Saturday, 29 May 2021
Crispy morning with PM2.5 level at 560. Visibility restricted to 600 meters but the feel of the new Central Vista hangs in the air. The new zone of Central Vista has its own oxygen and air purifier plants.
Took my seat in the hi-tech PURIFIED AIR KIOSK with a tagline – Air that Purifies Mind – installed at the gate. Purified air given for 30 seconds is for free. Rs 500 for every extra minute.
Sir, gate pass?
Me: Sorry, I thought aadhar card will work.
No sir, you need to have a gate pass to enter into the building.
Me: Okay, did not know that. How does one get it now?
Uff, you people come here without any proper homework. This is not old India, sir. All information available on the website. Free helpline number also given there only to plan a visit to Central Vista.
Me: Very impressive but please help me now. I don't have a pass.
Next time you come, come with prior pass only. This time helping you. Use your aadhar number to log in to centralvista.co.in/guestvisit. Fill up the form and click on the subscribe button to receive newsletters from Central Vista Uththaan Samiti. This is mandatory, ok? After that, you will get the pass on your email. Your pancard and bank account linked with aadhar no?
Me: Yes, they are linked. But why do you ask?
From the bank account linked to your aadhar card, a fee will be deducted automatically.
Me: Fee? Isn't the visit supposed to be for free?
No sir, 2,000 rupees only per visit. Don't we all need to contribute to rashtra nirmaan. All this money goes into HE-CARES fund.
There are discount options also. After one week of regular visit, 10 percent discount. Combo discount voucher of 20 percent if you visit Museum of Erstwhile Nation.
Me: Oh, never heard of this place. What is it?
Yes, a new building of New India. We don't need that old National Museum.
Me: Achcha, but now, what do I do? How can I go inside to see some files, do some research? I have heard so many great things about this archive.
Sir, you are mistaken. This is not archive. Not any longer.
This is Centre for Inventing History and Glorifying Tradition.
Me: Yes yes, sorry, my bad. I can see that. Even the bricks of this building remind me of Vedic Mohenjodaro's snnanagaar, that famous public swimming hall whose pictures we saw in History textbooks.
Yes sir, but no need to be sarcastic. Okay? I also remember seeing those pics in bad Marxist history textbooks. But now, we have no textbooks. In fact, no books. Only texts.
Me: What texts?
Texts of what HE says on radio, television, and rallies. They are printed and distributed.
Direct communication sir, between people and HIM.
Me: How interesting!
Me: Oh, I have read them as well. But for History …
Yes, yes, isn't Indian history also like that only? Direct communication. Between past and present. You see sir, in India except bribe which we take via-media, for everything else we do direct communication. This is the land of culture of shruti and smriti. HE says, we memorise.
A nation with strong tradition does not need History. Tradition IS History. What role documents have in all this, hah! Unnecessary paper wastage, storage.
We don't need to know the past. We live in the past.
Me: I see. Very convincing, but archive is important, right. The state needs to preserve documents for future. Archives is the memory card of the state. State policies and deliberations that go behind them need to be preserved. And anyway, archive is no longer just a state institution. It is a public institution. People need to see these documents to write about that past time. People remember things selectively. Of course, documents also give selective viewpoints. That is why, we need to see them, to see what 'politics of selectivity' the state practised.
Buss, buss, you are wasting my time now. I have many other things to do. Listen, if you want to go inside, do the registration and show me your pass. Now, move on to the side. You are blocking the way for other customers.
And yes, use this one time login password to 5G Central Vista internet. You do know that internet existed in the times of Mahabharta, right? Like that, this one is also ekdum superfast. It is now provided by Chinese technology under the programme of Atmanirbhar Bharat.
Me: With the use of the Make in India Chinese 5G technology, I finish the registration, pay 2,000 rupees to rashtra nirmaan, opt for 10 percent discount voucher as I do intend to come here for more than one week, and join the queue of registered customers waiting to enter into the Centre of Inventing Past and Glorifying Tradition.
A large hall. Smart laptops on every desk, secured to the legs of the table with long copper lockwires. The screensaver floating in complete sync on all laptops: "Together We Create New History".
Flashy smart screens adoring the walls, displaying charismatic pictures of HIM.
In one corner, a name plate hung from the ceiling. On it was written, Senior Tradition Executive.
Under the hanging plate is a desk. The front of it displays embossed words in saffron colour:
CHOOSE YOUR PAST.
A lady asks me, sir, what is your topic of research.
Me: The Idea (History) of Archives.
Saturday, 15 May 2021
Politics of Hope-Politics over Dead
New India, Young India, Aspirational India, Swachcha India, Atmanirbhar India – many Indias have popped up in the last few years. In quick succession, one India arrives while the other has not been even graciously discarded into the archive of the nation’s memory. Some of them live only to be dusted and polished, to be presented with gust and élan under a new tag (for instance, the earlier ‘made in India’ changed into ‘make in India’).
Almost, one feels, the force of compulsive commoditization is at work behind the swift pace with which new brands keep appearing. What does it say about the politics of our times? Why is there a need to brand a country again and again? A country, which obsesses over History right from within the whisper-soaking walls of the living room to that of the frenzied zeal of a mob that turned a monument into a pile of rubble, equally adores being recurrently decked in a new identity. Why is branding seen inevitable by the political class who resort to it to convince their voters and supporters? And finally, what power lays in them in terms of appeal that has almost transformed the vigilant citizens into rabble-rousing consumers of political advertisement blitzkrieg. The nexus of politics, history, and media might provide some answers to these questions.
The political role and social meaning of these quickly changing tags become all the more intriguing in the light of a rather well-grounded, mammoth-like stable idea that India’s civilizational spine or core is unchangingly fastened to the ‘glorious’ Hindu past stretching back thousands of years. The role of the British in inventing the idea of this glorious Hindu past and the fervour with which the Indian nationalists adopted this as an article of fact even when they challenged the power of imperialism is not a point of consideration here. Its ramifications nonetheless are.
This historical projection – a canny discourse that suited the British and served the nationalists – has further adopted a new political meaning in the last two-three decades or so. If Indian nationalists lauded the Hindu past, rallied its glory even in its invented form, they did so, by and large, in order to rebuke the civilizing claims of colonialism. The colonial derogation shepherded the need of salvaging ‘national’ pride (a generalised but not an untenable argument). One chief source of pride resided in constructing the History of the nation; the nation which was itself coming into being as its past was discovered, organized, catalogued, and narrativized.
To paraphrase certain historians, History and its writing are themselves an imperialist project in which we trespass into the kingdom inhabited by the dead. We listen to what they spoke and speculate on what they did not speak; we read what they wrote and decipher what they did not write; and we try to feel what they felt but were not allowed to express. This is the art of history, bound by protocols and shaped by pursuit of maximal and not absolute truth in which the key organising principle is the context.
This kingdom of the dead has come alive in a new avatar under the hand of a certain variety of politics, which we are currently witnessing in India. The idea had fervidly and popularly existed along with, and parallel to other constructs of the past; it is the current almost-absolute hold of political power, painstakingly scaffolding the Hindutva ideological castle, which has made the sense of crisis acute. Beyond it, it is the pervasiveness of the politics in the everyday life – extending from moral judgements over choice of dress to mob-sanctioned collective restrictions over diet – that has become unprecedently alarming.
The universalizing agenda of this Hindutva politics is less anchored in the protocols of history and more geared towards using the dead for the purposes of the present. The use of the past is not solely a feature of Hindutva politics. Its reduction to being a handmaiden of politics by turning the dead into the active divisive agents of the present indeed is. History is ever on a duty-call to serve the present by recording the past but in a singular manner. In doing so, History has also been disaggregated and decontextualized; or, in other words, it is seen only as an aggregate of dead entities sans their past lived contexts.
Swirled around, monuments of the past begin to hurt the sentiments of the present; the emperors of the erstwhile era become the dreadful villains of the contemporary. The social cracks within communities and between religions – which have existed in any era between various denominations, sects, and collectives within a religion or between religions – have become the politically authenticated account of the historical past. The political sentiment of the present, manufactured and felt, is thrown back as the only social reality of the past. This explains why the spectre of Aurungzeb suddenly occupies the empty corner chair in most of the living rooms the moment the chit-chat over tea becomes even slightly ‘political’? Politics has been reduced to scoring goals over the dead bodies and the past actions of the individuals and communities, which present them in distinct immutable identities rather than as part of lived and messy realities.
Overwritten by the present, the kingdom of the dead has been sliced into ethnicities of majority and minority, outsiders and insiders, pure and convertees. The lineages of such exercises once again precede the designs of the contemporary; but these designs themselves have been re-drawn to dig a past within a past. First the nation was invented and constructed; now the enemy within the nation is identified and disciplined. The Blacks in the U.S.A; the migrants in Europe, and Muslims in India occupy this strange place: they are historically available as the force of the dead (as remnants of the past living in the present) to justify the majoritarian present. Their limited instrumentalized relevance and their general exclusionary condition go hand in hand.
The extraordinary often reveals the structure of the mundane. This new political is the extraordinary of the current Indian social life. History tempts us to seek continuity from and through the past. The new political also therefore reveals the existing mundane points of fissures that existed in the society, largely at the subterranean level for a long part. However, the changes often lie, and become apparent, through the accumulated force of degrees than absolute ruptures. The new political is markedly distinctive in expanding, fanning, and creating rather than containing and bridging the existing cracks. Unity in diversity – another ideological tagline of post-independent India – has now changed into a principle of homogenised nation. As diversity is tunnelled into uniformity, the sanction of the political has become important for vigilantising the practices of everyday choices (food, dress, love).
But the question remains: after all, why among all the tags of different Indias, the Hindu India, which is clearly legible to both supporters and detractors of the current politico-ideological regime, has never been written or uttered directly by the masters of the current political project? When family WhatsApp forwards clearly state that the regime is unequivocally ‘doing’ what it was expected of (making India Hindu) then why Young, New, Aspirational, and Atmanirbhar placards are still holding the mask for the main project?
One way to understand this combination of uttered absence and felt presence is to simply join the dots. Since the return to power in 2019, the BJP led government (which is mainly BJP) has brought in key legal changes (abrogation of Article 370 related to erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, abolition of triple talaaq, and the Citizenship Amendment Act) which has given a clear signal that the ‘final’ project is robustly on, intently pursued. Issues which were on ‘slow burner’ have been heated up and served hot. The crucial difference is that the earlier ideological intentions are now being given concrete legal shape. The ideological objectives are materializing into tangible actions. Not surprisingly, to people standing on both sides of the polarised society and polity, the ‘agenda’ is visible: the difference is only that a sizeable section cherishes it’s fulfilment while the other section feels anguished about it.
The real actions mentioned above have made the message evident even if the actual phrase – Hindu India – remains unuttered as a slogan of governance. The theatre of these actions is spread wide across. From the floor of the Parliament to that of the TV-sets and to WhatsApp group forwards, the unity of messaging is amply clear. ‘Hindu India’ breathes under the masks of New, Young, Aspirational, and Atmanirbhar Indias. The modern brand names are not an antithesis to the projected civilizational core. They are in fact the ‘narrative’ vehicles of its realisation. They are required because they provide a good gloss over what seemingly can still cause discomfort to some people if the ruling dispensation choses to use Hindu India upfront as its slogan of governance. Sadly, in this masking, governance has become a stooge to an obvious ideological project, which is so omnipresent that it does not even need to be stated.
The focus on ‘narrative’ is a contribution of media whose role is crucial as a facilitator of this politics. Politics itself is now keenly packaged in units of messaging and consumed through bytes of perception. Media loves the ‘narrative’ gloss, propagates its use, and amplifies its reach. In doing so, mediatised narratives have jeopardised governance. For some time in India, governance has been hollowed of its substance, and mainly turned into not analyse-able but debatable ‘narratives’ of politics. Headlines, slogans, and quirky abbreviations have been profusely used to generate a feel good-factor around the claims of good governance and governance for all.
The Indian media, particularly electronic and also including of those who are now outside the ring of cheerleaders, have played along a major role in reducing politics to narratives. They have broken politics first into a set of news-topics, and further into a ping-pong fight of ‘viewpoints’. We learn about politics from shows which are called Dangal (Riotous), The Big Fight, and Muqabla (Clash). Politics has become an agitated commodity of indulgent consumption. Not so surprisingly, a sizeable majority of population has become the consumer of these slogans and abbreviations – waiting to be entertained rather than informed by the 9.00 p.m. tamasha – through which nonetheless the perception and narrative of politics are formed and consumed. They hardly are now citizenry seekers of information and analysis.
But in acting so, they are fully aware that underneath the modern sartorial cover of the new labels lies the real project of the new nation. Under the new tags that create the impression of politics of hope, they know that the dead of the past – in decontextualized disaggregated units – will constantly be summoned to perform their auxiliary role in the present. In the current political dispensation that has fostered a mindset of homogenization, a new consolidation of the present will relentlessly utilise the faultlines of the past. It will, more importantly, stretch those faultlines, invent a few, and keep depositing the newer elements in the ever-swirling whirlpool of manufactured historical consciousness. The nexus of ideology, governance, and narrativized media will ensure that the post-truth era of ‘fake news’ will become the centrepoint of ‘informational society’. The alleged politics of hope will remain inseparably tied to the real politics over the dead. Its most recent manifestation is the propaganda package pedalled by both government and its cheerleader media: amidst unprecedented human suffering and death is emerging a new tagline of Positive India.
(images taken from the website unspalsh, and are free of copyright).
Sunday, 2 May 2021
ये उठता धुवाँ, धुँधला समाँ, जलता मकाँ,
झूठ की दुनिया, संग बसा कर,
तुझको जीताया, ख़ुद को हरा कर,
बिख़रे उम्मीदों की लाश सजा कर.
Wednesday, 28 April 2021
As much as ‘man ki baat’, the regular radio broadcast of PM Modi to the nation, represents the voice of power, I often find WhatsApp forward messages as the real archive for learning about the new grammar of political faith which that power creates. A faith that has swept India for some time, turning upside down the expected conduct of government and citizens. One such message, which is not entirely new but has acquired renewed momentum in the last few days in the wake of Covid-19 induced havoc of death and near-death is to remain positive: think positive, be positive.
The latest by the Union Health Minister, that India is mentally and physically well prepared this year to beat the Covid-19 pandemic is also a ‘variant’ of this messaging. Remain calm, be positive, and trust the government.
Let us ask, what does it actually mean? What does it say, but more importantly, what does it hide?
At the first glance, the message appears benign, even sympathetic. It purports to bring people around the fundamental belief of human existence to hope for good, to believe in hope. In spite of despair, the times of crises are also the times when hope needs to be reposed, into each other, and, together in a collective, with others.
While the media cheerleaders, spokespersons of the ruling political party, the representatives of the government, as well as the numerous IT coolies of the paid social media ‘plantation’ latch on to this phrase, let me recount three measures the wielders of power have taken in the last few days to put things in a little perspective of what the intended meaning of this boost of positivity is.
One, at the instance of the government of India, around 50 tweets were removed from Twitter, a majority of which came from verified accounts including a member of Parliament, a widely popular spokesperson of the Congress party (Pawan Khera), and some filmmakers. These tweets were critical of the way the government has been handling the Corona crisis since a year, but particularly in the last six months or so.
The second instance comes from the newly emerged legal laboratory of state repression – Uttar Pradesh. Ajay Bisht has issued a firman that anyone found spreading ‘rumours’ and propaganda about oxygen shortage in the state should be booked under National Security Act. The person’s property should be seized. Much to the contradiction of what has been seen, read, and heard in the last few days about the lack of oxygen in the state, Bisht asserts that there is no shortage of oxygen in any of the hospitals across the state.
A state where a doctor languished in the jail for apparently no fault of his (eventually granted bail by the court); where a reporter is chained like an animal in the hospital because he was arrested for going to Hathras to cover the story of the 19-year Dalit raped-and-dead victim; and where ingenious ways of state-led ‘naming and shaming’ was adopted at the behest of the chief minister by putting billboards across the city with names of those who differed in their views, has in its recent spell of frustration invoked the harshest law to counter ‘rumour’.
It leaves little doubt in the mind as to how the meaning of the words has changed in the last few years. A fact that makes the government uncomfortable is now dismissed as ‘rumour’. A volley of questions which government finds difficult to answer has been given the name of anti-state, anti-nation ‘propaganda’. It is clear that what is really intended is to suppress the news and create an ‘image’ of efficient administration. This involves multiple strategies: from blocking the vision to negate the reality to invoking the law to instil fear.
In India, pandemic has been accompanied by ‘infodemic’. There might be some systemic bottlenecks, particularly in rural areas, with accurate death registration for instance (which also needs to be properly studied) but the current tendency towards the wilful suppression of fact is undeniably a moment in which the politicisation of information and data has been attempted to be applied in the management of pandemic as well. Headline management seems to have become, in certain parts, the frontline strategy to fight this disaster.
Both these examples – of tweet deletion and stringent law-based punishment – make perfect sense in the light of the third, which showcases what has really pricked this government. The Guardian editorial of 23 February unequivocally stated that Mr Modi’s brand of Indian exceptionalism bred complacency, which has led to the devastating human loss which India is facing currently. Many other leading international newspapers across countries such as the U.S, the U.K, Australia and many others have a similar tone when reporting on the extent of Indian surge, which is doubtfully not accurately represented in official statistics. Of course, the Indian right-wing is known for indulging in selective affair with ‘foreign’ appraisals: praises and endorsements are rallied to boost and approve brand Modi; critical remarks are shrugged off as ‘western conspiracy’. In India, those who work under the guise of free media are ‘patriotically’ part of this exercise: News 18 recently ran a programme (shall we call it propaganda?) ‘Anti-India Lobbies Hijacking Narrative’.
(screenshot from the Twitter handle)
And this is our third example: in the wake of the critical assessment and culpable responsibility, the government and its cheer leader media persons have sprung into image ‘damage control’ exercise. If you can’t handle the message, you surely can ‘handle’ the messenger. Criticism needs to be drowned and questioning needs to be silenced in the shrill of fake claims of patriotism.
If we just ponder a little over the title of the News 18 show, one feels compelled to ask, narrative of what? Of death and despair, anguish and loss, helplessness and fear? What is it that the so-called anti-India lobbies have hijacked which the majority of Indian media does not want to show? Have they hijacked the narrative of interrogating government’s preparedness? Have they hijacked the task of questioning government, which gleefully the majority of Indian media has given up? What alternative narrative does the type of media such as News 18 instead want to present? Surely, we can take a guess: they might reassure that the political leadership of the country is doing its best, and that the people remain positive. At least, this kind of messages I have seen circulating on WhatsApp groups. (A disclaimer: I could not bring myself to see the above programme).
A little jog down the memory lane would convince us that much like the other ‘feel good’ slogans which the government has used in the past (such as ‘Achche Din’ and ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vishwas’), ‘be positive’ also seems to be a well-crafted distracting euphemism ‘authorlessly’ floating on social media to divert, bully, and silence the critical voices that seek accountability from the government. Sadly enough, isn’t it the misplaced sense of positivity itself that has led to this situation?
Positivity must breed in the space of action and not in the echo-chamber of monologue charchas (conversations). What did breed through the numerous speeches and assurances given by the government between September 2020 and March 2021 was complacency and not positivity.
Numerous reports have pointed out how a tunnelled focus on elections, a hyper-nationalism mixed poisonous cocktail of Indian exceptionalism, and the recurrent hollow assurances given by India’s health minister to meet any surge in infections while appearing to endorse quack-cure remedy of kits such as Ramdev’s Coronil has led to this devastation. In September 2020, India’s health minister assured that the nation is prepared to meet any surge in infections. In February 2021, at the World Economic Forum, Modi mocked those who had warned of a tsunami like second wave of infections hitting India. He self-congratulated himself on controlling Corona in India. In early March this year, the health minister concluded that India is at the endgame of Covid-19 fight. These instances of proof can be endlessly multiplied. They all point in the direction that the government had gone simply complacent in its attitude, and a year-long time that must have been used to better coordinate the preparedness with the states was lost.
The key point here is exactly the messaging which the government and its cheerleader media wishes to ‘manage’. By asking people to remain positive amidst death two things are being attempted simultaneously: one, to convince people to not dig the recent past of callous governmental complacency; and two, to create the space in the ever-fading public memory for the upcoming onslaught of governmental propaganda in which everyone will be reminded of how the napping leader was working overnight to pull the nation through this calamity.
Almost with the power of prophecy, one can predict that the next few months will be heavily utilized by the government in running an advertisement blitzkrieg. When governance gets reduced to managing headlines, then slogans become important to create and capture political faith. Be positive is one of those slogans, which we might be listening of repeatedly in near future.
It is absolutely desirable to remain positive at the individual and collective level, and to comfort, console, and support people who have lost their loved ones. It will be remarkably appalling to use or allow this sentiment to be used for purposes of political justification. Any attempt to inject it into the body of the political faith, which the prime minister and his government are deftly adept at creating, would amount to camouflaging responsibility. Letting it extrapolated from the interstices of individual human emotion to the stage of political appropriation which would potentially work to put a gloss on governmental accountability, will be sad, even ugly.