regular-article-logo Sunday, 28 May 2023

The Surrealists

Human rights activists are on the margins of consciousness

Shiv Visvanathan Published 22.07.22, 02:50 AM

When Harold Wilson, the former British prime minister, said, “a week is a long time in politics”, he was grappling with the canvas of memory and emotion, the poignancy of events that seemed to outlast the age. Responding to the last three weeks, one is not talking of the antics of Nupur Sharma or the stark brutality with which protesters objecting to an irreverence to the prophet were assaulted. All that seems normal science for the regime. What one is referring to is the arrest of Teesta Setalvad and R.B. Sreekumar and the silence that followed.

The arrest had a touch of Kafka. In fact, it reminded one of the stories he wrote about India. A story about a group of tribals who decide to conduct a sacrifice. Come full moon, they assemble in the forest and the head priest is summoned to perform the sacrifice. Then a tiger comes and eats the priest. Undeterred, they assemble again during the next fortnight, and the tiger repeats its performance. There is a sense of crisis, and the villagers have a meeting. The village idiot comes up with a solution. He asks, ‘why not make the tiger eating the priest part of the ritual?’


The regime’s decision has all the makings of a Kafka story. Instead of highlighting the ruthlessness of communalism, or punishing its perpetrators, it arrests human rights activists pursuing justice while insisting on sanitising the regime. A few days after Ehsan Jafri’s wife was told by the highest court that her search for justice is futile, the two stalwarts, Setalvad and Sreekumar, were picked up.

As the founder of a majoritarian regime, the Bharatiya Janata Party has never been ready to tolerate dissent. It treats its development projects as acts of patriotism and arrests dissenters and activists for being ‘anti-national’. It has also created the myth of the ‘Urban Naxal’, arresting dissenters against the regime. These acts of harassment have targeted Sudha Bharadwaj and the late Stan Swamy who have stood up for tribal people. The arrest of Setalvad and Sreekumar completes its closure of dissent. The signals are clear. Human rights activists are no longer respectable but are to be seen as obstacles clogging the regime’s projects. The decision was grim. A sense of the inevitable haunts the country. One was tempted to break out with stories of Setalvad and Sreekumar but what is even more necessary is to analyse the regime.

Unlike a totalitarian regime like Stalin’s, authoritarianism can launch itself on a democratic vector. It insists that majoritarianism legitimises its acts of surveillance. Sensing tyranny in the name of democracy has become an art form that sustains governance. What is striking is that the accused, instead of being seen as cooperating citizens, were being perceived as obstacles to the Constitution. Even the court did a bureaucratic reading of the 2002 riots and concluded that there was no conspiracy. If Hannah Arendt spoke of Adolf Eichmann and the banalisation of evil, the latest developments indicate something equally lethal — the banalisation of good. A government in a moment of crisis merely has to be correct. Goodness and justice follow mechanically. If activists cannot prove criminality, it is they who are to blame. Truth now is another efficiency-producing mechanism. It has little to do with justice. The human rights activist appears surreal even as the Narendra Modi regime gropes for normalcy. The rules of the game have been changed.

A majoritarian government is like an Olympiad victor and Modi is seen as a brand name that is successful and tested. Our aspirational society loves success and medals, and Modi is a medal-winner. Human rights activists, on the other hand, are seen as eccentrics and not as truth-tellers. They are obstacles delaying India from catching up with the world. People fighting for rights don’t seem like winners. You can’t talk truth to power when power has created its own truth, making you irrelevant. By rectifying history, through erasures, through indifference, the regime has created a stable world people feel they belong to. There is little sympathy for the minority and the marginalised in this aspirational India. With every civics, the regime looks stronger; each drawback consolidates the power of the State. The power of the State, thereby, becomes the new truth of India. Constitutionalists are out-ofdate, wishy-washy activists. Human rights activists are made to appear as genetically errant; they are not part of the genealogy.

Television has ensured that talking truth to power is futile even as power is hysterically talking to oneself. Human rights activists look like old-fashioned leftists from another era. Ethics, therefore, become a form of incompetence in this surreal game.

One has to grasp that democracy prefers an inferior version of itself. We need a new sense of irony to grasp majoritarianism as a Giffen good of democracy. Democracy loves the lowest common denominator, the lower the better. When it is sold like brand, no one looks at the real product. Setalvad and Sreekumar look like value-based narratives in a brand-operated world. The real victim in this process is truth; the real death is that of the truth-teller.

One has to ask what happens to a society where truth goes into exile. It is an old mythical problem, and it is precisely at the level of myth that truth has to be reworked at a time when history is a form of performative hysteria and lies become a Malthusian epidemic. We need old-fashioned storytellers and the truth-tellers to survive their exile. Stories must be allowed to pile on stories till the new bureaucrats of truth are defeated. Only exemplars can make truth innovative in a post-truth world. The challenge is clear. The question is what kind of truth-telling would democracy opt for. Standing up for those who speak truth to power is akin to standing up for a future India against a present where even the Partition is a lie.

The loneliness of the next decade is clear. It will be a long battle. It has to begin with protest, with witness, with storytelling, with compassion and, yet, grasp the evil one is fighting. Human rights activists represent everydayness and history as well as a new sense of the future. One should celebrate it by treating them as exemplars long after this regime becomes yesterday’s newspaper.

(Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with Compost Heap, a network pursuing alternative imaginations)

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