist, a senior participant from a rural area who spoke up approved of it. This was shocking and unexpected to the urban feminists, but then purity of positions wasn’t, apparently, an overwhelming concern then — and at that place.
Clearly, there was something else that did ensured that things didn’t break down when one was confronted with diametrically opposed views within the same fold. I’m still thinking about what that might have been, but my first hunch is that it might have been some shared desire for an oppositional ‘India’, which seems to have completely evaporated from sections of the liberal left now.I mean, given all tumultuous decades in between, it may be more difficult to stop hearing nothing but the violent pounding of army-boots, seeing the hideousness of Narendra Modi, whenever ‘India’ is evoked. Maybe it is time to think of how we could think of the Indian nation otherwise, and the anti-corruption struggle could be an opportunity. About the Kozhikode conference, many participants remembered how it produced not nationalism but an unnameable sense of connection across borders and languages; some attributed it to the carnival-like atmosphere in which different groups were expressing ‘liberation from patriarchy’ is amazingly diverse ways, many of which were directly opposed with each other. There, the leadership was clearly on the left of the political spectrum, and positions that were traditionalist were largely among the participants; here, this order seems roughly reversed. But of course, here the challenge to the left is harder because democratic deliberation seems to be minimal. All the more reason, I’d think, why we should step in and be there.
Secondly, why cannot we think of the significance of this movement in terms other than the immediate issue of the Janlokpal Bill? Why cannot, for instance, think of this as a crucial moment in which ‘civil society’ has finally managed to force political society to pay attention? The massive scams have provided the context for this.It does not, however, surprise me that the ‘civil society’ in the movement, especially the leadership, has been showing some pretty ‘uncivil’ tendencies, and in an utterly unapologetic fashion. This, I feel, is because the ‘civil society’ is certainly a mix of very different strands of politics, many of which are not oppositional at all. The right-wing tendencies are a challenge that those of us who identify with oppositional civil society ought to expect in any civil social struggle against corrupt politicians. Such tendencies are bound to appear somewhere, either in the leadership or among the followers, given the strength of conservative social and political ideologies. Since we indeed interested in changing the orientation of civil social politics, and since we are interested in ending stopping corruption by politicians and the government, I feel, we cannot abstain from engaging persistently and strategically with the movement from the inside, despite all the ugliness of its present leadership. Not for a moment would I trivialise the fears that the critics of the movement are expressing, but I don’t see how we can confront the ugliness effectively, if we stay outside and speak mainly to each other — the already-converted.
Maybe we are entering a phase in which politicians in India will be forced to take note of inconvenient issues raised by the civil society? Hitherto, they have ridden piggy-back on the convenient issues, usually raised by the conservative civil society led by religious leaders. Such a transition seems to have happened minimally in Kerala. V S Achuthanandan’s clout in the CPM and in Malayalee society in general rests upon his shrewd appropriation of many inconvenient issues raised by the oppositional civil society; so does the massive public support enjoyed by V M Sudheeran, which actually raised him above the pressures from his own party, the Congress. This involves huge risks, to be sure. But our worries ought to be not about the risks — they are there and we are obliged to find ways of surmounting them — but about lack of awareness of the risks.
Thirdly, why do many of us think that anyone offering support to the present movement must be either power-hungry or ‘ontologically tainted’? Plurality in the strong sense is openness to the world and the world contains much messiness and ugliness that may repel us. Looking at some of the extreme responses on Facebook against people known to be part of the left who have suggested that the left remain open to the present struggle, I fear that some of us have reached the shutting-off from politics into zones of sentimental comfort that Hannah Arendt warns us about. She does not deny that these may be places of “kindliness and sheer goodness … a source of vitality, a joy in the simple fact of being alive…”. However, as she points out, the charm and intensity that characterizes this world is also due to the great privilege of being unburdened with care for the world” (Arendt,Men in Dark Times, 1968, 13-14). Such revulsion of the world’s ugliness, I fear, has prompted some of us to retreat into safe zones from which we can protest, criticize, lament about the ugliness of the rest of the world. One may claim that one’s concern about the world, about making it hospitable for all human beings, but after every battle, one draws back into the comfort of the sentimental zone of sameness. Further, our comprehension of the past, with which we make judgements about the messy and heterogeneous world outside, serves to totally deny persons outside our fold the ability to change. Anyone taking a peep outside or contemplating a peep must be suspect, in this reckoning.
It is my experience that staying put within these safe zones breeds mediocrity; it promotes respect for consensus in judgement within the comfort zone and renders us practically blind to difference. I have been watching Jayan Cherian’s documentary Shape of the Shapeless, which brilliantly details a spiritual practice that takes the body — and its gender — as its very instrument. The life of Jon Cory/Premadas/Rose Wood defies every convention, subverts religion, radicalizes performance. And through the documentary, this life breaks out of its private space, its radical subjectivism, and points to a politics. It is dismaying, though, that there is so little discussion on the film, though many of our left intellectuals an critics have watched it. When I asked some of them about the film, they said they liked it. Finish. A huge contrast indeed, with the ecstatic reviews of documentaries in the mould of the ‘activist documentary’. The latter is very acceptable to us because it makes no major demands upon the viewer and is built on a left ideological consensus ; in sum, it does not challenge our imagination, aesthetic or ethical, in any major way. In other words, the more mediocre it is, the easier it is write about, or it so appears! Jayan’s film follows a life which is open to faith, to sexual performance, but which also seems domestic — in ways that challenge the boundaries of all these, risking it all the time. It appears that we simply don’t get it — or want to get it.
I know that to write so much it itself risky. But I am pretty used by now to being evicted periodically from many homes within this diverse territory of the left, and so the accusing cries of ‘traitor’ or ‘charlatan’ neither surprises nor unnerves me.