When I am writing this nine districts of Bihar have already been burnt and we have received little information about the violence that so ensued. The only ‘news’ we received was after the violence became difficult to conceal; and like the flame that rages after adding oil it has consumed completely if not the people then their hearts. And yet, here we are waiting. Waiting for things to go back to normal, for life to get back on track; waiting for state intervention, and in a single breath blaming the state, and the goons that so become the vanguard of such violence. Waiting is all we have become good for, My Friends, My fellow Humans, My fellow Indians and My fellow Biharis! The truth that escapes us - though we are completely aware of it from past experiences - is simple; no one is going to come for us. There is no rescue, only respite that weighs heavy upon us.
This violence, we see happening in Bihar, is merely a physical manifestation of the violence that has always been latent beneath the surface. It is our reality and we know it but action fails us. For we find ourselves helpless and hopeless against the gargantuan organism we love to call the system. An organism which through these very instances, tries to pose as an all-powerful, all-knowing creature whose mere sight can tear our worlds asunder. This violence, I talk of, has not, in a day or a fortnight (in this case), suddenly appeared. There is a vast and immense historical procedure behind it. First and foremost it is a result of alienation of those who produce from the means of production and of the economic substructure from the ideological superstructure. And that creature, that seemingly all-pervading state, not only sees to it but also enforces it so as to add a general perception of other-worldliness to itself. There will be those who will say, ideology is a thing of the past, it does not hold true in this world. Yet, we all suspect the veracity of such a claim but do not want to acknowledge our suspicions. We nod along, and think ourselves morally superior; that because we believe in spiritual existence of good, we are good, it is everyone else, it is the world that is bad. Our satisfaction comes from feeling morally superior, for we believe, we are in the right as honest working individuals. As Zupančič says, ‘We are much less interested in changing things than in proving, again and again, that we are in the right, or on the right side, the side of the good. Hegel invented a great name for this position: the “beautiful soul.” A “beautiful soul” sees evil and baseness all around it but fails to see to what extent it participates in the perpetuation of that same order of things. The point of course is not that the world isn’t really evil, the point is that we are part of this evil world.’1
In order to drive this point through, it has now become imperative to address the elephant in the room. We very proudly, as a nation, say that our society is a post-caste, secular construct and we have outgrown caste-based exploitation and religion-based segregation. Yet, it was not long ago that a certain section of our population rose against the release of a certain film (Padmavat) on the grounds that it was against the proud heritage of their community. Violent threats were issued and a sense of pride was felt when as a nation we ought to be (and are) ashamed of. We have not outgrown any such exploitation if, even offhandedly, we note that certain attitudes are historical characteristics of certain communities. This is blatant ghettoization. We do not live in a post-caste world if our cremation practices are still handled by a certain community who we are not allowed to touch (because of some random reason out of some ancient text) and who in turn do not touch us (because they have this distinction of Us and Them built-in inside them after centuries of exploitation and ghettoization). And we do not live in a world where caste hierarchies are obsolete if we are still scandalized when such topics are addressed.
An offhand note on what seems my blatant disregard for ancient Indian idealist philosophy and against the claim the theological precepts offered such ‘philosophy’ have been well thought out by the old sages, I say this: We never had texts of the ‘lokayata’ school of materialist philosophy. May be they were deliberately and painstakingly destroyed. May be it was done so that only harsh polemic of them survives so that Indian philosophy always remains the handmaiden of theology. All I’m saying is that the historical conditioning of our minds to think in a certain way, to act in a certain way and overall the so-called ‘sanskar’ needs a thorough critique and to shy away from it is perhaps worse than disregarding them and being a ‘kusanskari’.2
And because caste system, as much as it used to be a class based system, is also an integral part of the religious tradition prevalent in India (it matters not if one is Hindu and Muslim), we cannot say that ours is truly a secular nation. One might find good many national heroes who have defended this obsolete system of watertight hierarchical compartments also known as the ‘varna vyavastha’; including the greatest leader of our anti-colonial struggle: M.K. Gandhi.3 Before I get mobbed for making such anti-national statements, let me clarify my own stand as this ‘beautiful soul’ who has high hopes for national consciousness of India. My idea of national culture is not a set of antediluvian Vedic customs. National culture, for me, is a consciousness that develops out a series of conflicts which we have faced as a true collective. That being said, conflicts as long as they are antagonistic are detrimental to the national consciousness. However, it must be, in the same breath, pointed out that a society cannot exist without conflicts. Yet, for the creation of national culture, they have to be non-antagonistic and in a true democratic society, there must be a space for dynamic critique where communication channels are opened for thorough dialogue. In the words of Fanon: ‘The nation is not only the condition of culture, its fruitfulness, its continuous renewal, and its deepening… It is the fight for national existence which sets the culture moving and opens to it doors of creation… it is its national character that will make such culture open to other cultures and which will enable it to influence and permeate other cultures.’4
And by this notion, are we not, as a nation failing? As children we were taught that what our anti-colonial struggle gave us was the break-up of old constructs of the customs which were bound to send us back to medieval times, at least in terms of social justice. But a decade after the beginning of 21st century what we are noticing is the perpetuation of the antediluvian customs and dare-I-say barbaric practices which were supposed to be a thing of the past. Let me reiterate my query in this light – ‘have we already failed as a nation?’ or have we in the imitation of that demon spawned by Europe, that capitalistic Goliath, that consumerist Tartarus, that America clad in its holier-than-all raiment of Free Will, ruined ourselves by exacerbation and perpetuation of economic disparities. If we have, and we certainly to an extent have, then Fanon’s fears have come alive. For our greatest form of social interaction is in malls and shopping marts, our greatest form of entertainment comes out of commodification of our own self, and our proudest moment will come when will have achieved the same “development” standards as that perpetuator of inequalities.
Having that in the back of our heads let us come back to Bihar; let us come back to the reality of underlying latent violence that has permeated in the dust that we inhale. Let us fill our lungs with this violence infused dusty air. Let us give ourselves excess of it and contemplate as the winter of our discontent is followed by a red ball of fiery fury instead of the summer sun. Let us think about the plight of the unemployed, who after a series of scams, paper leaks, rising cost of higher education due to blatant privatisation and other instances of socio-economic corruption have lost faith in the existing system. Let us turn back and see that amorphous mass of unemployed youths who come from rural and urban areas alike, from the sites of spatial anachronisms where utilitarian capitalist tendencies of the existing political parties have managed the impressive feat of inculcating its own worth against the backdrop of perpetual sense of fatalism characteristic of worship. As Marx says, ‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’5
The fact that it is the opium of the masses is better left unsaid. Let us look at those over whom our superiority is professed in this system of hierarchies and ask who is to blame for this violence. Who is to blame if the youth, even after being “educated” in schools and colleges is driven toward the fatalism that spawns communal disharmony (and I include caste-based as well as gender-based ghettoization, for our existing system of hierarchies have done a fabulous job of concretizing those; we see the evidence, every electoral season). We see men and women breaking their backs off to feed themselves and we scoff at it. We say it is the way the world works. We scare our children with these stories and tell them what will happen to them if they ‘do not work hard’; as if the poor are slackers! Oh what a myth we have created amongst ourselves! A myth that fosters inequalities in the name of development!
And that is not all. We have Storytellers that further elaborate upon these myths and we call them politicians, and let them run the affairs of the state. These Storytellers or Myth-makers have taken it upon themselves to bring about development, to make us “work hard” for the better of the nation. All this while they have taken the mantle of the defenders of “poor and weak”; but we all know their real faces, we all know how they incite violence or the conditions of violence in certain pockets to gain electoral advantage (at least those living in these pockets do). We are very aware that they have reduced us to numbers and figures that can be “crossed out” or “remade”, during elections. And this is why I do not question the urge to rage with a violent impulse; however, what has happened in this fortnight before the end of March is not that. I needn’t explain the political machinations that drive it. I only have to question our inability to rage against these Myth-makers who reduce us to automatons for their own fulfilment. For, from Benjamin, we know the ‘tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’
Even after knowing this, if we are still unable to rise, to think as a collective, as a nation, against these myth makers that seek to colonize us to a new kind of beast with the same old goals, then perhaps all is surely lost. Let these words of Walter Benjamin be the starting point of our contemplation:
‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.’6
- From an interview of Alenka Zupančič: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/too-much-of-not-enough-an-interview-with-alenka-zupancic/#! – last visited March 31, 2018
- For more information look for Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya
- Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of the caste system can be found in his reply to Ambedkar in his ‘A Vindication of Caste’.
- 197, Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books, 1963
- Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm, last visited March 31, 2018
- Section VIII, Benjamin, Walter. Theses on the Philosophy of History, Illuminations, Penguin Random House UK, 1999
Upanshu is a poet and a feminist.