Reverse Swing: Dancing democracy
It has taken just two weeks for the mainstream media to take Kashmir off the front and tuck it away in the turn pages. And so, the lockdown and virtual house arrest of almost 8 million Kashmiris has now become ‘normal’, not meriting closer scrutiny.
It is getting increasingly shocking by the day. This visible absence of serious and sustained discourse on democracy in India today. It has taken just two weeks for the mainstream media to take Kashmir off the front and tuck it away in the turn pages. And so, the lockdown and virtual house arrest of almost 8 million Kashmiris has now become ‘normal’, not meriting closer scrutiny.
It is as if nothing ever happened. The cunning wielders of power at the Centre knew this. They knew that the media – both the chest-thumping variety and the ones a trifle more sceptical – will quickly slide into an anticipated anomie and shunt the ‘story’ aside. After all, what is the pain of 8 million people in India? We are so casually about to disenfranchise some 5 million in Assam, with plans to ferret out several more millions across the country to be bundled away somewhere. At least 10 million people across seven states have turned into internal refugees due to floods. Why, at least 100 million kids go hungry to bed every evening. The additional zeros in the numbers do not shock anymore. Should the media be caring for all these losers? It unnecessarily skews the entertainment quotient our media has got so used to providing. And what we, gung-ho middle classes, have got used to consuming.
But, still, think of it. We human beings are so creative at mistreating the other. Caging up an entire population. Creating artificial scarcity of water, food, and medicines. Paralysing hospitals, transportation, and educational institutions. Jamming means of communication and creating an information blackout. Ruining businesses and throttling daily wage earners. Pulling an otherwise robust economy to its knees. Perishable commodities rotting away. Garbage lying uncollected. Cavalier violation of constitutional rights, generating galloping frustration and depression. A dignified population left feeling helpless and humiliated. It is a cynically manufactured crisis of gargantuan proportions which can only be described as a ‘civic death’.
And, it cuts to the fundamental core of democracy – how do we, as citizens, respond to such arbitrary exercise of power against fellow citizens? It affects each one of us – this blatant mendacity and criminality of elected governments, carried out in our name. A cowardly exercise of brute power over the less powerful. It is the behaviour of an empire, not a constitutional republic. We cannot even call it a ‘war crime’; all this is happening under an ostensible ‘peace’.
And the terrible striving of the aggrandizers to manipulate memory and distort history. Mr. Modi suggesting to Mr. Macron in Chantilly, Wednesday, that he is part of the “fight against fascism”. As the jackboots stomped through the streets of Kashmir, the irony couldn’t have been more grating on the teeth. It is ingenious how effortlessly the ruling dispensation in Delhi has invented a mechanism for unleashing ceaseless hatred. A kind of extreme ‘scapegoating’. And the power of hatred is decisive. It blinds reason and obliterates compassion. It comprehensively abolishes the past. No need, anymore, to look back at a confusing, troubled past and bother about causes and contexts. As George Orwell said, it suits dominant power to “make the past meaningless and live only in an endless present”.
The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, has been critiqued for having proposed, in the 1930s, the concept of ‘decisionism’, which the Nazi regime supposedly internalised. According to this, to impress the masses, it does not matter what those in authority do, as long as they take quick decisions and act upon it. In flawed democracies with a significant deficit of accountability, the gesture of ‘action’ is enough to reassure the masses that their problems are being addressed.
Closer to home, we just need to look back on recent upheavals caused by demonetisation, the chaos of GST, the reckless cross-border adventures, and now the aggression on Kashmir, to understand this logic of ‘decisionism’. Even though each one of these actions hits back on the rest of India, the leaders are being feted for their clarity of vision and decisive action. It is even providing an effective smokescreen to cover up larger catastrophes enveloping the country, including a ballooning economic debacle, rampant job losses, severe ecological disasters, and mass discontent. But as Wilhelm Reich suggested in ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’, all this merely leads to the ‘undermined’ ending up voting for those who ‘undermine’.
Of course, none of this need affect us. For, we have been rather well-adjusted to millennia of injustice. Hierarchy, inequality and coded difference are at our very core. We can muster up only a few impoverished historical examples of inter-community collaboration and co-operation. It will require some courage today to look into the mirror as a nation and candidly reflect on the picture of Dorian Gray that stares back at us. We need to come to grips with the underside of our democracy. The islands of affluence in an ocean of deprivation. The deeply stratified communities. The inability to advance, over the past seven decades, on the front of achieving social justice. The active discouragement to thinking critically about ourselves. A creeping institutional helplessness as riots, assaults, midnight raids, reprisal killings, extreme caste discrimination, and public lynchings are glossed over. The Constitution slowly reduced to a mythical presence in a political and quasi-judicial reality that daily flouts and bypasses it. Makes one wonder, are we serious about democracy. Or are we destined to flounder within, what Noam Chomsky has called, “a reduced democracy?
I have, personally, imagined democracy more as a form of accountability, than as a form of representation. For me, it is a system within which any kind of questioning of those who govern in my name, is valid and legitimate. Or, as the American political philosopher, Cornel West, never tires of saying, “more than a form of governance, it is a way of being in the world – experimental, improvisational, jazz-like”. It is a system in which even the person on the last outpost matters and has a voice.
Now, at a time when democracy in India seems to have become a term well on its way to being invoked in the past tense, I was trying to imagine if that concept, or something akin to it, could be located in any of our historically expressive forms. Art or performative forms where individuality and collectivity co-exist as a structural feature of the community. In other words, is the notion of liberal democracy an integral feature of the DNA of our society? Because, if it is merely a Western import overlaid on local structures that are, by temperament, autocratic rather than democratic, then a different kind of political process and revolution will be needed to make democracy effective on our soil.
While our classical forms are exclusionary, we do have evidence of Adivasi and folk forms of dance that are participatory and improvisational, which succeed in celebrating the individual even within the labour of the collective. I am thinking of the ghoomar, the garba, the bhangra, paraiattam, bihu, kaikottikali, nacha and such. They are circular in their construct, precluding the possibility of spatial hierarchy. They accommodate structural asymmetry and individual break-outs. They privilege voluntarism over control and centralisation. They celebrate the idea of democracy as an exercise in holding hands and performing in order to generate Zizek's idea of "surplus enjoyment".
At the same time, what they reject is the idea of democracy as the arrogance of power. These Adivasi and folk forms are choreographed to discourage the urge for domination and control. Recent political events in India convince one to suggest that the democratic process here would need to dig deep and invest in learning much-needed lessons from the existing cultural forms around us as a check and balance against its muscular megalomania.
Kashmir yet offers us a chance to revisit our actions by dancing democracy to recover its humanizing aesthetics. But since when did I become an optimist?